Sundress Publications is excited to announce that we will continue our tradition of hosting roundtables on our official blog, featuring some of the amazing AWP panels that will not be appearing at AWP 2019. If your panel did not make the final cut this year, you’ll still be able to bring your topic to the web!
Now more than ever, your voices are necessary. We know that many important discussions won’t make it to Portland next year. That’s why we want to make them accessible and build an archive of diverse, engaging voices. We’re looking for topics that are driven by passion, inclusivity, forward-thinking, collaboration, and hybridity; all things fresh and unexpected. Let’s have more conversations – the world needs them.
Past panels posted to our blog include a wide variety of topics including using a reporter’s techniques for fiction writing, a fresh look at the cultural conversations started by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and women at war. You can see some of our previous conversations at https://sundressblog.com/tag/awp/.
Do you have an excellent submission that didn’t make the final cut for 2019? Please send us your proposal for consideration at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions will be accepted on a rolling basis. Multiple submissions and simultaneous submissions are acceptable. Please include the names of all of your contributors within your submission.
Welcome to our Sundress Roundtables, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2018.
Math poetry (sometimes called mathematical poetry) can be loosely defined as poetry that connects in some way with math, other than poetic structure in general. There is a community of math-poets; some of us are actual mathematicians and some are poets who “merely” enamored with math. Some of us know one another through conferences and publications. Some of us write a lot about or via math, while others write an occasional math poem.
In answering the questions below (developed by Marion D. Cohen), the four math poet presenters on this panel share their individual connections to math and poetry.
Do you identify more as a poet or as a mathematician, perhaps both equally? Which did you become first? Did either one give rise to the other?
Sarah Glaz: The answer to this question differed at various times in my life. Before I started college, I considered myself an artist, poet and painter, who liked and was good at mathematics. I wrote poetry from a very young age, almost as soon as I learned to read and write, and also drew and painted with watercolors till I went to college. In fact, my intention in choosing mathematics as my major in college was to achieve some balance between my artistic side and my mathematical/scientific side. All this changed as I learned more advanced mathematics and developed a serious interest in exploring it. After graduating from college with a double major in mathematics and philosophy, I continued my education in mathematics and completed a PhD degree at Rutgers University. Throughout graduate school and for the first ten to fifteen years of my career as a teacher and researcher in mathematics, poetry took second place to mathematics.
I still had an interest in it, but I stopped writing poems. This may have also had to do with the adjustment to a new language and a new culture; I was born in Romania and my first poems were written in Romanian, and with the fact that I was too busy raising a family to do meaningful work in two disparate disciplines. I came back to writing poetry, this time in English, in 1991. By then mathematics has been an integral part of my world for many years, and the poetry I have written since 1991 is strongly influenced by the mathematics I have been involved in and by my life as a mathematician. Nowadays, I still consider myself more a mathematician than a poet. But poetry is very important to me, and I cannot imagine being just one and not the other.
JoAnne Growney: As a girl, I wanted to be a writer, but it was a math scholarship that paid for my college and I stayed in math through my doctorate and more than thirty years of teaching. But during my teaching years I began to write poems – some of them related to math – and I began to collect poems pertinent to my courses, offering them as outside readings and alternative viewpoints.
Gizem Karaali:I think it is fair to say that I see myself as a mathematician first. In fact I have difficulty seeing myself as a poet, or rather seeing being a poet as something different from being human with feelings, which occasionally overflow. Perhaps this is because I am not a very disciplined poet. My poetry is random, and appears infrequently and almost always unexpectedly. For math and other things, I put aside time. For poetry, things bubble up and out and other things have to stop. Then of course I work with what came out but the initial impetus is unscheduled, unexpected, and unavoidable.
For me mathematics came before poetry. That is, I had already fallen in love with numbers and other mathematical structures before I put together a few words to write my first poem. However if I think further back, I can see that even before math came the words. I did (and still do) love words first and foremost.
Marion Cohen: This question reminds me of the proverbial chicken and egg! My main passion is math, always has been. But most of my publications, meaning most of my interactions with the world, are poetry and memoir. As to which I became first… well, they kind of went together; each pushed forward the other. My math passion began when I first took algebra, or at any rate that’s when I consciously knew about my math passion. Through algebra, I realized that there are reasons why various math things worked; math things could be proven. In particular, all the little “number tricks” that my friends and I had played on each other could be explained, and I also asked myself the question, which pairs of numbers have the same product as sum? It seemed to me that math might be able to explain everything, even non-math things like emotional stuff from my personal life or political things like the issues of my teenage-hood (segregation, capital punishment…), not so different from societal issues today… Mostly, math to me expressed the mysteries, existential and so on.
I began writing my feelings about math in my diary, alongside the other teenage-girl diary things. What I wrote wasn’t poetry with line breaks but it was poetic. (Some of it I’ve had published in my adulthood.) That’s how I got started with poetry in general, though that didn’t show up ‘til my early 30’s. So math brought on the poetry. And the poetry brought on more math – math itself and more writing about math. My first poetry collection, “The Weirdest Is the Sphere”, was of math poetry (published by Seven Woods Press – very mathematical!), and another book, also entirely of math poetry, titled “Crossing the Equal Sign” (Plain View Press), came out about ten years ago. My other books (probably all of them) contain math poems, too, because math can connect with regular non-math life; it all keeps coming on!
Do you write poetry that you view as not particularly mathematical? Do you feel that perhaps ALL poetry is math-poetry? Or perhaps some poems are more “math-y” than others? Is there, in your view, some rule, or some definition of math-poetry?
Sarah Glaz: I do write poetry that I do not consider mathematical. But it is not easy to define what a mathematical poem is. Different people have different definitions. In 2010, I was asked to define mathematical poetry by Kaz Maslanka, who is a different kind of mathematical poet from me, and has a different definition of what mathematical poetry is. Below is a slight editing of the answer I gave Kaz at the time, which, for me, is still valid:
Mathematical poetry is an umbrella term for poetry with a strong link to mathematics in either imagery, content, or structure. The mathematics involved in mathematical poetry does not have to be mathematically significant. Some poems I would call mathematical involve just arithmetic, or counting. Also, just the inclusion of a certain mathematical component does not make a poem mathematical. For example, all formal poetry has a built-in mathematical structure, but we would not call a sonnet a mathematical poem just because it has 14 lines. The link of the poem to its mathematical component has to be strong. If the link to mathematics is in the poem’s structure, there has to be something non-standard, or unusual, about the use of mathematics in the poem’s structure to make the poem a mathematical poem. I left, on purpose, the term “poetry” undefined because I want to include in this definition poems that have only mathematical symbols. Although my preference is for poetry that includes words, I would like the term mathematical poetry to embrace all poetic mathematical forms, even those that come to us from the depth of mathematical silence in symbol form. (a variation of this definition appeared on Kaz’s website: http://mathematicalpoetry.blogspot.com/2010/08/sarah-glazs-definition.html)
JoAnne Growney: When I began writing poetry much of it was not mathematical in its content – I was writing about my family, my relationships, my dreams. But as I read biographies of famous math women – like Emmy Noether or Sofia Kovalevskaya – I also began to write about them. In addition, mathematics is one of my strong vocabularies – and often math terms are what seems best to express an idea.
I do not see a rule or definition for the term “math poetry” but see many ways in which poems may have mathematical connections. The metrical and rhyming patterns that underlie many poems involve counting and permutations – and are thus linked to mathematics. Some poetry is linked to mathematics via mathematical terminology.
I do NOT see ALL poetry as math poetry.
Gizem Karaali:I have written poems that are not mathematical. Indeed most of my poetry is not mathematical, I’d say. When the well is full, the next poem comes out, and it does not have to have math in it, because my life is not only mathematical. So no, I’d say not all poetry is math poetry. Math poetry, for me, is poetry that engages with mathematics one way or another. It is poetry that either in its form, or in its content, or in its language and metaphor has something intentionally mathematical in it.
Marion Cohen: Some of my poems are more mathematical than others. And people have said, from reading or hearing my relatively non-mathematical ones, that “I can tell you’re a mathematician.” But there’s other subject matter that I’ve written several books about and that I’m known for in certain circles, such as pregnancy loss (my third baby died at the age of two days – for the record, I have four living children) and spousal chronic illness (my first husband had multiple sclerosis).
I’ve often said that, whenever anything happens to me I write many books about it! And math happened to me. Math wasn’t a tragedy, though for me there are poignant and sometimes sad or disturbing and/or existential things about it (math itself, not only the struggle to prove things or to have a career).
I also don’t believe that all poetry is math poetry. Some mathematicians , including me, feel that all math is poetry (well, poetic). At any rate, my own math poetry is poetry about math. And among my “non-math poetry”, I’d say some poems are more math-y than others. Some, e.g., contain a line or two of poetic images from math. And some just have, perhaps, more logic in them than most poems.
To me, the definition of math poetry is poetry that has to do with math in some way, either is about math or one’s mathematical life, or mathematical aspects of one’s non-mathematical life, or loving or hating or fearing math, or, again, has some poetic structure that is mathematical, or is a concrete poem which uses math symbols (integral signs, limits…), or is about, say, a woman mathematician. There’s a wide range.
Has writing math poetry (and/or poetic prose) helped you to understand, or to like, math more than you did before you wrote math poetry? If so, can you describe how?
JoAnne Growney: I do not see a way in which writing poetry about mathematics has helped me to understand or like math BUT reading the math poems of others has helped me understand how they think of math, and that has been very interesting.
Gizem Karaali:YES! I think math poetry has allowed me to connect with my mathematical self more generously, in a humorous and gentle way. It has allowed me (and still does allow me) to think of and understand better the human aspects of doing, learning, teaching, and living mathematics. It also has helped me connect with other math poets who have opened up new windows for me to see.
Marion Cohen: As I said in my answer to #1, in my teenage years, math inspired poetry, which in turn inspired math. Back in the 90s I was working on a particular math problem (It had to do with graph theory but I didn’t realize that at the time…). It was a difficult problem, I had to dig deep, and as I dug deep I described the feeling of it in poems. Each lemma (or attempted lemma…) gave rise to a poem or two. Many, probably most, of the poems in “Crossing the Equal Sign” come from working on that math problem.
