Friday, October 31, 2008

Okay, so That Was a Bit Harsh. . .

The other day I wrote to you, my students:

I love you all BUT:

I'm disappointed (and annoyed) at how few of you did the assigned reading. Some of you admitted honestly that you simply hadn't done it; others claimed the material was boring.* (see footnote). But there is NO EXCUSE for not doing your assigned work. What it says to me is that you don't care. And that you don't belong in a university.

Furthermore, given that you don't care to learn, why should I or anyone care to teach you? Or give you a passing grade?

Sometimes students are so advanced that they can afford to skip classes and assignments and will still turn in papers so accomplished, so brilliant, that they're professors have no choice but to pass them. Rest assured that is not the case with any of my current students.

That you've missed this last assignment will be reflected in your grades.

On a related note: I have spoken to you several times about the need to make appointments with me and (if necessary) the writing center. Many of you have yet to do so. I suggest you do. The responsibility is yours.

On Thursday, Nov. 6 we will begin discussing your final paper: the research paper.

And don't forget to vote!!!

*footnote: When students say they are bored by someone else's work (like Carl Sagan, who, by the way, was one of the most accomplished and brilliant scientists of the last 50 years), my response is that it isn't the man or his work that is boring, but you who bored yourself through your lack of intellectual curiosity, patience, and engagement. You want knowledge to be spoon-fed to you in sugary, bite-sized pieces—like candy? But knowledge is not candy; you won't find it at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks. True knowledge requires EFFORT. And EFFORT means enduring something that may not be as entertaining as a vampire novel or a Disney movie, but may have MUCH MORE to teach you. This is what college is all about: to expose you to realms of thought that you might not be exposed to otherwise. But it is also why some people—those with NO intellectual curiosity or interest in expanding their minds—should probably not be in college.

End of editorial.

Okay, so that was a bit harsh ... and not meant to apply to all of you. To those to whom it didn't apply my apologies. But I see my job here, with this course and for you, as not just a matter of helping you to become better readers, writers, and thinkers, but to see to it that you are equipped in other important ways to succeed through these next few years of university—and beyond—into what I hope and imagine will be successful futures.

Let me tell you a story, a little personal anecdote, if I may. In 1983 I got my bachelor's degree—I say I "got" it because, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that I earned it. It took me a while (I graduated from high school in 1975; do the math). What did I do in those eight years? Well, mostly I ran around in search of "experience." And though I did have some good (and bad) experiences, and may even have learned a thing or two, mostly I was running AWAY from my education. I told myself that life was too interesting to waste four years of it moldering in classrooms. School was unreal. Who needs it? That's what I told myself.

In fact I was AFRAID of school, afraid of the whole academic world: afraid of tests, of professors, or grades, or being judged and, worst of all, of finding out I wasn't as damned "brilliant" as I pretended to be, but—somewhere deep inside—suspected I wasn't.

Like someone walking down a flight of stairs into a basement, I transferred from one college to another, in order of descending reputation, until finally I ended up in a state university (Western Connecticut—a place no better or worse than Montclair). If I went to school at all it was only so as not to break my mother's heart. But I honestly still thought it a waste of time.

Like many of you I phoned in my assignments and barely studied. And like some of you I was a wise-ass in class in a way that charmed some of my teachers, and annoyed others. (It should go without saying that I thought I was smarter than most of my teachers; after all, look where THEY ended up!)...

Well, here I am, turned into one of those teachers that I so took for granted back then. But then I'm actually lucky; I've done okay, considering. Over twenty years after taking my despised Bachelor's Degree (the whereabouts of the actual document escapes me, that's how little I cared), with a VERY different attitude toward education, I applied for graduate school and got in—no thanks to my undergraduate grades, but because, in the meantime, I worked hard at my writing and, since I had published some stories, was able to convince my sponsors that I was not the complete academic jackass that my college transcripts may have suggested that I was.

I consider myself VERY fortunate to be able to stand in front of you and be your teacher—a position that, twenty years ago, in my youthful defensive arrogance, I would have frowned upon.

The short of it is that—had I known back then what I am sure of now—I would have taken my education MUCH more sriously; I would have seen it as the glorious privilege and opportunity that it was, a chance to deepen my mind and soul, to learn from men and women older and wiser than I, to read things I would NEVER have read on my own; to surrender my arrogant, defensive, and largely pretentious beliefs, and replace them with earned, genuine, and generous ones. To replace cynical arrogance with humble authority: THAT's the main purpose of education—one of the main purposes.

