This is Not a Book Review

magrittepipe

This is not a book review!  The subject of this post is not Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner as authors, poets, philosophers, or thinkers.  It’s not about the way they transcend time and connect us directly to Rene Magritte’s primitive, intimate, reflective thoughts and ventures.  It’s not about the fact that they allow us access to Magritte’s own brain waves and neuroses by translating his French and bringing his essays, reflections, and poetic musings to light for a contemporary audience, and render him accessible for a whole new generation of readers.  This review takes as its subject instead, their virtue and commitment in the field of education.

We recently read and discussed Lee Shulman’s article, “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Personal Account and Reflection” in our Second Semester Seminar.  As I read, I found myself growing alarmed at times by some of Shulman’s assumptions.  Shulman opens the article with a parable about an aging Jewish schoolteacher in Poland (or Melamed in Yiddish) and his wise wife.  He reflects on the story saying:

The attractions of that story will be obvious to anyone in higher education. For far too many of our colleagues, teaching is not the central function of an academic career. It is our “load,” the annoying obligation that interrupts our writing, and the burden we carry that brings us few of the joys of promotion, tenure and prestige. It’s what we do “on the side.”

As I read this explanation, on the one hand, I grasped Shulman’s point about dedication to teaching as a scholarship of its own, and on the other hand, I was frustrated, irate, and even offended as someone who identifies as an author and artist, and who in fact does, “teach on the side.” I am part of a community of other authors and artists who also “teach on the side.”  This is a community filled with passionate storytellers and poets, who find themselves leaning on teaching as their livelihood.  It doesn’t necessarily detract from our teaching that our first passion was our art.  On the contrary, I think it amplifies it.

As I watched Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner standing in the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, reading and teaching about Magritte- his words, his lessons, and his life, I was mesmerized as they unveiled his words in English for the first time.  The audience was composed mostly of Rooney’s and Plattner’s own students, and as Rooney told the story of her quest for the manuscript, she reminded her students that she followed the same advice that she so often offers up in class: “Look it up!”  And she did look it up, again and again.  To me, this is what real teaching is.  Teaching brings  the wildly unattainable lost secrets of history to light.  It makes professional success in the field feel accessible to a student.  It excites students into becoming involved in the community.  It takes outdated words written and forgotten from another language, transmutes them and makes them potent and meaningful for an 18 year old walking down Michigan avenue in 2016, looking up Roland Barthes on his or her iphone.  Because what else should education be about?  Rooney and Plattner made the philosophers of the past accessible, and then beckoned their students to keep the conversation going.

As I re-read Shulman, and reflected on our conversation in Seminar, I wondered if we at City Colleges have in fact allowed the pendulum to swing too far away from professionalism in our fields.  Rather than priding ourselves on research, press, and publications, we pride ourselves on being good teachers.  While this is definitely an important focus, and encourages us to invest in teaching as a field worth researching independently, the downfall of ONLY thinking this way is the potential stagnation of that electricity and excitement in our own fields that we might pass onto our students.

If I’m teaching developmental English, and I focus on that alone in my course, my students will miss out on the opportunity to question the world through the lens of literature.  They will miss the opportunity to hear words spoken in real time and space at the numerous author’s salons and readings that take place every single day in the thriving literary community of Chicago.  Worse still, their perceptions of themselves will be limited as they see their relationship to words as only developmental  writing and 5 paragraph argument, rather than what it might become– immersion into a wild and uncertain terrain where words behave more like music: mysterious signifiers of meaning with alternating interpretations, sounds, inflections, connotations, and histories all their own, and even vibrato as they are consumed and translated by various perspectives and numerous ears.

As I stood in that audience watching Rooney and Plattner banter about the hunt and mystery of their quest for the manuscript, it struck me that this was unlike the average reading.  They weren’t promoting their own work at all.  This was a teaching moment.  They were prying open their process and struggles, and serving it up to an eager audience composed primarily of their own De Paul students, indie book store owners, local authors, museum goers, and intellectuals in the field at large.  By doing so, Rooney and Plattner beckoned their students to venture out into the world, and rub elbows with professionals.  In this way, they are holding them to a standard they use for themselves, as if to say: ‘this level of success is attainable for you.’  And the students’ eyes were ablaze with possibility and enchantment.  By sharing wholeheartedly, this complex, layered research became attainable.  At one point, a student even asked whether there is a project in place for Magritte’s writings, volume 2.  To which Rooney responded without missing a beat, “You want to take it on?” This tapped into an excitement I recall from long ago as an undergraduate, when one of my professors published a new book or review.  Standing in proximity to such scholarly success made me feel connected to it, proud of it, and privy to it.  It made me feel destined for it.

