Steven Harvey & Sonja Livingston–On “Brief Encounters” and “Sputnik 2”

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On “Brief Encounters”
Sonja Livingston
Dreamlike. Wistful. Bittersweet. That’s how students described Steven Harvey’s “Sputnik 2,” in my undergraduate Creative Nonfiction class at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  Every week, students take turns selecting a piece from Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney’s wonderful anthology, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and lead the class in a discussion of craft and content.
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Valerie Dinavo with “Brief Encounters”

In this case, student Valerie Dinavo selected Harvey’s essay, in which the writer imagines the night he’d stood with his parents looking up into the sky to see Sputnik 2. Harvey doesn’t remember that long-gone night, but knows he was there to see the satellite with his parents based on a letter he’d read, and uses the bulk of his micro-essay to imagine how the scene unfolded. Our class used the essay to discuss the role of imagination in nonfiction, and the line between essayistic imagination and fiction. We lingered over the language, and the reverberation of image and sound—the way the glow from his father’s match echoed the light in the sky, and his parents’ faces were illuminated “for a moment like two crescent moons”. We read the last paragraph a second time and wondered over the haunting image of  “nails driven into the tread overhead, that coffin-lid of stars,” and of the ending, of the boy and his parents who “stood in a darkened field together and looked into the heavens.”
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Madeline Barber

That’s when I looked to the young woman beside me and noticed her notebook brimming with stars! Madeline Barber had sketched a boy standing in a meadow looking up into the sky. She’d taken some liberties, adding a cow and spaceship to the scene, but had labeled her drawing “Sputnik 2” and had clearly sketched out what we’d been discussing. One of the perks of teaching in a school known for its fine arts program (VCU has the #1 visual arts program in a public university in the country) is that my writing classes include a good share of visual artists who doodle on feedback and incorporate visual elements into their essays and, and sometimes, sketch their contemplation of class discussions!

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On “Sputnik 2”

Steven Harvey

Why does a cow float through the night sky of my nonfiction? It is curious. The essay, “Sputnik 2,” was chosen from the anthology Brief Encounters by Valerie Dinavo for Sonja Livingston’s creative writing class at VCU, and while listening to a passage being read aloud, student Madeline Barber doodled a picture of a boy standing in his pajamas in a field of flowers looking into a night sky filled with stars, and off in the corner is a tiny cow that is nowhere in the text. The boy has a wondrous expression on his face, as he stands calm and relaxed, and all of that seems to fit a piece about a child gazing into a late-night sky. Even the space ship off to the side makes sense since I am writing about the time that my family and I observed Sputnik 2 flip-flopping through the stars. But the cow being beamed up into the space craft—where did that come from?

1824685114What Madeline cannot know from the brief selection she heard is that the passage is the ending of my memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, which Judith Kitchen, who co-edited the anthology, chose to publish with Ovenbird Books. It is the story of the suicide of my mother when I was eleven which I reconstructed from over 400 letters that my grandmother gave me. It was a hard book to write. Most of the events before her death I had forgotten, and the knowledge I learned while researching what happened as I was growing up, though invaluable to writing the book, often brought sadness. I rarely get emotional at the writing desk—writing is my job—but several times in the course of composing this memoir I held a letter in one hand, touched the discovery in words on the screen in front of me with the other, and lowered my head.

In the end, though, reading my mother’s letters some fifty years after her death offered solace as well, comfort mixed in with the sadness. “When I read them, I got to know her—for the first time, really—know her and miss her,” I wrote near the end of the book. “Miss her, not some made up idea of her.” The letters and my book do not bring her back—I know the loss is permanent and irrevocable—but while I wrote about her every morning for five years, the pain, that had been nothing more than a dull throb, changed in character, becoming softer, more diffuse, and ardent, like heartache. To me it was miraculous, and writing the book ultimately filled me with wonder.

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is extensively researched. The facts, though often upsetting, mattered to me and were my teacher. In addition to the letters, I relied on photographs, family documents, interviews, and stories my grandmother told my wife. I viewed TV shows from the past, listened to the songs of my childhood, visited my old hometown, and rode Google Earth to the very motel parking lot where I viewed Sputnik 2. There is even a crucial doodle on an envelope that my dad drew of my mother before I was born that upon careful examination revealed the tension brewing in our young family.

But the truth of this story goes beyond the facts and requires a leap into speculation which happens throughout the memoir, including the passage that Madeline heard. “In my imagination,” I begin, recreating the images as best I can of a reunited family: the glowing faces of my parents as they light cigarettes in the cold, and the sweep of the red ash when my dad points to the satellite casing crossing the sky. I admit that I cannot imagine this moment without thinking about the night that my mother, abandoned by my father, sang “Fever” by Peggy Lee forlornly to the record player, or the day my mother died when I hid under the stairs and looked at the “nails driven into the treads overhead, that coffin-lid of stars that still haunts me.”

But those thoughts do not erase the fact that my mother and I collaborated to write our story, her words mixing with mine. “I took my mother’s words into my mouth like milk,” I wrote, “and fed our story.” It is a gift which we share—a marvel, really—and one which almost did not happen. Yes, I wrote milk. I don’t know where Madeline’s cow among the stars came from, this gift of the creative mind in the presence of words spoken aloud which in itself is a mysterious process, but I hope it was born out of that feeling of wonder which is the bedrock of my book.

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Madeline Barber’s Sketch

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Steven Harvey is the author of a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder and three books of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove. A selection from his memoir was chosen by Cheryl Stayed for The Best American Essays 2013. He is a Senior Editor of River Teeth, a founding faculty member in the Ashland University MFA, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website (the-humble-essayist.com).

Sonja Livingston is the author of two lyric essay collections, Queen of the Fall, and Ladies Night at the Dreamland. Her first book, Ghostbread, a memoir of childhood poverty, won the AWP Nonfiction Prize. Her writing has been honored with a New York State Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, an Arts & Letters Essay Prize, a VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja’s work is widely anthologized, including, most recently, in Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. She teaches creative nonfiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Assay Interviews Anthony Bart Chaney

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“The double bind, stated briefly, was an inescapable paradox in which a message was refuted by its context. ‘Don’t be so obedient’ was one such message. The context was an imperative; the message ordered the listener to ignore that context. One could neither comply nor escape complying.”—Anthony Chaney. Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 320 pages.

Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust): Congratulations on the publication of your beautifully written and fascinating book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness (University of North Carolina Press).

By way of providing background to our readers, and giving thanks, I want to note that we met at the 2017 “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute hosted by the University of Washington, The Simpson Center for the Humanities, & supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Institute was created and run by Thaïsa Way, Rich Watts, Ken Yocom, with support from Allison Ong.

I particularly want to say how wonderful it was to meet you at the “City/Nature” Summer Institute, and as a fellow writer, to thank you for our deep conversation about all aspects of writing—and of teaching writing, including Composition. Prior to this interview, our initial conversation took place on a hill in Gasworks Park on the north side Seattle’s Lake Union during the Fourth of July celebrations.

Anthony Chaney: Yes, that was an unforgettable day at a fabulous location. What a gift to have the time to talk at length about a book project while sitting on a hillside amid thousands of people on the fourth of July in Seattle.

Assay (D’Aoust): Let’s start with how your book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness engages with some of the important conversations and questions from the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute. Two of those questions involved how scholars speak to each other across disciplines and how scholars reach out to larger communities. Bateson is a figure who worked inside and outside the academy, had an astounding grasp of different fields, and impacted many of those fields. In what ways does your book Runaway speak to specific disciplines, across disciplines, and reach out to communities?

Chaney: Crossing disciplines was a theme in Gregory Bateson’s life. He was raised in the tradition of British natural science. He was trained at Cambridge in anthropology. Later, he was took part in the post-WWII Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. Because Bateson’s approach to scientific inquiry was not in any way careerist, he felt little obligation to carve out turf in any particular field. Rather, he followed his research questions wherever they led. They took him from field work with tribal peoples in Papua New Guinea, to reworking psychiatric theories in California, to studying dolphin communication in Hawaii, and to eventually becoming a public intellectual speaking out on social crisis from an ecological perspective.

