Dennis J. Sumara (1996), Private Readings in Public: Schooling the Literary Imagination
Dennis J. Sumara (1996), Private Readings in Public: Schooling the Literary Imagination
Last week, I sat down with a really quiet small group in class where one student was pulling all the weight. Normally, I try to stay out of their conversations, but this was painful to watch, and I had to do something. That something ended up being me and the Student having a great conversation while the groupmates looked on in silence (no matter what we did–and Student tried just as hard–to try and pull them into the conversation). So, big fail in that sense. But there was also a win: I got to hear Student’s guess at what metaphor Thomas King might use for stories (we were talking about how Azar Nafisi calls books orphans and Neil Gaiman tells the story of Douglas Adams claiming books are sharks, and we were wondering what the other author’s we’d read might say on the matter).
“Maybe stories are seeds,” Student said King might say. And then unfurled a lovely (not unfamiliar) metaphor for stories planting themselves in certain soil (people/cultures), growing a certain way, and dropping seeds that take root elsewhere and, therefore, grow maybe a little bit differently the next time and the next.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this metaphor, but it was the first time someone had stumbled upon it in this particular class, had stated it in this particular way. The first time (to use the metaphor itself) it had grown into this particular flower because of this particular soil. And I got to see that particularly unique flower bloom. That isn’t just a win, but also a joy.
In the hustle of checking in with the other groups, of moving on to the next activity, I didn’t make sure Student shared their metaphor with the class. But this week, I took a walk to get coffee and had to go to a different Starbucks because the one (yes, we have two on campus) closest to my office had a line out the door. So, on the first day of real sunshine after a week of mud and rain, a longer walk than normal took me past dandelions who stood out and tall in green, green grass and triggered a memory in my head: “Maybe stories are seeds,” Student said King might say.
So, I took a dandelion with me back to the office and let it sit with me on the desk while I planned. And I took it with me to our actual classroom and let it sit on the front desk that always gets moved around–it’s never in the same place when we come in or when we leave. And I shared the story of my walk and the story of Student’s metaphor. And for our warmup we sketched the dandelion I’d taken with me, that I’d placed in my banned-books mug while I planned in CARH 402 and that now joined us–mug too–in TH 20. And the seeds all stayed on the flower, but the stories took root in new soil and unfurled through sketches and words in composition books that haven’t been the same (in both senses of the word) since the students picked them from the front of TH 20 and took them out into the world that first day.
New Plans ~ CARH 402 ~ February 26, 2018
New Compositions ~ TH 20 ~ February 26, 2018
Prepping ~ CARH 402 ~ February 21, 2018
Visiting ~ CARH 402 ~ February 22, 2018
Twice-stabbed ladybird beetle, Chilocorus stigma
(My coaster is kind of dirty apparently…)
Things are still just a little side-ways, a bit elsewhere, a neither here-nor-there. And the rain isn’t helping–days and days of it leaving puddles of what-‘s-up to walk on, to stride through with big, determined thwacks of pleather rain-boots (rarely worn yet all that’s worn this week). But still, aren’t they lovely? These unstill pools of nowhere made herenow, real as the originals, gathered (as-is) together in this frame, a wholly created world, a spacetimemattering, a chronotope unfolded, time-through-rain. I’d like to go there. Perhaps I am there. Things do seem to still be just and maybe there.
Inspired by the 5-minute-sketch daily exercises many artists suggest for those working on drawing skills, “Sketches” on this blog are brief write-throughs diffracted through a particular image, moment, feeling (the list goes on). I set the timer for five minutes and play with language until it goes off. Whatever it is when the timer beeps is what you see on the screen now.
(Turn and face the strange)
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
(Turn and face the strange)
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can’t trace time
–David Bowie, Changes
My word bracelet came the other day, and I’ve vowed to not take it off until The Dissertation is defended and Dr. Shelton I am (that’s a positive verbalization sent out into the void in now-concrete–though passively-voiced–words). I think the word is fairly self-explanatory: finish. As in what everyone says: a good dissertation is a done dissertation. Mimi would say–and I would agree–it’s missing a word that begins with the same letter, ends in -ing, and adds that little extra alliteration-driven boost that truly inspires one to kick their own bottom (going with the “not saying the actual curse-word” theme). Yet even in this Safe For Work iteration, it’s already been helpful. See, for instance, the above photo capturing (post the moment itself) a recent intra-action where I sat at my desk in Carlisle, head in hand, the plans for class in less than an hour strewn all about, worries about how any of this matters in the grand scheme of things (things being, as always these days, The Dissertation) weighing me down, and I happened to look up a bit and see my word right there, less than an inch from my nose. I sat back up (after I re-staged the moment for the picture, of course) and finished those plans which did, of course, matter in the grand scheme of things. One day/task/thing at a time (which has been a theme on here lately). Finish one, eventually finish The Diss.
As a plus, wearing it on my left wrist means it sits on or near the tattoo inspired by my Grandmother and what her life taught me about living my own. She had grit woven through all her love and laughter. And grit is what I need now more than ever. To finish. And to do it while loving myself and the work I create and the class that I teach (all while being able to laugh with that self and that grand ole scheme of things).
