I recently wrote the line “We cannot value anything at a constant level” in the middle of a second draft of a poem I will not provide the title for on my birthday, as it sends the wrong message. In that poem, the tone is somber. Here, I want to celebrate myself, Walt Whitman-style. We are constantly evolving, even if we do or do not acknowledge—or whether we attempt to or not. The power of a piece of language is how it ages. On my 37th birthday, this forces me to think of myself and this day in a way I often do not. Thirty-seven is not a particularly special number, by societal standards. Today, though, I’m quite enthralled by it. Today, I can feel less anxious if I work less and play more. Today, I can be appreciative for this life, this moment around the sun, in the sun.
Pelosi raises a lot of money. Chuck Schumer talks a lot of good game with every Republican Party foul. And? As leaders, where is the party at? Celebrating a House victory that is, by and large, not the doing of Pelosi by trying to silence any media or partygoer who wants her tonexit the stage. And that Senate? Still controlled by that sick old white man comfortable with his suppression and stall tactics. These folks are chummy. The lack of imagination amongst Democrats is a problem, and has been. The party and the media cannot imagine wielding itself over to a younger generation of Congress, and the excuse has been: these two know how to grease the wheels. Dems are just being sexist. Ah, the self implosion in which it’s easier to hurl out accusations of prejudice than to fathom a counter-narrative that thinks about the citizens and their views of Congress.
All of this talk about having a choice excludes 1) Voters who voted for new generation Dems in droves, and 2) Future possible vote flippers (like soy bean farmers who are falling out of love with Trump; suburban white women who realize Republicans want to keep them subdued with healthcare takeaways; tax hound who realize the tax cuts, in actuality, are not helping the economy; factory workers still limited in work; and anyone given the space to reflect upon what lies Trump has had that are impacting their daily lives).
As the Party for Inclusion, Democrats sure are trying to bounce out any critics.
What exactly have these Democratic leaders accomplished as counters to Trump to warrant continuation? They bite back, but their teeth marks fade quickly. They run towards the distractions rather than be headstrong enough to see past smoke bombs.
For this speakership election: What culpability did Pelosi take in the Democratic Fall of 2016? Pelosi is a powerful woman, so we are not supposed to ask for someone else? Why? Article after article insinuates or outright states calls for No Pelosi as sexist. This is the Dems defeating themselves with a dull wit. I would love for a more middle-class, suburban, minority woman Speaker. I speak for myself, as a social-welfare conscious, civil rights protectant progressive with a desire for a highly functioning bi-partisan government. We need a media savvy floor general, and Pelosi is not the only answer.
We need a leader who will reach the moderate Conservative—not those serving, but those who are to be served—citizens. I’m talking about about those not wearing prejudices as honor badges; there are many who vote based off party and personality and party. Yes, party! I have met plenty of Conservatives in my life who desire some of the same things I do—equal pay; living wages; less military spending; more benefits to vets; a working healthcare system; racial and gender equality.
There is no reason a lawmaker cannot craft a law that protects a woman and an insurer. There is no reason we cannot regulate business practices without harming profit or quality. We can work on the maintenance of the Second Amendment, protecting hunters and homeowners—and school children and houses of worship.
We need someone fearless of the sound bites—who can express nuances. We need someone who can work to get Americans safe and secure.
Democrats need an imagination and a conviction that the right choice is not based on playing chess against Republicans, but to make a choice based on what the US constituents desire from Congress. The agenda should not be based on thwarting Trump (he is self-destructive; the best longview way to hurt him is to ignore him and his megalomania), but in listening to and creating policies for Americans and hammering that message in. Trump and McConnell will fall in the process—because Americans are catching on. Every day. To pretend that criticism against Pelosi’s run in the House has not had major blowbacks for the party are dangerous.
Citizens want more diversity. The young want more diversity. We are not asking for a man—I am not. We are asking for options—not just for the speakership, but for how politicians see the voters’ role in who our leaders are and what we want from their privileged through our election power.