All this discipline-hopping was in service to one effort: to reorient the life sciences around the concept of information and away from the old Newtonian concept of force. That shift in orientation was part of a much broader transition in the way we organize perception and account for the world around us, a transition toward an “ecological imaginary,” as they say in the environmental humanities.

Because this effort represents such a big shift in the way we see the world, Bateson was ahead of his time. Yes, he crossed disciplines, but there were so few doing what he was doing, it was hard to find others who could appreciate his work. One effect of the insulation of disciplines is that people inside become closed off to ideas from outside. For Bateson, the result was that he often found a more receptive audience, say, when he spoke to mathematicians about biology than he did when he spoke to biologists about biology.

In regard to reaching out to communities, your question speaks to the basic narrative concerning Bateson’s life that I tell in the book. In the 1960s, Bateson is reaching out, trying to find people to share his ideas with, to bounce them off of, like all idea people need to do. He finds a receptive audience in the insurgent youth nation of the 1960s. These folks are very much in the midst of enacting, consciously and semi-consciously, the transition I’m talking about. As I tell it, Bateson and his audience find each other.

Assay (D’Aoust): Your introduction is titled, “Gregory Bateson and the Spirit of 1967,” and your book sets the stage of a “London moment,” using Allen Ginsberg’s attendance at a conference in London, where Ginsberg heard Gregory Bateson speak, to introduce Bateson himself. You have such an astute ability to reference literature in the book, which provides context. If I might add, I was born in 1967. During that time, my mother was working for Carl Rogers, arguably another one of the influential thinkers of that era, and my father was finishing a Ph.D. in biology from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. I grew up knowing Gregory Bateson’s name, but many people, as you suggest in the book’s “Introduction,” don’t know Bateson. By way of introduction, you write:

By shifting attention from social crisis to environmental crisis, [Gregory] Bateson gave his audience a kind of keyhole through which to glimpse this new ‘postmodern’ science of complexity and interrelatedness and, in turn, a new accounting of reality. That new accounting suggested not greater autonomy but greater responsibility. It emphasized not emancipation but dependence.

Among many other threads, throughout the book your scholarship conveys the intersection of ideas and references our contemporary moment of climate chaos in profound ways. All this is possible, I think, because of your fantastic skill as a writer. Runaway is crafted; all the research is there, and it is a story and contains stories. Might you talk about the craft of writing this book, particularly with your background as a scholar, writer, teacher, and a musician?

Chaney: How nice to be able to speak about craft, particularly because my training as a writer is from the fine arts side. I always thought about writing the way I thought about music or visual art. An artist’s job is to create an aesthetic experience. Artists strive to charm their audiences, to touch their audiences emotionally, to press their buttons, to break through and engage them.

images2I started out reading novels, mostly, and considered novels the preeminent literary form. But I remember the first real history of ideas that I read. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just picked it up at a take-one-leave-one shelf at the apartment complex of a friend. The title intrigued me: The Culture of Narcissism. (It had been a big book in the late seventies, I later learned, in some ways influential on Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech.) In any case, that book knocked me out. It hit a lot of the same buttons that novels hit. Again, this had something to do with interdisciplinarity. Scholarly books I’d read in college were all safely within their own particular disciplines. But the writer of this book, Christopher Lasch, mixed history, philosophy, literature, film, social science, and politics. This umbrella approach opened me up to thinking about events and ideas contextually.

But again, I came at writing the book not primarily to document some body of knowledge, as a scholar might. I aimed to create a compelling reading experience around a set of events, people, texts, and ideas. I shaped it with a couple of big narrative arcs. One I already mentioned, about Bateson finding his audience. The other is about the double bind itself, its career, so to speak, as a cultural concept. It starts out in the mid-1950s as a way to think about schizophrenia as a pathology not inside some individual’s body but in their relational environment. Bateson refines the concept, develops it; it resonates with and echoes numerous other contemporary ideas. By the summer of 1967, Bateson invokes some version of it in talking about “the greenhouse effect” to a group of counterculturalists and revolutionaries in London. This may be the first time the prospect of climate change is put before a lay audience. And here the double bind is used as it is often used today in the discourse of ecological crisis—the wicked dilemmas and feedback loops that mock our most common sense efforts.

Those are the two big stories, and I’m glad you noticed the smaller ones, too. Every section of every chapter was crafted narratively to keep a reader interested and turning pages. Few if any characters or ideas are introduced that don’t show up again later to make another contribution to the plot or to have their moment of resolution.

Assay (D’Aoust): You use “Bateson’s life and work to explore the idea that a postmodern ecological consciousness is the true legacy of the [Sixties] decade.” Specifically with reference to the challenges we face with global climate chaos and disruption, and how to bring those facts into the classroom, what impact does Bateson, and by extension your book, have for our understanding of “ecological consciousness”?

Chaney: Everyone knows about climate change. Everyone grasps ecological crisis; we’ve known that for at least fifty years. Yet it still packs the punch that it did the first time, maybe even more so, since we’re now experiencing the consequences of climate change not only in our weather but in our politics. Many of today’s refugees are climate change refugees, are fossil fuel industry refugees. We look around to the old industrialized countries of the West. Many are adopting what one commentator has called “armed lifeboat” policies. Our current president advocates such policies. His presidency is, to a large degree, a manifestation of the politics of climate change.

What example are those of us who have been around a while setting for our students and our children? What are they learning from us other than to avoid looking at or talking about the most important problem we face?

My claim is that the topic is so painful and so disruptive to our most foundational ideas that it can’t bear a prolonged gaze. It seems to me that paralyzing despair and outright denial are both part of the emotional force field that won’t let us give our predicament the sustained contemplation that it requires. I think it was Hannah Arendt who said that anything can be borne if you can tell a story about it. The story I tell happens in the past; we see historical figures confronting and recoiling from these issues for the first time. We can think about the meaning of climate change at a remove. If we can do this, maybe we can dismantle the force field and not be so afraid.

Assay (D’Aoust): You write about multiple threads at once and you juggle the interconnectedness of things. You write:

Bateson’s belief was that the new science of complexity and interrelatedness allowed people to think and talk about things such as their relationship with their ecology, war, psychological pain, and right and wrong with scientific rigor, without resorting to mysticism or moral preachments. Bateson insisted that depictions of reality were self-reflective and reinforcing, and so if people accounted for the reality beyond themselves as material, amoral, and mindless, then they would account for themselves as amoral mindless machines. But if people attributed to the reality beyond themselves the complexities of mind, they would not strip out from their analysis issues of right and wrong, and an account of themselves as moral beings would follow suit.

Would you share how you found your subject?

Chaney: After reading the Christopher Lasch book, I read another one that took up the topic of Gregory Bateson and discussed his ideas in a critical way. I enjoyed reading Lasch–that didn’t mean I believed everything he said. I decided to look into Bateson myself.

imagesBateson’s book Mind and Nature gave me my first glimpse of the science of complexity and interrelatedness—or, as Jeremy Lent has recently called it, “the systems view of life.” This is not Bateson’s science alone–far from it. The ideas of the transition I mentioned earlier are much bigger than any one thinker or scientist. Bateson’s contribution was partly that he was a terrific writer and could communicate with non-experts like me.

There’s that famous line by Henry Adams about how he was a Darwinist “before the letter.” I think many people who read Bateson are Batesonians before the letter. He articulates a perspective that we already know because by now the ecological imaginary reaches far into mainstream thinking. But that doesn’t mean we can put it into words. That doesn’t mean we can grasp the corrosion that occurs between this new way of thinking and the old ways that are still very much a part of us—and especially of our political and economic institutions.

