This is what writing is like.

This is what writing is like.

Emily Brontë, age 21, in the margins beneath a new poem:

“I am more terrifically and infernally and idiotically and brutally STUPID—than ever I was in the whole course of my incarnate existence. The above precious lines are the fruits of one hour’s most agonizing labor between ½ past 6 and ½ past 7 in the evening of July – 1836.”

emily-bronte
Emily Brontë

There’s also this, from Flannery O’Connor:

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”

flannery 2
Flannery O’Connor

Hang in there, writers. Better luck today.

Voices Unearthed (some great news)

I’m really excited.

This May is huge for lovers of oral history, like me–and for anyone with an interest in American culture, identity, literature, music, history, social movements, or art–thanks to a couple of major releases, out now. First, a previously unpublished book from Zora Neale Hurston–Barracoon, the true story of the last survivor of the last American slave ship–finally hit the stands on May 8. And today(!!) the Studs Terkel Radio Archive has unleashed unto the world a new website with nearly 10,000 hours of radio interviews from 45 years of Terkel’s legendary Chicago radio show.

I am beside myself, and can’t wait to dig into it all.

Hurston and Terkel were two of the first writers I fell in love with, and there aren’t many artists whose voices and visions have made a larger impact on my own way of understanding the world. Both of them were devoted to sharing the stories of “ordinary” people,  believing fiercely in the epic quality of everyday lives. Both advocated a grassroots, street-corner, front-porch, backstage approach to history, centering on those women and men who might otherwise be invisible, voiceless, marginalized, or forgotten. Both were champions of the spoken (and sung) word, the power of the human voice, and the hidden poetries of our day-to-day talk. And while both celebrated humanity in all its forms, with an eye always on the universal, both were uniquely and utterly American. A sense of place pervades their work–for Hurston it’s her native South (particularly Eatonville, Florida) and her adopted Harlem, while for Terkel it’s Chicago–but both artists capture in the sweep of their work a wide range of American experience, complete with all the complexities and contradictions, heartbreaks, struggles and beauty that that experience entails.
zora studs
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” tells the story of Olalule Kossola–or, as he was called in America, Cudjo Lewis. Born in West Dahomey, Africa (today’s Benin),  Kossola was kidnapped in 1860 and illegally smuggled to America aboard the Clotilda, the last of the trans-Atlantic slave ships. He was enslaved for five and a half years on a south Alabama plantation; after Emancipation he and other survivors of the Clotilda established their own, independent community just north of Mobile, a place they called Africatown. Hurston traveled there in 1927 and 1928, and over the course of multiple visits she recorded Kossola’s story in his own words. Hurston was unable in her own lifetime to find a publisher for the book that resulted, and all these years later her original manuscript (edited by Hurston scholar Deborah G. Plant) is finally seeing the light of day. It’s a slim book, but a major contribution both to the historical record and to the literary canon.

The bulk of Barracoon presents Kossola’s story in his own words, an approach Hurston believed was essential for the project: contemporary publishers urged her to rewrite the story in her own voice but Hurston refused, insisting that the narrative belonged to Kossola, in his terms. Hurston’s voice is itself a crucial piece of the work, though, as she frames Kossola’s storytelling with brief descriptions of her visits to his home. They eat peaches or watermelons or crabs together and talk; he tends to his garden; she drives him here or there or offers him a hand with his day’s work. Some days he is gregarious and warm; other conversations are tense and brief. Hurston observes the awful weight of heartbreak and homesickness that shapes Kossola’s life, and she honors his need, some days, not to talk at all. I’m only midway through the book, and already Barracoon is proving invaluable for its presentation of Kossola’s unique voice and experience–from Africa through slavery to Emancipation and beyond–but it’s a treasure too for anyone with an interest in Hurston herself: a creative force whose mission, process, and personality inform all aspects of this book.

