The Context of “Disobedience” — by Michael Estes

I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.

The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.

ThoreauA second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?

This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?

Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:

•  “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
•  “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
•  “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

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Estes photoMichael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

Martin Luther King Day 2017 — Online Teaching Resources

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In English Composition courses, I usually assign Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve heard from students that they really appreciate having that reading included. My students also respond very strongly to “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass.

It’s possible to listen to MLK read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is especially useful in an online-learning environment. Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has other excellent resources and curriculum suggestions.

Ned Stuckey-French provides fantastic analysis and context of Martin Luther King’s “Letter” here.

Thank you to Nancy Peck for suggesting the inclusion of original source documents. You can access MLK’s documents through http://thekingcenter.org/archive.

For contemporary and current resources, this NPR report is a useful start: “Ferguson in the Classroom: How One College Took Up Race and Policing This Semester.” The November 2015 NPR report discusses this NYU class developed by Professor Frank Leon Roberts. You can find Roberts’s #blacklivesmatter syllabus and other resources here.

In additition, here is a link to “13 Significant Books on Civil Rights for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

For creative writing courses, and departments, it’s essential to consider Claudia Rankine’s keynote address at AWP/LA (2016). Rankine adapted that address into an essay for The Writer’s Chronicle, found here. Rankine’s masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) should be considered essential reading.

Please also consult the Syllabus on Black Feminism from Melissa Harris-Perry, here.

Here at Assay, you will find our resources and pedagogy articles useful. Here are a few suggestions:

On James Baldwin:

On Civil Rights:

On Empathy:

If you have other classroom resources that you wish to share, I’ll add them to this post as I receive them. Many thanks!

On Shifting the Narrative by Taylor Brorby (Writers to Read: Brian Doyle)

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You and I know this story, it’s the story of Sandy Hook Elementary. We know the outline, we know what happened. But what Brian Doyle does in “Dawn and Mary” is not only dazzling, it is deeply moving—he shifts the narrative focus. For many of us, Sandy Hook is a day of terror, and Doyle helps reveal, sentence by sentence something deeply human: courage, too, existed that day.

The piece begins in simple description, “Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a Connecticut grade school were in a meeting. The meeting had been underway for about five minutes when they heard a chilling sound in the hallway.” As readers, we’re there. We know this place—we’ve all been to school—and immediately we, because of our own imaginations, start filling in the details of what it looks like—though Doyle employs a type of powerful minimalism of detail to allow us to create our own imagery.

We’re told that most people dive under the table, which later we’re told is what we’re all trained to do. But Doyle narrows the focus of the piece: “But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs and ran toward the sound of bullets.” We know that these two people are important and, little by little we learn about them. Dawn is the principal; her husband proposed to her five times before she said Yes, “she liked to get down on her knees to paint with the littlest kids in her school.” We then learn about Mary, the school psychologist; she has two daughters—like Dawn—she loves to go to the theater, and she’s due to retire in a year.

But somehow—because we know how this story ends—we know that won’t happen.

In the first six paragraphs we are given simple description about the school, about Dawn and Mary, about their personal details. But the sixth paragraph marks the end of one section and begins Doyle’s focused work on helping shift the narrative. After the sixth paragraph, he brings the reader into the piece:

You and I have been in that hallway. We spent seven years of our childhood in that hallway. It’s friendly and echoing, and when someone opens the doors at the end, a wind comes and flutters all the paintings and posters on the walls.

He doesn’t tell us what the hallway looks like, but he doesn’t need to. We’re already there—we can see the linoleum, we know the lowered sinks in the bathroom, the little tables and desks. We have been there, and we are there again with Doyle.

Our breath quickens and Doyle writes,

Dawn and Mary jumped, or leapt, or lunged toward the sound of bullets. Every fiber of their bodies—bodies descended from millions of years of bodies that had leapt away from danger—must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what they’d been trained to do. That’s how you live to see another day.

The entire weight of human history is brought into focus in this section—there is nothing other than this moment. We are in Sandy Hook Elementary with Dawn and Mary.

And then Doyle, is a display of pure humanity, brings the piece to an end. Instead of focusing on the shooter, whom Doyle calls “the boy with a rifle,” we learn that in the particulars of this horrific day, courage lived alongside evil:

The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn, and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small beings. They leapt from their chairs and ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?

