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 April 2013

remnant 17: “we came to the world in order to remake the world” Paulo Freire

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April 28, 2013 at 4:49 pm

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remnant 16: “a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production”

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Two online pieces jump out at me in a way that may seem unrelated at first:

For me, the pieces speak to the Brave New World of scholarship that has swept over and past academia, while most academics weren’t paying any attention.

The online world, often marginalized as “social media,” of blogs and Twitter has sprung up, evolved, and become relevant—even influential—without the blessings of the powers that be within academia—the faculty status committee and all the trappings [1] associated with tenure and promotion, that nefarious [2] world called “scholarship.”

So in the cusp of April (the cruelest month) and May in 2013, Sean Reardon, an academic and scholar, posts what the NYT has deemed a “commentary”; yet, the piece is anchored throughout by statistics, research, and his expert analysis of what all that evidence means. Reardon is doing the heavy lifting of the public intellectual, but this is being carried out online—thus, comments are posted and the piece gains a momentum of sharing through Twitter, Facebook, and a whole host of engines for distribution that is driven by Reardon’s dear readers. [Not his department chair, not his colleagues, not his university, not a panel of peer-review, but his dear and patient readers from all walks of life.]

I will venture onto a pretty sturdy limb here and add that this NYT piece from Reardon will garner more readers, impact more thought, than most of his recent scholarly publications [3] in quite a few years. I have had pieces online at the NYT and The Atlantic, and can attest to the seemingly never-ending ripple effect of having had my work published (although only virtually) in both.

And this leads to Germano’s piece about readers and a question I have come to ask quite often: If an academic publishes in a peer-reviewed journal and no one reads it, does it really matter? [4]

Germano opens with a very writerly thing to claim (as opposed to a scholarly thing to say [5]):

Go ahead. Keep working on your book. But before you finish, I hope you’ll consider a modest proposal. Your book will never be entirely yours—it can’t be. Because the book you’re writing needs an important collaborator: the reader.

Today our paradigms for scholarly writing may never have seemed less paradigmatic, our disciplinary affirmations never less comforting. Yet professionalism remains tied to the idea of confirmation through writing.

Traditionally, the scholar has been allowed to seek “the idea of confirmation through writing” within an insular and somewhat hollow mechanism of authority—faculty status committee, peer-reviewed journals. In effect, the incestuous echoes of scholars writing to, for, and against scholars. And for the most part, that structure was built quite sturdy, essentially sound-proof so that no one outside the fortress of academia and scholarship could hear even if anyone wanted to [6].

I sit here this morning about to venture into my every-other-year duty as a professor, the self-evaluation. It has taken me almost a dozen years to understand what this process means, and how best to go about it. That has been an adventure filled with fits and starts, most of which I find tedious and unproductive (higher education is a passive-aggressive world in which those expectations that are most vital to any professor’s success are also those things “which must never be uttered”; even that those things which must never be uttered is never uttered).

And part of that self-evaluation will once again include my own self-advocacy linked to a larger advocacy that the public work of a scholar deserves a place in the academy, and I don’t mean a token sidecar. For some, if not many of us, public intellectual work existing almost exclusively in the non-peer-reviewed virtual world is our best and most effective work.

But only if we concede Germano’s recognition of the role of the reader:

And yet there’s a paradox here. Even if scholarly publishing may be in trouble, readers—even scholarly readers—aren’t. In fact, readers may never have been more important in the ecology of knowledge production….

New reading conditions make old questions even more important: Whatever we write is for readers, or it’s nothing at all. Do we write as if we mean to welcome readers? And what do we want to happen after the handshake and the hello?

The traditional model of scholarly production is based on scrupulous research methods and well-documented results. But that same model, especially as applied to the job of writing a first scholarly book, has also tacitly endorsed a principle of precise and modest display. Nothing too flashy, nothing too speculative. The reader’s presence has respectfully been acknowledged, but not often actively engaged.

That’s how we’ve done things these past 30 years. But our writing protocols need to change now, in part because the digital environment increases potential visibility and exposure. Let me propose here a controlling metaphor: We’ve been writing snow globes.

