Perusing Poetics: End of the Poetics Journey

I started out this blog talking about the two different parts of me, and how they work together. I’m going to end it by talking about how they stand apart. Granted, I’m going to be focusing more on my Writing major, just because the Poetics is a Writing Department class, but trust me when I say that the point I’m about to make is applicable to my English major too.

Yes, this post is required as a final project. Yes, there are question guidelines. I’m about to do a very odd thing and copy them out for you (sorry Professor. I swear there’s a reason for this):

  1. What do you make and is it similar in any way to the art practices we’ve read and/or talked about in class?
  2. Why do you make it, and do you see your ideas aligning with or being similar to the “why” of anyone we have read and/or talked about in class?
  3. What is the relationship of language to what you make, and is this relationship in any way similar to anyone we have read and/or talked about in class?

Using your digital archive and ideas, address

  1. What are your influences and how have they influenced what you have made up to this point? Who or what do you admire in your field, and why? (Use videos, images, other archives, etc.)
  2. What do you aspire to create, and what have you learned or encountered in class (if anything) that may affect your processes going forward? (Note: this can be a negative effect. That is, “Now that I’ve seen how horribly wrong thing XYZ can go, I want to avoid that route…)
  3. What was the most influential/important reading and/or concept to your own processes of making?

You know what I’m absolutely sick of? Realizing there are two ways I want to answer these questions. Then realizing that one of them is just another story I’m afraid to tell.

“What I mean is that within the University there could exist a relationship with word, language, thought, tradition, and power that might run counter to the relationship a poet might want to have with word, language, thought, tradition and power.” – Sarah Vap, End of The Sentimental Journey

Recently, in my Renaissance Literature class, the professor asked us what we were going to be reading over the summer. My answer would have been Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses. But I didn’t answer, because people starting saying “Milton” or “Absalom, Absalom.” My answer didn’t seem like it fit.

So, today, when I answer these questions, I’m not going to do any of us the disservice of lying or telling you half-truths. I’m going to tell you BOTH truths. I’m going to answer you from the

Academic

and from the

Personal

Bear with me.

Continue reading

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Perusing Poetics: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ’til it’s Gone

“A degree from UC Berkeley will never change the fact that I cannot understand my grandfather when he asks for more coffee” – Esther G. Belin

This isn’t actually a quote from the direct reading this week, which was selections from Genocide of the Mind, but its the one that connects most directly to what I want to talk about, so here we go!

I’ve discussed before that I’m a grandchild of immigrant grandparents. They came from Germany after World War II. They had two daughters at the time, but my dad was born after they landed in New Jersey. He grew up speaking German, but he didn’t live in the country himself. I’m told his New Jersey-German accent was something to behold, though. (He sadly doesn’t have that anymore. Now he just can’t say “Mississippi” right.)

Actual things I did in “school”

My mom’s family was also of German descent, but a way long time ago. She was still super into the culture, though, and I’m pretty sure she’s actually the reason me and my brothers have such super German names and also were put into a Waldorf school to, among other things, learn German.

I grew up being babysat by my Omi and Opa, and as a result my German teachers would tell me I didn’t have an American accent. I had started saying the guttural German sounds so young that they came naturally and I didn’t have to reshape my mouth for them. I spoke German pretty okay for a while, but then I had to switch schools and got put into Spanish–and stopped learning German. I lost a lot of the ability I had learned to string together my own sentences. I had the sounds but not the speech.

Now, right here this story could take an uplifting turn where I say, “And in order to honor my Omi (read: make her stop yelling at me about forgetting my heritage), I picked up German again and am now fluent,” but it doesn’t. But the important thing is that it COULD. The fact that I don’t speak German is self-inflicted, not societally inflicted.

That is what struck me so strongly about the Genocide of the Mind readings. It’s never comfortable to be reminded of your own privilege, but it’s a damn good thing. My Omi is still with me, but when she isn’t, German won’t be lost to be. It will be there, accessible to me, in as many different forms as I want it. I can watch German films, listen to German music, read German books. I CAN.

No, I’m not saying anything that isn’t common sense. I know that. But that’s also why I consistently am staggered by comments like Carol Snow Moon Bachofner being told that her Native American recuperation attempts is her “little Native American project” (146). It well and truly is a “cultural genocide” that not many people see besides those that are being gutted from the inside out (146). It will not be seen until someone realizes some profit is being lost unless things are radically changed.

They need to be changed.

Perusing Poetics: Say Nothing, See Nothing

I promise that this week’s post will be an actual intellectual piece of reading material. I promise. Read on and see.

This week we read two really awesome things, and I had so many things to say about both of them. First we read excerpts from Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by Adam Bradley, and then we read an essay by Jerome Rothenberg from The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. My initial reaction was, “Oh yeah totally doing something from Bradley because the only thing that Rothenberg’s got going is A REALLY ANNOYING USE OF THE AMPERSAND AGAIN AND AGAIN” but actually … I was wrong.

If you’re into Bradley’s book, I do highly recommend it. But my rant about persona and Truth and all that jazz got sidelined when Rothenberg gave me this little quote:

“The hypothesis would be: I see through language. And its corollary: without language, I am blind” (13).

Now, the quote that I instantly connected to before this one was “‘a new language must be found’ … not only for the sake of speaking but of seeing, knowing” and I was like “YEAH THAT SOUNDS AWESOME” (12). Then the one in block quotes came around a few sentences later and then I was like, “Hang on. What?”

At first, I took a step back and said, “Uh, no.” Because what sense does seeing with language make outside of reading? (I should probably have explained that a lot of Rothenberg’s focus is on “‘wordless’ oral poetries” [14].) My immediate reaction is that when I see a red flower, it doesn’t matter if the person next to me can communicate our shared vision or not because we’re both looking at the same red flower. (Also, I am aware I am working under the assumption we are both in possession of our sight. That is not a slight against those with blindness but rather I simply relating my own thought process given my privileged of having my sight mostly intact.)

Now let me back up a little bit. You may or may not know that I was abroad last year. Though I lived in London, I traveled in Europe a lot. The favorite question for people to ask when I came back is which place I went was my favorite. I always hedged this question by replying that I loved everywhere I went, but I was just more comfortable in places where I could adequately communicate, like Ireland and Scotland. When I traveled to Paris, Barcelona and Italy, I always had at least one travel buddy who spoke the language we needed. It is this experience that I drew on to refine this “hypothesis and corollary” in my own mind.

See, when traveling to new country where you don’t speak the language, the inability to communicate does feel like a type of blindness and a sense of invisibility all at the same time. Especially on public transportation, you feel removed from reality in a sense. There is all this chatter happening around you, but you can’t understand a word of it. You can’t overhear a funny story someone is telling or engage with a shopkeeper about buying a silly souvenir. Sure, you can get by with pointing and playing charades, but it is the most physical feeling of living in an alternate reality that I have ever had.

This is especially potent when someone you’re traveling with DOES speak the language. They end up ordering for the group at dinner or getting directions or navigating the public transportation. This isn’t a bad thing; I’m forever thankful for my friends for this. I might have died from anxiety otherwise. But when someone else can jump into a dialogue before you can, the muzzling effect is deafening. Perhaps this is just me, being someone who is not accustomed to taking a backseat for extended periods of time–and really wanting to be in complete control of every situation–but that is the deepest truth I can admit about traveling in those countries.

Again, I don’t regret those travels. They were some of the most amazing experiences of my life. But this was also certainly a part of my experience. It just wasn’t something I connected with the act of seeing until Rothenberg said it. I think of the five senses as five separates. But the truth is, as with much of the human experience, nothing is separate. Everything we do or don’t do feeds into something else with simple cause and effect.

Perusing Poetics: You Write What You Know, Even if You Don’t Know You’re Doing It

So, I’m usually not a fan of big block quotes. They’re clunky, take up space and it’s REALLY HARD to dissect them properly. For this week’s post, however, I might have to make an exception. This is potentially just what happens when you’re quoting Toni Morrison. The following is from her book on literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

“Writers are among the most sensitive, the most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power. The languages they use and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations” (15).

Morrison herself is speaking specifically about why she is looking at white literature to discover the effect of the constructed idea of African-Americans on the world at the time. If you’ve been following these blog posts, you might already see where I’m going with this post … in which case I hope you stick around to read this for my sheer sparkling personality.

First off, look at that. Writers with power. Just look at how she describes writers. Isn’t that beautiful? Okay, so Morrison herself is a writer and that might make her biased, but I don’t think that makes it any less true. (I am also a writer and I admit my own bias.) But just think about it. Why do we read at all? It isn’t to read the same story again and again (unless you have fallen into guilty love with some YA trend). We read to find some exciting story that at once captures our imaginations and yet also catches our heart. To be exciting, it must be new, but to capture our hearts it must be filled with some kind of emotion we recognize. Otherwise we’d just be confused.

Secondly, look at what she wants us to look at: languages used and social and historical context. This is SO IMPORTANT. Anyone who says that they can look at just the text and only the text and get the full meaning is a liar. Looking at just the text gives you ONE meaning–also, a one dimensional reading. If you remember back to my post about Whorf, I went on and on about how we understand our world and also how we construct it. These constructions don’t just exist in our lives. A writer constructs worlds, but no matter how fantastical they always reach back to something they know or at least believe in.

Morrison has some really great examples in her book about how white writers were writing about African-Americans and what it says–more about the writer than the actual constructed character. Ernest Hemingway makes such an effort to deny the black sailor in To Have and Have Not agency or speech that he writes this grammatically disastrous line: “I looked and saw [the black sailor] had seen a patch of flying fish burst out ahead” (qtd 72).

Love him or hate him, you cannot tell me that Hemingway looked at that line in editing and thought, “Yes, this makes grammatical sense.” He made the choice to leave it there, instead of allowing the black sailor to even shout a few words.

Does this mean Hemingway is a racist? No. It’s one quote from one novel and conclusions drawn from that would be factually inaccurate. But what it DOES say is that Hemingway felt that he had to write the scene and the character that way. It could be his choice, it could not be. After all, you can’t tell me that every YA author believes that every story should have a love triangle shoehorned in. But there they are, because they believe that’s what people want to read. (Hint, they are not but for some reason they sell.)

Yes, that’s a shallow example to compare to all the centuries of silenced African-American characters and writers, but my point here is not to enter into race politics. My point is that we can look at the way certain things are written and extrapolate massive amounts of information in the way that language is shaped and what it says about writing in the social and historical context of the writer. The difficulty of writing is that it must be both exciting and familiar, and people must also want to read it. Even in the most fantastical of settings, the human experience must resemble the majority of the readership or no one will read it, love it or understand it.

As a final note, if you’re ever looking for enjoyable, interesting and easy-to-read literary criticism, go pick up Morrison’s book. You won’t be disappointed.

Perusing Poetics: All the World is Speech (and Humans are Really Strange Creatures)

When I was born, my parents got one of those dumb baby book things. Under family resemblances, my father wrote “Worf from Star Trek.” I HAVE A BIG FOREHEAD, OKAY?

This has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post, except for the fact that this week I’m talking about Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought,and Reality and I keep thinking of Whorf from Star Trek instead of this really smart linguist. So now you know something really weird about me.

How I arrived at my topic for this week’s post is also kind of weird. It’s a convergence of three things, really. Firstly, there’s Whorf. One of his essays in this collection is titled “On the Connection of Ideas,” and it’s basically him writing to this compiler of psychological terminology asking for a better term for connected words and ideas than “association,” which he finds lacking for a multitude of reasons. The takeaway here is that he, a linguist, is asking for help not from another linguist, but a psychologist. Kind of weird, right? (Not to me, as you’re about to see.) Then, there’s this craft class I had today with poet Li-Young Lee. He said today that he thinks that art is really just another version of psychology, since all art comes from an inner psyche. Finally, there’s me, and my now three-year-long maintaining that if I wasn’t an English and Writing major, I’d be a psychology major.

When I first had a little wonder, as a freshman, if I should major in psychology (preferably educational), I threw it out of hand almost instantly. “I’m not science-y!” I said. “I’d never survive. The connection makes no sense!” So I continued on my merry English-and-Writing way. And I’m glad for it.

Me. Doing science.

But the thing is that there is a major connection between art and psychology. A BIG ONE. I’m going to focus on writing here, because I can’t art in any other way, but I’m sure an artist or musician–for example–would probably have a connection to make as well. What is a writer, but a creator of character? When you’re in a writing class, one of the major things you are told you have to figure out is “What do your characters want?” Writing–especially, for me personally, fiction–is simply accessible psychology. (The good stuff, anyways.) You sit down, you read a story, and you understand step by step why a person or a group of people do what they do within the story. You learn how people change, grow, fail or succeed through story arcs. To me, it’s pretty bloody magical. It’s why I write. The human brain fascinates me. Psychology is only one access point to the crazy questions humanity poses about WHY. Writing is another.

Whorf, however, is a linguist, so we have to break this down a little bit further. Sure, the connection between stories and psychology might make sense, but Whorf is operating on the word level. He’s seeing a connection to humanity through not just whole stories but single words and syllables. He suggests this hypothesis about how someone’s language is a major part of how they understand reality and behave within it. This collection basically admits that this hasn’t been proven, but it hasn’t been disproved.

To me, what he’s saying just makes sense. (Okay, well, not some of the time. But what I can understand from him, I like.)

It’s why I still wish I’d gone into psychology sometimes. It’s why I want to find some way to get a PhD where I can explore the links that Whorf talks about, between language, society, culture, etc. It’s because when I engage in my area of specialty (the young adult book world), I see the connection between cultural norms, young adult reception of these stories, and society at large. YA novels work in massive trends, but it’s fascinating how the slightest shift in language can make or break one vampire novel to the next.

At the reading by Li-Young that I attended tonight, he said that he was currently engaged in a massive back and forth with a minister friend of his because Li-Young is trying to convince him that all the world is speech. Well, that’s the world I choose to see, too.

speech-bubbles-world-map-vector-306917