I hug my two sons innumerable times throughout a day. I snuggle them. Like many dads, my children make my life more purposeful by their sheer being. Work takes on an extra level of necessity through the desire to provide—to improve their daily lives, to help shelter them as they develop into and through adulthood. I hug them because I believe hugs are the simplest proof of love.
I never set out to be such a hugger, premeditatively, but my earliest recollections of love are the hug line that evolved naturally from the hellos and goodbyes of Christmas parties at Grandma’s house. Five aunts, three uncles, dozens of cousins—dozens. Who needs roses when you know what a bouquet of hugs feels like?
As I grew older, hugs became my calling card. Older sister off to college, older brother off offing around, and then old enough to visit Grams on my own. Hugs. The older I got, the more I knew my Grams was near her death—the more I squeezed her in my arms, locked my arms together one hand locking the other wrist—and then sat down for hourlong conversations.
Yet, the void being filled is not from missing my Grams. She knows that. The filled void is for myself. My sons can not articulate a void that yet exists—but when it does they will know how to show their love and to fet love from those they value most.
When I hug my sons, my babies, I am giving them the love I wanted but could not receive, for my father is ethereal and has been since I was about the age of my older boy, now. Six, nearly seven.
I am lucky, so I hug them. I Imagine my dad would love be to feel that love, to give that love to me. To acknowledge an existence in such a way that comforts and approves of your being—that is a hug. To acknowledge our existences are a chain physically broken at birth but linked permanently by a force as invisible and invincible as gravity.
A good, sincere hug has that galactic gravitational force.
I wrote this after reading an article and marinating on AWP 2017 and I am using a Spanish translation tool (which makes me a tool) so that the ghost speaker would breathe their two languages, because many bi-linguals do switch, as plenty of you know...
DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
Despite Rick Santorum (and, of course, Agent Orange)
Say your parent are slitting each other's throat
to chants of protection from men with guns.
you are eight, nine, old enough now
to walk weary of candy-fisted strangers,
to know the neighbors are not yours
but they are safer than here.
Do you slip out of the second story
window, risk skidding to death
when the clay tile breaks, and it breaks
always, already before you can think?
You are not old enough to understand
the weight of the cons. You just want out
of this mass grave so you skid and brace.
You tumble into the reeds, into desert
saguaro. You say hola to the frilled
lizard. You don't knock the doors
you come to. You run through them
panting, fatigued, afraid your parents
have died at the hands of their own
nation, even if their ghost held your hand
and said: Hablar con esa mujer blanca,
I can tell that one will listen. Su hijo
just run off to war, and she cannot fathom
sobrevivirá. She will pray for him
and you will be the start of her answer.
In the midst of a bunch of large projects, I forgot to announce a big honor for me as an Ohio-born -and-raised writer. Hearsay is a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. My book is the only debut collection amongst the five:
Christopher Ankney. Hearsay. Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2014. George Bilgere. Imperial. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.
Stuart Friebert. Floating Heart. Pinyon Publishing, 2014.
William Greenway. The Accidental Garden. Word Poetry, 2014.
Gerry Grubbs. The Hive Is a Book We Read For its Honey. Dos Madres Press, 2013.
Having crafted the book for a decade, I am happy that it is being given attention amongst four well-known, deeply established poets. Anyone in the fine arts knows the challenges of receiving positive, critical attention and recognition. For the Ohioana Library system, my gratitude to David Weaver and the anonymous judges will last with me. In the meantime, I must get back to writing.
My mind is a pinball and my guts are a soaked towel. That's what preparing for interviews and readings does to me. The introspection, the tumbling and harsh self-critique of my own belief system.
Preparing for teaching position interviews unnerves most people to varying degrees, so I have heard and read and believe. For me, I've tried different studying methods. I've spent hours (days, weeks) pouring over the college's websites, its departmental pages, its mission statements, its current projects. I've spent hours (days, weeks) pouring over pedagogy. I've inundated myself with a million little coins of terminology, stuttered my way through practice with my inverted self in the mirror. I've tremored at answering my English professor wife's questions, watching like a polygrapher for any sign of my own weaknesses.