And yes, I love math more because of the math poetry. The poetry cements and enhances the math, also commemorates it in some way that the math itself doesn’t. (And of course if the math turns out to be wrong, or to not ever be published, then at least I have the poems!) Sometimes, when I prepare a lecture for a class, I write a poem (sometimes a limerick) that helps me (and the students) to better understand that piece of math.
As a teenager I couldn’t think of math in terms other than poetic. That, to me, was what math was. It took me awhile to realize that not all mathematicians were poets or poetic, or conscious of being poets and that was, at certain stages of my life, disappointing to me.
Do you feel that you’re part of the community of math poets? If so, to what extent?
Sarah Glaz: I am part of an international community of mathematical poets. I would like to call this international community “The Bridges Poets.” Not only do we create a bridge between poetry and mathematics, but also most of us come to the annual conferences of the Bridges organization (http://bridgesmathart.org/) to read and listen to mathematical poems, to present and attend talks, and to participate in workshops on the connections between mathematics and poetry. I serve as the poetry reading coordinator of the Bridges organization and make an effort to discover and bring to the Bridges conferences mathematical poets who write in English or had their poems translated into English. But the community of mathematical poets is larger than those who attend the Bridges conferences. Fortunately, computers allow for communication among us even if we do not meet in person. There are a number of “online centers” where people with interest in mathematical poetry can read, and sometimes also post, mathematical poems, related writings, and news of relevant events. One such center is JoAnne Growney’s blog: Intersections — Poetry with Mathematics (http://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com/). A number of journals also act as meeting centers by publishing mathematical poetry and related scholarly papers on a regular basis. Among those are: The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics (http://scholarship.claremont.edu/jhm/), The Mathematical Intelligencer (https://link.springer.com/journal/283), Talking Writing (http://talkingwriting.com/), and last, but closest to my heart, The Journal of Mathematics and the Arts (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tmaa20/current), for which I serve as Associate Editor. In addition, in 2014, I acted as guest editor for a special issue of the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts on mathematics and poetry (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tmaa20/8/1-2#.VJMDFnACAeA).
JoAnne Growney: In a general sense, since I know and socialize with some other people who write poetry that connects to mathematics, I am part of that “community.” But through my blog (“Intersections – Poetry with Mathematics” at http://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com) I am connected to a broader community of many, many persons who write and/or appreciate a selection of mathy poems.
Gizem Karaali: I would say so. I know quite a few math poets through my work with the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics and the poetry readings at various annual mathematics conferences. I certainly know more math poets than non-math poets. I feel that there is a kinship between people who love math and poetry and who engage in math poetry.
Marion Cohen: Yes, I feel very much a part of the community of math poets. This community came together relatively recently – say, in the past 25 years. It began for me when I was teaching at Drexel U; a colleague told me about Viewpoints Art/Math Conference and I partook of that. That initial Viewpoints Conference developed into several other Viewpoints Conferences, and it was probably through someone there that I learned about the Bridges Math/Art Conferences, held annually the last week in July. At first Bridges was essentially about visual art; I might have been the first to present writing/poetry. Now the poetry component of Bridges is surviving bigtime, thanks in huge part to Sarah Glaz, who’s on this panel.
Also, the math community in general is more interested in poetry than it used to be. E.g., math journals publish math-poetry and review books of math-poetry.
For many decades I was isolated with my math poetry (during my teen age years I was isolated, by choice, with both my math and my writing), and with my poetic take on math. Now it feels great, and very interesting, that a math poet community exists – and that I’ve matured enough to be part of it.
How do you see the significance of math-poetry – in the math, the poetry, and the societal arenas – and of its recent emergence?
Sarah Glaz: : Only the future can tell which art form has a lasting impact.
JoAnne Growney: I am not sure that I understand the question. I find that almost everything I learn has connections to almost every other thing I have learned; in short, “everything connects!”
Both poetry and mathematics are language forms in which it typically occurs that lots of information is packed into a few symbols. And so, for both of these, coming to understanding often takes several re-readings and a sustained effort.
Gizem Karaali:In the mathematics world math poetry is helping us humanize the discipline, make the community a more welcoming one, one which encourages people of mathematics to connect with their emotions and personal experiences related to mathematics. In the world of poetry, math poetry is still a tiny drop, but if I am allowed some optimism, that little drop can help others, those who would not call themselves mathematical people by any stretch of the phrase, to appreciate that mathematics can be a humanizing life force, for at least some people.
Marion Cohen: The emergence of math-poetry and the community of math-poets seems significant for at least three reasons: (A) It helps prevent students and the general public from feeling that math is a cold unfeeling subject, and thus helps people feel less alien-ated from math (and other sciences). This makes a dent in the phenomenon known as math anxiety. (B) It encourages women and other minorities who either aspire to become math-people, or who simply would benefit from trusting math more than they do. (C) Math teachers on the elementary and high school level often often have math anxiety! This is partially because teachers’ colleges teach more about teaching than about math. So math-poetry could help these math teachers feel more comfortable with math, which is good for both teachers and students.
If you incorporate poetry into your teaching of math, tell us more!
Sarah Glaz: : I use mathematical poetry in all my mathematics classes. In general, the most common use of poetry in college math classes is in general education courses designed for students who intend to major in the humanities. The aim is to reach out to students through a medium they love, in order to develop an appreciation for mathematics, or develop the mathematical thought process, rather than to teach specific material. My first use of poetry in a math course was for such a general education course. In this course, I assigned group-works in which the mathematical problems were written in verse. Several years later, I developed a course in remedial college algebra. I prepared a number of group-works for this class in which the poems were chosen for their ability to enhance students’ capability to perceive patterns and develop strategies for turning “word problems” into “math problems.” In other words, each poem acted as a go-between the words and the equations. In more advanced classes, like Calculus, Linear Algebra, Abstract Algebra and even graduate courses, I use a small number of mathematiccal poems to pique students’ curiosity as well as to enrich their learning experience by placing what is learned in the classroom in a broader historical, artistic and social context. A different kind of mathematics course in which I use poetry is my History of Mathematics course. At the University of Connecticut this course is restricted to math majors and is designed not only to teach the history of mathematical ideas, but also to improve students’ writing ability. I use historical mathematical poetry and contemporary mathematical poetry on history of mathematics topics, and also use a number of well written scholarly papers highlighting connections between mathematics and poetry in historical context. My aim is to deepen students’ involvement in the subject, and also to add some magic spark to the classroom exposition that only poetry can achieve.
I have written a number of papers on the uses of poetry in math education which provide more technical details. Interested readers can access those from my website (http://www.math.uconn.edu/~glaz/).
JoAnne Growney: When I was teaching mathematics, I enriched my classes with outside readings – sometimes history and biography, some-times poetry – and related discussions or papers. The poems I gathered led me to start my blog (“Intersections – Poetry with Mathematics” at http://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com) so that I could share them with others.
Gizem Karaali: In several of my classes I ask my students to engage with math poetry, both as readers and creators. I have written about this elsewhere, see for instance: Can Zombies Write Mathematical Poetry? Mathematical Poetry as a Model for humanistic mathematics, Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, Volume 8 Issue 1-4 (2014), pp. 38-45 available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17513472.2014.926685 .To summarize, I find poetry to be a great way to help students connect with their emotions about and experiences with mathematics at a deeper level.
Marion Cohen: I teach a course that I developed, Mathematics in Literature, which is just what it sounds like! So naturally I use poetry in that course. Since I hope that students will someday write “math literature” (as some wind up doing for their term papers), I tailor the homework/class conversation questions such that they encourage, but not force, students to write and talk about their own experiences; to further encourage that, I talk about my own experiences, including the two tragedies in my life but also my passion for math. (This means that I include one of my own “math memoirs” as course material, “The Night I Didn’t Grow Up”, Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, available at: http://scholarship.claremont.edu/jhm/vol2/iss2/9. I also hand out copies of math poems, my own and others’, that pertain to things we study but are not course material.)
Some citations for articles about my “Math/Lit” course are:
Dear Math: I Hate You: For the Learning of Mathematics, Marion Cohen, Vol. 36 Num.
Truth and Beauty: Mathematics in Literature: The Mathematics Teacher, March 2013,
Vol 106, Issue 7
Math in Poetry: Half of a Course: archive.bridgesmathart.org/2012/bridges2012-73.pdf
When I have taught plain-ol’-math courses like calculus… well, I’ve written limericks about every topic I’ve taught and I share these limericks with students (these are handed out in the spirit of “presents”, no obligation to read). Writing these limericks and reading them as part of lecture preparation helps me to understand the material in a new way, and the totality of them gives me a good, short, overview that helps in lecturing.
At first I didn’t specifically use the limericks in the body of my teaching. Modesty, plus time considerations, caused me to simply hand them out either at the very beginning or the very end of the course. I also prefer to be non-invasive in my teaching, to not force limericks or other poetry on students who might not want them, or who might view them as something else to keep track of. So I’m careful to quip, “the limericks are optional”, and not to over-use them as pedagogical tools. Even so, one student wrote on the end-of-term evaluation form, “I would prefer not to have poetry in the course”. Ouch!
On the other hand, one student told me, “I learn well from you because I know that you relate to me as a writer”. I hadn’t known this student was a writer but she still felt that I related to her in that way.
If the following applies: do you incorporate poetry into your teaching non-math subjects?
JoAnne Growney: When I lead poetry workshops, I often include information about the structure of poems – about syllable counting and permutations, for example — in such gatherings.
Marion Cohen: I haven’t taught non-math courses, but I have facilitated non-math workshops in various capacities, and several of these involve poetry. Most recently I have facilitated “Well Spouse Writing Workshops”, in which well spouses (meaning people who are spouses of chronically ill people) come together to write about things they might have formerly thought forbidden. I begin by recounting my experiences as a well spouse writer and by sharing a short (and poetic) paragraph from one of my well spouse memoirs. Participants thus feel comfortable sharing their own “forbidden” thoughts and feelings. I also believe that my experience as a once-upon-a-time isolated writer has sensitized me to some of the hesitancies of my workshop participants.
If you’re a parent, do you incorporate math poetry into your parenting? If you’re not a parent, do you incorporate math poetry into your interactions with children?
Sarah Glaz: Sorry, I don’t think I ever did, but it might have been absorbed by osmosis. My son started as a math major and later completed an MFA in Creative Writing, and is now a writer who teaches English at college level.
