Monthly Archives: November 2014

Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


My Father the Teacher

Recently, my mother sent me a poem I wrote at the age of six on a sheet of mimeograph paper. I turned the poem over and saw that I’d written it on the back of a copy of my father’s 1967 teaching schedule from San Bernardino State College. I thought of my father in his early thirties, leaving our house every morning wearing a tie and his corduroy jacket, leather satchel crammed with books, files, student papers, and the lunch my mother packed for him.

My father was a born teacher. A professor of German at the university level for many years, he ended his teaching career at the Defense Language Institute in San Francisco, where he taught enlisted men and women the rudiments of the German language. At DLI, most of his students were young, some still in their teens. When they started my father’s class, they were eight weeks from shipping out. Most of them had never visited a foreign country. “When my students finish the course, they can ask for directions, order food in a restaurant, buy things. It’s a start,” he told me.

After my father died, I found photographs of him surrounded by smiling young people. I didn’t recognize any of them. I assume they were his DLI students. I kept the photographs for a few years, and only recently, reluctantly, threw them away.

My father lost his job at San Bernardino State College in 1971 during a statewide fit of budget-cutting. He spent the next several years in a variety of jobs: taxi driver, lumber yard worker, translator, librarian. He wrote a book, did some freelancing, and went back to school. Eventually, he started working at the Defense Language Institute. After five years, the San Francisco DLI moved to Monterey, one hundred twenty miles away. Unwilling to move and disillusioned with teaching, my father worked as a technical writer until he retired. After retirement, he substitute-taught in the public schools in Sacramento County.

The 1970s and 1980s were hard on teachers. I just finished reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. Goldstein, the daughter of two teachers, writes compellingly about the history of teaching in America. “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 landmark study, “set the terms of a debate we are still having today” (Goldstein). Standardized tests, teacher accountability, school prayer and charter schools forged a new and unfamiliar landscape.

I owe a huge debt to my teachers. Even the bad ones helped me learn, if only as an act of rebellion. I remember Mr. Hamilton chasing a wild boy around our fifth-grade classroom with a ruler (teachers still used corporal punishment in those days) and Miss Mead, turning the lights off and reading to her fourth graders as we lay our heads on our folded arms. In college, I discovered teachers who loved poetry as much as I did, and encouraged me to achieve my dream of being a writer.

“Teaching is the most fun I was ever paid for,” my father said more than once. “Seeing a student achieve an understanding of a new concept never gets old. I lived for that.”






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Deep Images


The following is reprinted from my book Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets, PushPen Press 2014.

Deep Images

Years ago, I was a student in a drawing class trying to draw a tree. My teacher came by and said, “What you’ve drawn is your idea of a tree. This is what you’ve been told, all your life, is a tree.” My tree looked exactly like the trees I drew in elementary school. “You have to minutely observe something to stop seeing what you think it is, and see what it really is.”

Today we’re going tDSCN1946o look at something closely. Throw away your idea of what an object is, and try to understand what it actually is. The more carefully you look at something, the stranger it gets – that’s because you’re seeing details you don’t usually pay attention to.

Take any object. For example, I am looking at my desk lamp. If I describe its contour, I get this: “smooth, metal, screws, base, cord, bulb, switch, hinge, shade, arm, knob, arm, hinge, base…” and if I start to look at it more closely, I get “dusty, dead fly, scuff mark, silver, black, heavy, hot, too bright in that position, not bright enough in the other position, tilt, triangle thing the cord comes out of…” now I drill down again, and I get “casts shadow over my keyboard, makes the veins on my hands look like a topographical map, lights the tops of my books and the two-dollar bill I use as a bookmark, leaves my overstuffed files in the shadow.” Hmm. There is a story in this ordinary desk accessory. Is my lamp a metaphor for something else? Isn’t everything?

The experience of seeing this closely can simultaneously exhilarate and terrify. When I first saw a blown-up photo of a dust mite, it gave me the creeps for days, but I finally accepted the fact that the world is full of tiny, invisible living creatures.

Spend the day looking closely at things. Look at your children, your pets, your furniture. Look until you don’t recognize them anymore. Write down what you really see.