Today, this is my practice. In a few hours I will be doing a Skype interview for a university where I believe I would thrive as part of the Dean's team but struggle to extinguish the little doubts that set up camp and have little tents and sleeping bags rated to -40F to survive my attempts winning the war--the job. Today, I decided to use my biggest strength, my writing, to center myself and my vision. I am a reflective, quick thinker, but aloud I tend to render myself speechless. I lose myself, sometimes, in those biggest moments. I have a big self belief in what I do, but I do not think I have a big ego. I wish I did. I wish I could pretend I do not know my own faults as a writer, a teacher, a husband, a father, a human.
Writing is a place where I come to construct meaning. Having read enough academic speak--I am student-centered, meaning centered, inquiry-based centered, a differentiation work horse, and above all, an idealist--in this current I understand that my strength as a writing teacher is that I work with my students to construct meaning from facts and cultural, sociological factors. I think back to graduate school and how one professor was very into New Criticism, teaching a lot of modern and contemporary poetics. That's not me. I cannot let me or my students not take in the cultural, sociological factors in reading a text. A text, a piece of art, does not exist in a vacuum in which it perambulates alone without other objects. Culture. Society. Other people. As a writer, the facts of life (sing it!) are that we exist together, even if we die "alone." Meaning is fluid and subjective to varying degrees. As a writing instructor, my undergraduate minor in Anthropology has informed so much of what I do. I do not pretend to comprehend with the utmost clarity the problems that are systemic in our world, in our time, yet I work towards meanings through my writing and my writing assignments.
I have spent years teaching the overlooked, the neglected. I have spent ten years swimming (in reality, I am not a good swimmer) with my students in Developmental writing courses and in community college classes. Bluntly, a majority of these students are underprepared or underserved, or both, for the rigors of a four-year university education. Yet, I see it as my job, my calling, to prepare them. I believe that a positive mindset and grunt work lead to improvement. I will not hide from the fact that most of my students are racial minorities. Google the statistics--watch the news--and you will see how systemic our education is in failing minorities.
Many of my colleagues focus a majority of their writing courses on the simplest tasks, the basic objectives, in teaching students how to write an essay. Anecdotally, from two Developmental directors, a Chair, and from my own reading of colleagues' student Final Portfolios I put more emphasis on critical thinking. In short, I let the students actively choose their subjects for essays. I design the topic, directly and indirectly connected to our current reading, but I let the students develop their own ideas based on their own interests. I have read studies that back me up, though I cannot cite them here (I'm a bad academic, in that sense). I am a professional creative writer, though, so it is counter intuitive to me to regurgitate (though, yeah, like many, we do to certain degrees) the language and ideas of others. My job is to construct new meaning from the texts and ideas that I have experienced and reflected on, that engage me. As a writing instructor, my job is to allow students that same privilege and freedom. Yes, I end up feeling like sheep herder--but let's call that what it is: a shepherd. My job is to foster individuality and to dignify student beliefs.
I am a relational leader. I am strong at developing relationships with students and then figuring out their needs. I don't have a ten step program for how I do this. The most obvious thing is to pay attention to the students from day one. I am big at remembering names and remembering facts about students. Books read, crazy cousins, jobs. I construct my understanding of what a student needs from who they let me know they are, and from what I assess of their writing, of their reading course texts aloud, of their discussion responses. From there, I guide them during various workshops. Sometimes those workshops are quick classroom discussions of a handful of volunteered student work at the draft stage. We will constructively critique a sentence or a paragraph on the Doc cam. I will emphasize the issues apparent as typical student issues to alleviate a student from feeling along, "wrong." Writing is not about Right v. Wrong. We discuss language on the grassy plains of effectiveness, clarity, concision, creativity.
I love computer labs in a classroom because they allow for individual workshops. I can go around and give attention to one student at a time. I can center in on those kids who may be struggling in comparison to their peers, or to check in and encourage a quiet writer.
