Jennifer Dean — My Favorite Essay to Teach: Angela Morales’s “Girls in My Town”

27286616I knew I wanted to teach Angela Morales’ The Girls In My Town before I’d even finished the whole collection, before reaching the eponymous and concluding essay, but once I read the opening section of “The Girls In My Town” I knew I had to teach the book, or at least that essay.

Set in the Central Valley where I also teach and live, “The Girls In My Town” is a dark meditation on teen mothers (and the young men who abandon them), loneliness and lack, and the darker side of motherhood, including La Llorona and reflections on the pain of childbirth.

I enjoy teaching this essay from a craft perspective because it shows the power of well-chosen details to help create motif and support the ideas of a piece. As both an essayist and poet, I have a reverence for well-wrought scene. Morales’ essay is a fantastic way to demonstrate to students the power of description for advancing a theme, motif, or driving question. Morales opens her essay with a panoramic description:

Here in the Central Valley –in this sun-bleached, hardtack landscape– we have no choice but to search for beauty. The soil, dun-colored and rock hard, erodes into a soft layer of silt that covers the town every time the wind blows. All across California’s farm belt–this land between the Sierras and the Pacific–rows of cotton bolls, apricot and walnut trees, grapevines and tomato plants, roll out for hundreds of miles. But then the rain ceases. Two years pass. Three years. Early morning dew brings the smell of manure, which lingers in our neighborhoods, a smell that grows stronger with every passing month. Winter brings no rain but only a thick layer of tule fog, which traps us further in a damp, white haze. Bitter particles of pesticides hang in the air. We drive on Highway 99 in search of something to look at and find For Lease signs, abandoned Western-themed restaurants, and peeling billboards advertising brand new housing developments that never panned out–a picture of a two-story tract home with a Spanish-tile fountain, a father holding a plump toddler, a chemical green lawn, a happy yellow dog. Between aqueducts and waterways, mazes of irrigation canals and ditches, we try to improve our minds. We enroll in classes at the community college and vow, once and for all, to see it through.” (147-8)

Morales roots readers in the landscape and subtly prepares readers for what follows. “The Girls in My Town” is a great way of presenting the importance of well-chosen description details to students. In discussion of the essay and craft, we compare our own observations about the Central Valley with her writing in the essay, observing what word choices and details she has chosen to include or leave out, and what those choices suggest about the mood of the piece.

At once, Morales’ description both evokes and distorts the reality of the Central Valley. Morales supplies readers with texture, taste, smell, sound, and sights that are very much real, but arranged in such a way that we are later able to understand Morales’ disdain for the continuation school and other support systems that provide for material needs of young women’s bodies but not their souls or hearts. She writes, “The girls in my town may have more choices, though some people might argue that when you’re young and poor and your own mother lives on welfare, those choices are hard to find. Love, on the other hand, is easier to find. Love (or the promise of it) is free.” (154)

“The Girls In My Town” craft discussion is a great opener for a description exercise. I ask my students to pick a mood, an emotion (or draw one from a hat) and I ask them write a description of a setting that hints at their chosen emotion through description, doing their best to include as many sensory details as possible. When writing time is over volunteers share their work. The result is a kaleidoscope view of the same setting.

The Central Valley in drought can be as harsh a place as Morales describes, but when the rains come in winter and spring the topsoil becomes a rich color like milk chocolate, the irrigation canals and ditches are full and the fast-moving water makes a shushing sound as it glides through neighborhoods on the way to those same rows of apricot and walnut trees in fields like a Hidden Valley advertisement; the rains rinse away the dust from the streets lined with stucco covered wood frame houses in shades of blue, yellow, peach, and green pasteled by long months of bright sun. My students know this, and say as much, too.


Contributing Editor Jennifer M. Dean earned an M.A. in poetry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno. Her work has most recently appeared in Crazyhorse, Midwestern Gothic, Poetry Quarterly, Off the Coast, and elsewhere. Jennifer adjuncts at Fresno City College and has three dogs whom she accidentally taught to spell ‘bath’ and ‘walk’. She is currently working on her first essay collection.

Karen Babine on Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song

71o4jdlrsilJoan Didion writes in her 7 October 1979 New York Times review of The Executioner’s Song that “No one but Mailer could have dared this book.” Crafting real life as a novel was certainly a form seeing different forms during this time, especially in the crime genre, but I find myself less interested in the subject matter–or even the emerging world of the nonfiction novel–but I’m interested in Mailer’s sentencing, because I as a writer I am always drawn to sentences, to the point where that person can write a sentence! is the highest compliment I can give. It’s worth mentioning that I am not a fan of Mailer, but I’ll get to that later.