“Dawn and Mary” is a piece to read over and over. In ten paragraphs, Doyle does more to shift the narrative focus of this tragic event than any piece of news or journalism. By the end, not only does the reader weep, but knows deeper that a piece of humanity has been restored. We know what’s possible, we know what happened, we know that the story of courage is messy and complicated and a necessary tonic to help us go forward with the rest of our days.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMTaylor Brorby is an award-winning essayist, and a poet. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, Taylor’s work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Orion, High Country NewsThe Huffington PostTerrain.org, and has received numerous recognitions through grants and artist residencies. Taylor travels around the country regularly to speak about hydraulic fracking, is a co-editor of the country’s first anthology of creative writing about fracking,Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, and is Reviews Editor at Orion Magazine. His poetry collection, Crude: Poems, is due out this summer, and an essay project, Coming Alive, is due out in February.

Favorite Essay to Teach: Sui Sin Far’s “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” by Brenna M. Casey

When I teach Sui Sin Far in my classroom, I start with indignation.

Far was a woman of firsts. In the second half of the nineteenth century, she was the first writer of Chinese ancestry to be published in English in North America. Far was one of the first voices writing from newly forming Chinese and Asian American communities. These communities, themselves, were a product of the forced migrations of workers in the brutal coolie trade, indentured and carried across the Pacific on retrofitted slave ships to fill the gaps in labor left by the abolition of slavery at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Far was the first writer to acknowledge the presence of Chinese women and children living in burgeoning Chinatowns, billed all too conveniently by the U.S. and Canadian governments as the temporary sojourn of bachelor laborers. Born to an English father and Chinese mother, Far is one of the earliest thinkers to contemplate multiraciality in an American context. She remains a smart and prolific writer whose work across multiple genres—reportage, fiction, and essays—ushered in the twentieth century. Her currently uncovered works (many of which were penned anonymously or signed with a pseudonym including her given name, Edith Maude Eaton) number some 250 published pieces in over 40 periodicals throughout Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica. Sui Sin Far’s work should be as prized and familiar as Henry David Thoreau or Mark Twain. And yet, no one of my students has ever heard her name.

This, I tell students while pantomiming a frustrated flip of the seminar table, is an all too familiar story for women writers in America. Especially, I say waiting a freighted beat, for women of color.

editheatonphoto1“Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” is organized as the title suggests: a palimpsest of thoughts, memories, conversation fragments, and anecdote that, taken together, form the collagic and painful coming to consciousness of Far’s own racial difference. Despite her ability to pass as a white woman, Far is insistent on enunciating her Chinese heritage. This insistence often results in Far’s immediate vulnerability in the dangerous era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The form bespeaks the content. Identity formations are a process; the effect of Far’s prose is cumulative. Only as a catalog of Far’s own excruciating education do seemingly inconsequential social interactions take on the stifling weight of Far’s feelings of being between, “something different and apart.”

The essay was written for the New York Independent in 1890, but its content is eerily prescient. Students transiting in their own early adulthood identify with the formative experiences of childhood cruelty and mean-spirited inspection by their peers. Without fail, students of all different backgrounds table a two-part question ubiquitous on college campuses: “Where are you from?” Then: the coded, casual, and insidious racism of the follow-up, “No, where are you really from?”

Far also insists on particularizing her experience as a woman. One episode of “Leaves” relates an unwanted sexual advance from a naval officer who visits Far uninvited. He wants to tell her, he says, about all “the sweet little Chinese girls” he met while stationed in Hong Kong. While we never learn how this incident ends, the menace of its beginning lingers. The officer laughs a little when he introduces himself and Far writes, “The laugh doesn’t suit him somehow—and it doesn’t suit me, either.”

I love to teach this essay because it isn’t perfect. In its do-gooder enthusiasm, Far sometimes reasserts the prejudice she seeks to dismantle. As in the moment when Far is confronting her own ethnic biases and writes that two Chinese men she glimpses in a store are “uncouth specimens of their race.” In another anecdote, Far is tracing commonalities between herself and the black population of Jamaica—a radical moment of interracial solidarity—but never questions the infantilizing characterizations deployed upon a servant class. These encysted bigotries, are not without their merit. They demonstrate to students that ethnic and racial identities are not fixed. Rather, they are untethered from individual bodies, visually unsurveillable, and consolidated only through careful engineering—made and remade by whomever is controlling the narrative.