Meaning is constructed from the decoding of what we read, whether that is a novel, a poem, a film, a song, an advertisement, a memory. We frame these texts with personal intellectual questions, and we frame them with essay prompts. The I becomes we, see. Writing is both solitary and collaborative, and that process is fluid.
Once, during a teaching review, a colleague wrote that a lecture on a writing technique I wanted students to practice dealt with both sentence flow and content. This was seen by the reviewer as a flaw. For me, as a writer and a complex thinker, I saw the criticism as a way to make more clear exactly why, for the tourist but mainly for my students, these strategies are layered. For me, teaching a student to be coherent and simply teaching them to "repeat key words" is generic. Yes, the primary objective of my "repeat the subject" exercise was to get students to understand that they must...repeat the subject. However, students always (yeah, I used always) ask other questions concerned with other rhetorical issues, such as "Won't repeating the subject all of the time bore the reader?" See, these students--even the Developmental students--are smart enough to see that writing is complex. They aren't illiterate thinkers. So I emphasize these secondary objectives as such. For me, sentence flow and content development are familial.
My belief in creating such layered strategies is that students come in to college with a vary binary way of thinking, overall. Individual thinking about larger ideas and about writing as a craft are ignored for clear, cut and dry objectives. There is this STEM fear that students won't "get" how to write more complexly if we as instructors do not simplify material for them. If one always carries one's baby up and down the stairs, how does the baby learn to walk on their own? The baby must be given the chance to learn on their own different ways of getting up those steps. Sure, they will belly flop up, then bear crawl, then do the two feet on each step first, but they will hopefully learn to alternate steps with each foot. As a father, I am proud that my OCD did not get in the way of my own toddler son's ability to bound up a flight of stairs like his name is Tigger. There's got to be a sense of trust built. The parent and the teacher must understand that there will be fear--fear in failing, fear in not improving--but there needs to be trust. I respect my students enough to trust that they will try, and they trust that I will be there to make sure they don't fall down and break their neck when they do.
We all fear the unknown, the yet to be experienced. We all fear that we may not do enough or be able to do enough to show how intelligent we really are. When I claim that writing is a process, I mean what I wrote. We fail more as we construct ideas that we do at succeeding. The future me, the one I am writing this for, will look back and critique this post--and hopefully shake his head at what he perceives as naive or overlooked.
I know that my most effective tools as an instructor are 1) that I care about and believe in the potential of each person to grow as a writer, and 2) that I have the ability, the knowledge, and the communications skills necessary to show students where and how they can maximize their own growth.
I wet the bed until I was around seven. I stare out at the nine o'clock sunset, the second floor window facing west, a sheer white curtain filtering the orange layer settling on top of the black forest line. My brother would sometimes laugh at me, to be expected; other nights he would fake sleep, be silent, as our mother changed the sheets and my clothes. I am the big spoon; my three-year-old son's head cradles in my right armpit, my bicep a soft pillow. I cried so much as a kid that my brother and sister thought it was a game. I cry as we pull ourselves farther away from the sun, the light ripped away like a blanket from the grappling baby. I spent nights taking my own pulse, inducing hyperventilation; most nights until I went to college, I thought I was going to die that night, yet waking brought little relief. I am my son's bed and blanket, and I think about how I was weak then and wonder where I will discover my current weaknesses. I once told a close friend, near high school graduation, that I did not think I would be alive past twenty-seven; we were halfway across the bridge, thirty seconds from my mother's house, but the silence lengthened the way it does when we vocalize difficult truths. I used to want to live forever, but now I am living that familiarity, torn between the fear of my death and the pain of witnessing my loved one's die. My father was gone for years before he died, even when he was present he was gone, and so were the men my mother gamed with. I squeeze my sleeping, snoring son because all of my happiness derives from the adrenaline of mortality, the knowledge that most of a sunset's beauty is its momentum towards an end. I was as delicate as a sandcastle. My son is dreaming of being a t-rex, a sea-a-suarus, smiling. I desire these two boys, these experiences merge, and that my son eats more that is ripe than I have. History does not beget either replication or revulsion because history is a river be dammed. My son will love puns, or he will not. He is three, and he sweats like a river. I sweat like a river, too. We joy in simple math, but fate and reoccurrence incurs a much more complicated equation.