I’m in love with Juliet Stevenson’s voice. Particularly married to Virginia Woolf’s words.
I first encountered the pairing while driving to Houston for a conference a couple of years ago and listening to A Room of One’s Own most of the way there. And then while walking around the Rice campus to view the school’s beauty and its outdoor art while Juliet Stevenson unrolled Virginia Woolf’s points about not walking on the grass and being barred from the library…
When I re-read those passages now, she isn’t walking on an imaginary campus my mind built from her own words, but on Rice’s lawns. And she’s burying Judith at the crossroads in The James Turrell “Twlight Epiphany” Skyspace and revealing a Mary on my way back out of town at the Rothko Chapel. But that’s a post I’m saving and have been working on for a while. It may never be just right, but I have to keep trying to capture the marriage of that voice, and those words, and these spaces.
But the point of this post is that I had no idea that Stevenson, basically, has done the audio for most of Woolf’s works. I thought it was a pairing I could return to in A Room but never experience again as that unrolling and unraveling and unfurling that enfolds and entangles and spins you into it instead of out. I stumbled onto the realization that I can have that experience again a few days ago when Audible reminded me I can’t hoard my credits and I was about to lose one and, by the way, would I like to try their 2-fo-1 mysteries special. There, as I was looking for a free book to go with my complete Sherlock Holmes read by Stephen Fry (who wouldn’t go there?), I saw Juliet Stevenson’s name and bought, on my delight in her voice alone, House of Names by Colm Tóbín. And then it occurred to me to search her name in Audible. And there they were.
I chose To the Lighthouse first.
And it was magic. Just like the first time.
I’d listened to a few twenty-minute chunks here and there—driving, dressing.
And then today came. And for some reason everything was just an inch off. Maybe even just a centimeter, but nothing was right. Nothing was good. No matter how much I got done, all that was left to do loomed over me and whispered and bore down and reminded me that I can be as productive as I want, I can get as much of my shit together as I want…
But it will never be enough. I can do all the things and still have done next to nothing [or so says the anxiety in such moments].
Too many things. Too many people needing things. Too many little things keeping me from the big. Too many big things to even know where to start. Too much. Too much. Entirely too much.
So I took a break. And I let Theadora outside and I followed her with a ball and I put my ear buds in and I turned Juliet on and I let Virginia—slowly, brilliantly, electrically—unfurl the Ramsay family and I threw the ball and Theadora raced after it and she came back and dropped it and the family lived and I threw the ball and the day dimmed a bit and the thoughts slowed and Juliet spun out the tale as easy and steady as the lighthouse light there (but not) and Theadora ran and dropped and I picked up the ball and threw and the words hummed through and into flesh and a whole world sketched itself into my backyard where Theadora ran and I threw and Juliet spun on and Virginia wove us through and into the ups and downs of the Ramsay family and from one moment to the next they were this way and another and that…
And so was I. From one moment to the next, Juliet slowed me down, saved me in fact—saved the day—and when my timer went off and Theadora’s ball session was over, Juliet and Virginia sent me back in to that room of my own in that house of my own (that’s how lucky I am) to get something, anything, one thing that turned in to many more, done.
And I thought, “I’m in love with Juliet Stevenson’s voice. I’m in awe of Virginia Woolf, full stop.”
And together, together they are magic. At least for me.
Carlisle Hall 402 ~ UTA ~ February 8, 2018
This week, I had my students do activities inspired by or taken directly from Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal for their Daily Compositions in their Field Notes. I decided I wanted to get in on the fun too and did the first one (you can see a rough draft of their list–though it changed a bit–at the top of that right page). I dripped coffee on that right page, closed the journal, and was delighted to open it back up and find a rather whimsical little character angrily shaking its fists (or maybe flexing its might) at the world. I’m not entirely sure why he delighted me so (or why he’s a he), but every time I flip past him now I smile. A reminder, perhaps, to not take things so seriously. To thrill at the patterns the world throws our way. To love little things and details. To paint more with coffee. To turn more grocery lists into “art.” Anyway, I’m glad I got in on the fun.
I fell down a rabbit hole today, combing through old computer files to curate a project I want to work on later, and found so many old writings I had forgotten about. Some are cringe-worthy, some surprisingly good, some hilariously melodramatic (I blame the genres). Then I came across this. And the nostalgia hit me hard enough that, no matter the quality of this piece, I had to share it here.
So, back in the day, when I was a brand new high school teacher fresh off the assembly line, I opened up my classroom after school for student writers to try NaNoWriMo and, after November was over, they stayed and we formed the nov·el·T club (our school’s name was Timberview). As a club, we decided to write a novel together. We world-builded as a group, loosely sketched an over-arching plot, and then assigned chapters to singles or pairs who wrote their chunks before passing what they wrote to the next group to continue the story and so on and so forth. The students asked me to write the “Intro,” the sort of preface that set the scene, explained a little bit why our brand of the Apocalypse occurred, and that they could all refer back to to keep the story on track. No pressure.