“A bird on the wing is my emblem of happiness,” writes Far, encouraging her reader to leave natal places and known landscapes. Her travels across North America reveal national differences and parochial similarities “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any,” Far concludes, wresting indignant control of her own narrative, “Individuality is more than nationality.”

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Photo credit James Bernal

Brenna M. Casey is a writer and educator based alternately in Prague, Czech Republic, and Durham, North Carolina. She teaches literature and creative writing at Duke University where she is completing her doctoral work in the Departments of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. She is currently a regular contributor at Ploughshares and you can read her work here.

Writers to Read: Sophfronia Scott on Donald Quist’s “Harbors”

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During contentious presidential elections such as the one that just ended, some voters tend to offer up the notion of leaving the United States should candidate X win. The threat gets tossed about too glibly, especially when for years citizens have left this country after experiencing real—not anticipated—trials and hardships. Donald Quist, a black American writer and English lecturer living in Bangkok, Thailand, is one such expatriate and he examines his life and the urge to seek a new one abroad in a powerful essay collection, Harbors (Awst Press).

This book comes at a time when the volume of our social discourse is tuned to deafening levels and the back and forth spews at a head-spinning rate. Into the cacophony steps Quist with the fierce voice and loving, but critical eye of a 21st century James Baldwin. And since a whisper draws more attention than a shout, by the time in one of his essays Quist states calmly, clearly, succinctly, “I am angry,” he has us all by the ears and the words resonate to a depth of earth-shaking proportions.

He wasn’t/isn’t always so quiet. As a child growing up with kids from the wrong side of the tracks or, in his case, school bus route, in Maryland, Quist hit a boy and made him bleed for taking his action figure. At 16, frustrated over having to drive one of his grandmother’s drunken friends home, he snatched away her foam-plated Meals on Wheels lunch and demanded she account for her seemingly rude behavior and burdening of his granduncle. However these outbursts only made clear to him what he didn’t understand, an awareness we could use more of today. He learns all is not as obvious as it seems. He learns the truth of what his grandmother, an ardent fan of Jerry Springer’s raucous talk show, often told him, “Boy, pay no attention to what a person says. Watch what they do.”

Quist writes, “I’m reminded that people have complexity and duality, not unlike an exploitative tabloid talk show allowing individuals largely unrepresented in mainstream media to share their experiences.”

He finds himself cloaked in this complexity and duality in “The Animals We Invent,” when he goes to work for the mayor’s office in the town of Hartsville, South Carolina, and finds himself suffering the sting of two worlds when an arson incident leads to a rash of racial profiling encoutners as police seek the perpetrators whom the victim claimed were black males—they weren’t. He fields calls from enraged citizens. “Aren’t you angry?” one asks. Though Quist himself has been stopped by officers he answers with a pragmatic, “What do you want me to say, sir?”

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But the question he’d like to answer in an interview, the reporter doesn’t ask. How can he still speak for the mayor’s office? “If she did ask, I’d answer honestly—I have something to say about refusing to be victimized by fear. I wasn’t to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp, dirty fangs to snap my bones.”

Quist weathers the storm but the squalls large and small keep coming, one upon the other, until he punches a hole in the door of the restaurant he owns with his Thai wife. He questions why they continue to live in the racial equivalent of a tornado alley. The essay “In Other Words” relates the discussion he has with his wife about leaving the country. He writes at times, in an interesting twist, from her point of view. “… when customers do stuff like the patron who tried to avoid paying the bill earlier, it is hard not to feel like it’s a part of something else, something systemic, a lineage of oppression that frames so many of his daily interactions.”

I call attention to this particular essay because of the deeply personal nature of his considerations. Quist blames no one—not candidates, not police officers, not the nature of their small South Carolina town. He is simply looking for a way to walk through the world without a centuries-old burden upon his shoulders. He writes, “I yearned to go abroad to find myself beyond the classification of my race and nationality. I wanted an opportunity to live in a place where I might move beyond the limits of myself.” And though in Thailand he might, as his wife warns him, only experience different debts and new prejudices, Quist also recognizes the possibility to experience new freedom.