And as Germano acknowledges, the life of the academic/scholar is nothing if not a quest for avoiding mistakes, controversy, or disturbing in any way the land-mine littered territory of most importance, other people’s scholarly turf. One misstep and there goes the foot to stand on when you seek tenure and/or promotion. The culture of fear is palpable:

Scholarly books, especially first ones, are a paranoid genre—their structure assumes that someone is always watching, eager to find fault. And they take every precaution against criticism.

As we fear, so we write. Fearful writing is different from covering the bases. It’s building a glass wall around one’s project so that the reader can look at but can’t disturb the pleasant scene within.

It’s no surprise that the snow-globe book doesn’t do much. It can’t. There’s nothing to grab onto, no space for the reader to get into the text and texture of the argument. There may not even be an argument, or a thesis, or a claim, or even a very good, almost entirely coherent half-an-idea.

Academe has been in the snow-globe business for years. The problem here is not the specificity of research but the intention of the finished product. Inward-looking, careful to a fault, our monographs have been content to speak to other monographs rather than to real, human readers.

Traditional scholarship is not just insular and spawned from fear; it is moribund, static, defunct—dust-covered as those scholarly books neatly catalogued in library stacks around the world where most of the hardback sales go to rest like sarcophagi in rarely visited museums.

While we often hear warnings about the Brave New World of the Internet—emails exist forever, Facebook posts exist forever—we tend to fail to recognize that the virtual world being permanent because of the infinite replications is a type of living, a type of evolution that rises above paper-based publications that literally begin to deteriorate the moment they are produced.

And thus, Germano’s argument:

I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.

Or as I have been exploring, discourse as quilting. And now I seek you, reader, to join the cause.


[1] By “trappings,” I mean definition 1, not 2:

  1. The outward signs, features, or objects associated with a particular situation, role, or thing: “I had the trappings of success.”
  2. A horse’s ornamental harness.

[2] In the blur of drafting, I misspelled “nefarious” (the red line told me thus) so I copied my version, pasted it into google, and was rescued.

[3] Mostly peer-reviewed and published in hard-copy print form (in the real and not virtual world).

[4] With my apologies to trees everywhere falling in the woods without a precious human their to verify and make real that falling. We are a self-centered, navel-gazing species, humans.

[5] As Ernest Hemingway admitted, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” But while the writer toils in solitude in order to reach out to the world, the scholar often wallows in solitude as if the world doesn’t exist (and even worse, as if the world is beneath him/her).

[6] And so we have the life of the sad professor, as the lyrics to R.E.M.’s “Sad Professor” detail: “everyone hates a sad professor./I hate where I wound up./dear readers, my apologies”:

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April 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm

remnant 15: “the remnants of a defeated army”

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That I have tended toward science fiction (SF) and not fantasy as part of my nerdom is no small issue.

That I have in the last several years opened that door—Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is identified as SF by the publisher, but really? and I am madly in love with Haruki Murakami and slipping toward something of a fling with Game of Thrones—is also no small issue, one that speaks to my own problematic relationship with the supernatural.

In my declining years, I have not only set aside my cynicism and somewhat angry war with organized religion, but I have also made the rather pathetic comment that I concede that there may be something like karma. I’m not proud of this weak concession, but it simply is what it is.

Many years ago when I was teaching high school English, I decided to read during my planning period. I had newly purchased a box set of Italo Calvino—If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Invisible Cities, The Baron in the Trees. I selected If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, pulled open a desk drawer, propped up my feet, and settled back to read. On page 7, I read this:

“Gradually you settle back in the chair, you raise the book to the level of your nose, you tilt the chair, poised on its rear legs, you pull out a side drawer of the the desk to prop your feet on it; the position of the feet during reading is of maximum importance, you stretch your legs out on the top of the desk, on the files to be expedited.”

That passage now looks out at me from beneath a bright pink highlighting, the book safely ensconced still in the box set that I dust occasionally.