The short, declarative sentences are the most obvious on a first read. The crafting of the very first paragraph sets a very straightforward, almost bored, tone with the subject-verb construction, landing like punches every time a period breaks the flow: “Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared” (17). The effect of starting the book with these sentence constructions and the tone it evokes is a trust in the writer not to editorialize, that the writer will simply tell things as they were. I’ve spent some time with my students this semester talking through Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style, which considers punctuation from the standpoint of a writer and the effect on readers that certain uses of periods, etc. have. For all that I despise Mailer as a failed human being, the man is a god of sentences. With these short sentences that almost have a staccato sound to them, I’m remembering that what struck me most about Armies of the Night was his extraordinarily long sentences—so that the sentences here are rather short is a point of comparison that merits further scrutiny. At another time. (On a separate note that is not sentence-related, the white space between paragraphs also serves to create this disjointed, fragmented, start-stop effect on the reader.)

The way the sentences are constructed vary from character to character: where Gary, Vern, Ida, Brenda, or McGrath might have very short sentences (for instance: “That got to Spencer. Gilmore had never told a soul. Such pride was the makings of decent stuff. McGrath made sure he had a ride home that night” (71)), when Mailer is in the voice and head of someone like Noall Wootten, the sentences lengthen, as if to denote more thought, more education: “He had made up his mind to go for Death after looking at Gilmore’s record. It showed violence in prison, a history of escape, and unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation. Wootten could only conclude that, one: Gilmore would be looking to escape; two: he would be a hazard to other inmates and guards; and, three: rehabilitation would be hopeless” (304). Nothing Mailer does, on the sentence-level is accidental, so that he included a list that includes colons, as well as commas, signals a definite shift that echoes the voice of Wootten’s character not visible any other way. I have met people who speak in colons (the mystery writer William Kent Krueger, for one) and I wonder if Wootten is also one of those. Cahoon’s voice in the Utah jail was constructed by eliminating many of the subjects from the sentences: “Cahoon noticed that soon as he shut the bars, they started a conversation in jail talk. It was that gibberish talk. Use a word like figger to say nigger. Show the other fellow how many years you put in by carrying on a whole conversation” (352).

Another example of this varied sentencing: after Gary’s execution, Larry Schiller views the execution site: “His description of the events had been accurate in every way but one. He had gotten the colors wrong. The black cloth of the blind was not black but blue, the line on the floor was not yellow but white, and the chair was not black, but dark green. He realized that during the execution something had altered in his perception of color” (963). What’s interesting here is that all of the post-execution description happens in terms of the five senses. After the shots are fired, the reader only hears the drip of blood. And then with Schiller’s descriptions—and wrong descriptions—the reader understands the way the colors were viewed. The effect is both content-rich and craft-specific, because how else are the readers going to be able to understand the realities of an execution they did not witness?

Voice and tone is constructed in other ways beyond the actual sentencing and crafting that Mailer did. The addition of Gary’s letters, the transcripts of various court moments, the inclusion of news articles—these all complete the conversation that swirled around and through these series of events. It’s not enough simply to interview the people who knew Gary and lived through this time, because given the way this case unfolded and how many people paid attention to it as it was happening, those voices also add to the cacophony that made this case even more incredible. The level of detail that Mailer was able to corral and use—and not have the narrative be overwhelmed by the voices. In some places they served the purpose of breathing space for the reader, before we jumped back into the arc of the narrative. The reader knows this is coming, that people will be murdered, and that Gary will be executed—but what the reader does not know, what the reader cannot know, is how that will unfold and how this book is about the people involved and how it fits into the Western mythology of this place. It is a good reminder that what drives good nonfiction cannot be plot. In that sense, this book is not about Gary and the execution at all.

I hope I’m able to communicate to my students how it’s possible to dislike a book and be very glad you read it. Cormac McCarthy is one of those for me. Mailer is growing on me, just because I’ve learned more about how sentences function than I have from few other writers. We read Annie Dillard’s “Write Until You Drop.” She writes, “A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ‘Do you think I could be a writer?’ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?’” I adore sentences. Worship at their wordy little altars. Rave and rage at what we’re reading in my classes, what my students write, and teach them to pay attention to what could be their greatest weapon. And greatest joy. Oh, Norman Mailer. I still don’t like you. But I don’t need to like you to want to know how you do what you do.


KarenBabine

Karen Babine is Assay‘s editor.