Then there is Studs. Over the course of a long career he published numerous books of oral history, most famously the landmark Working (subtitle: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do)–a book which I first encountered as a teenager and which, like Hurston’s Mules and Men, had a huge impact on the sorts of things I’d one day want to write about myself. In other books Terkel tackled the subjects of race, death, class, music, the movies, the Great Depression, World War II, the American Dream, social justice, and more. But alongside all those remarkable books he was building an equally impressive body of work through his radio talk show, broadcasting for nearly half a century on Chicago station WFMT. Nearly 2,000(!) hours of these broadcasts are now available at the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which unveiled its new website today–and which promises many more hundreds of hours to come. The wealth of conversations here is staggering: Terkel talks to civil rights leaders, musicians, authors, historians, filmmakers, anthropologists, scientists, actors, activists, and a whole host of other culture makers. As in his books, he shares the voices of the unknown and unsung; but here he also speaks with an enormous cast of iconic personalities, engaging in conversation some of the most influential figures of the last century. I’m looking forward to listening to interviews with (for starters) Muhammad Ali, Dizzy Gillespie, and my cousins Cliff and Virginia Durr. Then there’s the 1965 interview with Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday; in it Wolfe discusses his just-published first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. Additional interviews are still being added: I hope that soon we’ll be able to hear Terkel’s talks with Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy, and others. There are, of course, lots of musicians here: like Hurston, Terkel had a deep love for music–in particular for blues, jazz, and folk song–and his work, like Hurston’s, is informed at every step by music. But take a look around the archive, yourself, and see what jumps out. There is plenty here to explore.

For years I’ve wanted somebody to write a good biography of Studs Terkel; of all the unborn books waiting to be written, this is the one I’m most eagerly awaiting. Hopefully someone out there will get on that soon. In the meantime, we can keep ourselves busy and inspired with this incredible archive, and with Hurston’s Barracoon. I’m grateful to every person who had a hand in bringing either of these projects into the world.

I think pretty soon it’ll be hard to imagine how we ever managed without them.

The School Week (highlights)

In a lot of ways, the school year that’s wrapping up now has been an especially frustrating one. But several moments this week have reminded me of what I like most about this job. For what it’s worth:

1. My first period Creative Writing students have been writing some extraordinary, inspiring words lately–and a group of them have started performing their poetry out loud in some really powerful ways. We’ve snuck off for the last couple of weeks to a little room off the back of the library, and while nobody else is looking they’ve been doing the most amazing things.

2. The same group has been goofily experimenting with various approaches to reading other people’s poetry out loud. The goal has been to get us thinking about the limitless ways in which our voices and our bodies can interact with the spoken word–whether enhancing, complicating, or undercutting the meaning of a text. Earlier this week we were seated around a big glass-topped conference table, and one student walked across the top of it in his socks while reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” I was surprised how much this very literal approach to the poem–in which a poet is compared to an acrobat–actually managed to reshape my experience of Ferlinghetti’s words, which I’ve read many times. Lines like “…whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience…” feel different when the poet is actually performing above the heads of his audience; the same goes for “balancing on eyebeams” and “paces his way / to the other side”–and all the other lines. And then there was this: we were all a little terrified the whole time that the table would break. Both the performer and the audience were physically engaged in a way I hadn’t expected: just as if they were watching a tightrope walker or acrobat, students around the table were holding their breath or clenching their teeth until the poem was over. Some where leaning in; others were leaning out. It was pretty special.

Luckily the table did not break.

3. Same class: a group of students read Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” as if they were reading it to their dogs–in those funny, high-pitched voices people use just for addressing their pets. There is something hilarious about “You can’t beat death / but you can beat death in life, sometimes” when it’s read in a “You’re a good boy, yes you are” voice. (If you don’t believe me, try it.)

4. Another student read “The Laughing Heart” as if he was being slapped in the face with every word. And then, a second time, as if he was being tickled.

5. Two students read an excerpt from Green Eggs and Ham with such genuine drama that the class demanded they finish the rest of the book, so we’d know how it turned out.