Well after I began this blog and titled it DISCOURSE is quilting and decided to identify each posting as a “remnant,” I came to the end of Sputnik Sweetheart, one of the most disarming books I’ve ever read, even or especially among Murakami because I see too much of me in that book in ways that I do not want to look at. And then toward the end:

“It was far too hot to think about complicated matters. Admittedly I was confused and tired. Still, as if marshaling together the remnants of a defeated army—minus any drums and trumpets—I rallied my scattered thoughts. My mind focused, I began to piece it together.” (p. 163)

“Remnant,” I though, but kept reading:

“The waiter came to clear away the remnants of my toast, and I ordered a refill lemonade. Put in lots of ice, I asked him. When he brought the drink over I took a sip and used it again to cool my forehead.” (pp. 164-165)

“The Geese of Beverly Road”

The National

Oh, come, come be my waitress and serve me tonight
Serve me the sky tonight
Oh, come, come be my waitress and serve me tonight
serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon

Stubbornly, I finished Sputnik Sweetheart and felt as if I had simultaneously been nailed to the floor and cut loose in space like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I had read about the final scene in Game of Thrones Episode 24 of Season 3 so I watched the replay right after finishing the novel; and thus, the infidelity born of finding new love in the wake of recent love.

This next morning I started A Wild Sheep Chase, and suspect I shouldn’t keep ignoring the messages:

“I forget her name.

“I could pull out the obituary, but what difference would it make now. I’ve forgotten her name.” (p. 5)

And this is reading begun well after I wrote this poem, “impressions (hints of you),” that begins:

i have trouble remembering names

but some things i never seem to forget

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” ~ Tennessee Williams inThe Glass Menagerie

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April 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Posted in Haruki Murakami, remnant 15

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remnant 14: “So that’s how we live our lives”

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“So that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that’s stolen from us—that’s snatched right out of our hands—even if we are left completely changed, with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silnece. We draw ever nearer to the end of our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deeds of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness.”

K in Sputnik Sweetheart, Harulik Murkami

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April 23, 2013 at 11:20 am

remnant 13: “Somehow, though, I always feel driven to write”

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From Sumire’s Document 1 in Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart:

“Somehow, though, I always feel driven to write.

“Why? It’s simple, really. In order for me to think about something, I have to first put it into writing….

“Writing for me was never difficult. Other children gathered pretty stones or acorns, and I wrote. As naturally as breathing, I’d scribble down one sentence after another. And I’d think….

“My provisional theme here: On a day-to-day basis I use writing to figure out who I am.”

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April 22, 2013 at 1:10 am

remnant 12: “my fingers touch your blood,” Frida Kahlo

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I woke with the opening lines to a poem and then an image, but couldn’t really piece it all together in terms of what I was exploring until I coincidentally came across a post at Brain Pickings on Frida Kahlo’s letters to her lover, Diego Rivera:


Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.


My new poem (revised):

“impressions (hints of you)” (click below for larger image)


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April 21, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Frida Kahlo, poetry, remnant 12

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remnant 11: poetry of social consciousness, personal experience

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My poet Self is in many ways the real me, but distinct from my social and professional personas.

People who “know” me in my many roles in daily life often find my poetry unlike what they would have expected (in part, not expecting me to be a poet at all, and more significantly, not expecting so much “love” poetry).

Yet, the real me, and often closeted me, is he who sits on the couch alone and watches Notting Hill as often as possible, somewhat to laugh, but mainly to cry. On my iPod tour this morning driving into work, I listened to “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (spectacular opening lines) and then “She” by Elvis Costello. It is the kind of stuff I wish I had written.

A tremendous part of my poet Self is one who writes from inspiration. Poems come to me; I do not write poems by choice, and I certainly don’t write poems from any prompting. [This fact has greatly informed who I have become as a writing teacher—recognizing the failure of prompting others to write.]

Thus, although my scholarly and teacher Selves are driven primarily by a pursuit of social justice, few of my poems are social consciousness pieces; most of my poetry is very much personal experience explorations.

Yet, after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I was compelled by the phrase “they ran.”

When I saw the video of the explosion, I was struck and then haunted by how many people ran toward the blast, the debris and smoke.

As I watched the news coverage and listened to radio coverage, I again was struck with how many people noticed the running toward.