With this concept alone, this idea of a new freedom, he challenges our notions of America as land of the free, home of the brave, by showing us in his beautiful, unflinching prose that no matter how bravely a person might live in this country, he or she isn’t necessarily free. The vulnerability Quist brings to the page is palpable especially as he relates feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment (often in himself) in addition to his anger. He cannot ignore, for example, that his father left Ghana for the U.S. to escape a kind of living that now benefits Quist in Thailand.

He writes in “Junior”: “I wanted to tell you about how leaving makes me feel like a traitor, and about how it feels whenever I read news about black suffering in America. I meant to ask you if the advantages of living in a place ever make it easier to forgive its crimes. I wished to voice to you the conflict I experience daily while enjoying the benefits I have in Thailand and the knowledge that so many are silenced and detained by the same governing force that has made it easier for me to hail a cab. I wanted to discuss military dictatorships promising democracy, decency, values, and standards while violating civil liberties, and talk about how every day I witness others bear the type of suppression that led you to emigrate from Ghana.”

So many writers can rage—so few can show or even connect to what lies beneath it. Harbors is an important human document because the author doesn’t invoke self-pity or even sympathy. Instead he, much as Baldwin did, presents his life as testimony and makes you stand with him equally at a vantage point where all can view the situation and say with utter certainty, Things should not be this way. Quist doesn’t pretend to seek clear answers—he knows there are none. But like any good essayist, he knows it is important to ask the questions and try on many answers. “Once I’ve crossed over this deep expanse,” he writes, “I don’t know how long I’ll wander or how far I’ll stray. But I promise you, I will do my best to make the journey meaningful.” With Harbors, Quist has already, to a great extent, done this for all of us.

Editor’s note: Read Sophfronia Scott’s “Writers to Read” about Robert Vivian’s Mystery My Country here.

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Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press); her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her forthcoming novel, The Light Lives Here, will be published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in September 2017. She also has on the way an essay collection, Love’s Long Line Alone, from Ohio State University Press. Sophfronia is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.

Jenna London on “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life is a place-based memoir in which the author describes his life as a traditional shepherd in the Lakes District of England in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through his vivid descriptions, reflections, explanations, historical background and scenes, James Rebanks implores the reader to re-evaluate preconceived notions about the shepherding lifestyle. Rebanks argues that the shepherd’s life is a choice and, for many, a calling. Rebanks provides personal, scientific and philosophical details dealing with nature—primarily farmland and sheep—that convinces the reader he is a reputable source. The Shepherd’s Life is divided into four main sections: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Rebanks could have just as easily separated the book into the major periods of his life. But instead, he uses the section titles to illustrate an intrinsic connection with nature. Rebanks’ general purpose is to inform the reader about this lifestyle that suffers from many stereotypes. In doing so, the author also portrays his deeply rooted sense of place and connection to the land. Rebanks does not use his memoir for self-discovery. Instead, he provides the reader with information he has already learned.

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On a personal level, Rebanks examines his relationship with his father. However, this theme is secondary to the larger picture of the book: the narrator loves life as a shepherd and wants to dispel misconceived notions about this profession. Rebanks gives the following description of the Lake District:

“For many it was a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not…But above all I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. It is where the idea of all of us having a direct sense of ownership (regardless of property rights) of some places or things because they are beautiful or stimulating or just special was first put into words…. Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world.” [7]

Rebanks addresses how humans and the natural environment in a specific region are interconnected. The setting couldn’t simply be plopped someplace else without having a significant impact on the premise of the book. Rebanks states that the Lakes District is of ecological importance on an international level. In this manner, nature represents an ever-changing entity worthy of further exploration. Suggesting that the land prompts humans to feel something is empowering to nature, as is the notion that conservation principles have been formulated based on this geographic location. However, the idea of people having ownership over the land suppresses the environment.

Domestic animals—sheep—are a fundamental aspect of both the narrator’s identity and his livelihood. He demonstrates a largely symbiotic relationship with the livestock: people provide the animals with food and shelter. The sheep provide people with wool, sustenance and—perhaps most importantly—an identity and life’s purpose. Throughout the book, Rebanks provides the reader with an intimate view of a shepherd’s daily activities, thoughts, and mindset, as is evident when he describes an annual sheep sale.