6. Meanwhile, in my twelfth grade English class, we had some leeway in the end of our year, so I decided for the first time to throw The Catcher in the Rye into the mix. The first large chunk of it was due today. Luckily, the students are into it so far, and it’s a very refreshing change of pace from everything else that class has read this year. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t like this book–or think it’s overrated, or whatever–but I don’t need to hear it. (My students are welcome to tell me they don’t like it–I just don’t want a bunch of haters chiming in in the comments below.) I liked the book fine when I first read it in high school, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I remember the wisdom was that if you’re going to read this book, you need to read it while you’re still in high school, because the older you get the less it will resonate. I assumed that was true, and like I said I liked it just fine, even if it didn’t change my life or anything. A few years ago I read this book for the first time as an adult, and I discovered how wrong this wisdom was; it meant much more to me then than it had meant the first time. And now that I’ve read it a couple times more I absolutely, wholeheartedly adore it. Reading a few chapters before school today made my morning. That kid breaks my heart in the most beautiful ways. He really does.

7. Then there was this. In my eleventh grade class today, a kid pointed out a disturbing trend: “In every book we’ve read this year, a woman gets slapped.” We all stopped and thought about it. Desdemona had just been slapped by Othello. Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan slaps his mistress Myrtle (really, he smashes her nose with his open palm). Tea Cake slaps Janie (and her previous husband is also abusive). No women get slapped in Of Mice and Men, but one does get shaken to death. And she’s the only woman in the book, and we never even know her name.

I’m not sure what to do about all this, but it surely doesn’t sit well. There’s no question, for starters, that we need to be teaching more women’s voices in our English classrooms, and that a wider range of voices brings in a wider range of experiences. I know that some schools have done better than others at opening up their curricula, but most places I think this is (still) a slow work in progress. As for this theme of literary slaps: if handled well, it can certainly (but doesn’t necessarily) generate some useful discussion about domestic violence, or about the portrayal of women in the “canon” that still shapes so much of what’s taught. I’ve tried to facilitate some good talks along these lines this year, with varying results. But I don’t think those conversations go far enough in counterbalancing a year’s worth of slapping. The worst slap of them all, by the way–because its author, unlike the others, seems so okay with it–is the one Janie receives from Tea Cake, the love of her life, in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Of all these slapping scenes, this is the only one that was written by a woman. It’s an uncomfortable acceptance of violence near the end of a beautiful book that’s (on most of its pages) empowering and ahead of its time.

It’s tough.

But here’s the part that made me happy: a student noticed the trend and pointed it out today, and got the room all worked up about it before the bell.

So all in all, it was a good day.

*

A P. S.: on teenagers, adults, guns, protests, Greek tragedy, and learning to listen…

Speaking of favorite moments in the classroom, a definite highlight of my year–albeit a heavy one–was the series of conversations some of my classes had about gun violence, student walk-outs, and other issues sparked by the Parkland shootings. I won’t go into all that here now, but feel free to ask me about it if you see me around.

What I do want to say here is not political. I don’t especially care what you think about guns. But I do care what you think about teenagers.

I’ve heard and seen so many adults in the last couple of months, especially on social media, bashing student protesters–mostly bashing those Stoneman Douglas kids–for taking a stance on guns. A popular punchline to a hundred memes suggests that “the same kids” who were eating Tide Pods a few weeks ago are demanding gun control this week. Ha, ha: it’s a dumb generation, goes the joke. I was recently sent–because it was supposed to be inspiring–a  viral “open letter” in which a retired schoolteacher somewhere in America patiently explains to the kids of today exactly why they’re wrong. (“This is not a tweet or a text,” the letter begins, thinking condescension an effective way to make teenagers listen. “It’s called a letter; lengthy and substantial. Do you really want to make a difference? … First of all, put down your stupid phone…”) A whole lot of people, meanwhile, have been pointing out that teenagers are too emotional or too uninformed to participate in an important national conversation. Some have claimed that teenagers, unable to think for themselves, have just become pawns in the schemes of liberals or the media, whose opinions they’re brainlessly parroting. The worst extreme of all this, of course, is the sad bunch adults who have publicly attacked these young people in Florida or have cooked up conspiracy theories about those students’ true identities. It’s reprehensible stuff. But even the more benign, apparently well-intentioned forms of this teenager bashing–that open letter, for example–make me furious.