JoAnne Growney: Many children’s rhymes are mathy and I have enjoyed them with children and with grandchildren.
Gizem Karaali: My children are quite young, and they do not yet know that mathematics is not a standard theme in poetry, so they do not know the difference between poetry and math poetry. And I kind of like that! At this point we are playing around with poetic forms like haiku but I have not intentionally introduced math poetry to them.
Marion Cohen: Mostly, I share my poetry, math and otherwise, with my children, now grown, via just-plain writing it and not keeping that any secret. Recently my youngest son Devin has identified as a poet (he’s also a visual artist), and he and I have given readings together. I also remember making up a babychant for Devin when he was an infant. “Zero times one / is zero. /Zero times two / is zero. /Zero times three / is zero…” Also, math has fed into my feelings as a mother – pregnancy, birth, motherhood in general. Some of my poems in “Crossing the Equal Sign” strive to express “the mysteries” of motherhood as they relate to the mysteries of math and of existence. Finally, as a home-schooling mother I taught math, or at any rate arithmetic, via a card game. The game is called Casino; my parents played it with my sister and me when we were kids. I made up an “ex-tended” version, in which not only addition but subtraction, multiplication, division, even exponentiation, is permitted; my youngest had much to gain by learning that anything (other than 0) to the 0th power is 1, since playing 1’s got him aces, worth special points!
How has knowing about the community of math poets affected your own math, writing, and living?
Sarah Glaz: It is important to me to feel part of a community of mathematical poets. The relation between mathematics and music was established by Pythagoras in about 500 BC. There is also a long-term traditional connection between visual arts and geometry. Musicians and visual artists, who are also mathematicians, can easily find kindred spirits. The relation between mathematics and the literary arts is more complex. Throughout history, this relation waxed and waned. In some periods of time they were considered complimentary and supporting disciplines, while at other times they were seen as conflicting ways of seeing the world. Not long ago, in 1959, the well-known British novelist and scholar, C. P. Snow, described the sciences and the humanities as forever divided into “two cultures”. In our own time, many of us seem to have crossed the great divide and embrace the similarities along with the differences in a creative and joyful way. Still, mathematical poets are a relative minority. It is easy to feel isolated when you love both words and numbers, particularly if what you create from words are poems. I am very grateful for the growing community of mathematical poets for comradeship, support, and inspiration.
JoAnne Growney: I enjoy discovering common interests with people I meet – and find that when I share interests with friends it often encourages that interest in me.
Gizem Karaali: Math poetry helped me connect with some beautiful people. It has also opened up ways of writing that I had not allowed myself before. My voice in my more recent articles is a lot freer, a lot more like me. All in all I think it has enriched my life, mathematical and otherwise.
Marion Cohen: The math poet community has caused me to do it more (all three mentioned above: math, writing, and living…). I feel justified, I feel encouraged, I get published! It helps me feel that I’ve done my part in bettering this world. And of course I’ve made some great colleagues and friends.
SOME MATH POEMS BY THE PRESENTERS:
Sample poem from ODE TO NUMBERS, poems by Sarah Glaz (Antrim House, 2017).
√2 = 1.41421…
We started our voyage on the gulf of Tarentum.
The sea was choppy
and the brothers were restless.
At dawn, we gathered on the deck
intent to solve the conflict like rational men.
Hippasus still refused to keep the secret.
He had discovered that
the diagonal of a square
with its side.
Alas! Our world had collapsed
and so did our geometric proofs.
Too much to lose, we heaved him overboard.
from ODE TO NUMBERS (Antrim House, 2017)
Historical Note: In the 5th century BC, the Pythagorean Hippasus of Metapontum discovered the existence of irrational numbers. Particularly, he had shown that — the length of the diagonal of a square with a unit side— is an irrational number. For his sin, legend has it, Hippasus was thrown overboard during a sea voyage. The poem plays with the imaginary possibility that his murder occurred before he breached the Pythagorean code of secrecy and made his discovery public. The line count of the poem’s stanzas follows the decimal expansion of √ to 5 decimal places.
Like a Mathematical Proof
A poem courses through me
like a mathematical proof,
arriving whole from nowhere,
from a distant galaxy of thought.
It pours on paper
faster than my hand
twists and turns,
strikes sparks as it forms.
It is a creature
like a mathematical proof ̶
It had been my plan to include the second poem below (“A Baker’s Dozen,” a villanelle that has fun with rhyming related to numbers one through thirteen) but, in the midst of my development of answers to these survey questions, I got an email from a teaching friend who said that he had asked his students in a Quantitative Reasoning class to read a bit of poetry, including “Which Girl Am I?” – and that poem had generated a large amount of important class discussion about math attitudes and feminist views, and he felt that some important insights has occurred because of that poem. And so I present it also.
Which Girl Am I?
The girl who’s not forced to divide
into the good girl and the real one
is a lucky one. I was eleven
when I felt a crack begin.
In time I fully split — two minds
took on two heads, two faces,
two cuts of hair. Mock feelings
serve as well as true ones,
I told myself — but buried parts
still surface like cicadas in their year.
Long division is difficult
and plagued with remainders.
A girl with two heads
is like a bird with one wing.
A Baker’s Dozen
Counting likes to start with number one.
An easy mate to pair with one makes two –-
and three can be a triangle of fun.
Four enumerates my daughters and my sons.
I have five fingers on the hand I give to you.
Counting likes to start with number one.
With six the perfect numbers are begun.
Seven names a rest-day, breaks the queue —
and three can be a triangle of fun.
I sometimes call on eight to make a pun.
Nine numbers lives I hope will see me through.
Counting likes to start with number one.
When ten years pass, another decade’s done.
Eleven’s the hour I hope for my rescue —
and three can be a triangle of fun.
Twelve counts a dozen — eggs or hot-dog buns.
Thirteen offers luck that some eschew.
Counting likes to start with number one
and three can be a triangle of fun.
A Mother’s Math Is Never Done September 20, 2017
Beyond dark clouds is the blue sky.
The day will come to do your math.
Once you put away the clutter.
Someday again you know you’ll fly.
Now’s not the journey’s end, just a detour on the path.
Only today, hold your breath, for you are a mother.
Today you are the mother.
Today she reaches for the sky.
Today your job’s to clear her path.
Today your job’s not at all math.
Today it’s not you who will fly.
So you hold her hand, and stand still amidst the clutter.
You still stand amidst the clutter:
Is this what it means to mother?
Where have your wings gone now? Did you really ever fly?
You cannot hear the wind, or even see the blue sky.
Today is not a day for math.
Today math is not your path.
So you want math to be her path.
You seek patterns in her clutter.
You know one day she’ll just say “Math!”
She’s the daughter of her mother.
Looking up to the deep night sky.
She too is dreaming surely of learning how to fly.
She’s dreaming of learning to fly.
Of taking off, charting her path.
Cutting through a summer eve’s sky.
Numbers left behind, a clutter.
Who’ll clean it up but the mother?
And who, you ask, will do the math?
Then “I”, you say, “will do the math!
“Isn’t it time for me to fly?”
Quick, do shake up your wings, mother!
Math’s ready to become your path.
Leave aside the toys, the clutter.
It’s time again to touch the sky!
So once again math is your path.
Now you can fly together, leave behind the clutter.
And reach up to the sky, a daughter and her mother.
Marion Deutsche Cohen
I am no workaholic. But I’m collecting points and lines.
Not like stamps.
No, I wouldn’t trade them.
I simply have to have them.
I need a group portrait
all of them smiling.
I have to have a hand
with these beauties as fingers.
I have to hold a vase
with these cuties as flowers.
I should contact a colleague.
I should go online.
But – don’t you see?
I have to do this alone.
I am based in reality.
But God created these lambies
set them out to green-pasture
and maketh me
to lie down.
from Crossing the Equal Sign (Plain View Press, 2007)
What is this business of things existing?
What is this business of people existing?
What is this business of math existing?
When I get that far gone I imagine a piece of paper with math written on it.
I imagine cutting out the math
cutting around all the numbers and symbols.
I imagine the cut-out math and I imagine the stencil.
The paper is very white.
The math is also white.
Maybe I even imagine cutting out the math without it having been written.
from Crossing the Equal Sign (Plain View Press, 2007)
BIOS AND PHOTOS OF THE PRESENTERS
Sarah Glaz’s first poetry collection, Ode to Numbers, was published by Antrim House in 2017. Her poetry and translations appeared in: Ibis Review, Convergence, The Mathematical Monthly, The Ghazal Page, Recursive Angel, The Humanistic Mathematics Journal, The London Grip, Talking Writing, and other periodicals and anthologies. Among her publications are three anthologies of mathematical poetry. Sarah is Emerita Professor of Mathematics at the University of Connecticut. As a mathematician she has published books and articles in the area of Commutative Ring Theory. Sarah serves as Associate Editor for the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, and is the coordinator of the poetry readings at the annual Bridges conferences. For more information visit Sarah’s website.
Shown above are JoAnne and her diverse group of eight grandchildren, seven of whom are girls — all of whom like math and most of whom like poetry.
As a child, JoAnne Growney supposed that she wanted to be a writer – but she was good at math and a science scholarship earned her a college BS in mathematics from Westminster College in PA. As a high school math teacher, she stumbled into graduate school – where she eventually earned an MA at Temple University and a PhD from the University of Oklahoma. During sabbaticals while a mathematics professor at Bloomsburg University she became aware of the importance of history and the arts to mathematics and began to offer outside readings for her students in both history and poetry. When her children left home, she found time to write poetry – and sometimes it was related to mathematics. Eventually she found time to study poetry –- some classes at nearby Bucknell University and then on to an MFA in creative writing at Hunter College in Manhattan. Lots more information about her — and her math and her poetry — is available in her blog and at her website. One of her guiding hypotheses is “Everything connects.”
Gizem Karaali is originally from Istanbul, Turkey, where she graduated with undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics. She earned her mathematics PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. Today she is an associate professor of mathematics at Pomona College, a highly selective undergraduate institution in the United States. Karaali’s research lies in the representation theory of Lie superalgebras, super quantum groups, and algebraic combinatorics. Her scholarly interests include humanistic mathematics, quantitative literacy, and social justice implications of mathematics & mathematics education. Karaali is a founding editor of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics and serves as an associate editor of the Mathematical Intelligencer and Numeracy. In the last decade, she wrote over fifty articles and she received federal grants for her research and teaching (from the National Security Agency and the National Endowment for the Humanities). Through her career, she has made connections within and outside of her academic discipline and served her professional societies as well as her community.