“…But, as important [the sheep] goes to one of the top flocks, Turner Hall where he will be looked after and given a chance to breed with some of the best ewes. For weeks after the sales I miss seeing him each day, as if once I had a van Gogh on my wall and now it is gone.” [173]

Rebanks enables the reader to see how this lifestyle is a business with an emotional component. Most readers—whether they are interested in art or not—know who van Gogh is, and can understand the extent to which a piece of his artwork is cherished. Therefore, any reader could sympathize with the author, whether or not she can relate to having a similar relationship with an animal.

Throughout the book, Rebanks demonstrates a passion and admiration for the livestock without anthropomorphizing them. Rebanks’ overall tone is one of authority and confidence. While he reveals a great deal of admiration and respect for sheep, Rebanks seldom suggests the lifestyle is an easy or unflawed one. Instead, he provides a wealth of information about a little-known profession that requires a deep understanding of and dependence on the land. For example, he writes: “The best sheep have a sense of their specialness, and this ewe seems to know that she is one of the stars.” [168] Here—as is typical throughout his book—Rebanks regards sheep with respect and suggests they are a species capable of thoughts. But he does not suggest that sheep are capable of the same thought process humans have. Rebanks argues that the ancient life of shepherds is one of choice, not one of misfortune or poverty. Rebanks is not necessarily making this way of life out to be more glamorous than it actually is. But he does argue that this physically demanding livelihood is special and worth saving. Writing candidly, Rebanks easily convinces the reader that his convictions to farming are genuine.

He illustrates several generations of families to whom everything centers around sheep and the land, giving precedence to the needs of the animals before their own well-being. These actions are incredibly empowering to the environment. At the same time, however, the land and animals are manipulated to serve human’s needs. Nature is both empowered and suppressed in the following passage:

“Trimming sheep feet. Rescuing lambs from being stuck in fences. Mucking out the stalls. Trimming the muck from the tails of ewes and lambs. As you drive past, you wouldn’t notice them, but they add up over time. Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a millions little unseen jobs.” [55]

In this example the environment (via animals) is oppressed because it is controlled and manipulated by humans. Lambs are stuck in fences that wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t put them there. Feet and tails trimmed for humans’ aesthetic wishes. But one could argue that those same tasks give the environment a sense of empowerment. In another passage, though, Rebanks mentions that dinner isn’t served until the animals have been cared for. The sheep are given priority over human’s needs, which is also empowering towards the animals.

The length of his individual musings range from a few words to entire paragraphs but average a sentence or two. Rebanks incorporates musing primarily within passages of scene and summary rather than writing passages that are exclusively musings. For example, he writes:

“Tough farms were not places to get rich, but they offered opportunities to those willing (or forced by necessity to take a chance)…If you had a big lowland dairy farm with good soil, you probably looked down your nose a bit at these farmers on marginal land. These tough farms are two months behind in the growing season…” [58]

This moment of reflection is in the “you” point of view and appears to be prompted by the need to define “tough farms.” The reflection serves to describe via comparison. Rebanks refers to a generic person in the shepherding community who is embedded in the lifestyle. Nature has multiple roles in this passage, including educating the non-familiar reader. But most interesting is how nature contradicts itself. It not only provides a humble livelihood (not places to get rich) but also represents a status symbol (if you had…you probably looked down your nose…). This nature-centric passage is another example of the concurrent suppression and empowerment of nature. Rebanks does not romanticize the life of a shepherd in this passage. Even the individuals “looking down their noses” are not depicted as having glamorous or “easy” lives. These aspects add depth to the story and represent how both the placement of musing and the musing itself are critical in molding a work of nature writing.

Editor’s Note: For the next three issues of “In the Classroom,” we’ll be sharing three pieces by Jenna London. You can read each one individually, or read all three together, for example, as a classroom assignment to support the reading of each book Jenna analyzes. Up next, Rick Bass’s “Nine Mile Wolves” and Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge.”

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

Writers to Read: Karen Babine on Paul Gruchow

paul-gruchowI have a friend whose driving ambition is to convert people to the cult of Joseph Mitchell. I replied that if that was the case, then mine was to convert people to the cult of Paul Gruchow.

My readerly and writerly relationship with Gruchow started in a Minnesota Writers class during my sophomore year of college, the first time I’d ever read any work by any writer who had come from the state I grew up in. As we read Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, which had just won the Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction, it was the first time I realized that I could write about Minnesota, I could write about rural Minnesota, people would read it, it could be published, and it could win awards. It was, I realized in hindsight, the most important moment in my life as a writer. My state, my home, was valuable—I didn’t have to write about other, more “important” places. (This, if you will allow me a moment of pride, was intensely important when my (first) book won the Minnesota Book Award this spring. I wish he was alive so I could thank him.)