All I want to say is this. If you consider yourself an adult, please: go ahead and think what you’re going to think about guns. But don’t discount or discredit the young people. For the love of God, don’t bully them, and don’t use them as punchlines.

I’d ask you, even, to listen to them. And learn from them, and with them.

Before we started The Catcher in the Rye, my seniors were reading Antigone, an ancient Greek drama and the third installment in Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy. My favorite character in that play has always been Haimon, the son of the bull-headed king Kreon. This year Haimon’s words seemed more timely than ever. He’s trying to convince his dad to listen to reason, but his dad is incapable of listening to anything or anyone, let alone his own son–a kid.

“Men our age, learn from him?” Kreon sneers. But what if, says Haimon, “I happen to be right? Suppose I am young. Don’t look at my age, look at what I do.

That’s my favorite line in that play. I live in Birmingham, after all, and kids in this town have been known, before, to change the world.

But if you still don’t believe that the kids have something to say–some things we haven’t thought to say, ourselves, and some things we all need to hear–then please: come listen in on my first period class sometime. They will get you straight.

*

One more P. S.: recommended reading, listening, and viewing…

Before I sign off, a few recommendations relevant to this post:

A week ago today I got a copy of the wonderful book Syllabus by the great Lynda Barry. For the last seven days it has made my world brighter. I recommend it to anyone whose life could use some creative inspiration.

And speaking of creativity and (see above) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti–as another source of perpetual inspiration I will always recommend Ferlinghetti’s book Poetry as Insurgent Art, which he published at age 88, and which is small enough to fit in your pocket.

And here’s a video of Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart” by Bukowski.

(Near our school, by the way, there’s a walking/running path that goes through the woods, and there’s this empty little one-room house just off the path. I heard from some students several years ago that they snuck into the house and the words to this poem were written on the wall.)

Here’s one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs.

And speaking of how young people in Birmingham changed the world, here is a 40-minute film I show every year to my students, Mighty Times: The Children’s March. Every year it knocks me out. Every person should watch it. If you’re an educator, you can contact the Southern Poverty Law Center for a free copy and teaching materials (or just watch it at the Youtube link above).

Thanks for reading. See you next time.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam

For the last several years, the first semester exam for my high school creative writing class has come in two parts, spread out over a few class periods.

For Part One, students receive a small slip of paper that says “CREATE YOUR OWN CREATIVE WRITING EXAM,” and just a couple of sentences’ instruction. They have one 50-minute class period to create an exam for the course, and the only requirement is that they use the entire period. They may take the full 50 minutes to make the exam, or if they finish it before the period is over, they can actually take the exam themselves. One or two students usually panic, afraid that they won’t do it “right”; I more or less refuse to give any other direction, but if a student is sincerely worried I’ll just tell them, “Create an exam you would like to take” or “Just be true to the spirit of the course, and I promise you’ll be fine” — and after a little hand-wringing they start writing.

Somehow I usually manage to convince at least most of the students that Part Two of the exam will be completely unrelated to Part One, that Part One is a stand-alone exercise, a warm-up for something more exam-ish. But of course it is all a set-up: before they come back for Part Two I compile questions and prompts from all twenty-something exams into a single, epic document. They have a little more than two hours, over two days, to accomplish as much as they can. They can skip any questions and go in whatever order they want. Again, the only requirement is that they use the entire allotted time: they shouldn’t try to do it all, just to do as much as they can.