Ah, but if I had known way back then what I know now! What I am doing now at age 50 I might have started doing at age 40 or 30 instead; I would be that much further ahead. As it is I've had to struggle very hard to get where I might have gotten much more easily if ONLY I had taken more seriously to my studies as a younger person.

Consider mine a cautionary tale. I believe that many of you can and will do better by your own education. If I am hard on you, it is because I WANT you to do as well as you can, to not waste your time—and, more importantly, to have the futures that I'm sure you deserve.

So—I take back what I said in frustration. You all DO belong in college. So did I 30 years ago.

But I didn't believe it, and I wish that you all would.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reading Out Loud

I write to read--not just to myself, but to others. There is something about holding a book in my hands and reading words off the page to others that fills me with a warm sense of communion and connection, of reaching out and touching others. Writing is a lonesome practice. You sit alone in a room, alone with your thoughts, alone with your words. The page doesn't laugh or smile, doesn't gasp or applaud; the computor screen stares at you. Your words echo off walls and ceiling, or fall with a dead thud to the floor. Words live only in the eyes of readers or in the ears of listeners.

With two books coming out I've had plenty of opportunities to read to people, with a dozen readings booked for October and November alone, here in New York City, but also in Westchester, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachussetts.

Last night I read at the only book store in the Bronx, a Barnes & Noble at Baychester Mall, near Coop City. A small but packed audience of mostly black and Hispanic people. I was among four performers, including two poets and a singer-songwriter. When my turn came to read I chose a story about an impoverished Dominican who steals and drives off with a shiny convertible as a means of regaining some of his lost dignity and youth. I read without a microphone, choosing instead to stand in front of the podium, close to my listeners. As I usually do when I read I focused on one audience member, a dark-skinned, middle-aged woman seated with her husband in the second row. Why her? Because her eyes had an intent gleam and she smiled and I knew she would like the story. I read to her: she was my real audience.

When I read, I feel as if I am feeding people, spoonful by spoonful, a special broth that will enrich their lives in a special way. The soup is warm and savory and made of words. I feed them my special soup which they ingest through their ears and digest not in their bellies but with their minds and imaginations. Listen carefully, I say to them: I have a story here to tell you. If I have done my job well, then my words will beckon them like a curled finger to come hither, to listen deeply, to pay attention.

As I read my story about the Dominican and the car the woman's smile grew more and more fixed, and the gleam in her eyes grew brighter, and I knew I had her; that she had left her stiff seat and entered the world of my story, with its hot Dominican sun and sweet brown smoke from the sugar cane factory. The act of listening smoothed the wrinkles from her face, released the tension from her jaw. She left her body. I saw it. When a story works, it makes you forget yourself. You leave the hard world behind and enter the soft world of imaginings.

I try very hard to read slowly, to pronounce each and every word, to enjam certain sentences so that prose turns into poetry, to read the words as if they are poetry. I try to seduce the listener with the sounds of images. It is very much like making love: each word a touch, a caress, a kiss, an embrace. There is but one way to read to people and that is with love. You have to love them with each word, to let each syllable offer its caress. With each sentence you draw them closer to you, until you have drawn them into your heart and your mind, until these become shared organs, until you and your listeners form a single joined entity, like Siamese twins.

If a reading goes well, then an act of surrender occurs. The audience must surrender to the power of your words, must abandon the body's insistence on the evidence provided by one set of sensory data--on the immediate sensory phenomenon of hard chair and fluorescent lighting--and accept instead the sensory phenomenon provided by a story's words. That this secondary set of sensory data can overwhelm the first, that is the miracle of good writing. The hard world melts away; the fictional world takes over; the dream solidifies into something more solid and real than the room, the lights, the chair.

When I read out loud to somebody, when I am able to draw them away from the hard world and into my dreams, this, for me, is the point of writing, of my writing. It is what the writer in me lives for. At bottom I am a sensualist and a flirt, or no, not a flirt: not a flirt because I make no promises that I'm unwilling to fulfil. I sincerely wish to make love to the world through and with words, my words. I want to seduce, but also to carry through on the act of seduction: to love, to connect.

When the story ended and the old Dominican took his death plunge in his Cadillac over a cliff and into the ocean, I heard the woman give a little gasp. The story had done its job. My words had touched at least this one person. For a few minutes she belonged to me and to my story; she was an old Dominican with no teeth driving a stolen car. So was I. She took the plunge over the cliff. So did I. That a stranger could trust me so much, could leave herself in my hands, could accept whatever experiences I put her through with my words . . . This is the beauty of writing, which is really an act of trust, an act of love.