And from that came this:

“they ran (15 April 2013)”

they ran

they ran to win
they ran to be fast
they ran to chase personal bests
they ran to honor
they ran to survive
they ran to raise money for others
they ran to finish

and then the explosion
followed by another

they fell
they stumbled
they ducked their heads
they turned to look

they ran toward the billowing smoke
they ran toward the debris
they ran toward the screams
they ran toward the crying
they ran toward the bleeding

they ran


The poetic heritage of this piece can be traced to Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” a brilliant crafting of poetic expression, deft lination, and deceptively simple language.

For me, as well, the poetry of social consciousness and the poetry of personal experience share a place in the heart, feeling something so deeply at the core of being human that it rises above us, out of us, expands us, and moves us.

The events captured in the Boston Marathon explosion video moved me to tears, and at least one person reading my poem shared with me on Facebook that at the “turn” moment of the poem, she was moved to tears.

I suppose in the end, I am compelled to argue that the poetry of social consciousness is the poetry of personal experience, the poetry of personal experience is the poetry of social consciousness.

They are both of the human heart.

Since they are rare, here are a few more of my social consciousness poems:

“calculating (the erased)”

“choice (Vote!)”


“on imprisonment and freedom”

“the consumers (crimes against the market)”

“the world (frantic)”

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April 17, 2013 at 3:02 pm

remnant 10: first words matter

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Few lyrics work as well as the opening to this song by Eagles:

“Peaceful Easy Feeling”

I like the way your sparkling earrings lay,

Against your skin, it’s so brown.

And I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight

With a billion stars all around.

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April 17, 2013 at 1:47 pm

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remnant 9: Thoreau on poetry

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From Henry David Thoreau’s Journals:

Poetry — No definition of poetry is adequate unless it be poetry itself. The most accurate analysis by the rarest wisdom is yet insufficient, and the poet will instantly prove it false by setting aside its requisitions. It is indeed all that we do not know. The poet does not need to see how meadows are something else than earth, grass, and water, but how they are thus much. He does not need discover that potato blows are as beautiful as violets, as the farmer thinks, but only how good potato blows are. The poem is drawn out from under the feet of the poet, his whole weight has rested on this ground. It has a logic more severe than the logician’s. You might as well think to go in pursuit of the rainbow, and embrace it on the next hill, as to embrace the whole of poetry even in thought.

January 26, 1840


Ars Poetica

by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

remnant 8: what makes poetry, poetry?

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In an effort to create meaning out of the symmetry of life and death found in Kurt Vonnegut being born November 11 (1922) and dying April 11 (2007)—eleven to eleven, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as it were—I posted a poem of mine about the sadness, and even tears, I experienced at Vonnegut’s death and then again as I read a biography of him:

reading a biography (in the absence of you)

The poem is a musing about absence and loss, and I also Tweeted the poem as a nod to National Poetry Month, and my own experiences with how life and art merge and intersect to spur my own attempts at art.

And then all of that leads to this, a brief post about raising a piece of writing to the level of poetry—since I have for many years worked with people of all ages themselves on a journey to write poetry.


In my sincere but flawed larva years of teaching, I spent a tremendous amount of poorly invested energy telling students what poetry is as well as what poems mean and how to mine that meaning.

With age and experience came wisdom, of sorts, a wisdom that grew from my own evolution as a teacher and writer/poet.

Instead of telling students this or that about poetry (all of which was so much hokum), I allowed our poetry unit to revolve around a question: What makes poetry, poetry?

And the answer we came back to again and again is so simple it seems simplistic, but it is instead enduring: Poetry primarily comes from a purposefulness of language committed to shaping a piece of writing around the format of lines and stanzas (as distinct from sentences and paragraphs).

While I have found nothing better than this explanation, I also know that it contributes almost nothing to anyone writing poetry or reading poetry. It is both nearly perfect as an explanation and nearly completely useless in any practical sense.

My poetry unit always weaved the songs and lyrics of R.E.M. with poems, and the process allowed us to consider each poem for its poetic qualities—always asking, What makes this poem a poem?

A few cautions I offered about song lyrics and poetry, however, include that they are distinct—song lyrics conform to some conventional and genre/medium conventions absent in poetry, although poetry often remains an oral form of text. As I’ve noted before, my poetry rests on an Imagist tradition that highlights another distinction about lination and stanza formation, typically less important or absent in lyrics.

