Friday, January 29, 2010

Can Ghetto Children Rise on Homeric Lines?

Only with time.

I've been thinking of this line, a paraphrase of educator Mike Rose's quote from his book "Lives on the Boundary," in which he advocates for a pedagogy not tied up in a debate about curriculum (conservatives tend to hold that the Great Books are the answer to educational inequality, as if handing poor minority students Shakespeare or Plato somehow is an answer to the deficiencies in opportunity they face), but focused on HOW we bring student's own experience into the classroom:

"Although a Ghetto child can rise on the lilt of an Homeric line-- books can spark dreams-- appeals to elevated texts can also divert attention from the conditions that keep a population from realizing its dreams."

Rose's contention is that while eventually a minority child should approach the Western Canon, their education begins in the medium of their own lives, their obsessions and interests and experiences. How can students be given a stake in their education, a place to start speaking from? How can the reading they do help allow that stake-- in subject, and in the invitation given by good teachers who can encourage those connections?

My experience in over thirty composition classes with low-income, first-generation college students and at-risk students of color, as well as my experience teaching fourth grade in the Delta, convinces me Mr. Rose is absolutely right. Some kids can find a way to rise on Shakespeare-- certainly they have the capacity. But they can be held out by texts foreign to their own experience, books that even 'majority' students struggle to orient themselves in. Ghetto children deserve to rise, period-- and those first lines are more likely to be the rhyme of a Jay-Z or Lil' Wayne song, on a styling of Common or Nas that speaks to rhythms and spaces more accessible to them. They're more likely to find a place in "Precious" than in Harry Potter. And if allowed to rise, perhaps one day the lilt of the homeric line, the foreign understood in terms of the present, but not as a place to start.

So the answer is, against all odds, in due time, and only if they're offered the opportunity.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Taking chances has never come naturally to me. I am not cautious by nature either, just thoroughly an observer, someone more likely to be found on the margins noting details and looking for reasons why than someone who's out...doing. Back when I was a wrestler, the refusal to make a mistake took me exactly as far as it could: I failed finally to succeed at the highest levels of sport because I was unwilling to risk anything. The cliches abound: no risk, no reward, don't try and you can't succeed, and so on and so on. Samuel Beckett says the same thing more poetically:

Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.

Only with writing have I been able to follow this advice (luckily that was what Mr. Beckett was discussing). That is no small thing-- I threw a thousand pages of prose at the Delta to come away with 170 pages, and every time I let a hundred pages I'd labored over go, it hurt. But I learned, and while I'm not half the prose writer I aspire to be, I will stay true to that process.

What I am less good at doing is taking chances in the rest of my life. I may write about the world, but living in it can be a bit of a struggle. I am good at persisting. I am good at trying to do right in the situations immediately in front of me. But going when the outcome is uncertain-- that I rarely do. And so I find myself now surprisingly successful with writing (if still in limbo with representation for my novel), but caught in an austere life I suppose I have chosen, yet don't entirely want.

By austere I mean that there is my work teaching low-income, at-risk students of color, which is meaningful, but after four years, also awfully familiar. There is my family in this town, who I love dearly. But as to my friends, well, this provincial little city is the sort of place one leaves, and all my friends have gone to bigger ponds or fallen into different crowds. I have too little here. Which returns me to the question of risk: how do you pick up and go without something to go to? At what point do you take a chance?

Even in this awful economy, I am considering it-- picking up and moving to Portland or San Francisco or New York or D.C. without work lined up at all. The prospect terrifies me; such a move would be completely unlike me. Yet I'm beginning to wonder if that's not a good thing after all, if perhaps staying stunted here is far worse than venturing, broke, to some other place where at least I can fail, and try again.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Reading Cesar Vallejo

Was reading James Wright's translations of Cesar Vallejo, and came across this poem, which is, I cannot really say what it is-- something beautiful, vast, and sad.

I am free from the burdens of the sea
when the waters come toward me.

Let us always sail out. Let us taste
the marvelous song, the song spoken
by the lower lips of desire.
Oh beautiful virginity.
The saltless breeze passes.

From the distance, I breathe marrows,
hearing the profound score, as the surf
hunts for its keys.

And if we banged
into the absurd,
we shall cover ourselves with the gold of owning nothing,
and hatch the still unborn wing
of the night, sister
of the orphaned wing of the day,
that is not really a wing since it is only one.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Winner, 2009 Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship

Yesterday morning at eight am my phone rang. I'd intended to sleep in, but was worried-- nobody calls me in general, and certainly anyone who knows me well understands that the days I don't have to make campus by seven-thirty in the morning, I prefer to doze and laze.

So, I was anxious, got up, bleary and confused, and looked at the phone and saw I didn't recognize the number. Surely somebody wanting money. Then I listened the message.

I'd won an Oregon Literary Fellowship, had a hefty check coming in the mail with no strings attached, more money than I've earned in my entire literary career, the reward based entirely on the merit of my work.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove to Portland to attend the announcement of the winners at the Christopher Hitchins reading that Literary Arts was sponsoring in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. I had a complimentary ticket on will-call, picked it up and found my seat near the front. The lecture was sold out, the high-ceilinged hall airy and grand, evoking cathedral (Hitchens noted there was some cosmic irony there, that he always gave talks on why God is not great in places where the architecture was religiously inspired). The head of the Oregon Literary Arts Council went to the podium and spoke of the 322 applications they'd received this year, how they'd only awarded eight Fellowships to writers who worked in obscurity to little notice or acclaim. Then he made us stand, those of us who were able to be there. I turned back as the applause rose, the momentary recognition of thousands and thousands there for another purpose entirely, to hear America's most prominent Atheist, a pro-war, pro-life intellectual conservative who I mostly disagree with, and still-- I don't know.

The long rows, the full mezzanine, all those people clapping at a small achievement they knew nothing of-- none of the qualifications mattered. I have published in several magazines and newspapers with distributions in six and even seven digits, but there is no moment of applause, no recognition that your great hopes and long labor have amounted to anything. For a moment as that applause swelled, it felt like everything was worth it after all.

And that's priceless.