To love someone is to trust them, to trust, and, to a certain extent and by mutual agreement, to surrender to their powers. A mutual surrender. When I read to an audience, I put myself at the mercy of their willingness to open themselves to my words and understand me. Maybe they won't understand; maybe they will refuse the world I offer to them as a temporary alternative to their own world. Maybe they will sit there with arms locked and jaws jutting defiantly, and they will refuse to be moved. There is that risk writers  take.

But if they do listen, if they do let themselves be moved, then that is the greatest of all rewards and author can get for his work.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Head of Christ

Yesterday in class I shared with my students what I called an "appreciation" essay by a Romanian painter named Joel Klepac. The object of Klepac's enthusiasm was the French post-Impressionist (to the extent that he is categorizable) George Rouault, who happens to be my favorite painter as well. Specifically, it was one of Rouault's "head of Christ" paintings, of which I would guess the artist did hundreds.

Klepac's enthusiasm for his subject is contagious, which is precisely why I chose to share his essay, as for me the acid test of an appreciation essay is the extent to which it infects the reader with the author's positive feelings. A quote:

Next I was escorted into a large shared office where Rouault’s “Head of Christ” had been carted to wait for me, placed on a chair. At first I experienced the disorienting feeling of suddenly being face-to-face with a celebrity, but little by little the painting opened its doors. Deep blues and greens, reds, smears of black, and yellows are piled together; years of tortured layers a half inch thick in some areas. Christ’s head is slightly tilted. He has an elongated nose and small mouth, and the ears almost disappear in the black outlines of the head. But it is His eyes that were most startling. In those 45 minutes, Christ’s eyes pierced me. Somehow gathered behind them were all the tears of the boys on the street of Romania whom I have come to know, all that inner pain, those graphic histories of abandonment, mocking, and abuse. And here I also saw my own poverty, my loneliness, fear and lost relationships. There is nothing of the cheap plastic smile that one finds on so many sentimentalized images of Christ. Rouault’s Christ looks me in the eyes until he finally has my attention, and says, “I suffer with you. I love you."

I am not a religious man. To say I don't believe in God (or his resurrected son) doesn't quite go far enough: I don't believe in believing. I could, like some, finesse this and say that, while I don't believe in a personal or personified God or in the resurrection as a fact, I DO believe in it as myth and metaphor: but that would be a lie, since one doesn't have to "believe in" a myth or a metaphor; in so far as the word "belief" means anything there's nothing to believe in, no reason to suspend impirical observation or judgment. No, believing in metaphors requires no leap of logic or faith. If a metaphor functions, it exists; and by extension it exists to the extent that it functions.

What I do believe in is the beauty of art and of metaphor and myth—which, if not works of art in and of themselves, are constituents or components of art. As fiction the story of Jesus can't be beat. It has it all: drama, suspense, magic, tears, guilt, reversals, catharsis, poetic justice. There can be few if any images as powerful as that of Christ on the cross. And as a fictional character I can think of none more complex or subtle. Gatsby, Ahab, Lord Jim—none even come close.

It is the tactile substance of Rouault's paintings that moves me most, that touches me like the skin of a lover. To encounter his paintings in the flesh is to encounter flesh: a flesh formed of layer upon layer of encrusted oil paint—so thick, so crusty, so organically rich in texture and spontaneity—like the patterns made by fallen autumn leaves, or any of the perfect accidents of nature, the one artist incapable of a false stroke. 

Rouault has always been one of my favorite painters. When I'm feeling low or insecure, when my writing doesn't go well, when I can't bear words any longer and want to sink into colors and shapes and texture, next to a walk in a forest, Rouault’s canvasses are the next best thing. His series of crusty crucifixions pleases me more than anything—in spite of their religious vehemence and my atheism, they please me.  It's not that I don't give a damn about Christ or the crucifixion; it is merely that I am more moved by the colors and the textures of Rouault's paintings than by their themes or subjects. For me, the story is secondary, something that happened long, long ago if at all. But the painting itself is alive; the painted surface a kind of living tissue or flesh. No one ever did more with paint than Rouault—or with color, for that matter. Between recklessly bold swipes of thinned black, viscous reds, yellows and greens ooze like blood and puss from a festering, gangrenous wound. Perhaps because Rouault had been a glazier in his early life his critics tend to compare his paintings to stained glass windows. But for me they are more like divine autopsies, pious corpses spread out and splayed with a palette knife on canvas—stained windows of blood, flesh, bone and gristle. As Christ redeemed man by rescuing him from his sins, Rouault’s paintings redeem Christ by rescuing Him from the abyss of cliché.