Assay (D’Aoust): To finish, since our readers are teachers and writers and scholars, I’m wondering if you have suggestions about the balance between academic research, writing, and teaching. How does your creative training in writing and music intersect with and support your scholarship? There is an awesome picture toward the end of the book of Bateson with what looks like the sculptural art of an enormous ear, but it’s actually “his underwater listening device.” To me that photograph sums up the emphasis you place on listening in Runaway. You and Bateson seem like very good listeners.

Chaney: Thank you, Renee, I hope that’s true. I enjoy teaching and I try to be good at it, but creative work–which must of course include input–is what it’s all about for me. I’ve always made a place for it and done what I had to do to support it. I spent eight years on this book, and I could have written it in less than half the time if I hadn’t also had to make a living. I’m sure your readers can relate. So my only advice is the same advice I’ll pass on to my teenage children. “Keep a low overhead.” I think Buddhism and stoicism both arrived at a similar conclusion.

Assay (D’Aoust): Thank you so much for your time—and for Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness!

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnthony Bart Chaney teaches history and writing at the University of North Texas at Dallas and blogs mostly on environmental issues for the Society for US Intellectual History. He plays bass and write songs for the long-time Dallas band, Lucky Pierres. He’s published personal essays in a number of literary journals, in paper and online, including The New Orleans Review, Reed Magazine, and Chautaqua Review. Here is a link to his blog: https://anthonychaney.com/

 

 

Editor’s Notes:

Visit the National Endowment for the Humanities here.

Visit the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute here.

Gail Hosking–A Conversation on Leaving the University: Getting to a New Shore With One Old Paddle and One New One I Haven’t Found Yet

“You must take up your oar and go on a journey.”

Tiresias to Odysseus

The quiet, but fidgety Chinese-American student who sits next to the classroom wall sneaking a peak at his cell phone now and then, chooses the subject of Donald Trump for his final research paper in the freshman writing course I’m teaching. His first draft is full of name-calling, like an eager bombast. “Tony,” I say with my instructional smile. “Tony, you can’t do this. This is a rant, not a conversation.” He freezes his eyes on me like he’s expecting an unwanted lecture on the one hand, and desiring direction on the other hand. “An academic paper,” I continue, “is above all else a dialogue, not a tirade. It’s a journey in which you explore the subject and move it forward. He listens and smiles his 18-year-old smile as I keep talking. “Get away from yes-no natter.”

“Ok,” he agrees as he collects his backpack to leave. “I’ll try.”

After several drafts, peer workshops and feedback from me, after they have all handed in a final paper, each student gives a short talk about his or her research exploration. The rest of the class asks questions afterward.

When queried by a peer why Donald Trump was his selected topic, Tony turns to the class and points to himself. “Look at me,” he begins as he jabs his finger into his chest with each phrase. “I’m Chinese, I’m an immigrant, and I’m gay.”

He has our attention.

“I’m like those Mexicans Trump’s trying to keep out with his wall,” Tony continues. As the students ask further questions, an inquisitive interest fills the room.

This moment of honesty and investigation is what I’m going for five days a week at a technical university where I teach writing. It’s an enormous leap from “yeah, I’ll do a research paper, whatever,” to some personal connection that leaves students amazed with a desire to understand more. The change of purpose demands their participation in a conversation the world needs.

When asked what I do at the university, I often answer: “I’m a missionary.” I say it jokingly but it’s the truth of sorts, though I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything. My goal is not to turn technology majors into liberal arts majors, or engineers into artists. I am trying, rather, to pull students both inward and then outward toward the world. I’m trying to marry technology to the questions of humanity. At the same time what I’m really trying to do is broaden their understanding and comfort with complexities—to get away from a bi-polar understanding of the world—it’s this or that, black or white—and in doing so hopefully, expand their acceptance of self and other. I’m trying to get them to see that as educated people, they must be a part of these larger, complicated conversations.

imageI love to teach. I love all its details, all its results. I knew early on that teaching would be my life’s work. As a child I often played school, with me always the teacher insisting my students learn. On the army bases where I grew up, our teachers were civilians, and I thought they were gods. I wanted to be like them. I have been teaching since I left college. But little did I know that I would also fall in love with writing some day, and that part of me would grow and blossom. I did not yet understand my strong yearning to shape experiences into coherent thought, nor did I take into account my artistic nature.

Emerson wrote that God comes to us without a bell. And lately without a sound, a growing desire for this other half of my sky—the writer in me—has emerged with a force and feels in conflict with the time needed to do a good job at the university. In the fifteen years I’ve been in academia, the demands have increased with closer assessments, bigger teaching loads and more administrative demands. It’s a kind of grit in my shoe. The tension of such a schedule eats away at me. I consider leaving.

I watch the ink on this paper leave its mark across the page, and for a moment it all feels like magic: the pen, these words, the tide I’m watching come in and slowly return to shore. I ponder what I ask my students to do, which is to keep the emphasis on the grand experiment we call life. Right now I ask myself, as I ask them when they begin to write, to imagine a journey without knowing the outcome.

As friends and family die, time has become more and more precious. Just this morning I found out that the author of Dispatches, Michael Herr—an author I greatly admired—has died at the age of 76. Once, I spoke to him on the phone about his powerful book on Viet Nam, and he told me that after many accolades for his publications and movie scripts, he left that behind for work and study at a Buddhist temple. In his coarse New York accent, he explained as best he could about walking away from one world and into another. “I got off my high horse,” he simply said. By which I thought he meant he stopped clinging to his ego.

I think about this as I consider giving up the recognition and security I receive at the university. With anguish about leaving academia sooner than I had planned, a battle rages inside my head with shame for letting people down, and terror of the unknown. It is easier to stay with the familiar task of semesters than to make a leap of faith. Easier to cling to the shore for security rather than risk letting the river carry me down stream to unknown destinations. Some days as I contemplate my decision, my chest feels like a fist resides in my sternum.

How many times have I asked my students to be curious about what’s next? “Make room for what you do not yet understand,” I’ve said with tender concern for their wellbeing. When they begin their research papers, I tell them, they will have little idea where it might lead and that they must give up insisting they know ahead of time. It takes an entire semester for this to happen. Just as importantly, it takes time for them to believe again that they have permission to ask questions and to change midstream. I show them that the writing exploration is not just a utilitarian skill, but offers tools for critical reflection. As the poet Richard Hugo once wrote, “Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”

As I consider leaving, I feel like a stranger entering the once-forbidden land of self on the myriad of army bases where I grew up. There the mission came first, and as a soldier’s daughter I was not to have my own desires. Now, I find a sticky attachment to this story of safety within the fortress, be it an army base or a university campus. When I press against these invisible forces of my past, I feel an enormous resistance. What comes up in its own somatic silent way feels like a kind of control from an establishment pushing against my artistic imaginings. In this liminal space between the past and the future, I am in need of trust and confidence.

IMG_9964In a coffee shop on the last day before I must sign my academic contract for the upcoming school year, or not, I feel the urge to hold on to a familiar place. The narrative arc of semesters holds me there as my pen pauses and my body fills with run-away anxiety. I do my best to pat the nervous concerns like I might a swaddled infant. Around me other writers type at their computers while people talk across tables as if trying to solve the world’s problems. I pause and look up, then back to this paper, then out the window into the distance. Am I refusing the promises of the next season? I wonder.

Later as I am talking with a friend about my intense fretful apprehensions, the acronym AWOL (absent without leave) comes to mind. And when I say it out loud, I burst into tears. “I have abandoned the mission,” I say with a force that surprises us both. A seam has burst and goes straight to the heart of the continued struggle to leave the university or not. The past spills out in front of me. I can hear my long-gone soldier-father telling me to never abandon the mission. Powerful words for a young girl learning to please.

