DISCOURSE as quilting

Welcome to the intersection of P. L. Thomas writing about his writing and other writers' writing to explore discourse as quilting.

Archive for March 2013

remnant 4: “good enough for one of your blogs but…”

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Recently, I had the kind of experience with a scholarly submission that I wish I could someday identify as rare, but the truth is, this is essentially typical—even among the progressive and critical colleagues, scholars, and publications where I place a good deal of my academic and scholarly work.

I submitted a chapter and was prompted to revise and rewrite it multiple times (I, in fact, appreciate and thrive on substantial editor feedback in my work, especially since much of my public work—see below—is produced in isolation). Often, when editors ask for revisions of my academic work, the initial comments revolve around the work being too conversational—too much personal narrative.

For the record, when I submit public work, the editorial complaint is my work is too scholarly.

In both the academic/scholarly press and the public media, I have a very purposeful commitment to submitting work that simultaneously offers a message I am seeking to share while simultaneously using the mode, discourse, genre, and medium to confront the norms of both contexts; I want to challenge the academic/scholarly norms of discourse, and I want to challenge the public norms of discourse.

My work with journalists, for example publications such as AlterNet and Truthout, has been some of the best on-the-job training I have ever experienced as a writer. While I remain often frustrated about certain entrenched conventions for public work (journalism is too cavalier about citations, for example), I have learned a great deal from careful editing, questions, and suggestions when working with journalists.

As I turn back to the opening experience with a recent piece (which eventually found a home at AlterNet, by the way), I must say that I am more troubled by the entrenched expectations for discourse among academics and scholars—notably critical scholars who want radical and critical messages wrapped in reductive, stilted, traditional discourse conventions.

And what is more troubling, I think, is the not-so-subtle condescension found among academics, including the “this piece is good enough for one of your blogs but…” refrain.

Traditional academic and scholarly discourse has much to learn from the world of blogging and online discourse. My blogs, for example, allow me to pursue the quilting I have begun to examine in this blog, first inspired in me by the hybrid scholarship of Maxine Greene, whose writing in educational philosophy opened up to me a world in which literary, historical, and personal references were weaved with the so-called weightier business of philosophical rigor (an ugly word that should never be used in the positive contexts people do use it).

I have been using Joseph Williams’ Style (a work that comes in enough versions and editions to set some Guinness World Record I suspect) with students since the mid-1990s when a member of my doctoral committee, Craig Kridel, held up the book at our first doctoral meeting and told us everyone should read it and know it.

A key point made by Williams that has remained with me as a writer is the concept that we humans are interested in people doing things, even better is real people doing real things.

Vivid writing of all genres, modes, and forms is concrete, and the most engaging case any writing can make involves personal narrative (see Robert Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing). But as Greene models, I also think that claims, evidence, and elaboration become effective and compelling with a richness that quilting can offer, pulling from literature, history, quantitative statistics, personal narrative, journalism, philosophy, and non-print media such as films, music lyrics, and graphic texts.

In a recent piece, I came to see that teaching is an invisible profession, and that idea was made more engaging for me when I began to consider Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. So I grabbed a copy (after looking through the previews at amazon and google books), eventually rereading the Prologue and Epilogue. In that re-connection with literature, I also came to see that teachers have been hibernating, like Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

The finished piece is more rich for my literary research, but also for my shaping the finished piece around those passages.

For journalism to ignore the power of citation and for academics/scholars to belittle blogging and the thriving online media are both serious failures to seek discourse that public intellectuals can engage with the wider public in ways that bring about change.

While it stings to have my own work negatively criticized and eventually dropped from a project I very much supported, I am much more concerned about the entrenched insular nature of academia and scholarship.

In academic publishing and processes such as tenure and promotion at the university levels, peer-reviewed journals and traditional forms of discourse remain not just honored but exclusively tolerated and rewarded—despite the tremendous imbalance of few (if any) people reading the peer-reviewed works while thousands are exposed to public work (I had an online piece in The Atlantic that reached 1000+ Facebook “likes” in a few days; my blog allows me to see daily visits of 100 or more).