A common response I make when someone new to writing poetry shows me a poem for my feedback is, “This is a good idea for a poem, but it hasn’t yet been lifted to the level of poetry.” This alone isn’t much help, but I do follow up, and here are some of my usual recommendations:

• Form lines and stanzas with purpose; seek some pattern, some guiding structure. Traditional guides include meter and/or syllable count, but thousands of mechanisms can guide line and stanza formation. The key is purpose—having, discovering, and then remaining faithful to that purpose.

• Identify and decrease the use of abstract words (love, hope, etc.); identify and increase the use of concrete words. For a lyric example, consider the power of the concrete in The National’s “Demons”: “crying underwater,” “drowning friends,” “buzzards,” “Alligators in the sewers,” “huddle,” “drink the blood and hang the palms,” “pythons.” These are all concrete, vivid, and provocative, and they help create and expand motifs. For a poem example, read carefully “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theordore Roethke.

• Draft, revise, reshape, and allow the poem to lead you as you reshape it. Discover what you are chasing, and then help breath life into those motifs and ideas by the craft of language—sound devices (alliteration, assonance, rhyme), imagery, metaphor/simile, parallelism, grammar and mechanics (both conforming to and stepping beyond conventions)…

Let me turn to speaking directly about “the economy of mix tapes (bygone),” a recent poem of mine.

This poem began as two lines that simply came to me: “you taught me how to say ‘i love you'” and “a certain concision of mix tapes.”

As you can see, the first line survived as the first line of the poem, but as I drafted, “concision” (which I wanted to stress that making a mix tape was like writing a poem, and that one of the key aspects of what makes poetry, poetry is concision) gave way to “economy.”

As I played with the mix tape idea, I recognized the poem seeking a way to explore doing things for and with someone you love, and ultimately someone you love but from whom you are now separated or distant.

That led to the shower scene that attempts to blur memory, dream, and regret.

Many of my poems come back to and repeat exact lines and stanzas (like song lyrics/refrains), but repeating a line/stanza later in a poem is never exactly the same because it has space to breath and grow from what has come in between.

The odd part of composing for me is how the world begins to reach in. I drove to Subway for lunch while still thinking about the draft, and as I switched on my iPod in the car, I thought about a song named “Regret”—initially in error thinking it was a song by The National. Back home, I searched iTunes and found the Fiona Apple song, and included a few lines (although the tones and situations of her song and my poem are quiet different).

Still not sure about the draft, I read further into Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart and was really thrown by the baptism passage, also a motif of my poem.

With the misremembering of the “Regret” song attributed to The National, I later could not get “Everything I can remember/I remember wrong” out of my mind—also another idea my poem is exploring.

A few elements that came late in the drafting but contributed (I think) to lifting the draft to the level of poetry include:

• Playing with words—”bygone” began to nag at me and it remains such an odd word in the way it looks and its grammar of “let bygones be bygones”; the odd plural and the concept of being a bygone both disorient me.

• Seeking simple but vivid images, I added the walking on eggshells motif.

• The armband tattoo image/motif was maybe the last revision that really engages me because the tattoo itself is technically both finite and infinite.

It may seem odd to someone not a poet, or not yet a poet, but the drafting phase of a poem is long and tedious. For me, it involves 5 or 6 hours mixed with washing and drying clothes, washing dishes, reading, listening to songs, writing other pieces—and it is often spawned from dreams or sudden lines coming to me or lingering in my mind for days.

So I’ll end with a poem I just posted: “tears remain tears (time travel pt. 2).”

After a night of a very vivid and long dreams, I was haunted by the act at the center of the poem, the brief hooking of a person’s hand to get someone’s attention, the seed of affection that would bloom. My habit of the parenthetical addition to many of my titles here helps connect this poem with another time travel piece, although the two exist in parallel but different universes, “time travel (in this time after the End).” I also include The National lyrics that prompted me seeing the image of a person sitting at the bottom of the pool, crying to hide.

What makes poetry, poetry?

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April 12, 2013 at 5:40 pm