My friend asks me if soldiers ever get missions that end, only to begin new ones. As I let that concept enter my consciousness, my body begins to relax. The sensations around my heart loosen for the first time in months. It is only with this exchange that I realize my new purpose. I want to write with the same cogency I brought to the university. I want to go on teaching in new ways, to pay a different kind of attention to the world now. This is the journey I send my students on: to discover what is not yet known. “Sometimes, “ I tell them, “you don’t know why you have chosen a particular subject. Time and patience will help you unearth those answers.” They stare at me with uncertainty.

The truth is that I gave my all to the university. I went every day with as much grace as I could find even when it was difficult. I found creative ways to understand and teach as I led my students on new paths. Now, inside life’s ambiguities, I am rowing through a stream of new questions without knowing what I’ll find as I turn the bend. I am connecting with what doesn’t die before I die.

By evening I will have written the resignation letter and said what I was once sure would be impossible to say: I’m not coming back. The letter will only hint at the powerful undercurrents in this emotional, personal decision. As I said to Tony about his work, in the end each inquiry is a journey. My conversation here has turned into a meditation on change and desire, nothing I planned in advance.

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When I look back to what I was asking Tony to do, I see that I wanted him to trust his own intellect and then to let his questions guide him through what he found in his complex research. I was asking him to reach beyond what he thought he knew—a difficult, sometimes impossible, human leap—and above all else, to keep his mind open.

Eventually when I return to my office to box up a big stack of books and folders, and to go through the remnants of a daily teaching life, I will stand next to my desk weeping. It will look like I’ve made the wrong decision. And maybe I have, but maybe not. That is the ongoing question my life must speak in its own way. I know already that I won’t miss meetings, agendas and merit reviews. I won’t miss the early morning hours sacrificed for others, the late afternoons at my desk. I won’t miss surrendering my own writing, coming home exhausted. But September will be difficult with muscle memory that feels compelled to prepare syllabi, to memorize new names, to ask questions and to wait for answers. When I hear the news on the radio or read something new, I will, out of habit, be framing an assignment.

When my friends bring their enthusiasm for the word “retirement,” I wince at the term. I find myself shooing this casual term away like an unwanted mosquito. I explain that no, it’s not an actual retirement in the language of Human Resources. I’m simply leaving this particular job. My friends can see the visible existential dread on my face, and are not sure what to say next other than to repeat, “Oh, you will love retirement.”

This morning at my computer, I am alone and feeling it. I sit and stare out the window through a purple orchid on the windowsill. I hear in the distance the traffic going down the street, and when that calms, I hear birds in their early morning feedings on the giant oak along the fence. I feel a warm breeze come through the open window and then gently down from the ceiling fan. I am thinking back to Tony when I asked him what it was he wanted to explore. “What bewilders you?”

I hope he heard me say, “This is your moment. Go for it.”

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Image 2Gail Hosking is the author of the memoir Snake’s Daughter (University of Iowa Press) and poetry chapbook The Tug (Finishing Line Press). Her essays and poetry have been widely published and anthologized. She is a teacher and editor living in upstate New York. She taught at Rochester Institute of Technology for 15 years and holds an MFA from Bennington College.

Colin Hosten on My Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipaul

I often use the second semester of the first-year writing program where I teach as an opportunity to explore rhetoric through different forms of storytelling, including poetry. In particular, I include a short unit of creative nonfiction, primarily as a way to interrogate our expectations of and obligations to truth (whatever that means) in storytelling. I encourage my students to notice how a writer’s “voice” might change from fiction to creative nonfiction—or, more remarkably, how it might not change. V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage provides perfect fodder for our discussion.

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The book is a seminal example of modern travel writing, but I focus on the first two essays in which Naipaul, now living in London, makes the return voyage by sea to the West Indies—the middle passage—and arrives at his birthplace of Trinidad. The island is the backdrop for most of Naipaul’s fiction, including the linked stories of Miguel Street, told in first person by an unnamed narrator who treats the motley crew of characters on his titular street with unassuming respect and appreciation: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we who lived there saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-Man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.” But in returning to Port-of-Spain in The Middle Passage, Naipaul himself might have been one of those people dismissing it as mere slum, describing the country as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical.” He portrays the people as “unsure of themselves, having no taste or style of their own.”

Both of these versions of Trinidad seem so real when we read them. Which one is closer to the truth?

This line of questioning allows us to consider the role of storytelling in creative nonfiction, identifying the narrator as a device completely distinct from the writer. What we think of Naipaul the writer should not necessarily color how we read him as a writer. Usually, this idea seems obvious to my students, who are all sophisticated critical thinkers able to separate their emotional reactions from their intellectual work. At this point, I share some more background about Naipaul the writer. In addition to his often scathing, hyper-critical remarks about the West Indies, he has (in)famously said that women are prevented from being the literary equals of men because of their “sentimentality, their narrow view of the world.” Most of my students—and, I’d imagine, most rational people—disagree with this sentiment to the point of disgust.

At this point we read the essay again.

What’s different? How have our impressions changed or not changed? Here, I encourage my students to pay attention to the ways in which language is tied up in identities, how rhetoric can be used to project iterations of our selves onto the page and into the world. It’s a nuance of which I need to constantly remind myself. Naipaul has a complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature. But Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth. Reading Naipaul often leaves me feeling disconnected. I don’t understand how someone who writes so beautifully on the page could say such ugly things about the place where he was born.

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Yet I, too, left the island, and have not returned.

One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” In grad school, I wrote an essay that charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up a fossil fuel industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.

And that’s why I love teaching Naipaul’s essay. It reminds me and my students that reading can be complicated and conflicted. It helps me demonstrate the importance of critical reading that acknowledges and embraces the responsibility of the reader to be conscious of her own biases. Every time I read from The Middle Passage I learn something new, about writing, and about myself—which is ultimately what I want for my students.

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HostenColin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay Review, Essay Daily, OUT Magazine, Spry Literary, and the Brevity blog. He is a freelance children’s book writer and editor, and teaches in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.

Creighton Nicholas Brown: “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen'”

When I arrived at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, to register for my first semester as an undergraduate student, I was handed a copy of Neely Tucker’s Love in the Driest Season (2004), a memoir detailing the experiences of Tucker, a foreign correspondent, and his wife volunteering in an HIV/AIDS orphanage and the eventual adoption of their daughter. After I moved into the dorms, much of orientation was devoted not only to navigating my first year of college, but also to discussing the common book with my fellow orientation club members and our faculty advisor. Then, once classes were in full swing, we took a break for three days of symposium, which centered around the ideas presented in Tucker’s life narrative. National and international speakers came to campus to discuss global poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My early English professors worked the text into their classes juxtaposing Love in the Driest Season with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) to discuss the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or highlighting the theme of poverty to discuss hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

The goals of this long-established program, which mirror the mission of Concordia, is three-fold: to “stimulate an intellectual discussion among faculty and students,” “introduce students to academic life through a common read and academic discussion,” and most importantly for me as a student at the time, to “learn about issues that shape our world today and in the future.”[1] Reading Love in the Driest Season early in my undergraduate education deeply impacted my time at Concordia College and has continued to shape my scholarly activities and the work I do with my own students at the University of Kansas.

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Well-chosen common books have the power not only to foster faculty and student engagement across campus, but also they offer students an opportunity to critically think about their own subjectivities, the communities they inhabit, and how they can positively influence the affairs of the world through their vocations and civic engagement. Common books, particularly creative nonfiction, demonstrate the strength of narrative to provide alternative forms of knowledge often ignored by those in positions of power and connect the work we do specifically in the Humanities—and more broadly at the university—to issues facing us locally and globally, preparing students to be both critical readers and writers and ultimately civically engaged citizens.

* * *

My first fall as a doctoral student in the English Department coincided with the first year of the KU Common Book.[2] This was new campus-wide initiative aimed at providing in-coming freshmen with intellectual opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and foster critical thinking. Faculty and instructors were encouraged to work the text into their courses as appropriate. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (2009) was the inaugural choice.