R. Flowers Rivera: Poetry Is Nonfiction and Other Things My Students Learn to Trust

My Creating Poetry class continues to stun me, or I should say the effects some teacher from their long-ago pasts does. See, these are my upper-level, undergrad students who have elected to try their hand at writing poems or to further develop some poetic series they have been writing toward. Inevitably, at least once a semester (if not more), some serious soul or another recounts the experience of having been instructed to seek the right answer when ferreting out motifs and theme, or the meaning as they engage in a close reading of the text, of having been told to first research what other critics have said about a work—or, even more interestingly, what their teacher says is the right answer. Here, I keep my tongue and old American Bandstand allusions in check: “I’ll give it 78, Dick. It’s got a groovy beat and you can move to it.” Via the syllabus, I assign some approachable books as preliminary reading in theory and craft in addition to an anthology or two. However, this is the technique on which I rely most: I bring in copies of poems stripped of the names of the poets because I want the students to move toward developing their own sense of aesthetics by seeking the internal logic and rhythm of the poems—which bring us to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Streaming, a collection I selected as the winner of the 2015 Southwest Pen Book Award.

images

I had selected the Streaming against my usual hard-edged biases toward perfect clarity, for the collection taught me aurally how to read each poem—word-by-word concatenations—leaving me to trust the images as guides functioning the way in which the poetics of objective correlatives do. Consider the following:

SWARMING

 

Swarming upward

hosts thicken air as hornets

with whirling winds

their weapons wielded wildly

 

back home blackbirds whirl

in skies grayed

from icy winter chill, frost,

a single sparrow cowers against

bush base huddling

 

wind bristles with his war

skies hustle

fields, valleys, meadows moan

mountains reel

 

all creatures

cater to whims of man

in chaotic frenzy for battle

when peace is ever present

in just one thoughtful breath

 

breathe, breathe deep (33)

After I had read the poem aloud, I asked them what they thought the effect was. I received blank stares and confused, darting glances. So, in turn, I asked for three volunteers to re-read the poem aloud, followed by asking them what them what they felft in the gut. They met me with silence, and I waited them out. “Okay,” I said, “quickly mark whatever literary and rhetorical devices you notice.” Finally, they dug in, this was a task most of them had been trained to do. Hands flew up, and I asked them to take them down, saying “This is not that kind of class. We are cars merging into traffic. Find a gap, speed up or drop back, but get in.” The answers came spilling forth: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, repetition, slant rhyme. “Yes, yes…all yes. But do you have to know any of those things to find beauty of meaning in the poem?” They shook their heads in unison. The students were my birds of pedagogy. I could see how our classroom ecology was thriving or failing in their ability to carry on.

I know I’m taking a risk each time I pull this stunt, but the process rarely fails. The students first realize that poetry is a kind of nonfiction that functions as exposition, description, narration, persuasion—at root, truth-telling. In Hedge Coke’s Streaming, as with most poems, the reader can rely upon diction, syntax, caesura, enjambment, and punctuation (or the lack thereof) as signposts. Even as I first read, and then read again, her poem, I could feel the language and see histories rising and falling away. Watch the poet relate whole histories of resistance in the second stanza of “Taxonomy”:

We were tabooed, shunned, mocked and on our mettle

most any pierce of day. Principal struck blows to show we

deserved no mercy. It was splintering. Holes bored blisters

each smacking wave. We were deserving. Wave after wave

first grade took the test out from me. Never did spill again,

no matter the syndrome. We were anything but beggars,

so we scraped by, held up. We flung ourselves into every

angle, withheld our curve. Split loose from whatever held on. (61)

I learn to trust Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s vision, no matter that America had sought erasure of that pride. She shows reader/writers how to witness for one’s people and homeplace without appropriation, how lines of poetry can be dovetailed to manifest meaning. “Lest they moved you, sent you off to foster somewhere no / one warned might reckon. Sent you streaming. Gave you up / like paper. Tossed, crumpled, straightened up, and smoothed / out flat. That was that. It was nothing you’d remember, but / we do” (61-61). You see, or at least I hope you do, exactly what Streaming reminded me of. The poet must continually risk part of herself in the act of creating poems. And by doing so, there exist no formulaic answers, only attempts at communication. My students quickly learn that you can fail, but that I don’t mind if they do, as long they’re willing to risk something they cherish, and that to my mind—since I am the one whose grading pen they fear—there are no failures unless you’re unwilling to fail big.

***

W+F2R. Flowers Rivera is a native of Mississippi. Her second collection of poetry, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2015 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and also received the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. Dr. Rivera’s debut collection, Troubling Accents, was chosen by the Texas Association of Authors as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. She lives in McKinney, Texas, and teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com