On 22 February 2004, Gruchow died by suicide. Paul Gruchow was born in 1947 in Montevideo, Minnesota, raised on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, and after many years of living with and writing through depression, he took his own life. In 2012, his posthumous memoir, Letters to a Young Madman, was published, a draft of which he had finished before he died. I have not yet finished the book. To read of his bipolar struggles in the kinds of sentences Gruchow could write—that is not something I can bear for more than ten pages at a time. This book is, quite simply, the most devastating book I have ever read.

Gruchow writes of the places where he finds himself, and he uses those places to illuminate his world—and his readers’. His work is characterized by the precision of his attention to details, both of the natural world around him and the words on his page. John Henricksson calls Gruchow a “literary naturalist,” a distinction I feel hardly captures the mastery of words that Gruchow possesses when writing about the various topographies of Minnesota, from the farming prairie of Chippewa County in Grass Roots to the wildness of the North Woods in Boundary Waters. Gruchow writes in his Boundary Waters, “We confront in wild places evidence of powers greater than our own; this evidence humbles us, and in humility is the beginning of spirituality. Wildness matters not because it alone is sacred but because it arouses in us the sense of sanctity that makes visible the sacredness of everything else in life” (BW 201). Such awareness of the natural world brings the reader to a higher level of reality, both on a physical and metaphysical plane.

If writers never read solely for pleasure, if we are always aware on some level of what we can learn, then there is no more brilliant teacher of language than Gruchow. His writing is complex in its construction, with serious attention paid to each word and its placement in the sentence. He has mastered the use of poetic language within the prose, intuitively aware of the way the words sound against each other. Grammatically, appositives and parentheticals serve to break up thoughts, to add color to his descriptions, to add interest to a narrative passage, to work the language just one more way. His marvelous use of questions to open Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (1995), as well as elsewhere, serves to make the reader accountable to his or her own conscience.

Gruchow’s writing is full of unusual attention, which gives freshness to his descriptions of things that might seem pedestrian under the lens of other writers. He avoids descriptions that are ambiguous in their commonness, for instance, his rendering of Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior: “I wish to avoid certain adjectives in writing about Isle Royale, words like beautiful, primeval, pristine, natural, wild. There is already enough ambiguity about such places. Certainly Isle Royale appears to be all of these things” (“Spring” 167).

In the essay “The Meekness of Angels,” Gruchow writes of an encounter with a bear: “The bear’s voice was as enormous and commanding as its physique—grander, less guttural, and more eloquent than the roars of the one lion I have heard” (44). Gruchow could have easily slipped into generalities in the descriptions, yet he does not, not ignoring the way grander and guttural sound together. Following this line, the actual description of the mother bear in “The Meekness of Angels” avoids trite and overused language, language which is slow enough to give evidence to Gruchow’s awe over her:

She was enormous and blonde. The silver tips of her venerable hair glistened in the long angle of sunlight filtering through the trees. She did not make a sound as she moved with athletic grace toward her purpose, her massive shoulders as fluid as water. She was like a waterfall on legs. The hump of her back was so prominent and her size so great, that in another setting I might temporarily have mistaken her for a bison cow” (42).

The sentence level attention continues in Gruchow’s impeccable diction. His tone is nearly always soft-spoken and humble, sometimes self-deprecating, something that so clearly follows his speaking voice. No matter his tone, however, his diction gives the reader no doubt as to the writer’s intelligence.

The way words taste in the mouth and vibrate in the ear is not neglected in Grass Roots. In “Rosewood Township,” after the initial description of the cattail marsh at the end of the north-south eighty at the beginning of the essay, Gruchow returns to it: “For me, the most important place on the farm was the cattail marsh at its north end” (20). He goes on to describe the marsh: “Here was a piece of Rosewood Township as it had existed for thousands of years, a surviving testament to the tallgrass prairie, and the richest and most complex representative of it.” He goes on to describe the marsh: “As summer wore on and the wet days of May gave way to dust August, the ponds evaporated, exposing ovals of black mud, ringed by rank growths of cattails, rushes, and tall wetland flowers. These ovals baked and cracked, the rich alkaline deposits in them collecting as fine white powder (21). There’s alliteration here, assonance, true rhymes and slant rhymes–nothing is overlooked.