After reading the first essay in her collection, “Time and Distance Overcome,” I was excited to teach Biss’s work in my first-year writing courses.[3] But as I worked my way through the rest of the essays during new GTA orientation, I realized the rest of the collection did not measure up to the first essay. I began to wonder how my students would connect with Notes from No Man’s Land, which to me registered as underdone meditations on heterosexual whiteness, particularly my students who did not identify as such.[4] I chose to teach “Time and Distance Overcome”—only.

The next three years featured one benign selection after another—none of which ever really spoke to the aspirational goals for the program as outlined by KU First-Year Experience and the selection committee. Each of these texts in their own way was glaringly white and did not address issues facing the campus or larger Lawrence, KS, community and did not unpack issues shaping the world my students would be entering after graduation. Then, after a particularly charged and quite-rightly confrontational Chancellor’s Town Hall responding to incidents of racial and gender discrimination and violence on campus, the new KU Common Book for Fall 2016 was announced: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015).[5] I was thrilled! I often use some of Coates’s long-form articles to discuss race, class, and gender in my composition classes. The committee had chosen a book that spoke to more than just my white students, bearing witness to systemic injustice and white privilege. Their choice was timely, and for me, marked the moment when the KU Common Book reached its full potential. I was on fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year, so I missed the opportunity to teach this important piece of epistolary creative nonfiction.

This year, however, I am back in the classroom and have loved every minute of working through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), this year’s KU Common Book selection, with my students. Similarly to my experiences teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), on the first day with the text my students grappled with—and many rejected—the sadness and anger presented episodically in the first section of Rankine’s lyric poem.[6] My mostly white students struggled with the toll that micro- and macroaggressions take on the everyday lives of nonwhite, non-heterosexual, non-cis-males. This led to a discussion in which we unpacked the title of Rankine’s collection and what it actually means to be a citizen of the United States. To underscore this, we worked through our founding documents, identifying the Three-Fifths Compromise, the absence of women, and the dismissal of Native Americans as “savage.” Using Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” we charted a brief history of blackness in America, moving from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction, from the rebirth of Klan in the early twentieth century to the Civil Rights Movement and ending with police violence and our contemporary political realities. This contextualization helped my students to stop resisting Rankine and begin to listen to what she is saying.

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On the second day with Citizen, as with A Small Place, my students began to explicate deftly the issue of white spaces in Rankine’s second section—my favorite as a reader. This section brings together Hennessy Youngman’s philosophy on the cost of black art for the artist with Serena Williams’s racialized experiences as an African American tennis player. Rankine takes inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston, who remarked, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” to describe Williams in this still predominantly white sport (25). The racism faced by Williams in three different—and very related—moments from her career opened up a discussion about heteronormative white spaces. We talked about classrooms and universities as traditionally white spaces and identified other spaces that historically privilege whiteness. I asked my students to think about times when they were the other in a particular place and what that felt like. After letting them freewrite for a bit, I asked for examples. My students hesitated, and after waiting patiently, I decided to tell my students about my experiences as a queer person entering new spaces, meeting new people, and always wondering who is safe and who might not be. This is the first time I have purposefully and overtly come out to my students during my teaching career. My example worked, and my students began to share their experiences. This section of Citizen and this activity connected our discussions of race, class, and gender in the classroom to the issues we are facing as a nation.

Over the next few class periods, my students eagerly engaged with the remaining sections of Citizen. Once we finished Rankine’s collection, my students began working on their proposals. My composition course has four major projects each building on the one before. They begin with their project proposals in which they outline an issue of race, class, or gender they would like to spend the rest of the semester researching and writing about, and move through annotated bibliographies, researched essays, and revisions of their researched essays into oral presentations. As my students are developing their individual topics of inquiry, I hold conferences to discuss their topics and help them focus and refine their inquiry questions. Again and again, my students remarked how their research interests stemmed from our discussions of Citizen and how that intersected with their individual major areas of study and future vocations.

I have never been prouder as a teacher: My students were connecting our work in my Humanities classroom to their studies in other fields and thinking about how this might be reflected in their future professional lives.

* * *

[1] You can read more about Concordia College’s Summer Book Read here: Summer Book Read.

[2] You can read more about the KU Common Book here: 2017 KU Common Book.

[3] You can read more about this particular essay here: Marissa Landrigan on Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”.

[4] You can read a positively different take on Biss and her titular essay here: Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss.

[5] The Chancellor’s Town Hall was also designed to respond to what was unfolding at the University of Missouri in the Fall of 2015.

[6] You can read my reflection on teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place here: My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

* * *

BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he’s completing his dissertation, (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. Creighton also serves as Contributing Editor and Social Media Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. He is both a Cobber and a Jayhawk. Creighton lives, writes, and dog-walks in Lawrence, KS.

Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series Returns!

Our “In the Classroom” series is back! At Assay, we’ve expanded members of our team to include senior editors and contributing editors. Welcome to our new Contributing Editors: Creighton Nicholas Brown, who has also taken over my duties as Social Media Editor (thank you!); Jennifer M. Dean; Micah McCrary; and welcome back to Taylor Brorby. We also welcome our new Senior Editors, who will be reading submissions to the main journal: Christine Cusick; Jenny Spinner; and Julija Šukys. Please take a look at our expanded group over at our masthead.

This upcoming academic year, we’ll continue to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” Look for columns from members of our expanded team. Next week, I’m excited to share with you Contributing Editor/Social Media Editor Creighton Nicholas Brown’s column “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.” This will be followed by a two-part interview/essay from Genia Blum reporting back from the NFNOW17 conference this past June in Iceland. At the end of the month, we’ll feature Colin Hosten’s “Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipau.”

We’re always looking for submissions to our “In the Classroom” series and to our main journal. While our focus is nonfiction, we’d love to hear about interdisciplinary approaches to writing. Or perhaps you’re primarily a poet and poetry teacher/writer, but you have a favorite essay you read and teach. We’d love to read about it.

Here are our general guidelines for teachers and writers for “In the Classroom” submissions:

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You can access all Assay’s submission guidelines here.

You can submit via our spiffy Submittable page here.

We would love to feature undergraduate and graduate writers. As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or imageresponse papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

Thanks to all of you who have sent “In the Classroom” submissions already and in the past. Please keep them coming. If there is something we can provide to support your reading, writing, and teaching, please let us know.

Remember: we’re always considering work for our main journal.

With gratitude,

Renée

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Renee DAoustManaging Editor Renée E. D’Aoust’s essay collection Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. www.reneedaoust.com

Gail Riekie—Of its time and for all times: Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle”

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“I believe we are all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found in Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country attractive. I look back to one bright spot, and that is Waimate, with its Christian inhabitants.”—Charles Darwin

Thus Charles Darwin concludes the Chapter XX of The Voyage of the Beagle, his account, written for a general audience, of the five years he spent as the appointed Naturalist on the Beagle expedition. In this time the ship circumnavigated the entire globe, but its main objective was to survey uncharted stretches of the South American coast. Darwin spent the greater part of his time on land investigating the natural history of what is now Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

The Voyage of the Beagle provides a fascinating picture of the world as it appeared to a young Englishman in the 1830s. We also gain insights into the early attitudes and thinking of one of the most influential scientists of all time. It is clear from the passage quoted above that this is no dull scientific account, despite the subtitle “Journal of Researches.” Certainly, The Voyage of the Beagle contains substantial sections on geology and natural history, some of which the non-specialist may find heavy going, but for the most part Darwin’s lively, engaging and wide-ranging curiosity about the places he encounters make him a fascinating travel companion.