The one thing I wish I emphasized more in answering to people that broad question, Why do you teach, is why I teach writing. Why do I teach literature? Language is a stubborn toddler, a miser, a moody teenager hiding in their bedroom, a jilted lover, an oppressed people. Language has the power to change how people see people. Language is difficult. I've spent years trying to unlock myself, and years trying to unlock my wife's inner thoughts, and years trying to unlock my son. Language is a janitor's set of keys. We try to get in the room and see what's there. We try to get through one door, so we can get through the next. Language creates laws, which creates borders--legal, ethical, moral, familial, cultural, and so on. Without words, we have very little to distinguish human from non human. That's why I love teaching writing: that struggle to get through a door, to unlock borders, to realize that language is treatment.
A student reads the word treatment, and what do they think? Good? Bad? They read the word challenge, and they think: a difficulty. For me, words exists as atoms, and atoms must be combined to shape something into physical matter. A word on its own is matter. A word on its own, though, is invisible to the naked eye of any true meaning. A word needs other atoms to make molecules, to make chemicals, to make amino acids, to make minerals, to make life as we know it. Simply, making a word come to its own life is difficult. A challenge. A treatment. The connotations are up to the scientist. Life is an effort. Life is many efforts. To simply exist as a set of atoms strong together with positive and negative charges bonding us. Each part of us matter. Each part of us matters. How we see our parts, including language, exalting language, matters.
The last time anyone called me a faggot to my face, within earshot, was when I quit the high school football team. I was fifteen; I was scrawny. I was lucky, though, because I am not gay and I didn't quit because I was gay or beaten down emotionally by the exhaustive locker room machismo of a bunch of insecure young men. Language was language, and my reasons for quitting were very juvenile in and of themselves. We were poor, my mother didn't pack my lunches for two-a-day practices, and I was too physically drained to wake up on time for a 6am practice start. I had no support system, my mother let me sleep in. She'd already forced my hand with her own inertia all that summer, and I caved. One day led to two, then three, and so on. Being on the team kind of faded like so many high school relationships do post graduation. The drama was in what wasn't done or said.
Football was the way of life at Defiance Senior High. You were somebody more than you were supposed to be if you wore a jersey on Fridays. I was lucky that I already was middle of the road--our poverty and my high grades saved me from complete ostracization. I hung out with mostly girls and nonathletes, all middle class and most high achieving academics. My quitting the team only meant a few ribbings from a few guys. One was Kyle, a year older and not very good. He hated that I was better than him, was slated to start JV at corner, and that he was a backup lineman. Because I couldn't hack football, he said, I was a faggot.
My straightness and my academic successes helped me ignore Kyle and move on in life. I was a young man surrounded by what I saw as pretty, intelligent girls. I had a crush on a few of them that lasted the rest of high school. I got to see first hand the equality that existed between them and me. Their insecurities were mine. They wanted to be asked out by boys and I wanted to be brave enough to fulfill the manly rite of passage of asking a girl to dances. But I wasn't brave enough to ever ask a girl to go steady. I worried about being poor, and didn't have a father to push me towards bravery.
That's where my mother comes in again. A domineering personality, my mother disparaged the men who 'suited' her. They were drunks and players. She would spy on them outside bars, park in a corner of factory lots towards a shift end, and tail them to other women. I would sit in the back seat, wondering if we were going to eat or how long before she would give up. I saw her claw at them like a rabid dog, heard her tear away at their manhood with her canines bared, and then I listened to her hide the betrayals away in desperate rationalizations that they were nothing to her anymore. Some of those men were nothing to her for years. She went back. These "men" came back. Being called a faggot was nothing to me.