Marion Deutsche Cohen is the author of 26 collections of poetry or memoir; including two controversial memoirs about spousal chronic illness, a pregnancy loss trilogy, and “Crossing the Equal Sign”, poetry about the experience of math. Her math Ph.D. is from Wesleyan University and her short memoir about the unusual way that she got it appears on the Humanistic Mathematics Journal site. She teaches math and writing at Arcadia University in Glenside PA where she has developed the course, Mathematics in Literature. A chapbook of poetry, “Truth and Beauty”, about the interaction in that course among students and teacher, was released in December 2016 from WordTech Editions. Currently (and for her entire adult life) she has worked on something which she calls “associative arithmetics”. She writes reviews of math books and her limericks about women mathematicians are on her website. Other interests are classical piano, singing, Scrabble, thrift-shopping, four grown children, and five grands.
“It is my history raiding me”: Exploring Representations of Public and Private Violence
Welcome to our Sundress Roundtables, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2017.
How is violence produced in a twenty-second exchange, perpetuated in a centuries-long system? This panel explores how writing can engage with the intersections of institutional and interpersonal violence. Through poems and essays, we share strategies, messy attempts, more questions. One common thread we trace is violence’s relation to intimacy. If we allow it in private, do we then more readily allow it in public? Is desire inherently violent? Or should we distinguish a more metaphorical violence from abusive dynamics, historical atrocities, present crises?
In your view, what is the relationship (overlaps as well as key distinctions) between institutional violence and interpersonal violence?
Muriel Leung: The public imagination of violence has always largely veered towards the interpersonal, I think, because it’s a bit more easy to detect and articulate since we are each experts in how our own bodies relate to the world. A solely interpersonal outlook on violence, though, is dangerously limiting. It obscures the larger forces at play that dictate how we relate to each other socially: how we are all influenced by a certain type of education, upbringing, privileged positioning, and opportunities we are afforded and not afforded. And these relations sometimes change or stay the same when we travel to a different state, region, or country.
The U.S. in particular is guilty of such failings in recognizing institutional violence as a legitimate source of inquiry and rage. The recent election of Donald Trump and the widespread approval of him by those who identity as poor or middle class white is pretty emblematic of that rift in understanding between institutional and interpersonal violence. Largely, poor or middle class white people have been expressing feelings of being shafted by progressive political actions that appear to provide opportunities in favor of those who are immigrant, non-citizen, and/or nonwhite. In other words, provisions of social or political rights to these communities means they lose out. The issue here seems to be that even the understanding of interpersonal violence is incredibly short-sighted. It’s the strangest correlation – the more privileges you possess in this country, the greater the level of threat of its loss such that one feels the need to hoard opportunities, to forbid others who may be further marginalized from access to them. I think this is what a limited scope of institutional violence can do – it turns social and political life into a never-ending blame game in which vulnerable communities are under attack rather than the systems that perpetuate the original source of the misery.
Jessica Smith: I think this relationship has to do with sustainability – what an individual is willing or has been taught, in private, to sustain. If one is subjected to gaslighting, violence, and subjugation in their home, the space that is supposed to be the most safe and sacred, then how can they hope to interrogate these same offenses at an institutional level?
One of the most difficult parts of fighting violence, or rerouting mindsets that lead to violence, is having to identify it when you are so consistently working to “recover” from it. How do we name what harms us when that harm originates from a place we trust – a parent, a partner, a university, a government? How can we explain what cruelty is to those who are in the position of teaching us right from wrong?
Trying to illuminate structures of oppression to the oppressor is not only painful and unfair, but nearly impossible, particularly when their behaviors are reinforced by an oppressive societal framework. I’ve found this space un-navigable – the space wherein the victim must be the one who is measured and thoughtful, where even the most basic explanation of decency feels like begging. We’ve seen this during the campaign and election of Donald Trump – calls for harmony and decency in the face of a man who ran his campaign on cruelty and harassment.
It is vital to interrogate this public-private connection because it is interdependent. Institutional violence relies on breeding acceptance in private. It needs people to expect it, or at minimum be afraid to fight it.
Sarah Viren: Sometime after the election I found myself rereading Gabriel García Márquez’s Nobel Prize lecture from 1982. I used to teach the lecture, but it had been a while. And also it was different reading the speech at this moment in time, when it feels like all forms of violence are under attack by those who would insist that they do not exist.
Though I love every part of that speech, there is one part that is particularly powerful. After listing innumerable instances of interpersonal, institutional, and state-sponsored violence in Latin America, García Márquez demands that this reality be what we recognize when we recognize his fiction:
A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.
(Read the original version of the speech in Spanish here.)
Interpersonal violence tends to be what we recognize as real violence. It is what we see on TV and in many movies and in so many of our fictions and nonfictions. And often in its representations and repetitions, in its sexy allure and sell-ability, interpersonal violence can appear more hyper-real than real. I cannot tell you how many bloody and dead women I have seen on a screen, their violated and abused bodies made into the mystery around with a male narrative will unspool.
Institutional violence is our refusal to also see the repetition of that dead female body as a form of violence. It is our refusal to read One Hundred Years of Solitude outside of any other context than the “magically real” hoisted on it by U.S. and European critics and academics. It is what García Márquez is talking about when he says solitude. Institutional violence is all those forms of violence—health care inequities, sweatshop conditions, historical revisionism, voter suppression—that are so often denied a reality in large part because they are so pervasive and engrained that we struggle to see at all.
Chen Chen: I’ve been thinking about the post-election rallying cry shouted or tweeted out by many liberals: “Love trumps hate.” But what do we mean by love? Do we mean feeling some vague but pleasurable harmony? Do we mean saying hi to strangers and holding the door open for them? Or do we mean something that actually requires policy change and systemic change? I return, always, to this James Baldwin passage from The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
These days, I am also returning to an article by Jo Blaise, published recently in Kinfolk Kollective (and entitled “Your Love Won’t Trump Hate”):
Toni Morrison taught me early on that love is never any better than the lover. She warned us in the pages of The Bluest Eye that “wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly…” So when I see exasperated faces and secret Facebook groups lamenting that love failed to trump hate, I must ask: Whose? Whose love failed us?
It’s important here to say that James Baldwin and Jo Blaise are both writing out of a history of Black struggle movements, some of which have been deeply transnational in practice (for instance, both Baldwin and Blaise make connections to Palestine). As a non-Black POC, I think that love also, on some basic level, means insisting on the fact that certain frameworks and strategies for resistance come specifically from Black resistance.
How can the genre(s) you write in get at the relationship between different yet interlocking forms of violence? What is it about a particular genre or way of writing that opens up the investigation into violence(s) for you?
Muriel Leung: I’m interested in how recent turns to hybrid genres or less clearly defined genres of writing seem symptomatic of a world whose set of complex relations seem to growing exponentially as the years progress. If genre and form is historically, politically, and socially influential to aesthetic development, then I think the growing tenuousness of containers for these genres and forms means that things are happening far faster than we can write them. In particular, writing violence and trauma demands a far greater set of responsibilities and ethical aesthetic practices now that I think ruptured forms and genres seem to address.
I’m especially interested in the essay now, the etymology of the word drawing from the French “essayer” (trial or attempt). Moving into the essay from poetry, I adapt a lot of poetic elements, particularly the lyric when it comes to phrasing, but how I think essays differ from poetry is the impetus “to try” to achieve a point of hyper-clarity, to arrive at some answer in the end. Poetry has always been, for me, about creating language landscapes of webbed responses. This abstraction is useful too, but experimenting with the essay as a form that responds to violence and trauma in a way that poetry alone cannot do is a necessary project for me. It forces a necessary toggling between poetry’s propensity towards abstraction and the essay’s need to establish a personal rhetoric. It is as if poetry offers sites of feelings for rage, anxiety, and depression, and the essay provides a set of guidelines for how to navigate them. When you put the two together, they do joint work to convey a perspective that may not possible if each genre were solely confined to their own rules.
Jessica Smith: Most of my work and research centers on intimate partner violence. One of the most illuminating things a counselor once shared with me is that society is structured to misunderstand victimhood – that the victim of sustained abuse (in any form) usually appears more scattered, damaged, and volatile to the outside world than the perpetrator. Victims are more likely to miss work, invent transparent lies to their loved ones, and be generally unslept, unkempt, and unhappy. The perpetrator of the violence is, conversely, accustomed to the dynamic and in control of it, thus appearing more “together” to observers. The victim’s reality is distorted on all levels.
This gulf between the realities of abuse and the understanding of it, I think, is best traversed by poetry. Ricardo Gullon said that poetry is the transfer of intuition – it privileges insight over information. If we are hoping to gain insight into sustained, systemic violence (institutional, interpersonal, both), then we have to close the space between representation and reality. As Rachel Louise Snyder put it in her New Yorker article on domestic violence, “A Raised Hand”:
“Between 2000 and 2006, thirty-two hundred American soldiers were killed; during that period, domestic homicide in the United States claimed ten thousand six hundred lives. This figure is likely an underestimate, as it was pulled from the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Reports, which gather data from local police departments, where homicide reporting is voluntary.
Dunne attributes the prevalence of domestic violence, in part, to a deep cultural misunderstanding of how violence operates. We assume that victims incite abuse, or that if the situation at home was truly threatening they would leave.”
Because I think that victim-blaming and gendered assumptions about who commits intimate partner violence are both erroneous, I want my work to focus on the collective societal issues that support a culture where intimate partner violence happens with such frequency, and in such secret. Poetry weds the private and the public – it distills the moment of crisis into a universal one. Poetry gives us the pinhole camera so that we can look directly at the eclipse. It is “…the language of intensity,” wrote C.D. Wright. “Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”
Sarah Viren: I write in all genres and often I think that the way we separate our genres, especially when the deciding factor is whether the text is “true” or not, is itself a form of violence. So I’m not sure that the genres get at violence differently, but that readers’ understanding of genre distinctions can both open up and/or confine how violence is understood within a particular work.