The work of scholars as writers needs to be about what we say, of course, and there must be great care in making informed claims within and from ones field of expertise. But academics must not ignore how we communicate and especially to whom.

To put a twist on a cliched riddle, If an academic publishes an essay in a peer-reviewed journal and no one reads it…

remnant 3: it started with a cup of coffee

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It started with a cup of coffee. Literally.

Yesterday morning as I put honey in my morning coffee, two phrases came to mind: “I have set aside crystalline sugar,” followed by “this quest for sweetness.”

Several hours later—maybe 8 or 10 hours, in fact—I had my newest poem, “this quest for sweetness.”

A few years back, a colleague, Sean O’Rourke, and I were discussing the writing of Op-Eds, commentaries for the popular press. Commentaries usually are about 750 words, and Sean and I agreed that writing an Op-Ed is a great deal like writing a poem; they are both about an economy of language, a quest for the vivid, the accurate, and the concise.

The why and how of writing are too little examined, I think—especially for and with students and developing writers. Here, I want to tease out briefly the writing of my newest poem against the poor reputation poetry receives in school and the very real and enduring power of poetry, as expressed by James Dickey:

The more your encounter with poetry deepens, the more your experience of your own life will deepen, and you will begin to see things by means of words, and words by means of things.

You will come to understand the world as it interacts with words, as it can be re-created by words, by rhythms and by images.

You’ll understand that this condition is one charged with vital possibilities. You will pick up meaning more quickly — and you will create meaning, too, for yourself and others.

All genres, forms, media, and modes of writing exist because of a combination of inspiration/motivation and craft. These two aspects of composing are not necessarily sequential; in other words, inspiration/motivation does not always precede craft. But they are inseparable, the one feeding the other and the other feeding the one.

My poet self is quite distinct from my Op-Ed self, and both of these are distinct from my long-form self. But as a professional writer (as distinguished from a student writer), in almost all of my writing, I am allowed to compose from my own inspiration/motivation. Occasionally, I am invited to write to a prompt of some sort, but even then, I am at liberty to decline.

Those of us teaching writing must always be aware that students are disproportionately compelled externally to write, and the quality of their writing tends to be negatively impacted by that external compulsion.

For me, poetry specifically comes to me, unbidden. I would classify my poetry as inspired, but I do not discount that these sudden flashes of “see[ing] things by means of words, and words by means of things,” as Dickey explains, are the result of being deeply immersed in some rich artistic and life experiences. The quilting of my poetry often comes in the form of reading a wonderful new novel, listening to a new CD, or watching a beautiful, powerful film.

Art and life push words into my brain; thus, “I have set aside crystalline sugar” and “this quest for sweetness.”

My influences are external, but my compulsion is somewhere deep inside, and it is cumulative.

For example, I was driving down the interstate several weeks ago and the word “crinoline” came to me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure it was a word, and I was even uncertain what I thought it meant (I assumed correctly it was a type of fabric, but didn’t understand its full meaning until I researched the term), but it came and it nagged.

A poem, “crinoline (&),” soon emerged once I did some google searching, and then I felt threads merging with Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (a story about quilting as art or for utility I taught for years in A.P. English) and Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” (a chance connection spurred by a Tweet).

My public commentary and scholarly work require a great deal of research, but poems such as “crinoline (&)” do as well since I tend to explore and study what words mean, how they are derived, what their histories entail. I came to see that “crinoline” has gender inextricably weaved in the fabric of the word.

And that leads me to craft.

Even very brief poems of mine—like “this quest for sweetness,” “in case you ever wonder,” or “a short poem about a hollow object”—consume hours of craft, generally layered with reading, working on other pieces, listening to music, or washing clothes and dishes.

Poetic craft, for me, tends to involve some key patterns: images (I am committed to the concrete tradition of Imagist poets such as e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams), word choice and word etymology, and grammar. To be honest, most of my poetry disguises word play with the mask of love poetry. Both matter to me, but my word fetish is at least as powerful as my effort to say something.