Now, I am almost 33. I have a son of my own and a wife who is the breadwinner. Nobody says anything to my face, though, about my wife making more money than I do. That's part of being a straight, white male. I teach, but I am also a stay at home dad, and then I write. I struggle with my worth to the rest of the world; I struggle to see myself as others see me. I work hard at being the best damn teacher I can be, but I cannot get out of the adjunct rut. I write poems in the oddest of places, the oddest of times. What I don't struggle with is fatherhood. I love it. I breathe it. My son is every single wish I could ever want. I kiss him at random times, multiple times a day. He's just so lovely, and I don't care if that makes me a man's man. When strangers see me with my son, they fawn over the love we demonstrate. He's my best friend. His mother is my best friend, too. They keep me above ground when I try to bury myself, when I go deep down inside my thoughts and try to hate where I am, who I am, what I am not.
The guy who delivered our new fridge actually thanked me for caring for my own son. The guy who installed our satellite tv did the same. Washer and dryer guys--the same. I ran with my infant son secure in a running stroller, and women swooned over me with smiles and hands to their hearts like I was a modern day hero. My wife, however, received scrunched faces and other mothers who openly chastised her when she took our boy out for her own runs. An older man at the liquor store actually told her she was horrible for bringing her baby into that store.
That's the privilege I've come to have, no matter how far I slide down the pole. That's what makes any of my childhood seem like a distant planet that I was able to forget. I had the ability to rocket out of poverty and into a Twilight Zone-like world where middle class white maleness makes me a super hero for doing status quo (loving your own child more than you love yourself) and successful women are villainous for taking care of themselves as well as their families (doing the same thing!).
The flight to this new world, of being positively regarded by complete strangers happened over years. My wife and friends were in the shuttle with me, and yet when we got to this new world, some of us didn't get to transition. The years didn't bring anything but a sharpness to the points of view of the good ole new planet. A very kind-hearted friend of mine was walking down a New York street when a local apelike figure rolled down his truck window and yelled "FAGGOT." Gay, Hispanic, artsy, non-intimidating. That was how the ape read my friend. Like Kyle read me, only not.
Only a man with a very small penis will be offended by size jokes--most will generally laugh it off with no real self esteem loss. Only a very small man will take pleasure in trying to make others hate themselves. By retelling this story,I don't mean to paint my friend as a weakling, though, who needs me to come to his defense. No, my friend and my wife--they wear 'big boy pants' just like me. They've moved on from their encounters just as I moved on from Kyle. Why, though, are we so simple-minded as a species this many generations past Australopithecus Africanus that we still want to play the damning snake?
No, I am on the soapbox of my own accord. I do not understand the cultural inability to progress; I don't get why too many men and women can't own up to the ugliest parts of our human psychologies that manifest into these cultural norms and beliefs.
The persistence of hating anyone not like yourself; the ritualistic paranoia of only seeing in stereotypes and, hence, subjugating minorities for the sake of...self satisfaction? What is that but an ugly, vicious circle?
Hearsay is a collection of poems written over the past decade. The literary world has been kind to me, publishing over 30 of the poems in this collection alone. I have been lucky to work with many great poets in that time: Alicia Ostriker and Mark Jarman through WMU's Prague Summer Program, David Lehman through a graduate-level class while attending Miami University my senior year, David Trinidad and Crystal Williams and Joan Larkin and Tony Trigilio through graduate school at Columbia College Chicago, and James Reiss and David Schloss through my undergraduate days at Miami. Furthermore, I've been blessed to have such solid contemporaries as Brian Russell, whose friendship and criticisms kept me afloat.
As important as these writers have been, the last decade has also born a larger family made up of Chicagoans, Miamians, Marylanders, Michiganders, and more. As a kid, living in a trailer and then a falling-down house (since torn down), I never thought my life would be made up of lawyers (so many lawyers), professors (so many academics), classical musicians, and bosses. I know so many people who care about the world and are leaders in making it better that it is incredible. When people read these poems and mention the optimism in the face of such tragedy, it is because of these unnamed family members. As a writer, I have always sought meaning -- fleeting as it is -- through the bond of life. We are lucky to breathe and to be able to reflect upon that breath. This book is a personal accomplishment, yes. One of many more books to come, I believe. I thank my wife, my son, and my extended family for that insight, for that faith.