The Voyage of the Beagle was written over twenty years before Darwin finally published The Origin of Species, his seminal work on the theory of evolution by natural selection, but one inevitably also reads The Voyage of the Beagle text alert for hints of his nascent thinking on the subject.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 to an English close-knit family of considerable social standing. His father and grandfather were both doctors. Initially Darwin too studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but he neglected his studies in favour of his passion for natural history. His father then dispatched Darwin to Cambridge University to study for the Church, with the idea that as a country vicar he might pursue his interest in beetles while maintaining a respectable position in society. Through contacts made at Cambridge, Darwin, aged only twenty two, was invited to join the survey ship, the Beagle, both as a naturalist and also because he was deemed a suitable companion for the Robert Fitzroy, the ship’s captain.

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Darwin’s youth and enthusiasm for new experiences are evident in The Voyage of the Beagle from his comments on the Cape Verde islands in the book’s very first paragraph:

“The scene …. is one of great interest; if, indeed, a person, fresh from the sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.”

A few pages later on landing in at Bahia in Brazil:

“The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, is weak term to express the feelings of the naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.”

In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s South American adventures include several expeditions with gauchos in wilds of Patagonia, where attacks by the indigenous population are a constant threat. In a town near Buenos Aires, he finds himself in the midst of a real live revolution, which he drily notes “was supported by scarcely any pretext for grievances.” Encounters with “savages” in Tierra del Fuego prompt him to marvel at what he sees as “the gap between savage and civilized man.” In Chile he experiences a severe earthquake and its aftermath, and on Tahiti he is taken on a frighteningly precipitous mountain ascent.

It is clear from the outset that we are in the company of an exceptionally lively, inquisitive mind, passionate about natural history in the broadest sense. In drawing a comparison between ‘civilized man’ and ‘savage’ Darwin deploys both language and the concepts that we would not use today but that were part of the educated discourse of his time. Much has been written elsewhere on the topic of Darwin and racism, especially in the context of his later works (e.g. ‘The Descent of Man’). The point about The Voyage of the Beagle that I want to stress in this piece is how Darwin is interested observing and explaining the behaviour of everything he saw on his life-changing voyage—lizards, tortoises, earthquakes, Fuegian natives. The scope is astounding. We also see how Darwin combined his immense curiosity and capacity for detailed study with an ability to hypothesize and seek explanations on a grand scale. Thus we are treated to glimpses of the traits that led to later scientific greatness.

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Giant Tortoise, photo credit Vince Smith

What might surprise the reader who thinks of Darwin primarily as a zoologist is how much space in The Voyage of the Beagle is devoted to geological observation and theorising. Certain sections may be a tough read for the non-expert, but the interest of these passages lies in what they reveal about Darwin’s ways of thinking about science, and his capacity to see both the wood and the trees. Darwin studies in detail the sedimentary rocks along the Patagonian coastline, and dwells at length on evidence that the land has been gradually uplifted through time. He then muses on why the fossils of mammals he has inspected in the rocks of the Buenos Aires region are distinct from related mammalian fossils reported from North America:

“The geologist who believes in considerable oscillations of level in the crust of the globe within recent periods, will not fear to speculate either on the elevation of the Mexican platform, as a cause of the distinction….”

Of course Darwin does also provide plenty of vivid descriptions of the flora and, especially the fauna he encounters. His writings from the Galapagos Islands, where the local wildlife have yet to learn to fear humans, show him also having great fun. One moment he is riding on the back of a giant tortoise, next he is throwing a lizard into a deep tidal pool to investigate its response. When Darwin spots another lizard digging a hole, he reports:

“I then walked up and pulled it by the tail; at this it was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared at me in the face, as much as to say, ‘What made you pull my tail?’”

He is particularly struck by the tameness of the bird population:

“There is not one which will not approach sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I have myself tried, with a cap or a hat. A gun here is almost superfluous; for with the muzzle of one I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.”

But this being Darwin, the remarkable tameness of the Galapagos fauna is not merely observed and described, it becomes the starting point for speculation about broader concepts of instinct versus learned behaviour and the mechanism of heredity.

“With domesticated animals we are accustomed to see instincts becoming hereditary; but with those in a state of nature, it is much more rare to discover instances of such acquired knowledge. In regard to the wildness of birds towards men, there is no other way of accounting for it.”

Darwin brings the prejudices of his time, but also his scientist’s desire for rational explanation, to his descriptions of the ‘natives’ he encounters. He finds that the New Zealanders’ practice of tattooing and facial markings “gives a disagreeable expression to their countenances” but he also recognises that “…it is moreover probable that the deep incisions, by destroying the play of the superficial muscles, give an air of rigid inflexibility”. He calls the Fuegians “ludicrous” (and worse) but he also comments on their considerable talents for mimicry, and wonders how and why they developed this capability.

The fact that Darwin was raised in a society rigidly divided by class is evident from his condescending comments about social relations among the South American colonists:

“Many officers in the army can neither read nor write, yet all meet in society as equals. In Entre Rios, the Sala consisted of only six representatives. One of them kept a common shop, and evidently was not degraded by the office.”

The extent to which Darwin believed in God continues to be the topic of academic debate. That he was at best an agnostic is clear. When, as in the generally disparaging comments about New Zealand quoted at the start of this essay, Darwin praises Christianity in ‘Beagle’, it is because he sees it as a practical means of advancing ‘civilisation’ rather than in spiritual terms. Perhaps he gives a hint of his true thoughts on religion when he speculates on the reasons that the Australian and American fauna differs so markedly:

“An unbeliever in everything but his own reason might exclaim, ‘Two distinct Creators must have been at work’.”

Is Darwin that “unbeliever”?

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One thing that The Voyage of the Beagle most emphatically is not, despite the book’s title, is an account of maritime adventures. The reader hoping for an account rich in detail of life aboard an 1830s century survey vessel will be disappointed. The truth is that Darwin suffered grievously from seasickness throughout the voyage, and his determination to spend as much of his time as possible on land was not purely motivated by the pursuit of science. Towards the end of the voyage he asks, rhetorically:

“And what are the glories of the illimitable ocean?”

Although Darwin spares the reader the details of his tribulations at sea, he also at no point attempts to portray himself in any way as the heroic adventurer – and not for any shortage of material. To my mind, this is ultimately one of the most engaging aspects of the book. Darwin surely ranks today as one of the most brilliant minds our species has ever produced, and in Beagle he has given us what feels like an honest, unspun account of his impressions and his thinking in the crucial formative five year period when his world-changing ideas began to take shape.

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GailandBertieGail Riekie is a geoscientist with a lengthy professional background in both academia and the energy industry. For her PhD, undertaken as a ‘super-mature’ student, she investigated methane emissions from boggy soils, and followed this with a stint as Associate Lecturer in Earth Science at the Open University. In the next phase of life, she plans to focus more on her writing, aspiring to convey the creativity and richness of the scientific endeavour. Gail lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, with her wire fox terrier Bertie (with whom she is more than happy to share a distant mammalian ancestor).

Read “A Close Encounter with Dr. Trump,” at Aberdeen Voice.

Read Gail’s Bouncing Bertie’s Blog, here.

 

FREUDENSCHANDE: PRIV(AC)Y — by Heidi Czerwiec

FREUDENSCHANDE [1]: PRIV(AC)Y

Is there a word for the unsettling sensation of sitting down on an unexpectedly warm toilet seat, because someone used it just before you and sat there for a good long while? Maybe something in German?

Unheimlichgesitzenüberraschung [2]

Usually the cool, even cold, of a seat is itself startling, which is why our society has installed carseat heaters in vehicles, or why the tricked-out Japanese toilets like the Neorest 600 feature pre-warmed seats to accommodate your commode comfort. Accommodating. So, if we prefer warmth, why is this experience so unnerving?

Schrecklichwarmsitzplatzgefühl [3]

It’s unnerving anywhere, but never more so than in a public restroom – a sudden, unwanted reminder that we’re all sharing the same facilities, as much as we try to ignore it or pretend otherwise. The tear of a tampon wrapper. The multiple unspoolings of toilet paper, indicating a number two, a code brown. A strategically-timed sniff or cough to cover a fart. Stinks that arise, that you feel implicated in, even if you weren’t the instigator, when a newcomer enters to a wall of smell just as you’re washing your hands.

Unerwartethindenhitze [4]

The public privy is an uncomfortable, even unwanted reality check on the illusion of privacy. An odd communion in reverse, based not on breaking bread together, but on shedding it. And the unexpected seat warmth is a weird intimacy physically imposed upon us by strangers. A stranger’s private space has intruded upon ours, a stranger’s privates previously pressed to the same place as our privates. Deprived. A piracy of privacy.

Heißefremdenhinternsitz [5]

And yet, this physically-imposed intimacy is physics. More specifically, thermodynamics. In conduction, heat energy flows from the warmer to the cooler object, the faster-moving hot molecules colliding with slower, colder molecules until they arrive at the same temperature together, vibrating in unison.

Unbequemischintimität [6]

It’s not that different from nonfiction – sharing intimacy with a stranger. Whether you’re the writer or reader, intimacies and empathies and energies are flowing between you, across the text, connecting you in ways neither of you expected. Only connect.

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But “intimacy” isn’t quite right, either. It’s too pretty, with its connotations of a welcome secret, an inside joke, a delicious confession/confection shared between friends, intimates. In much of nonfiction, we are welcomed as confidantes, or at least allowed as sympathetic eavesdroppers.

Belichtungschande [7]

No, what I’m describing is exposure at our most vulnerable. A sense of shame. Some nonfiction shares its author’s shame, a shitshow we’re invited to witness – not always well-done, not always as welcome. Shock is not shame, nor necessarily confession. But when done well, we feel blessed by the gift of shame shifted to us, a shared burden therefore lessened. We call it brave and we mean both of us, writer and reader, for facing it. We find its face human.

Both experiences – nonfiction and toilet seat – can be weird, even gross. But ultimately human, even sublimely so.

Which is why I praise you, unseen sitter, unmoved bowel mover who, in the course of your courses, shared your warmth with me, intentionally or no. I praise the warmth itself, offered freely, uncommodified, proof of your movement, moving me at the molecular physical level, and at the metaphysical. And I praise you, reader, with whom I in turn share my warmth, breaking the illusion of privacy, breaking the fourth (stall) wall, to convey this, a love commodious, to you.

[1] Joyful-shame

[2] Weird-sitting-surprise

[3] Horrible-warm-butt-feeling

[4] Unexpected-butt-heat

[5] Hot-stranger-butt-seat (not in a good way)

[6] Unwanted-intimacy

[7] Shame-of-exposure

 

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HeidiHeidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches with The Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and works with Motionpoems. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.

 

Megan McInerney writes about Charles Bowden’s “On the Edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives, and the Outlaws”

* Note: Bowden’s essay originally appeared (in excerpted form, here) in High Country News (2014), and was published as a chapter in the book Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century (2015) by John A. Murray. It is recommended that readers listen to Ives’ first piano sonata before reading Bowden’s essay.

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Charles Bowden was one of the fiercest literary voices to emerge from the American Southwest. Readers and aspiring writers alike stand to benefit from careful attention to the way he weds form to content in this essay and the qualities that lend his voice such a powerful presence on the page. The essay blew me away the first time I encountered it. It grabs me in a visceral way, sweeps me up in its discordant musicality, its painstaking questioning, its vivid, haunting imagery. It leaves me feeling as if I’ve been hit with a brick of truth, the magnitude of which I can’t quite absorb.

This was one of the last essays Bowden ever wrote and it brings his talent as a writer and voice of harsh truth into high relief. It’s about dissonance, about the impossible predicament we’re in as a species on this planet, and about the search for meaning and beauty in the midst of so much noise and chaos.

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In just under 2,000 words, Bowden crafts an essay with rhythmic language and form that mimic Charles Ives’ first piano sonata. His powerful metaphors draw connections between the human and natural world, revealing Bowden’s complex questions and insights about the moral dilemma facing us as individuals, as a nation, and as a species.

Dissonance refers to a lack of harmony among musical notes, a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious elements. On a thematic level, the notion of dissonance is integral to Bowden’s essay; he invites the reader on a journey through the Southwest landscape and his own mind as he struggles to make sense of two conflicting desires: to help immigrants along the Mexico border, and to protect the wildlife and natural habitat that suffer from a swelling human population. Bowden realizes that he can’t do both at once, but like a wolf trapped in a snare, he wrestles with how to escape this predicament.

In the essay’s opening lines, Bowden confesses that he’s decided to give American composer Charles Ives a second chance. Despite the fact that “for years, I heard nothing but noise,” he wants to know whether he still disagrees with his friend Ed Abbey, who saw brilliance in Ives’ music. This is an important rhetorical move to set up the essay, because as readers we, too, are suddenly keen on discovering whether there’s something worth hearing.

Bowden goes on to discuss an essay of Abbey’s that “begins with a roar” and “gets louder, railing against all immigration and its contribution to overpopulation.” Bowden says, “Ives blasts in my head, and I can hear Ed’s voice chastising me.” By setting up these comparisons at the beginning, the reader understands that Bowden is searching for meaning in Ives’ music, and that in doing so, he’s also examining whether he agrees with Ed Abbey, whose stance on immigration was based on what Bowden calls “an argument without a heart.”

Like Ives’ music, Bowden’s essay opens slowly and softly, in a quiet voice, and roots us in scene near the Sonora/Arizona border, a place of human migration and drug trafficking for “the drugs humans need to face their dread.” He establishes a tone of despair, and he’s introspective as he wanders along the creek, armed with ‘binoculars and a bird book.” Yet Bowden’s voice — and the essay — grow steadily louder and more desperate throughout the piece. We hear Ives’ music and Abbey’s voice blast in Bowden’s head as he wrestles with the fact that when it comes to human migration, drug trafficking and trying to protect grizzly bears or beleaguered wolves, “things are not simple.”

Three quarters of the way through, Bowden’s essay erupts into a chaotic crescendo, in the section that begins “I am crazed about cranes.” The rhythm changes as Bowden’s tone and syntax become increasingly urgent, almost panicked, in the lines describing the inevitable knock on his door:

The wingbeats, Ives, I think, Ed, you were on to something with this Ives stuff, and the cranes beat overhead, and there is a knock at the door, and this is not heaven’s door, no, this is my door and a poor face looks at me with hunger eyes and my God there is no room in the house and I look past the face at a battered land, the ground on fire, the streams boiling, the sky black with dread, birds falling dead from the heavens and I should say no.

At this point, Bowden’s voice is blasting in the reader’s head. His sentences grow long and chaotic, mimicking Ives’ “hard low notes” that clang and a sound that “flows but halts and then leaps, marches then ambles.” This creates a heightened emotional experience for the reader, who can hear and feel the discordant notes of Ives’ music and the brimming urgency of the questions Bowden grapples with.

After the crescendo, the calm arrives. In the first lines of the next section, music lingers in Bowden’s mind and “the door is open, a summer breeze rustles the cottonwoods, the ash, the sycamores along the creek.” It’s a serene, quiet moment where beauty sneaks in: “Then, amidst the clatter of the sonata, I hear the quiet and watch a full-grown bobcat stroll past the French doors as if nothing exists save his beauty.” Bowden’s essay — his coda — falls to a fading note, with Bowden standing in a valley near the border, remembering the region’s last wolf run and lamenting that “everything I need and love is now an outlaw.”

There’s a sense of vanishing, of disappearance, of a desperate last attempt to save what’s worth saving. In the essay’s final lines, this is precisely what Bowden tries to do, against all rational argument and reasoning. With Ives still banging away at the piano in the background, Bowden confesses, “My God, he’s good. Ed, you were right. We gotta get Ives into the lifeboat” and of the migrant woman knocking at the door, Bowden says, “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.” It’s a definitive statement and moral stance.