Slowing the moments down to where the reader can appreciate the language only works if the writer is equally intuitive about where not to linger in his descriptions. In “Rosewood Township,” as he is recalling accidentally burning down his family’s barn, where not one of the panicked animals which had fled into the barn for safety had escaped. The description of the entire ordeal is two paragraphs, at the end of which Gruchow gives the reader a quick glimpse of how he felt about it: “I was out of my mind with grief and fear. I imagined being sent to prison” —this would seem uncharacteristically pedestrian and unoriginal, if not for the next sentence, which gives startling clarity to the young boy’s fear: “I had, as young as I was, a faint sense of what my carelessness would mean to family already dangling by an economic thread.” His fear had less to do with punishment than the welfare of his family. He continues: “The smell of smoke and burned flesh nauseated me. I took to my loft and could not speak or eat for days. Ten years passed before I found the courage to talk about that afternoon” (12). By the brevity of this description, he makes the reader take responsibility for reading between the lines. There is obviously more to what Gruchow-as-child felt, but Gruchow-as-writer knows that his readers are going to have a good idea without expressly stating it.Gruchow’s philosophies and epiphanies operate under the principle that the language has all the answers—and this is some of the finest examples of high exposition on any page.

Gruchow is just beginning to think in his 1986 Journal of a Prairie Year. He has not yet begun to know all the places his mind may take him. For instance, a moment from JPY:

Our language does not distinguish green from green. It’s one of the ways in which we have declared ourselves to be apart from nature. In nature, there is nothing so impoverished of distinction as simply the color green. There are greens as there are grains of sand, an infinitude of shades and gradations of shades, of intensities and brilliancies. Even one green is not the same green. There is the green of dawn, of high noon, of dusk. There is the green of young life, of maturity, of old age. There is the green of new rain and of long drought. There is the green of vigor, the green of sickness, the green of death. One could devote one’s life to the study of the distinctions in the color green and not have learned all there is to know. There is a language in it, a poetry, a music. We have not stopped long enough to hear it.

This moment of green is not as actualized as similar moments in later books, but Journal is, of course, the beginning. The movement towards high exposition, of a writer being able to hit the reader over the head in such a way that the whole world rings and echoes pleasantly inside the skull, is not a skill or gift that happens immediately. But the brilliance of Gruchow is that his writing has always offered the promise of a glimpse into a world that few are privileged to see.

As Gruchow becomes more confident of his language craft, we see that never does he let that language slide in the face of his epiphanies. For instance, from his 1989 The Necessity of Empty Places:

Experiencing a landscape is an act of creativity. Like any creative vision, it cannot be forced or willed. No amount of busyness will produce it. It cannot be organized on a schedule, or happen by appointment. If you would experience a landscape, you must go alone to it and sit down somewhere quietly and wait for it to come in its own good time to you. You must not wait ambitiously. You must not sing to pass the time, or make any kind of effort. The solitude is necessary, the wait is necessary, and it is necessary that you yourself be empty, that you might be filled.

This passage filled my ears like song when I sat on the boulders of Inishmore, in Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic. If anything, the rhythm of the words against each other illuminated whatever I may have been thinking as the waves pounded the boulders of Inishmore.

In Boundary Waters, everything Gruchow has worked towards comes to fruition: the sound and taste of the language, the rhythm, the etymology, the preciseness of his words in pursuit of that which will make the world make sense. One of my greatest pleasures in reading Gruchow has been in watching his craft develop from one book to the next. One of the best examples in Boundary Waters comes near the end of the final essay, “Spring: Wild Isle,” an essay which made the Notables list of Best American Essays in 1998. Gruchow writes:

There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed by never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.

(Those familiar with Assay will recognize this passage as our inspiration for the magazine’s name and its purpose.)

I’ll close with this thought: something amazing happens when the right writer meets the right place. I’m talking about the magic that happens when Bruce Chatwin is writing about Australia, when Tim Robinson is writing about the West of Ireland, when Bill Kittredge writes about Montana. Gretel Ehrlich speaks of this in The Future of Cold when she writes that “For years, Nietsche searched for what he called ‘true climate,’ for its exact geographical location as it corresponds to the climate of the thinker.” Part of that is the irreplaceable quality of the writer. Part of it is the brilliance in their technique. But most of it is the harmony between the inner and outer world, the organic particularity of place, and how it finds expression in ink.