Nevermind that the Art Institute Bookstore wouldn’t carry their book because it was a University Press, although said Bookstore had no problem selling magnets and bookmarks with better profit margins.  Rooney and Plattner navigated that slippery slope as a constant reminder that even museums, even schools, are businesses driven by capitalism like everyone else.  They utilized the lesson as an opportunity to encourage critical thinking, and reminded students to question the world around them: from their textbooks, to their surroundings, to their own assumptions.  The whole experience became a teachable moment.  Because what was being taught was not poetic forms or research guidelines, what was being celebrated instead was a thirst for knowledge, a deep and persistent critical thinking and intellectual curiosity that at once connects students to Magritte across the vortex of time, and simultaneously connects students to the world around them, the fabric of September 2016 Chicago.  Because Rooney and Plattner can’t force anybody to learn any more than the rest of us.  We have to teach ourselves.  What happens in the classroom, like this review that is not a review, is not an education.  Until you read it for yourself.

 

A Place for Poetry

Trying to pinpoint the moment I fell in love with poetry is like trying to pinpoint the moment I fell in love.  The world around me didn’t blur, Louis Armstrong didn’t sing, the wind didn’t blow just for us.  It was more gradual than that.  Poetry opened doors for me, and poetry fed my hunger.  It persisted through small shifts in the armature of my bones.  My own heart became a beating semi-colon, pausing for just one pulse before the emphasis.

And now, I teach art, creative writing, and composition in a community college where students claim they don’t “get” poetry.  Then they turn up the volume on their headphones and bob their heads to music and mouth the words.  Poetry is inherent and intuitive for all of us.  The rules can be evasive.  Formlessness itself becomes a form.  I often find myself trying to pinpoint what I love so much about poetry.  There is something about the silences between words, the inhale interrupting the tempo of the slam poet, the anticipation as we turn the page.  Sometimes, by saying something that means nothing at all, we are much closer to saying something.

My debut book of poetry, “In Lieu of Flowers,” was dubbed a collage in book form for the way it transmuted narrative and abstraction through text, painting, and fabric collage.  Painting has always been an essential part of my process, and at times the writing takes a back seat to colors and forms.  Sometimes, I spend whole summers exploring my poems and stories as large scales murals sprawling across walls in the city.  Other times, I am reminded that my writing is the beating heart of my painting.

My first book contemplated our relationship to flowers.  Keats said that lilies represent the return of the soul to innocence at death.  I’m fascinated by the roles flowers play in our rituals– that we designate some flowers for funerals, and others for weddings.  And I think it’s very interesting that there’s some overlap.  Some flowers have their roots in two worlds, and I relate to that as someone who is a little confused.  Most of my work is about memorial, and I suppose I’m planting words like flowers to make peace with my memories.

My current project also catalogues memories.  I have turned to nonfiction as I research the story of my Orthodox Jewish grandparents who worked in secrecy on the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project during WW II.  This project functions primarily as memorial, but doubles as a personal connection to a complex historical context, that finds itself critically relevant today in an increasingly xenophobic society.  The atomic bomb casts an ominous shadow over the narrative.  It haunts the characters, and the words themselves, casting even my own grandparent’s love story into the horrific nightmare of war.  Ultimately, it offers my grandparents a sort of double life as I find myself reacquainted with them once again, this time through an adult consciousness, only to lose them all over again as the pages turn.By shifting between the perspectives of my toiling grandparents, and alternating paintings with sentences, this book asks the question: what did the world look like before the sphere of online voices became a force of social justice?  What did the typewriter ding sound like echoing off the Jemez mountains, towering over the cloudy skies of pre-modernity America?  If we listen closely to the words on the page, can we hear the past?  What is the point of all this poetry?  What is waiting for us in the empty space on the next page?  If I plant my words deep enough, will they bloom?

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This blog exists as a space for reflection, reviews, and all laments poetical.  One thing I have learned from living in Chicago is that literary citizenship is an essential part of writing, just as lifelong learning is an essential part of teaching.  If I want others to review my writing, I have to review the work of others!  If I want students to be open minded to my comments, I have to be openminded to theirs as well.  I urge you to disagree with me!  I welcome you to read over my shoulder as I reflect on classroom practices, review books from indie presses, receive critiques from author salons, celebrate the whir of traffic, the screaming car alarms, the words hanging off ledges and high rises, and the metronome of walking, walking, walking that IS Chicago.

Tonight, I did a memory exercise in class.  I put a still life in the hallway and asked the students to draw it.  The only catch was they had to walk to the still life, walk back to the paper, and draw what they remembered.  The other catch was that this was an english class, not an art class.  What resulted was a conversation about perception and personal hierarchy.  Who drew the shoe?  Who drew the flowers?  What was the book title?  Why did you focus on the butterflies?  We then read a story by Aimee Bender, entitled, “The Rememberer.” The story catalogues the reverse evolution of a character who leaves a loved one behind as he morphs from ape to sea turtle, to tadpole, to nothingness.  The class debated the metaphor.  Some said cancer.  Some said drugs.  Many said death.  But they all read their own ending.  In other words, the magic of abstraction is that we each live our own narratives.  “What is the answer?” demanded one student.

“We know you know the answer!” exclaimed another.

“I’m sorry guys,” I found myself laughing.  “There are no answers in english class.”  And as I said it, I paused, and realized it was true.