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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


“Writers often talk about the books that influenced them, but what are your nonliterary influences?” – Bookends, NYTimes, Sunday 11/9/14

Thomas Mallon and James Parker answer the question in two short essays. Mallon writes that he keeps “photos around me while I write the way other authors keep music on in the background, as a kind of atmospheric stimulation.” Parker states, “From my fellow bakers, I learned about industry and cohesion and the moral obligation to be cheerful.” I enjoyed these pieces as much for their diversity as for their content. Mallon uses photos “for unexpected details, such as the faces in the crowd, the people witnessing what a historical novelist can only try to reconstruct.” Parker credits drummers and comedians, as well as his years spent baking, as his “greatest nonliterary influences.”

My greatest nonliterary influence is the humble parking lot. I wrote about this in my book Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets. Recently, the parking lot of my neighborhood hardware store was re-paved and re-striped, covering up its gray and pitted surface, the little tufts of grass and baby trees, the years of dumped coffee, crushed cigarette butts, crumbled leaves and motor oil rainbows. I have observed this parking lot for a long time. Its spiffy black and white appearance will soften soon, as when a pair of new white sports shoes gets its first scuff. The edges of paint marking off parking places will fray and split, and the asphalt will start to crack as soon as summer returns.

Some parking lots are challenging, like the tiny one behind the Beat Museum in San Francisco. A huge and empty parking lot surrounds the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa, where I learned to drive. Some cities seem to exist almost without parking lots, or with very small ones, such as New York or Berlin. Others, Los Angeles for example, are covered in them.

One of my favorite qualities of parking lots is that no one else cares about them, at least not for poetic inspiration. However, if you look long enough, you will discover a lot about these neglected patches of pavement. In an after-school enrichment class I once taught, I had students mark off four-foot squares in the school parking lot with chalk. I told each student that he or she was responsible for that square, and had the students make lists of everything they could observe about their squares. The students thought it was a little weird at first, but they complied, making more and more detailed lists. Since these were children under the age of ten, they saw things like fairies and Pikachu in addition to plastic straws, ripped binder paper and pencil stubs. I had them construct narratives from the lists, and then illustrated stories.

Today, claim your piece of pavement. Find a spot no one else sees the beauty in, and populate it from your imagination. Take photos of your parking lot throughout the seasons. Keep an album of parking lots you’ve visited on your travels. What happens there? Who comes and goes? What is the most common piece of trash you see? Why do you think that is?

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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


 Being Present

I recently watched The Artist is Present, a documentary about Marina Abramović. Abramović is known as the “grandmother of performance art.” She has cut and burned herself, ingested anti-psychotic drugs, and invited people to manipulate her body with a variety of objects, including “a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet” (Wikipedia). With her former partner Ullay, she created works that involved the two of them slamming into each other with bruise-inducing force.

Abramović created an even more controversial and popular performance piece at the New York City MoMA in 2010. Instead of shocking the public with violent and boundary-pushing acts, she simply sat in a chair and looked at people who, one by one, took the seat opposite her. She did this daily for three months. You can see the faces of every person who participated:

Expectation, embarrassment, bemused smiles, tears: the same expressions repeat over and over. Abramović herself maintains a calm, almost beatific demeanor throughout the performance, except for the times when she, too, weeps. It’s an affecting piece, one that becomes more and more intense as the weeks wear on. Regardless of the discomfort she must be feeling, seated in a chair for hours each day, the artist bestows the same attention on each person.

As I watched the film, I could see that something happened between the participants and Abramović: they felt present. The artist looked only at the person seated opposite her. Her attention from that person did not waver: she hardly blinked. Within the space of two people and two chairs, she created a complete environment. After each person left, the energy lapsed until the next person took his or her seat. Abramović closed her eyes between participants, an act as effective as closing the curtains after a play. When she opened them on a new person, the performance began anew.

As writers, what can we learn from The Artist is Present? After all, we rarely get a chance to witness the affect that our writing has on our audience, and few of us are as edgy and compelling Abramović. However, we can learn to be present, in our writing and in our encounters with the public. Being present is not easy: when we read in front of an audience, how often do we think about the actual people listening? Are we focused on their listening experience, or on our reading experience? What would it feel like to stop being “the writer” and instead become the interpreter of the writing?

When I was twenty-one, the poet Denise Levertov read at my college. Within a few minutes, she had the audience completely enthralled with just her voice. She read for us, not at us; each person there felt part of an environment created within the space of her poems and our presence.

Think about your readers. As a gift for their listening, be present for them. Just as you create for them, they complete the environment for you. Enter into that relationship with your full attention.

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