Monday, March 31, 2014

Week Three

If you’ve been following me for the last couple of weeks on this blog, you’ll know that I’m working on an epic poetry book that my wife’s going to illustrate. I don’t know how this is going to end. Maybe badly, maybe well.

Last week, I’d decided on writing about a camping trip that Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir took through the Sierras. I thought I’d do research on it this week. The research that you do for a poetry collection is different than what you’d do for an essay in school. That’s true for me at least.

Eventually, I will read books of course, but I started by talking to some of the people in the forestry service whom I work with. I’ll be teaching a poetry class in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and I stole some of their time to talk about Muir and Roosevelt.

It was an informative conversations, informative enough for me to change my mind about the project. There’s not enough there, not enough drama or time for 200-400 sonnets. Ah well. So I have to shift and revise.

So where do I go? Well, what I liked about the project was that it told the story of one of those things that truly unified the United States: the national parks system. It was one of those things that made us see ourselves in a federal way. Okay, so I’m going to switch my focus a big and tell the story of California, and that’s a story of water.

My main characters will be John Muir and William Mulholland. Both were fascinating figures, and Mulholland was tragic and a complicated man. His ethical life was fascinating, and if you’re not obsessed by Muir and all that he did, you need to read about him. An amazing person.

Anyway, this is the first major shift of the project from my point of view. The working title? “Water.” That’s not a good title to end with, but it will keep me focused.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Week Two

If you’ve been following me on this blog, you know that I’ve been working on a new writing project with my artist wife and we’ve been chronicling it here. We’re going to put together a multimedia book, her art and my poems to write about the experience of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

In our first vision, Ann was going to do wood cuts with art my poetry. When we thought of the scope of the project, however, we realized that we wanted about 200 illustrated sonnets. Even if they aren’t all going to be illustrated, to keep a consistency of style, all of them would need to be cut out.

So for the sake of Ann’s hands, we’re moving away from the wood cut idea and toward silk screening. Wood cuts are difficult physically. There is something beautiful about them, but many of the same effect that we get with the wood cuts we can get with the screen prints too.

Last week, I was debating what I should write about. I knew I wanted a sonnet sequence about the national parks, but I think what I want to write about is the trip that Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir took through the parks by themselves. There’s something epic about what was happening there. There aren’t a lot of great epics about the founding of the United States. This is of course not the moment of birth of the republic, but I think it goes a long way to explain who we are as modern Americans.

After all the founding of the national parks is one of the early major acts that made a cohesive country as opposed to 50 states. That and the building of the highway system and a few other large public works programs made us America with a capital “A.” I know that I always identify as an American before I identify as a Californian, and the parks were a part of that national identity.

Enough of the flag waving. The only other project now is to figure out whose point of view to tell it from, and that’s going to take research. Research is fun though. More on that next week.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Week One

Normally, I write about mystery novels on this blog, but I’m also a poet. I publish free verse and formal poetry collections, and I have an instruction book on writing formal poetry. I am beginning a long term poetry project with my wife, and I thought it would be interesting to chronicle it here, on this blog to give a sense of what it takes to complete this kind of work.

It’s probably going to take a year. If it works.

That’s the interesting thing about any large project. I have many pieces that I begin and that fail completely. That’s all right. I just like creating new things and when they fail, I am perfectly comfortable allowing them to do so. What that means though is that from the beginning this might be a series of pieces about loss. Or it could be a series about my next book to be published. I don’t know.

Okay, so what is the project?

I’m a poet and my wife is a visual artist. She usually works in prints. I’m going to work on a sonnet sequence about someone in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite, which I am lucky enough to live near. They are going to create a narrative that she is going to illustrate with prints. If we can, we’re going to make the prints out of wood that we find in the mountains themselves although this last might not be possible.

What am I going to write the sequence about?

Well, I wanted to chronicle the entire project. I haven’t figured out the idea yet. The great thing about sonnets is that they pull the idea out of the poet. You can’t have a complete idea going into it or you end up with sing-songy schlock. The poems and ideas need to be pulled out of me by the form itself.

But I have two ideas.