As for the significance of Ives’ music in the essay, the answer takes shape for me in the following lines, where Bowden compares Ives’ piano sonata to sandhill cranes passing overhead — “a measured thing against eternity.” The sonata and the cranes — which have the oldest fossil history of any bird — represent a contrast to the ephemeral quality of human life. Ives music is “a noise that becomes notes and then somehow becomes beauty with warring chords banging against each other, old hymns erupting and vanishing again” and what emerges is a pattern delineating human civilization on the earth as if from a birds eye view. We’re in the eruption phase, Bowden would argue, with the world’s population spinning wildly out of control, and the result is a discordant mess. Ives’ music embodies the reality of discordance, of harsh truths, of beauty and death, all at once. There is no justice for the wolf or the Mexican girl.

Music relies upon measured pace and rhythm — like good writing, like sustainable population growth. Ives and Bowden seek meaning and beauty in dissonance, but the lingering question we’re left with as readers is whether there’s any hope to be had for a dissonant world. Even Bowden himself, who devoted his life to writing, admits, “Look into the eyes of a frightened Mexican girl in the desert trying to reach her people in some small town in America and all the clever words fall into the dust.” Bowden forces his reader to consider the role of words and writing. It’s important to note that the essay ends not with a thought or a lasting image, but a concrete action: “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.”

Eerily enough, after writing an essay that concludes with a rhetorical move acknowledging the possibility that the lifeboat he’s on may sink, Bowden himself passed away.

Bowden brought dissonance and uncomfortable truths to the page. It seems only fitting that he chose to frame this essay with a piece of music that many, including Bowden at first, cringe upon hearing. Why do we listen to music? Often, it’s to escape or indulge in pleasant sounds. Music makes us feel good. We tend to ignore what we don’t like or want to hear. The same might be said, at times, about writing. It’s no wonder Ed Abbey and Charles Bowden, two writers committed to bringing their raw, abrasive voices to bear upon American society, found beauty and brilliance in Ives’ clanging, clattering sounds.

Like Ives’ piano sonatas, Bowden’s essay will haunt me for some time to come.

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1-Megan Bio Pic 2Megan McInerney is a writer and educator currently living in Missoula, Montana, where she is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Studies. She holds a B.A. from Reed College and an M.A. in Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English. Her work has also appeared in Camas: The Nature of the West and Flyway Journal of Writing & Environment.

Assay Interviews Deborah Poe

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Deborah Poe w/ Serra / Photo credit Karl Bode

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing poet and professor Deborah Poe speak on a panel at AWP with five fellow women writers-professors-scholars. I wanted to interview Deborah for Assay, so that we might benefit from Poe’s creative process, writing, scholarship, and work as a creative writing professor. [Read my brief report for Brevity on that AWP2014 panel, “Another Voice in My Mouth: Persona in Poetry and Prose” with moderator and panelist Holly Wendt, and panelists Kathryn Henion, Claire Hero, Deborah Poe, and Virginia Shank.]

[Renée asks] Deborah, in your talk in the panel I mention above, you discussed researching and crafting your full-length poetry narrative Hélène. It’s an extraordinary poetic novella where a woman in a factory-convent uses her imagination to escape the confines of manufacturing silk in western France (in the 19th century) by pretending she is in China. Hélène imagines she is elsewhere. Poetry can take us elsewhere, but it can also teach us to live right here. In Hélène, your heroine finds a level of personal freedom through imagery. I’m packing so much into this question, forgive me, but here’s a quote from Hélène:

In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater

power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.

Might you talk more about what this quote means to Hélène, to you? How might the dead function like poetry?

[Deborah answers] It’s funny that you bring up that talk, because I just devoted an entire class to research, empathy, and character in my flash fiction course in the Fall 2016 term. I gave the same talk, adapted a bit for fiction. After giving the talk, I then had them do their own research. We watched a video on the White Helmets in Syria as well as Before the Flood (Stevens 2016)—the new film about climate change narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Using that research and taking the details they found most significant, they then wrote drafts. Some beautiful work emerged.

For Hélène, I want to include the entire page from the book, which will help me answer your question and contextualize for readers.

I find no portraits of kings, of high officials, men.

In old designs I make out the eyes—more animal in shape—

not men. Powers. Presence in an abstract way

Pragmatic, existential.

In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.

Hélène has had exposure to both French and Chinese art and has had time to register their differences. (I imagined this access through books within communal areas like the office of the factory convent in which she works.) She finds the lack of portraits of kings and high officials in Chinese art emblematic and a differentiating factor between east and west. In the east, as she perceives it, there is not only more of a focus on the natural world but less of a focus on ego.

I see Hélène as deeply observant and intelligent. She is not limited in her thinking and imagination, despite the abysmal working conditions within which she finds herself. I wanted this book to hold both east and west in it without exoticizing the east.

I suppose if we think about this particular passage you cited, the dead function like poetry in that poetry is language. The living language has power. Through the patterns of this living language, there is order, regularity, organization, and experience reflected back to us in script and art.

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[Renée asks] You have a unit in your creative writing courses called “Revisions and Preoccupations.” Could you tell us about that unit and why you developed it?

[Deborah answers] I provide many opportunities for revision, and consideration of rewriting, throughout the term. But having such a unit in my creative writing courses allows me to underline the importance of revisiting and revising work.

If you’re a creative writing teacher, you undoubtedly find a significant number of students that resist revision—some quite fiercely. “Revisions and Preoccupations” gives us a set aside time to look at revision strategies—whatever the genre—and to consider ways to simplify tackling work again with the same kind of editorial eye and engaged reading that students utilize in workshopping their peers and in discussing published authors.

In poetry, for example, I provide a handout which begins with quotes from acclaimed authors about their own revision process. Then I have various questions for elements of poetic craft for them to help guide rewrites. With point of view, for instance, I ask students if they have tried the poem in first or third person if it’s written in second, or second if they write a lot of their work in third person. Questions like these urge students not to just copy edit their work but to really think about how to make a piece the best piece it can be.

“Preoccupations” is related to “Revisions.” Perusing their work over the semester, students begin to recognize what themes or concepts they return to again and again. That in itself is helpful and often compelling. But recognizing their preoccupations can also provide a lens through which to think about revision. For example, J— realizes in looking through her semester’s collection of writing that she writes a lot of poems with speakers yearning to return home. Using that yearning to return home as a lens through which to study a particular draft helps her think about how she can enrich the description in her piece about the speaker’s beautiful island home, or what is truly at stake in a sense of loss or displacement and if what’s at stake is coming through, or about how changing diction might better serve the tone or mood of the piece.

[Renée asks] In what ways do these “Revisions and Preoccupations” impact your own writing practice?

[Deborah answers] I am highly creative and analytical and am fairly systematic in my approach to revision. I use very similar ones myself in the rewriting phase to the poetry strategies I mention above.

[Renée asks] Would you name a teacher who had a particular impact on your writing practice and your teaching methods? Why was that influence unique? How do you bring that influence into how you teach in your creative writing classrooms?

[Deborah answers] Dr. Bruce Beasley, my professor at Western Washington University during my first two years of graduate school, is the best teacher I ever had. He always took the time with my work. That enabled him to provide suggestions for readings and tools to deepen my particular strengths and challenge my weaknesses. He did not try to impose his own aesthetic on me either. (I am vehemently opposed to teaching that does so.) I endeavor to bring that openness to work, to take the time with students’ work for thoughtful feedback, and to suggest writers they read whenever I think it fitting.

Thank you for your time and answers and body of work! We so appreciate you visiting Assay’s “In the Classroom” series.

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Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections keep (forthcoming from Dusie Press), the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats), Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). Associate professor of English at Pace University, Pleasantville, Deborah directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit. She has also taught at Western Washington University, Binghamton University, SUNY, the Port Townsend Writer’s Workshop, Richard Hugo House, and Casa Libre en La Solana in Tucson. Deborah served as Distinguished Visiting Writer for Seattle University during Winter Term 2016.