 


_mg_8267Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. Her book, Water and What We Know (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award and was a Finalist for the Midwest Book Award and Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.

Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series Returns!

Our “In the Classroom” series is back! This upcoming academic year, we’ll continue to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” 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 guidelines for “In the Classroom” submissions:

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You can access all Assay’s submission guidelines here.

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.

Here’s the link to our most recent journal release — Assay 3.1. Be sure to read Karen Babine’s and Robert Atwan’s conversation about Best American Essays. We’re grateful for Mr. Atwan’s contributions to the essay and his generous responses to Karen’s interview questions.

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Finally, we’re so proud to announce our first “Notable” essay listing in Best American Essays 2016. Huge congratulations to Ned Stuckey-French for “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” I frequently use this essay in my courses; I hope you will, too.

Thanks to all of you who have sent “In the Classroom” submissions already. Please keep them coming. And remember: we’re always considering work for our main journal, particularly work this year on the Best American Essays series.

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

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.

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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.

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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

Jennifer Case–A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

When I first assigned Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in an environmental writing course, I immediately recalled a warning my mentor had given early in my teaching career. “I once taught a book that I loved, and the students hated it. It was the worst teaching moment I’ve had,” she said. “Never teach your favorite book.”

PilgrimatTinkerCreekDillardPilgrim at Tinker Creek is, without a doubt, my favorite book. The first time I read it, I was a quiet, intense high school student who enjoyed gardening, writing, and hiking. I was struggling with religion, trying to understand my own beliefs, and Dillard’s environmental spirituality—deep and dark and unnerving in its questioning—felt like a new kind of communion. “Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We’re played on on like a pipe; our breath is not our own,” Dillard writes (15). Reading such passages when younger, I felt pummeled, played on, breathed upon. I felt fed and swallowed whole.

I hesitated, as a result, when assigning the book to my class because I couldn’t bear the thought of them not appreciating it, or—perhaps even more—the book no longer living up to my memory of it.

To be sure: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is dense. It is meditative and philosophical, chockfull of allusions. It is a hard book to read and a hard book to teach. To help my students digest it, I broke the class into groups and had each group take a five-page chunk of the chapter “Intricacy.” They identified their section’s major images, symbols, and ideas, and they transferred those glosses to the board. By the end of the hour, the board was crammed with phrases such as “red blood cells,” “the goldfish in the bowl,” “chloroplasts,” “evolution and trees,” “eye pouches and Henle’s loop,” “intricacy and red blood cells and speckles.”

When I asked what they saw, they replied, “a mess.” Which was true. Aside from a few echoes and patterns, the reverse outline we created appeared random and confusing and discursive.

I then read from the middle of the chapter, where Dillard writes,

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. (138-139)

“In what ways is form meeting content, here?” I asked, and we discussed how Dillard’s chapter, in tackling the complexity and messiness and intricacy of the natural, biological world, is also complex and messy and intricate. Her essay, like the subject matter she describes, goes on millions of tangents simultaneously, with an abandoned energy that, for some students, seemed unwarranted. We discussed how Dillard’s chapters—each of them—masterfully mimicked the subjects they tackled. My own faith in Dillard’s writing—and my students’ appreciation for her—burgeoned. I sighed with happiness and considered the lesson a success.

But it is the book’s afterword, actually, that offers the greatest lesson, and explains why I keep returning to it. When describing her experience writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard recounts a New Yorker essay she’d read about mathematicians, who apparently suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence” as they age (279). The phrase piqued Dillard, as it piqued me in high school, when I promised myself that I, too, would write a Pulitzer prize-winning book by the time I was 30.

I am older, now, than Dillard was when she started writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Though I teach at a university and consider myself a writer, I have not published that Pulitzer prize-winning book. As a result, reading about Dillard’s nerve for excellence makes me strangely nostalgic. But Dillard’s book still pummels me; it still inspires me in its confidence, in its willingness to explore painful depths and answer impossibly complicated questions. More than anything, then, this is why I continue to teach Dillard’s essays. I want my students to be ambitious. I want their nerves for excellence to spark. Year after year, decade after decade, Dillard’s work has offered such stimulation, for me and for them.

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Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.