I’m often struck, for instance, by how much more people will react to a description of violence if it is read within the context of a “true” genre, like memoir or literary journalism, as opposed to violence that’s been framed as fictional (but might still be representative of a real situation or injustice). Whenever I’ve taught Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,” I can see a change in the room—and in the reading of that poem—as soon as I mention that Forché has said that it documents actual events. Students suddenly take the poem more seriously and are also more interested in hearing about context. I wonder about that change. Because even if the Colonel or the sack of ears were invented, the violence they represent would still be symbolically true. More than 75,000 people were killed during the Salvadoran Civil War, a war that the United States helped prolong.
So rather than saying I prefer this or that genre when writing about violence, I think it’s more accurate to say that I tend to use the essayistic mode. For me, essaying is the form of writing that best replicates the mind on the page. It is not chronological or narrative in nature. It is not interested in replicating reality but rather commenting on it and trying to understand it, often by making connections, many of them non-intuitive. For all those reasons, it is the best way for me of getting at issues of institutional violence.
I once wrote an essay, for instance, about singing murder ballads to my newborn daughter to stop her from crying. All I knew when I started writing that essay was that there was something not right, or at least more complicated than I wanted to admit, about me singing her those songs, most of which are about murdered women. What I ended up working through in that essay were a series of connections, between those ballads and other stories of violence against women, between my desire to soothe my daughter and my own culpability in a system in which stories of violence against women—not to mention actual violence against women—are so common we don’t notice them at all.
Chen Chen: Most of the time, I am a poet. Lately, though, I’ve been working on essays. Lyric essays. Somewhat experimental, perhaps. The possibilities of creative nonfiction have opened up for me some new ways into difficult subjects. One essay I just revised is a meditation on the shooting at Pulse and on living as an openly gay person in a very conservative town in West Texas. Guns are a big part of the culture here, as are rather normalized (often coded) forms of sexism and homophobia—so before Pulse, I was already on guard all the time. I felt like I was back in the closet in certain contexts. After Pulse, a part of me wants to stay home 24-7; at times I feel deeply uneasy going, with my boyfriend, to the movie theater or to the local Barnes & Noble. Obviously, these places are not nightclubs, but the fact that a safe or sacred space specifically for queer people was attacked makes every space seem dangerous. The essay traces the social roots of anti-queer erasure and violence, including how internalized homophobia manifests.
At the same time, I have no direct connection to Pulse. I’ve struggled with how to represent the specific and enormous violence that occurred there. It feels necessary to document the violence because it seems like the violence has left the national consciousness so quickly. Part of the essay’s task is slowing down, making space for a longer memory to take hold. But I worry about reproducing violence. I worry about the reiteration of a certain form of tragic queer suffering. I worry about aestheticizing or narrativizing such immense loss. I worry about what it means for me—someone who is a queer person of color but who is not Latinx or part of an Orlando community—to write about this in the first place. In the essay, I try to acknowledge these worries and to critique my own tendencies/approaches. I try to keep distinct and particular the experience at Pulse and the experiences in West Texas. And I try to excavate why, exactly, I feel so much grief; why it is that this mourning feels already familiar. The piece is called “It Seems I Have Been Mourning for a Long Time.”
Writing in a lyric essay form has allowed me to bring together multiple threads without (I hope) conflating them. The form has also allowed me to ask questions about what it means to “research” an event so horrific and personally triggering—the fact that it became unbearable to read account after account from friends and relatives and beloveds of the people killed at Pulse. I couldn’t read more than two or three accounts in a single sitting. I couldn’t keep looking at the pictures: the smiling selfies, the couples in love, the people who were just going about their lives in their particular, beautiful, complicated ways. So, I had to slow down. I had to cry. I had to read more slowly and return to my essay, taking greater care with my language. It just seems so impossible that they are gone.
What are some examples of work that you feel interrogate, complicate, reshape our understanding of violence(s)?
Muriel Leung: There are so many writers and artists out there who challenge our understanding of violence in such a way that folds critique into our daily imagination of it. The first names that come to mind are always women of color: Claudia Rankine, Cathy Park Hong, and Bhanu Kapil. Each writer is invested in pushing or challenging presumed genre and formal boundaries in their discussion of race and national (anti)belonging. There’s also Douglas Kearney, Craig Santos Perez, Solmaz Sharif, and Robin Coste Lewis, whose works critique structures and forms of power from black history archives to Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. I think it’s powerful to consider one’s poetic practice as a part of history and history-making, to think about how reviewing the past can be a way of conceiving a certain type of future. Not necessarily optimism — I think these writers would agree that one should always be skeptical about overly idealistic renditions of future possibilities — but a complicated and weighted hope for some form of change.
Other writers I think who have been on my mind recently: Will Giles beautifully utilizes heartbreaking comedy and extended metaphors in his performances about substance abuse, history, and community revival. Vanessa Villarreal, whose book, Beast Meridian is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2017, is especially gifted in recognizing how the textures of the page can be a means of exploring how violence can be enacted through language. Kay Ulanday Barrett, whose first poetry collection, When the Chant Comes (Topside Press 2016) just came out and I think is one of the best texts on intersectional politics and what good allyship is out there. Jamie Berrout too, who largely self-publishes, has not only put out some amazing nonfiction, fiction, and poetry about being a trans Latina woman — her work gorgeously weaves in and out of time, place, space, and memory.
Jessica Smith: I was moved and devastated by Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir The Other Side, which explores not only the horrific crime her ex-lover committed against her, but the murky systemic issues around academic and sexual power structures that allowed her to sustain a relationship with him – despite his escalating violence – for so many years prior to this final attack. She complicates notions of how a victim should act or “heal” in the aftermath. The memoir is both lyrical and unflinchingly direct, which I think mirrors the ice-clear fever dream of working through “recovery.”
I am endlessly in awe of Vievee Francis’s ability, in her poetry, to be confrontational and still deeply vulnerable. She engages violence as a scope, not an isolated incident, and demands that her reader do the same. Though she is clear about the intensity and consistency of the violence in her work, she avoids the kind of “begging” explanations these narratives often devolve into. Her poems key into the strange familiarity of violence, and the way it parades, so often, as intimacy. I go back over and over again to the end of her poem “Taking It,” where she writes:
“…Is this too dramatic?
Find another story. Find a lie. In love, body after body
fell beneath my own, though my own was broken,
and I made love like a sea creature, fluid as if boneless,
though my bones would rattle if not for the fat I cherish.
Wouldn’t you? How I grew to love the heavyweights,
myself with one in the ring. How I imagined him punching
me, and punching me again, saying I’m sorry, so sorry,
to have to love you this way.”
Any writer who can open their throat this way – who puts the words cherish and fluid and love in the same breath as punching and broken and heavyweights reveals that violence is not something that punctuates life but rather is woven into it.
Sarah Viren: Well, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a really good example of how fiction can address violence. The novel is allegorical, and so the stories of violence it tells are meant to be read both as specific examples of interpersonal violence and as representative of systemic forms of violence that happened and continue to happen (i.e. how poor people and poor countries are exploited by multi-national companies and how dysfunction within a family can be passed down through generations and, thus, perpetuated).
While we’re thinking about Colombia, I’d also mention Don’t Come Back by my friend Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, which will be published by The Ohio State University Press this January. Lina’s descriptions of violence can be both beautiful and horrifying, but she never glorifies or sensationalizes violence, which is a danger, I think, in any attempt to write about violent acts. What her book does that’s particularly effective for me is that she uses descriptions of violence to unnerve the reader, make us uncomfortable and, then, force us to think about the world that engendered that violence.
Besides those two examples, I happen to be reading two books right now that also speak to violence in new and interesting ways: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexiavich and 100 Chinese Silences by Timothy Yu. The first, “a novel in voices,” as Alexievich calls her oral histories, is collection of testimonies from people who came of age in the Soviet Union but are now adjusting to its replacement (i.e. a capitalistic society), and their stories show how the forms of violence that unfettered capitalism supports can sometimes be as devastating as the state-run violence suffered under leaders like Stalin.
Yu’s book talks about another form of violence: that of representation. His poems are a response to a whole body of American poetry that uses references to Asia or Asian people as symbolic stand-ins for stereotypical ideals/ideas. These are poems commit violence by silencing people, and Yu attempts to speak into that silence through parody. What I love about his book is that each poem mentions a specific U.S. poet and poem so that there is, in effect, a very real calling out, or confrontation, but also a conversation created between the original moment of silencing and Yu’s often funny but also fierce response.
Chen Chen: I’ll just recommend two amazing books that came out recently.
Aracelis Girmay’s poetry collection the black maria. A shattering and necessary book engaging the loss of “over 20,000 people [who] have died at sea making the journey from North Africa to Europe in the past two decades.” Specifically, the core cycle of the book speaks to the history of those of Eritrean descent (Girmay is part of the Eritrean diaspora). The second part of the book engages police violence against Black lives in the United States. From the acknowledgments on p. 112:
I have struggled with this particular project, so steeped in violence, mourning, and grief. How do I work inside of such histories of violence without further brutalizing the black body in the work? How do I, especially here, make critical space for joy and tenderness in the remembering, so that my own imagination (gesture by gesture, line by line) isn’t rendered by the values of white supremacy or violence as I resist it? And how do I express, with tenderness, who and what this work/I love(s)? It is my hope that while these poems mourn the dead and the bleak circumstances of our present, violent day, they are also a tribute to black joy, black art, black making, black life.
Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased. A deeply moving account of undergoing church-sponsored gay “conversion” therapy in the early 2000s. There is such heartbreaking tenderness and ache in Conley’s writing. From p. 148:
I had been wondering what it felt like to be in a straight mind my whole life, or at least ever since I discovered I was gay, when, in third grade, I’d first realized that my interest in our teacher, Mr. Smith, was much greater than that of my other male peers’. Though over the years I’d done my best to pretend otherwise, I’d had a string of male crushes that wouldn’t go away, a constant guilty ache that ran through my body for so long that I came to believe the feeling was just a part of what it meant to be alive. The only moments when the ache became a sharp pain were when I allowed myself to imagine a happy life with these crushes, a rarity to be sure.
How do you practice resistance to violence(s) in your work—as a writer, an activist, a teacher, an editor, a community member, etc.?