Both parts of the exam are always great fun for me to read. I’m always impressed by how funny and poignant, how creative and absurdist and profound these students can be, even in the middle of exam week, and I’m always reminded how glad I am to know all of them.

In case you would like to take this year’s exam for yourself, I am posting it in the link below. Set a timer for 60 or 90 minutes or whatever feels right and see what you can do. I did not create any of these questions; each one was created by a sophomore, junior, or senior in high school.

Good luck.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam 2017

P.S. A couple of students’ questions reference the wonderful artist and writer Lynda Barry and this 14-minute video, which we’d recently watched in class — and which I recommend also to you.

This Is What You Shall Do

This one’s quoted often but rewards frequent revisits. So — from the original preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855 …

Version 2

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

IMG_0209

Keep kicking.

Tonight I had a half hour to kill so pulled off my shelf, randomly, a book I hadn’t opened in years: The Incompleat Folksinger, a collection of columns, essays, liner notes, and other odd writings from Pete Seeger.

In my last house the book lived on a very high shelf — lived, in fact, on top of my biggest bookcase — and I never made the effort to pull it down. Recently, when I moved my books and shelves in with Glory and Norah, I got wild and put some books that had been long out of reach where they might be more easily and impulsively grabbed. So tonight my eyes landed on this book I hadn’t spent any real time with since college.

I opened to somewhere in the middle, and the first thing I read was this — a column Seeger wrote for Sing Out! magazine in June of 1968. It began with a parable:

A farmer once left a tall can of milk with the top off outside his door. Two frogs hopped into it and then found that they couldn’t hop out. After thrashing around a bit, one of them says, “There’s no hope.” With one last gurgle he sank to the bottom. The other frog refused to give up. In the morning the farmer came out and found one live frog sitting on a big cake of butter.

Here is Pete Seeger’s moral:

It pays to kick. 

* * *

Really, that’s all I set out to share tonight. But here are three short postscripts — a memory, an internet search, and a gratitude — if you care to read on.

Postscript 1 (on the subject of Seeger):

One weekend when we were in college, maybe in 1998, my friends Lilah and Christo and I drove down to Beacon, New York, for the Clearwater Festival. When we pulled up, the first thing we saw was Pete Seeger, bent over and stirring chili. My heart may have exploded. This is the defining image I’ll always have of the man: not with a banjo, but with a big pot of chili, an equally appropriate symbol of the values he espoused.

Pete Chili

When I got a chance I approached him and tried to tell him what his music had meant to me. He discouraged me from being so excited to meet him. I understood what he was saying, but I couldn’t help it. Lilah or maybe Christo took this picture. I had lots of hair back then and we’d been in the car for an hour with the windows rolled down; once the photos were developed I was embarrassed at how preposterous my hair looked. But I’ll share it with you, now, these 19 or 20 years later:

Pete Seeger and me

Postscript 2 (on Seeger, continued):

It seems The Incompleat Folksinger is out of print — so I’m glad I held on to my copy. I’ve noticed lately that several books I cherished in my late teens and early twenties aren’t currently in print. They will be again, I’m sure. Meanwhile, this one you can still find pretty easily, used.

Postscript 3 (on the subject of kicking):

When I read tonight about the two frogs I thought: I’m grateful to a number of friends whose indefatigable kicking inspires me every day. I’m trying to learn to be more like them, and more like that second frog.

There’s hope, everybody. Keep kicking.

 

 

How to be a poet (drawing)

Wendell Berry

A few years ago I drew this picture of Wendell Berry for my friend Daniel on his birthday. Daniels wife Lucy commissioned the drawing and gave me one of Wendell Berrys books as payment. She also suggested the text, “How to Be a Poet.”

A few weeks ago, while I was moving, I came across my copy of the drawing, which I’d mostly forgotten. Now I’ve put it where I see it every day. I’m not a poet exactly, but I find Berrys reminders a comfort and encouragement. Heres the full poem. Maybe it will be useful, also, to you.

Don’t forget to breathe.

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
i
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.