The first is to write a sequence about historic figures. John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt came through this area together on horseback. That would be an interesting epic poem about the middle era of American history. There are lesser known historical figures as well like Tharp, who lived in a hollowed out log. Perhaps something about the Beat Poets who spent a good deal of time up in the mountains.

The other idea is to write about fictional characters. These would be naturalists who are having some kind of relationship problem. Not necessarily romantic. The poems then could focus on technical details of woodland science while the narrative would bind the whole project.

There needs to be conflict, whatever it is about. Otherwise, the collection will just be pretty pictures and empty poems.

You are all readers. Which of these projects would you be most interested in see in print and over the next months as a blog?

Monday, March 3, 2014

I Hate Teacher Movies!

I met a couple of retired police officers who told me why they hated cop shows, couldn’t watch them. The cliches were just too unrealistic. No police officer would ever act in that way.

It got me thinking about my own profession, teaching. I’m a professor at a community college, and I never thought there was much mystery to what I did, but apparently there is. I cannot watch movies about teachers. They make me so very very angry for a number of reasons, but the cliches put forth in them make me think the general public has no idea what teachers go through. Here’s a list of the worst of them:

1. Teaching isn’t about the money.

Imagine the scene in any number of movies. Robin Williams goes home to his little hovel. All day long he’s been fighting with bureaucrats who flat out hate all students and teachers. They’ve been insulting and condescending for the worst possible reasons. The students have been fighting, doing the foolish things that they do, and now his reward is to come home to his mini one-bedroom apartment and stare out the window, wondering how he can get through to these kids. A single tear drop slowly works its way down his cheek, but he’s fighting the good fight even if he lives in a dump and has to even buy his books used.

“Teaching isn’t about the money” is something I hear not only in the movies, but in news reports, on the radio, and from people who don’t teach. Of course, it’s about the money, at least in part. Teaching is a really difficult job, and although I love it, and I never expect to get rich, I would like to be able to afford a two bedroom apartment and a decent meal just like everyone else.

People don’t make this claim about any other profession. Sure, there’s nobility in teaching, but there’s nobility in medicine and the law too, and no one’s asking doctors and lawyers to forgo a decent paycheck. You don’t ever get the scene of Sam Waterson going back to his tiny RV and sipping a thin cup of tea from a tea bag that’s been used and reused.

Up yours, Robin Williams!

2. Teacher and Administrators Are Natural Enemies

How many times have I seen a movie administrator with a cynical smirk on his face talking about how he has bigger concerns? I’ve worked with a lot of deans, vice presidents, presidents, board members, and others. Some of them have been terrible people. But no more so than anyone else in any field. Mostly they are kind, intelligent people trying to do the hard job of helping students to learn. Most of them are former teachers who thought they could make a bigger difference by guiding the school.

They make more money than teachers do. That’s because it’s not as fun as teaching, and they need to be recruited into that profession in some way.

They’re at odds with teachers during contract negotiations. Of course they are. That’s their job.

They’re not a group of evil yes men bent on conformity any more than the teachers who are supposed to be heroic are.

3. Good Teaching Requires a Great Deal of Loss for the Teacher

Michelle Pheiffer goes into the class full of kids who need her so desperately. The only way to get through to them is to first put herself on the line physically. She has to fight! Oh, she might take a beating, be permanently disabled, killed even, but if that’s what it takes, it’s a small price to pay. Somehow, she stands up to them and lives, but she doesn’t bother to get help from security. No, earning their respect was enough. Now it’s time for the second loss. Now, she must meet students and tutor late into the night. That’s fine. She doesn’t have kids. She doesn’t want free time. Dating, pfff! She’s a teacher damn it and that means sacrifice across the board.

I think Hollywood thinks that when people become teachers they have entered a kind of priesthood. They have accepted the idea that their life is over, and they will now devote themselves to the prospect of slow death so that others might learn.

Are they out of their minds? When people treat teaching in this way, they burn out fairly quickly just as anyone would burn out working these kinds of hours under these kinds of conditions. You can’t teach well if everything is always sacrifice.

Anyway, I know these cliches make for a more dramatic movie and that people love them. I understand why people love them. It’s just that I can’t watch teacher movies any longer.