Muriel Leung: I think of my work as resistance and survival. I write about violence and trauma in my own work, especially in my recent poetry collection, Bone Confetti, which takes place in an especially violent landscape that forces its ghostly figures to find a way to reconfigure their notions of intimacy and desire in a time of loss. I also believe in exercising this resistance in editorial work with Apogee Journal as Co-Poetry Editor. I get fatigued with literary politics quite often so I think it’s important to take part in community building work that tries to work beyond representational politics — to offer a space to publish marginalized voices who may feel that their works are undervalued or dismissed by other literary spaces. I hope that we get to be a space where writers feel safe knowing that the editors are legible in race, gender, sexual, and dis/ability politics. This work, I think, is important to create alternative possibilities out there for publishing and engagement in literary spaces.
In addition to literary activism, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in intersecting struggles from community organizing to direct service work. I’ve volunteered as a crisis counselor for an LGBTQ anti-violence hotline and just started as an abortion clinic escort. I think there’s such value to doing work that teaches you to confront emergency and to recognize that trauma surrounds us. We have a responsibility to know how to call it by name and support each other in our struggles. I think this work is just as important as supporting marginalized communities organizing for rights for undocumented workers, queer and trans youth, and anti-police brutality causes.
My hope for the future is that people can feel moved to support causes that are not necessarily pre-vetted by mainstream media as issues that matter. I hope that #BlackLivesMatter becomes more than just a hashtag and that we can work to undo anti-black racism in our communities on the institutional and interpersonal level.
Jessica Smith: As a teacher at a university that allows students to carry concealed weapons, in an isolated college town that is deeply pro-Trump (and was before Trump was a political metonymy), I have always worked to engage my students on what it means to be a citizen. What is your role in society, I ask them, and what is actually important to you? I try to bring conversations about politics back to the body – the bodies of their friends, their mothers, strangers, themselves – and ask what bodies matter to them. Politics is a question of where those bodies go, I say, and who gets to put them there.
I think this election has revealed to many (particularly white liberals) that activism is not a lifestyle choice but an imperative. Organize in your community. Talk to your family members. Educate yourself about the nature of systemic violence and suppression. There’s always more to know, and more to change. No one has ever regretted actions they take if those actions are rooted in advocacy and empathy.
Sarah Viren: I write a lot about crime and I just taught a literary true crime class and in both of those areas what I try to do is complicate our understanding of criminality and of the criminal act. I think one way we can do this is to consider the multiple forms of violence that cocoon any one crime. There is the violence of the crime committed, but there are also always violences that gave rise to that crime and that come out of it.
So, when I was teaching that class, I worked with students a lot to consider context when we discuss criminality and violence, but also perspective. We read a found essay about violence against transgender people, for instance, in which the author makes clear that these are crimes that will never be solved, in large part because they are continually minimized and erased by our culture. We also read an essay by Jose Antonio Vargas about being undocumented, which then allowed us to talk about what it means for a person to become a crime. If something that absurd is allowed to happen, where, then, is the violence occurring? My students were really smart about analyzing crime in these different ways and that class was one of the most rewarding I’ve taught so far in large part because I think we were really able to make some headway in our understanding of the interlocking forms of violence.
Beyond that, I also write a lot about my personal experiences as a queer woman and now a queer mother living in the far reaches of the south. And what I’m often hoping to do in that work is to break apart stereotypes that exist in both the larger culture, but also within queer culture, about what it means to parent. I’m very resistant to the idea that choosing to parent is inherently a conservative act and, in fact, I think the perpetuation of that stereotype is a form of violence that has a real silencing effect on families like mine. So my work in that area is also advocacy in that I want to speak to that silence and open up within it new understandings of what it means to parent or to start a family.
Chen Chen: I try to be constantly asking what people actually need—what is the support they need? Do they want support? I try to be constantly learning. Listening. Reading. Studying. Showing up but not taking up space that isn’t mine. Building and contributing to existing spaces for queer people of color. Improving my pedagogy. Speaking out on the corporate structures of the university, my university. Researching ways to create funding opportunities for queer people of color that are not reliant on university or governmental structures or on the nonprofit industrial complex. Celebrating the lives and resistances of queer people of color. Insisting on the differences between different communities and positionalities. Donating to Kundiman. Making English super gay.
Muriel Leung is the author of Bone Confetti (Noemi Press 2016). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can be found or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, inter/rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to the Blood-Jet Writing Hour poetry podcast. She is also a Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.
Jessica Smith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, cream city Review, Sixth Finch, Phantom Books, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School and is currently pursuing at PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University, where she was the 2016 recipient of the Warren S. Walker Prize and is a co-founder of the LHUCA Literary Series.
Sarah Viren is a writer, translator, and former newspaper reporter. Her essay collection MINE won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in the spring of 2018 and her translation of the novella Córdoba Skies by the Argentine novelist Federico Falco was published by Ploughshares Solos in 2016. Other essays, poems, and stories have appeared in the Oxford American, the Iowa Review, AGNI, The Normal School, and Hobart. Read more about her at sarahviren.wordpress.com.
Chen Chen (moderator) is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He is a Kundiman Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.
“Baby Steps: How to Nurture a Great Writing Career after Having a Child”
“Motherhood is a great gift to a writer,” Amy Bloom has said. Parenthood provides rich experiences, but can impact writing practice, subject matter, and publication. How can a parent find time to write, let alone publish? Will serious journals publish work about parenting? What are parent-centric publications interested in? Is it possible to manage readings or a book tour? The panel, leaders of organizations that support parent writers, discusses strategies for creative and professional growth.
What are some stereotypes of parents as writers, external and internalized, and how can writers counter them?
J.P. Howard: Stereotypes about parents as writers often come from those who may not be parents themselves. People may assume we are not as dedicated to our writing, since we are busy raising our children. Folks may view us primarily in our caretaking roles, more so than in our role as writers. It may even affect opportunities depending on our schedules. Of course, the truth is parent writers are simultaneously dedicated to both our children and our writing. The two things are not mutually exclusive.
An internalized issue that writer parents sometimes experience is guilt; here, I’m definitely speaking from my own experience. We may struggle to find a “balance” in our lives, as parents and as writers. The constant struggle between being dedicated parents and dedicated writers can leave us questioning ourselves. Am I a good enough writer? Shouldn’t I be spending more time on my writing and art? We may compare ourselves to writers who don’t have families and can be too hard on ourselves when we do that. Of course, the flipside can occur when we put in extra time on our craft. Doubt can creep in and we may ask ourselves, am I spending enough time with my family? I find that collaborating with parent/writer friends and colleagues is incredibly helpful. Many times that extra support is crucial and can help us realize we are not alone in our struggles. Writing circles, literary salons, online writing groups, and writing residencies are all ways we can move beyond those stereotypes (internalized and externalized) and ensure we are part of a larger writing community.
M.M. DeVoe: It seems to me that it is less the stereotype of a writing parent than the stereotype of a “great artist” that is dangerous. If there is a common negative stereotype of parent-writers, I would say it’s that of the “mommy blogger” writing exclusively about the ups and downs of parenting and considering their blog the equal of someone else’s novel. At Pen Parentis, we don’t judge the writing produced by a writing parent, we celebrate that anyone can write anything, frankly! It’s terribly hard to balance the demands of children with the demands of a creative career.But to get back to the question at hand: the stereotype of the writer who is a “great artist” is always portrayed as a solitary creature typing late into the night, surrounded by cigarette butts and whiskey bottles—never by permission slips for field trips, toys, or pacifiers. Pen Parentis tries to change that stereotype by telling the world which writers have kids. It’s heartening to know that many recent award-winners have kids instead of drug addictions! Honestly, the dedication it takes to maintain a creative career while also parenting is a dedication that should be celebrated and admired.
Julianne Palumbo: Perhaps one of the most common stereotypes about parents as writers is that parenting writing is often sappy. Some readers might think that there will be nothing interesting to read when someone is simply writing about their own child. Another expectation is that this type of writing can be judgmental and preachy. Because parenting produces experience, the impulse is to pass on that experience through parenting advice in order to save new parents the trouble of figuring things out for themselves. The prevalence of these ideas can have the effect of making parenting writing self-conscious.
Writers can counter these stereotypes by not focusing so much on teaching from their experiences or providing judgment through them as on just relaying their stories in a way that speaks to their audience. Strong writers of parenting material tell us their personal story but then take the important step of universalizing that story so that all of their readers can relate. The stories should show us how parenting simply is, not tell us how anyone might think it should be. Told well, readers will relate to the experience itself and will pull from the writing whatever message might speak to them.
Marjorie Tesser: In an ideal world, the profound, diverse experience of mothering would be believed to be of the highest importance for literary consideration. Unfortunately, it seems some publications are happy to have women write about sex but less so about childbirth and other gritty realities, and there are those that give work about war, politics, etc., precedence over the domestic. Some employ a double standard—writing by a man about parenthood is praiseworthy, but by a woman, clichéd. But there are many publications, both general and mother or women-centric, that are interested in your fine work about aspects of motherhood. When submitting for publication, seek out venues where you find work that harmonizes with your own writing esthetics and style. And do keep sending those mother poems to less friendly venues—the literary landscape is evolving, and changes are occurring in even the most hidebound journals.
In a recent VIDA blog, writer Rachel Richardson relates the experience of an academic colleague cautioning her against being pigeonholed as “one of those mommy poets” (Report from the Field: To Go To Sea: Making a Place in a Male Literary Landscape). I believe no one can dictate what you should be writing, nor what your concerns as an artist should be. As for being pigeonholed, you are the curator of your own bio; you might decide to tweak a particular bio to list prior publications that are in the same “club” as the place you’re submitting. Others feel that the only way we’ll change things is to let our mother flag fly. Any decision you make is fine—mothers who have chosen either path enjoy healthy writing careers.
M.M. DeVoe: Here’s a thought: instead of dropping the kids off the bio as soon as the first major literary prize is attained, we wish that writers would acknowledge their families. One of the things we have discovered is how rare it is for writers to be able to talk about their families, because they think it somehow makes them seem like a less “serious” writer. Why would a writer seem less serious if they are fighting the urge to go play ball with their kid rather than fighting the urge to give it all up, burn their manuscript, and hide under a blanket for the rest of the day? Unknown. But somehow depression is entwined with our stereotype of a working artist, and that, I think, more than anything is damaging to the expectation that we can continue to be great writers if we are also parents.