Do keep in mind, this would have been around Aught 9, the very height of The Hunger Games (book) craze and my students (OK, me too) ate those books up and devoured anything Amazon might have spit out under Customers who bought this item also bought…
I share this “Intro” as an artefact of a younger, idealistic me who would have written anything–no matter how wacky or nerdy or anime-inspired–those kids asked me to and had a blast doing it. I loved those students. While there are many things about teaching high school I don’t miss, they aren’t one of them.
I wish I remembered the name of the novel or had any of the other parts (we never did finish it), but this was all I found in my searching today, and it’s time to climb out of the rabbit hole and plan my American Lit class for tomorrow in which we will discuss, as one of the authors we’re reading says, that “Stories are a wondrous thing. And they are dangerous.”* That they very much do create our world with us and that it’s not such a stretch, or speculation, to say that, one day, they will help us end it too.
How’s that for melodrama? Even if it is true.
[ PS: You’ll notice I made the President a woman. Back then I thought, Surely that won’t be a thing of fiction for long. Almost a decade later and alas. One day. ]
[ PSS: I dare you to not love that last line. Genius. 😉 ]
The world ended because of a poem about flowers.
Nationwide, students rallied behind symbolism the long-dead poet probably never intended. They plastered his lines on buildings and shouted them in mobs and set them to music and strummed them with guitars. The President took offense and the Congress didn’t back her, though the House certainly did, and the Prime Minister across the sea seized the opportunity to poke fun and open old wounds and the tension built until one diplomat at one dinner said the wrong thing and…well.
The poem seemed like such a small thing at the time.
The war isn’t worth mentioning. Or, maybe, it’s too much to mention. One war is like another, after all. Regardless of time or place or instigator or victim or beginning or end.
People rebelled. People took sides. People enlisted. People protested. People burned the poem. People tucked the poem away in their hearts for another, safer, time.
People, too many people, died.
What is worth mentioning is that, in the end, it was North America versus the world. The US, Canada, and Mexico. Strong. United. Holding a hungry, angry world at bay. But then our President chose the unthinkable; she unleashed what should never have been unleashed.
One bomb: a seemingly normal missile in a seemingly everyday barrage. Except this one contained just one thimble-full of a disease that had been dormant since the Ice Age, that no one but the American scientists who’d discovered it knew existed, much less had a cure for. Silene Fever, extracted from one of the frozen flowers Russians revived and American scientists stole…though no one knew anything about that story until far, much too far, later.
One target: Great Britain herself. From the heart of the country that spawned ours, the Fever spread. House to house, city to city, county to country. And, like dominoes, the world fell one continent at a time. Except for North America, the Alliance, who’d all been sharing rations, who’d all been drinking the same protein shake pushed on us by a government trying to keep us healthy when trade embargoes cut off our resources We didn’t know they’d been inoculating us and our allies. We didn’t know they’d planned this strike for longer than any of us could have possibly imagined. Neither did the other Alliance governments.
Horrified, Canada and Mexico turned on the United States too. Our borders shrank as the remaining Alliance herded us, north and south, killing and overrunning as they went. All to get to the President and her Cabinet hiding from the allies they’d thought would be grateful, would fall at their feet and unite under the President’s leadership.
We fought back, but we were divided—fighting among ourselves over who was right and who was wrong. Fracturing into dozens and then hundreds of factions. Banding together where we could, with who we could, just to survive our own infighting. We didn’t have the horror and disgust the Alliance had to unite them. We were, instead, the cause of their anger; our country’s crime was their rallying point.
Our numbers dwindled until we were crammed into the heart of what was once an expansive nation. We became a sad amalgamation of what was once South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma. What now has no real name except for what whoever holds the land in that moment chooses to name it.
The Alliance contained us here and destroyed the rest of our nation. With biological and chemical warfare. With fire and pollution and flood and any other conceivable punishment they found that would scar the land around us and leave it unusable. Out there beyond the scorched and decimated land, the Alliance moves on, repairing the world or licking its wounds. None of us knows.
We are isolated. The ravaged remains of a nation, imprisoned by what’s left of the world for the sins of a government we now hate. Trapped in an island of bare-civilization among a sea of wasted land that stretches far beyond where our strongest could walk and still make it back alive. Within our little reservation boundaries shift, alliances form and fracture. The Gangs roam and conquer and die out and are reborn.
The Fever is still free in the world.
We are immune but not all of our children and grandchildren are. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern, genetics and fate are equally harsh. Some survive, some don’t, some live so deformed it frightens even those meant to love them the most.
We are immune, but the animals weren’t. At the best, whole species died out. At the worst they mutated into things that hunt us now, that walk the Wastes between our land and the Alliance beyond.
Resources are scarce. Worth dying for.
Poetry is shunned. All but forgotten except among those with hearts strong enough and dreams crazy enough to overcome the pain and fear now associated with what everyone believes destroyed the world.
As for the flowers the poet sang of…Well, there are none.
*The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King
Photo: Fire Pink (Silene virginica) © Jeffrey Pippen
Madeleine R. Grumet, “Bodyreading”