In “this quest for sweetness,” the title came quickly and stayed, as did the opening two-line stanza (generally the stanza/line formations of a poem come to me along with the words, but occasionally, as I draft, the poetic form reshapes itself, a further reflection of my Imagist foundation, my concern for how a poem looks and sounds).

Below is the original draft, and notice a few areas of fretting:

  • I thought of “crystalline” initially but late in the draft worried that I should use “granular,” opting to stay with the original mainly for the sound.
  • The second stanza changed significantly and suddenly just as I thought I was finished, although I never wanted to use “sweetness” twice. “Drizzle” became “drizzled,” and moved, while “lacing” came to mind and really helped clarify for me deeper and fuller images for the brief poem (I still cannot get molasses out of my mind and fought the urge to change to that because of the distinct flavor).
  • Most of my poems “tell” me the title somewhere in a line or phrase of the poem; in this case, the title came almost immediately, but I still had to discover where it fit in the flow.
  • The last stanza was the hardest and initially least fulfilling, but it represents well how craft matters in ways to writers that may be lost on those who do not write. I wrestled with “sugarcane” or “sugar cane” (google shows both); with “grove,” “orchard,” or “field” (likely settling on “field” for the “l” of “lips” and “lost”); and with prepositions—”among,” against,” “in.”

Poems such as “this quest for sweetness” and “crinoline (&)” highlight discourse as quilting as well as the discursive and cross-pollinating relationship between inspiration/motivation and craft. The “sweetness” motif of the first and the “fabric” motif of the second provided me as a writer a foundation upon which to stand as words, ideas, and images swirled around me.

Poetry is evidence that discourse is quilting, as Dickey adds, “Connections between things will exist for you in ways that they never did before. They will shine with unexpectedness, wide-openness, and you will go toward them, on your own path.”

[original draft]

this quest for sweetness
i have set aside

crystalline [granular?] sugar
for the golden drizzle

stickiness [sweetness] of honey
but this quest for sweetness

can never bear the fruit
of my lips lost once again

among [against]  your sugarcane grove

Written by plthomasedd

March 24, 2013 at 1:31 pm

remnant(s) 2: Haruki Murakami

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“But I didn’t understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.”

Chapter 2, South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami

“With Naoko gone, I went to sleep on the sofa. I hadn’t intended to do so, but I fell into the kind of deep sleep I had not had for a long time, filled with a sense of Naoko’s presence. In the kitchen were the dishes Naoko ate from, in the bathroom was the toothbrush Naoko used, and in the bedroom was the bed in which Naoko slept. Sleeping soundly in this apartment of hers, I wrung the fatigue from every cell of my body, drop by drop. I dreamed of a butterfly dancing in the half-light.”

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

“You’re very clear about what you like and what you don’t like,” she said.

“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe that’s why people don’t like me. Never have.”

“It’s cause you show it,” she said. “You make it obvious you don’t care whether people like you or not. That makes some people mad.” She spoke in a near mumble, chin in hand. “But I like talking to you. The way you talk is so unusual. ‘I don’t like having something control me that way.'”

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

“My arm was not the one she needed, but the arm of someone else. My warmth was not what she needed, but the warmth of someone else. I felt almost guilty being me.”

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

Written by plthomasedd

March 23, 2013 at 6:47 pm

remnant 1: “a hybrid work of sorts”

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When Emily Dickinson asked, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Or Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator explains, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Those of us who write or read or find ourselves inevitably drawn to the many and varied worlds created with or through words likely invision the stereotypical Kafkaesque nightmare of reason captured in “Give It Up!”:

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I was not very well acquainted with the town yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: ‘from me you want to learn the way?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give it up, give it up,’ said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

Regardless of genre, medium, or mode a writer chooses or sews together, writers often find themselves out of joint—out of joint with themselves, with others, and with time:

Let us go in together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together. (1.5.186-190)

This blog is a place for me to examine and share that paradoxical tension between the drive to express coupled with or pushing against the inevitable sense of alienation from Self, Others, and Time.