What actions can parents take to support their own writing? What are some practices to sustain vibrant creative work while actively parenting?
M.M. DeVoe: Obviously, keep writing. That goes without saying. It’s harder than it sounds, especially when you’re battling the guilt of needing to be away from the kids in order to do your best work—though many parent-writers learn to work, even with their kids nearby.
Other, more specific suggestions? Find a community. Even if it’s just three or four other writers, and only one of them has kids, you need someone who understands what you’re going through. Writers who are part of a community are more successful than those who try to go it alone. Make your own workshop, go to a colony for two weeks if you can, treat your writing as you would any day job that earned money. Put it first, make it a priority—for as much time as you are able to devote to it. Then put it away and enjoy your family. Learn to schedule, learn to multitask, and learn to use time wisely. Love the time you’re able to write. Cherish it. Use it.
Julianne Palumbo: One of the most important actions a parent writer can take is to make time to write daily. Often, when the children are young, writing time and sleep come out of the same pile. But writing is learned only by writing, and spending time on writing is integral to improving one’s craft. Write every day, even if it’s just a sentence.
Another important practice is to keep a notebook or journal handy to write down the fabulous things that children do and say. We parents think we will remember them, but in the craziness that can be parenting, they are soon forgotten. As a young mother, I kept a notebook beside my bed and before I went to sleep each night I would write the fantastic happenings of the day. Now, with my children in their teens and twenties, the notebook is full of gems I would never have remembered. Some of these gems have turned themselves into poems and stories.
J.P. Howard: Parents can make attempts to carve out time for our own writing; often this is successfully done when we partner with other parent-writer friends who understand our time constraints and limitations without judgment. This can play out in multiple ways. I find it most helpful being proactive and seeking out other writing communities, made up of both parents and non-parents. I think we each have something valuable to offer the other. Parents can be great at prioritizing, because we know that raising our children and tight time management is something that is automatically built into our schedules. Writer friends without children can learn from our own successful structures and time management. Collaborating in writing salons and virtual online communities makes sure our work stays vibrant and relevant, while keeping us connected to writers and artists beyond our own immediate circles. Parents have to make sure to practice self-love and self-care. This is sometimes our biggest challenge, but I think it is truly life saving when we make those efforts. We can select specific times during the week, month or year to just do something for ourselves (no children included)! This includes attending local writing workshops, writing retreats and residencies away from our “home-base.” When I go away to these spaces, usually without my children, it’s invigorating and often allows me to come back home more focused. Parents, especially women, have to give ourselves permission to put our needs as writers, women, and vibrant beings first. This kind of self-love/self-care also helps us ultimately become a better parent.
Marjorie Tesser: If you want to write and you’re not, or if you’re not writing or publishing as much as you wish you were, you basically have three choices.
Feel frustrated and guilty—Not the best choice!
Write! The best advice is making a habit of it (novelist Lore Segal defines a habit as something it’s easier to do than to not do). Segal wrote mornings. Poet Marie Ponsot wrote without fail for ten minutes each night after putting her seven children to bed; no matter how exhausted she was, she made herself write for those ten minutes, and it often ended up stretching to more. Use the time not only to write seriously but also to play—write personal stuff, make lists, play with ideas.
Relax! As with motherhood, you’ll get disparate advice from random sources about writing. But ultimately, you’re the judge of your own situation; your own mothering – work seesaw finds its own balance on the fulcrum. Each family has its own challenges and requirements; each muse has her own strength, conviction, urgency, and vision. Whatever balance you work out now is not permanent, nor is it binding on the future. I only wrote in fits and starts, privately, when my kids were small, but developed a more steady writing and publishing practice later in life. Do what works for you.
How do our organizations support women’s and parents’ creative work and validate their experiences? Which other publications, presses, retreats, and organizations support and develop the skills and creativity of parent writers?
M.M. DeVoe: At Pen Parentis, our mission is to provide resources to writers to keep them on creative track after they start a family. We offer free monthly literary salons that celebrate the creative diversity of writers that are also parents by bringing three or more such authors into a room and hearing their new works, then discussing the many ways they balance an active family life with a creative career. We offer an annual merit-based fellowship to a writer parenting a child ten or younger. We offer occasional classes to develop particular skills in NYC and we are working hard to develop online communities of writers who are also parents that we hope can turn into in-person communities as we reach a critical mass of participants. We value inclusiveness, professionalism, community—we strive in every way to inspire writers who are parents to dedicate themselves to their writing careers.
Other than those represented here on this panel, we hope all writing parents know about the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Based in San Francisco, they give generous individual grants to writers and visual artists that are also parents. They also keep a list of writing colonies and residencies that they fund to make them more accessible for writing parents, in researching what is available, that’s a great place to begin. Magazines that are excellent for creative, thinking parents are Brain, Child and Mutha Magazine, as well as Brain, Teen. Also, Marble House Project has a writing residency that you can bring spouse and kids to (this is what writing-parent communities are best at: sharing vital information like this!)
J.P. Howard: Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS) supports women’s and parents’ creative work by bringing primarily women of color and LGBTQ communities together each month for a free potluck poetry workshop, featured author reading, Q & A session with our feature and a multi-genre open mic. Our salons meet once monthly over the weekend, often in someone’s home or donated community space. People bring delicious home-made dishes and the wine flows freely. These literary salons last between 4 ½ to 5 hours minimum. We write, we collaborate, we laugh, and often we cry as we use writing to explore so many personal and political issues. Our Salons literally and figuratively nurture us. A number of us are parents and having time to share our experiences as writers is empowering and helps to validate our experiences in the world.
Mom Egg Review is a huge supporter of parent writers, creating a space for us both in print and online. I have been a part of writing communities and retreats at Cave Canem, Lambda Literary and VONA. Each of these spaces includes many writers who happen to be parents, though that is not what brought us to the retreats. These safe and supportive spaces allow us to speak freely about missing our children when we are in residency, while simultaneously celebrating our roles as writers in collaborative and supportive environments. Ultimately these organizations help us develop our skills and remain creative by creating and providing these welcoming spaces.
Julianne Palumbo: Mothers Always Write supports the mission of motherhood by offering poetry, essays, book reviews, and columns intended to speak to parents and parent writers. We support our writers in a number of ways. We created and maintain a contributor’s FB group where writers can expand the readership of their pieces, find writing partners and friendships as well as read other great writing and learn of publication opportunities. We promote our writers by sharing their pieces written both for MAW and for other publications on our social media. We afford our writers the opportunity to participate in critique groups, pairing our writers with others with similar writing interests. We also provide an opportunity for our writers to publicize their relevant works on our site through book reviews and column writing. Finally, our editorial staff often selects at least one new writer for each issue who is then given the opportunity to work with us to bring an often very rough piece of writing to publication quality.
Marjorie Tesser:Mom Egg Review is a literary journal about motherhood. We support mother writers and foster motherhood literature through publication and through live and online community engagement.
We publish an annual print journal of fine, sharp literary work centered on motherhood (in its 15th year) and we recently started a quarterly web-based journal that additionally focuses on general women’s issues. Our website, http://www.momeggreview.com, contains literature and art, craft tips, interviews with established mother writers, reviews of books by mother writers, and relevant news. We sponsor our own readings and workshops, and participate in festivals and panels to help connect in person to mother writers.
In addition to the Mom Egg Review Group, in which contributors and readers can share their own news and concerns, we sponsor genre-based Facebook groups #takepoetry and #febflash. We actively collaborate with other groups interested in mothers’ and women’s experiences, including the Museum of Motherhood, ProCreate Project (a UK-based artists collective that recently sponsored Mother House, an art residency for mothers with children), and others, and we do our best to disseminate information about publications and opportunities friendly to mother artists. We celebrate and value the work of our co-panelists, Pen Parentis, Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, and Mothers Always Write in nurturing mother writers, and the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, in supporting writers and mother-friendly small presses and litmags.
M.M. DeVoe is the founding director of Pen Parentis, a 501c3 nonprofit that provides resources to writers to help them stay on creative track after starting a family. She has an MFA from Columbia and is an award-winning writer of short fiction (with two kids). M.M. co-hosts a series of monthly literary salons in lower Manhattan featuring small groups of diverse writers who are also parents. Pen Parentis also runs a fellowship for parent writers.
J.P. Howard is the author of SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System), which was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She is the recipient of a 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, VONA and Lambda Literary. JP curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon.
Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published many literary journals. She is the author of Into Your Light and Announcing the Thaw, poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. She is the Founder/Editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood.
Marjorie Tesser is the author of poetry chapbooks THEIMPORTANT THING IS (Firewheel Chapbook Award Winner) and The Magic Feather. She co-edited the anthologies Bowery Women and Estamos Aquí (Bowery Books) and Travellin’ Mama: Mothers, Motherhood and Travel (forthcoming from Demeter Press). She is the editor in chief of the literary journal Mom Egg Review.
Self-Authorship in the Writing Classroom: Helping Our Students Find Themselves
The world after college graduation—jobs, relationships, citizenship—demands a lot more from graduates than just knowledge and skills. Our students, if they’re going to thrive, are going to need some real self-awareness and the ability to make their own decisions. In order to get there, they’ll have to engage in a process of what psychologist Robert Kagan calls “self-authorship.” This means developing (in the words of education scholar Marcia Baxter Magolda) “the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations.” In other words, our students need to let go of the way that they’ve been defined by others and decide for themselves who they’re going to be in the world. Luckily, writing classes can be the perfect place for people to work toward becoming the authors of their lives, and teachers are in a great position to help.
When you were a student, did you have any academic experiences that were significant in your own process of self-authorship, by either hindering or spurring your efforts to define yourself?
David Ebenbach: In high school I took a creative writing class taught by a wonderful woman named Carole Nehez, and she did one of the most important things you can do for a person: she helped me find my voice. She helped her students in a number of different ways. First of all, she didn’t line us up in rows facing her at the front of the room; she put the chairs in a circle and we all sat in the circle together, which told us we all had important things to say, that we all could teach. Then, class conversations were free-wheeling and open and spontaneous, and she followed our lead when it was productive. One day, for example, it was raining outside and I asked her at the beginning of class if some of us could run around in the rain for a few minutes before settling into our chairs, and she let us do it. About half the class went, and we came back soaked and energized. But the most important thing was the writing, and particularly the journal writing. Mrs. Nehez required us to keep a journal, and encouraged us to write about anything and everything. She mandated a space for self-exploration. She said we had to do it, so we did.
Kathy Flann: The first experience I remember vividly related to writing and self-awareness is when I wrote a paper in high school about Julius Caesar, and the teacher accused me of plagiarizing it because it was so good. I was both insulted and flattered. I’d been going to Shakespeare plays with my parents since I was a child, and I’d had a lot of time to develop my own thoughts about them. I knew, from that accusation of being beyond my years, that I had come up with my own ideas. They weren’t canned. Even though it was a terrible experience, it was also an important moment. I often think of it when I teach. I remember how much one comment can affect someone.
West Moss: In one of my college lit classes, we were told to keep a journal of our thoughts about what we were reading. I met with my professor one day and he sat and read through my journal, quietly turning the pages. He hesitated and read something out loud to me that I had written. He said, “Is this YOUR idea?” I was confused and said that yes, it was. He got a tear in his eye and a big smile on his face. He sat forward and said, “West, what a brilliant insight.” I was eighteen and I burst into tears. It was as though someone had finally seen what I had suspected but had been unable to confirm until then: namely, that I had ideas that were worthwhile. This was a turning point in my sense of myself as a student and thinker, with ideas of my own to contribute to the larger discussion.
Joselyn Lewis: During the last semester of my senior year in college, I was writing a thesis as part of the graduation requirements in my major. The professor leading the thesis capstone seminar was a very established and respected faculty member in the department, someone I admired greatly and found to be an engaged and supportive educator, but also someone who intimidated me. I disagreed with his opinions at times, but struggled with confidence as to whether or not I had something of value to say and how to express my perspective to him. One day during a whole class discussion, while we were workshopping my classmate’s paper, I suggested that the main premise of her thesis was based on some mistaken cultural assumptions. When my professor supported my classmate’s position, the discussion turned into a direct debate with him and I realized I was very passionate about my take on the issues. I stood my ground and while he did not come around to my perspective, I left class shaking from having tried, but still convinced that I was right.
That afternoon, I had a scheduled check-in with my advisor where I relayed the events from class earlier in the day. He could hear the emotion in my voice and the importance of this argument to me. He did not tell me that he agreed with me or that he thought I was right, but for me, he did something even better. After he heard me out, the first thing he said was “Have you ever considered going to graduate school? I think you should.” Graduate school was actually not on my radar prior to that exchange, but my advisor’s reaction to me at that moment changed everything. I started seeing myself as someone who was capable of that level of academic work and as someone who had something to contribute. It was very significant.
How can writing—and particularly creative writing—help people on their journey toward self-authorship?
Kathy Flann: I think a creative writing workshop is the one place where students really do make their own decisions about the work they produce. Typically, faculty are most sincere in those classes about the carte blanche to make the work what they want it to be, and students sense that sincerity. They know the work is “real” in the sense that it could potentially be read by people just like them—fans of fiction. So they take the work of craft very seriously. They think of themselves as “real” writers in ways they may not in other disciplines.
Joselyn Lewis: I think writing can be supportive of our process of identity development and self-authorship in a number of ways. Writing can create space to slow down. That change in pace between writing and other ways we might communicate about ourselves and interact with others allows for a space that is more conducive to self-reflection and self-analysis. Also, writing, and perhaps creative writing in particular, requires an attention to voice in a way that often encourages the writer to work on finding their voice, recognizing and owning what kind of voice one has and how one wants to use it.
David Ebenbach: Some writing is direct self-authorship. For example, memoir and poetry can be places where you try to get a grip on your own story and make sense of it, and come to conclusions about it. It’s almost the same case with fiction and playwriting if it’s thinly veiled autobiography. But that’s just the obvious stuff. Even fiction that has no direct correspondence to your own life can spur the process of self-authorship. Maybe you drop a character into a moral conundrum and work them through it and, in so doing, discover how you feel about that situation; maybe you just can’t stop writing about loss (or connection, or faith, or struggle, or whatever it is); maybe you let characters do things you would never dare to do (or think you would never dare to do). In each case you learn something about what matters to you. Writing allows you to talk about the world, or a world, anyway, and then you learn—by comparison, by contrast—about your own world.
West Moss: I think I answer this below.
How can a teacher support the process of self-authorship?
Joselyn Lewis: From my experience, educators who are able to create intentional ways for students to connect academic material to their own lived experiences provide students with both powerful opportunities to further develop their own self-authorship and powerful learning experiences. Some faculty I work with do this by assigning writing assignments that explicitly ask students to bring themselves into conversation with course material—a faith autobiography for a religion class, or a weekly reflection journal, for example. The writing process is a supportive element as well as the sharing between student and teacher and what that sharing sets up in terms of the student feeling “seen” by the teacher. Another way to support the process of students’ self-authorship is to model or share experiences from our own trajectory toward self-authorship. It’s particularly helpful if teachers are willing to share some of the obstacles or difficulties in the process, so students can see the complexity, potential messiness, and non-linear nature of identity development and movement toward self-authorship.
Kathy Flann: What I do is spend the first 3-6 weeks, depending on the level of the student, assigning ungraded work. Every time the student says, “Did you like it? Did I do well on it?” I say “Do YOU like it?” I explain as many times as it takes that they’re not writing for me. I say, “If you don’t like your work, probably no one else will like it, either.” I use my own writing experiences as examples in class, so that they will understand that we are all writers. We are just at different points on our journeys. I love it the most when I sit side-by-side with students who’ve come to my office and I ask them questions, “What does this guy want? Does he have a job? What does he do? Who is his family? What did he do yesterday? Why?” etc. It’s fun to see the student grasp that the answers are there in the mind. I think they also see that they, the students, are the only ones with the answers to these questions. I can guide, but I can’t provide the answers.
David Ebenbach: I think teachers can help students grow into themselves in two ways: by making space for the process and by challenging them to engage. Like Carole Nehez, my high school creative writing teacher, you can set up the classroom and in-class time to bring out voices—sitting in a circle, using first names, letting students do a lot of the talking—and you can use exercises that invite exploration: discussions based around student perspectives and experiences, journal-writing, reflection papers, writing assignments that ask them to tell childhood stories. In terms of writing exercises, I like to start with emotionally easy stuff (e.g., write a detailed physical description of a place you associate with your childhood) and then move to more fraught prompts (e.g., write a scene in which someone you really don’t like does something unexpectedly nice).
In some classes, I build up to an assignment called “Write the story you’re not allowed to write,” which I first encountered as a sentence in a Janet Burroway textbook and which I’ve elaborated on quite a bit. Some of the options for the assignment: “Write a fictionalized version of some true events that you are not supposed to reveal to the world….Write about something that is taboo for you….Don’t pick what’s taboo for others—go for what makes you squirm….Write sympathetically from the point of view of a protagonist who makes you genuinely uncomfortable. This would be the kind of person that secretly on some level you can relate to or might even wish to be, even though officially you completely disapprove of this kind of person.” Nobody is required to do this assignment—I give them an alternative—but almost everybody chooses to do it, and usually they find that they’re discovering important things, surviving those discoveries, growing from those discoveries, and, on top of that, writing the most promising thing they’ve written all semester long.
West Moss: There are ways to make the classroom feel safe for students to share their ideas, and to discover what they think about the world. Certainly listening carefully and giving genuine supportive responses is key, but also pushing them to write about their own worlds is often fruitful. In creative writing classes, I often begin class with brief (2-3 minute) in-class writing exercises, where I ask them to write about things they’ve noticed that morning, or interactions from years ago that they still think about. When shared, these things help build a community within the classroom, but they can also show beginning CW students that their own lives provide rich material for writing.
I have an assignment called “The Lies Our Characters Tell.” We read a short story together, something very short like John Cheever’s “Reunion,” for example, and look at how a particular character is lying (often to themselves) about themselves. For instance, the father in that story says that he cares about his son, but his actions show that he doesn’t. These small moments of dishonesty in characters can be revelatory for students, and demonstrate the kinds of inner conflicts we want our characters to display.
Next, students make a list of the stories they told about themselves when they last met someone new. What clothes did they wear and what “story” were they trying to tell with those clothes? Were they trying to look sexy, athletic, wealthy? Did they want to look like they didn’t care in some way, while actually caring very deeply about what people thought of them? Could they see the inner-conflict inherent in some of their own choices? Then I ask them to write down some of the actual stories they tell about themselves. Do they lead with their summer in France, or do they lead with their most recent awful break-up? Do they find stories to tell that make it clear they come from money, or do they prefer to immediately disclose that they were adopted, and why?
Then they’re asked to reflect on what these clashes between who they really are and who they portray themselves to be tell them about themselves. Does it reveal that they want something they don’t feel they can have? Does it reveal their senses of inadequacy or mastery in some way? One’s sense of identity, and one’s own understanding of small, potent conflicts in their own world, are essential underpinnings of compelling writing, but perhaps also of being a full human being.
These kinds of insights lead to several good outcomes. First, beginning CW students often feel they have to rely on large conflicts (explosions, wars, the death of a protagonist) in order to build tension in their stories. These exercises show them the kinds of small tensions that are real and universal, and that will help them to build characters that their readers will care about. More importantly, though, they help students in their own awareness of “self,” which is a critical sense for writers to develop. These are the kinds of tools, too, that I like to think I am giving them to use in life in general…the skill of reflection, of “noticing,” and a sense that their lives, and ideas, are thrilling and complex and moving enough to be at the center of their writing, and of their consciousness.
David Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved and the story collection Into the Wilderness. He is a Professor of the Practice in Creative Writing at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.
Kathy Flann‘s short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Maryland.
Joselyn Lewis is an Associate Director for Inclusive Teaching and Learning Initiatives at Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. She leads the Engelhard Project and the Doyle Faculty Fellowship Program, which promote curricular and pedagogical innovation on issues of well-being, diversity, and inclusive pedagogy.
West Moss teaches creative writing at William Paterson University and at Gotham in New York City. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, Salon.com, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her collection of short stories, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, was published by Leapfrog Press.