The guiding metaphor of all my writing has become quilting, in the sense that no ideas or words are purely original, but that discourse is always the sewing together of the remnants we gather in hopes of offering something new and valuable and even beautiful in our endless quest.

My writing life is now primarily scholarship, public intellectual work (such as Op-Eds, commentaries, and blogs), and poetry. All of those works, however, share the same urge to quilt—as I attempted to confront in a final note for my 2012 book on poverty and education:

Note: Drafting a Book on Poverty in the Twenty-first Century

This book is a hybrid work of sorts—the combination of commentaries and Op-Eds weaved into a larger scholarly work confronting how many different stakeholders in universal public education—politicians, corporate leaders, political appointees, the general public, administrators, teachers, and students—view poverty, people living in poverty, students learning in poverty, and teaching and learning. The commentaries and Op-Eds I published in traditional publications and through online media such as blogs add to the larger scholarly work both discourse aimed at a wide readership and interactive discussions impacted by online writing prompting and allowing readers to post comments and engage me as a scholar in a living and evolving conversation.

While this book is primarily a work about U.S. poverty and education in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, my work as a scholar is tied inextricably with my work as a writer; thus, the work itself, like all of my work, is a commentary on discourse and writing. Just as assumptions about poverty and education impact and tint how we address both, assumptions, conventions, and norms about discourse control not only what is expressed but also how discourse is presented. One hybrid aspect of this book is the blending of discourse aimed at the general public and a scholarly audience. Too often, I believe, public discourse lacks the evidence-based elements necessary in scholarly work (citations and references that allow the readers to examine the validity of the claims made in the piece) while scholarly work tends to be expressed in language and media that create an insular discourse, scholars speaking to scholars.

Another element of the book that often creates tension when I submit work for publication is what I frame as quilting; I view scholarly discourse as a fabric weaved out of a community of voices. The use of citations and quoting sources to illuminate and reinforce claims are essential elements of presenting scholarly authority (in the Freirian sense of authoritative, not authoritarian), but many conventions of scholarly writing encourage burying the voice of the cited scholars within paraphrasing. I, instead, tend to highlight in quotes not only the claims of my citations, but also the voice itself—how the claim is framed by the source. This stylistic choice celebrates the collaborative and communal nature of making scholarly claims, although it comes with risk within the academic community that is often deeply conservative about discourse conventions while being more embracing of radical ideas and claims.

Making scholarly and public claims creates a tension for democratic ideals: What voice matters, and should all voices matter equally? Democratic ideals suggest that all voices must be honored, but rarely do we confront in our democracy the weight of each voice—does giving credibility to expert voices over inexpert voices betray democracy? To argue for social equity, human agency, and equitable schools, making a parallel argument that some voices are more valid than others appears hypocritical, but therein lies the paradox of critical scholarship genuinely committed to democracy and human agency.

My arguments and evidence, then, have been an organic act, informed by my scholarship and by interacting with readers within the new media world of online publications and discussing topics with readers. While this book becomes a fixed statement, it too is part of a living and breathing tapestry, a quilt offered as a place to begin and maintain a discussion that leads toward a more equitable education system that feeds a more equitable society. This is a confrontation of many types of poverty—the poverty of economics that imprisons people in a society driven by privilege, the poverty of access, the poverty of voice, the poverty of information ironically persisting in a world bombarded by media.

And I feel compelled to end with these words from Kurt Vonnegut (1991):

I listen to the ethical pronouncements of the leaders of the so-called religious revival going on in this country, including those of our President, and am able to distill only two firm commandments from them.  The first commandment is this: “Stop thinking.”  The second commandment is this: “Obey.”  Only a person who has given up on the power of reason to improve life here on Earth, or a soldier in basic training, could accept either commandment gladly: “Stop thinking” and “Obey.” (p. 158)

Inequity is the life-blood of privilege, and the privileged depend on the majority of the public to stop thinking and obey. Let’s not.

Written by plthomasedd

March 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm