A Thought on Meter

I’m in the middle of grading poetry exam, and thinking about how difficult it is to teach writers about rhythm, especially meter. This group of students is doing pretty good discussing it, but this always reminds me of the challenges they have in actually scanning a poem or hearing stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. I’ve often asked students to bring percussion instruments to help emphasize the beat in a line, though they typically get confused and tap on the unstressed or don’t tap on the stressed syllable. Of course, performance makes a difference, and there is some room for variation in how you say a sentence (do you stress the word ‘a’ or ‘the’ for instance?). But it shouldn’t be so hard, except we aren’t trained to hear it. We do it by instinct, but ask us to analyze stress in a sentence, and all we hear (and feel) is stress!

So my thought tonight was to try my typical exercise in reverse. I often have students scan a line of poetry and then tap out the meter as they read it, tapping loudly on the stressed syllables and softly on the unstressed. So what if I started with tapping? If I scan a line or two of a poem first and give them the rhythm. Then have them practice tapping it a few times before adding the words. That way, I’d know it was scanned correctly and that they could handle the rudimentary percussion before having to think about language. We might then go on to scan and tap a few more lines from the same metrical poem, looking for variations to the standard foot. Or try some different patterns (move from iambic to anapest, for instance). Anyway, it’s just a thought, but I figured I should write it down somewhere, so why not here?

In Memoriam: Dorcas Dorow

This week a major force has passed. Dorcas Dorow wasn’t famous, though she was well known in my home town of Osage, Iowa, and half-way around the world in Lermontov, Russia, our sister city, a relationship she was the driving force behind. And her influence spread through her work at Waldorf and with the many choirs she directed and lives she affected, and later in life also through her poetry and membership in Osage’s Alpha Writers group.

But she has been a force in my life ever since the day I was born, and probably before. I grew up across Poplar Street from the Dorows, and distinctly remember running and playing up and down our own side of the street across from Joel and Martha until one of our mothers would come out to let us cross the street. For many years we weren’t allowed to dash across on our own. And I remember playing in their playhouse and later a pop-up camper. Dorcas was always there with a sweet or a joke, or if necessary a harsh rebuke, delivered with biting wit and yet with a friendly tone, a mischievous glint in her eye, and slight Iowa-Norwegian accent that made it a little easier to take. We never feared Dorcas, but we also knew better than to cross the line, at least not very far!

As I grew up, she would become my church choir director at Our Savior’s Lutheran. For 20 years she was the youth choir director, but had moved up to the adult choirs about the time I was old enough to join the youth, so I always looked forward to the day I’d be old enough to sing with the adults. When I reached that age, around junior high when my voice turned baritone, singing with one of her choirs was quite the experience. She handled the tenors, baritones, and basses in much the same way she handled us kids (and the altos and sopranos didn’t fare much better). She could joke around with us and may have inspired my love of bad puns, but we’d better not rush the tempo, sing a wrong note, or come in when there was a rest!

Hanging with the adults, pillars of the community like Arnie Warren, Lowell and Marge Olson, or Bob and Bernie Young, made us high school kids feel all grown up. And we toured with the choir to St. Olaf College and to other choir festivals. Every other Christmas we performed Handel’s Messiah with the community choir, usually under Dorcas’s direction. Her steady hand at the helm of all these ships was a model of good teaching and calm, yet firm leadership.

Later, when I moved away, first to college, then to work, then graduate school, and finally to teaching at MUW, I would see Dorcas and Edgar every time I went home. I saw as she became interested in the Alpha Writers and quickly became one of its most active and productive members. She helped me work with them to organize a poetry reading in Osage when my first book came out, which was a moving experience to be able to read in front of my Mom and Dad and the many friends from the days when I grew up. I saw her poems in Lyrical Iowa, and may have even judged one or two (anonymously) when I judged their contests. The older I got, the more I began to learn of her work with Waldorf College, and we would trade thoughts on the state of education. We had many long and spirited discussions as Waldorf made the move to more online learning.

And I always respected Dorcas and her husband Edgar for their belief in international exchange. As kids, we benefitted from the many Thanksgiving visits of foreign students from the University of Iowa organized by the Rotary Club of which Edgar was a member. The Dorows and our family often had a student with us for the holiday in those years. Later, as Dorcas became more involved, she would start Osage’s sister city relationship with Lermontov and become an international traveler and a driving force in the sister city organization.

I don’t think there was much that Dorcas took on, if she couldn’t do it whole-heartedly. And she took on a lot! She was always in charge, but never overbearing — or if she needed to be at time, she was so with enough sweetness or wry humor that you could bear it anyway. She never gave up, and she never stopped going until congestive heart failure finally got the better of her. If there was someone who defined the life force, it is probably Dorcas. Those of us who knew her are much better for it.

Low-Residency MFA Steps Closer To Reality

I’ve written a few posts about my ideas on a low-residency MFA in creative writing. Last week, those ideas became a lot closer to reality. You might say they’ve been realized at Mississippi University for Women, when our governing board voted to approve our proposal. But I’ll really believe it’s real when we have students.

What is real is that there is lots of work to be done to put into practice the program that looked good on paper. And that work has begun in earnest. I’ve written a press release and put up our website http://www.muw.edu/mfacreativewriting with a description of the program and a list of the courses that have been approved. Still to come are admissions procedures, a breakdown of costs, and a list of faculty.

On the last front, I have contacted a number of writer friends about our new program, and the response has been phenomenal. I am very thankful for all the congratulations I’ve received, along with offers to end students our way and offers to teach for us. I will be taking people up on these offers, esp. for teaching, either as core faculty or as visiting writers. One of the best things about directing the new program will be the opportunity to work closely with so many other creative professionals — I want to bring in artists, musicians, chefs, historians, producers, publishers, museum directors grant writers, and many other members of he the creative economy in addition to writers.

I’ve already had some great conversations with people, and I’m well on the way to lining up some exciting new colleagues to work with as we take the. Program from the idea stage to the start of classes. And of course, the support of my department, my chair, dean, provost, and president has been and will continue to be vital to our success. Check our website for updates! I hope to have more announcements soon and often in the coming months.

Book Review: Sympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury

Sympathetic MagicSympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As the title poem announces, “Sometimes what is needed comes to hand.” These poems are both needed and close at hand. Amy Fleury’s voice is never overly intellectual, never too familiar. These poems are calm and contemplative, yet they bring necessary images to life, whether it is through the exploration of minutiae from a Kansas landscape like the “First Morel” or the touching encounter between father and daughter in “Ablution” or the perception of nuns and saints in their “Niches.” It is great to see a poet who vacillates so dexterously between intensely personal poems and poems of complete objectivity. Read these poems whether you are in “the waters of loving” or “the sump of loss” or somewhere between. They will do you good.

View all my reviews

Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium Wrap-Up

It is hard to believe that two weeks ago today we at Mississippi University for Women were in the throes of another fabulous Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Hard to believe that two weeks have passed and hard to believe what a great weekend it was. Every year we say it was the best and couldn’t get better. Every year exceeds our expectations (or our memory), but this year truly was unique.

The Symposium began in earnest for me on Wednesday morning, Oct. 22, when I picked up the inimitable Carol Ruth Silver from GTR airport. A tour of the Tennessee Williams home and lunch on the Riverwalk. Conversations about San Francisco, Chinese dual-language education, recycling, and of course the Freedom Rides in Mississippi on a gorgeous fall day brought me out of the stress of planning the weekend and provided a bit of calm in the storm. In the evening, dinner with Tim Parrish at The Little Dooey followed by some conversation over beers at our house was another welcome island in the stream of tying up a few final details, putting out fires, and writing my introduction for the next night’s keynote session.

Thursday was busier than normal (so I’d been working ahead), since we have a grant to produce a half-hour video of interviews with four of the symposium authors. That meant getting pizza for lunch, meeting with the interviewees over lunch, and then taping interviews all afternoon. These went great, and actually provided an excellent kick-start to the symposium, since I got to know the authors and I felt the energy building as we talked. Tim and Carol Ruth were shuttled over to WCBI for interviews on the local station in the midst of all of this, and our other authors started to arrive, so things were really getting underway. I had brought my clothes for the evening down to campus and changed in my office, so I could pick everyone up in the university’s big van and bring them to dinner at 5:00, and then the real public part of the symposium began.

Tim Parrish’s reading at the keynote was inspired. He has been so gracious and enthusiastic throughout the symposium and the months leading up to it, that everything went off without a hitch. Maridith Geuder had suggested creating more of a set for the video production, so Tim read from a wing-back chair on stage. This arrangement made the readings much more casual and intimate. Tim dedicated his reading from Fear and What Follows to his dad who passed away this year, and he read passages that dealt with his father’s influence. He also read from his novel The Jumper — all I can say is get a copy of both of these books and read them. You won’t be disappointed! It was a fabulous reading with great Q&A after, and we hardly wanted to break for the book signing and reception (though the food was well worth it).

It’s hard to give highlights of Friday and Saturday, since everyone’s readings were great. I especially enjoyed Carol Ruth Silver’s reading and discussion of her time as one of the Freedom Riders in 1960s Mississippi and her days in Parchman prison as a result of that civil disobedience. The bravery of all the riders is almost impossible to fathom, especially when you hear of some of the prison episodes or think about the violence that they could have confronted with an angry mob.

I always love the poets, and John Bensko, Amy Fleury, Shayla Lawson, Derrick Harriell and Richard Boada were no exceptions. Each had their individual style and grabbed the audience in different way. This year was a nearly perfect mix of styles, yet each poet responded to the others and themes could be traced in all of their work, crossing over to the fiction as well. One of my favorite parts of the symposium was the Q&A, in part because the writers this year were so engaged with each other.

Friday afternoon featured our Common Reading Initiative author Deborah Johnson and the two judges of our inaugural high school writing contest, The Ephemera Prize. Derrick Harriell and Katy Simpson Smith gave great readings and then did double-duty introducing and commenting on the prize winners: 5 MSMS students. Three of the students were able to read their work in person; the other two who were on a music tour for their school, had recorded their reading, which we played for the audience. All five did a fantastic job and we were impressed with the quality of their work.

As usual, Friday evening we all were invited to the Welty Gala, and enjoyed the opportunity for a few more receptions, good food, and a fascinating speech by Robert Edsel on The Monuments Men and the work that is still ongoing to retrieve art and cultural artifacts stolen during World War II. And in the morning we met for four more readings.

Nearly everyone’s travel plans allowed them to stay for the full symposium this year, which was another great part of its success. Tim and Shayla originally had been scheduled to depart at noon and would have missed out on some of the morning session, but Delta kindly rescheduled their flights until 2:30 (I’m kidding, of course, though Delta did reschedule the noon flight for 2:30, we have no idea why, but we were glad!) After the last reading by David Armand, those of us who could stick around went out for lunch at Profitt’s Porch, a Welty tradition. Bright sun through the trees, good food, the view of Officer’s Lake, and even a bald eagle sighting made the perfect conclusion to the weekend. Steve Pieschel whisked our air travelers to GTR in time for their flight, and goodbyes were said to those driving home. Kim and I got back in time to catch Aidan’s soccer game that clinched their State rec-league championship, and then we all came home and collapsed.

Book Review: The Last Days of California

The Last Days of CaliforniaThe Last Days of California by Mary Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved the narrative voice given to Jess, and the immediacy of her story, where every moment is painted with vivid detail. Miller’s dry, sometimes sardonic sense of humor gives the story just enough of an edge, and the four family members trapped in the sardine can car on a road trip to witness the Rapture in California, keep tensions simmering and nearly ready to boil. And yet the sisters’ conflicts are never predictable and the parents are never the cardboard antagonists they could easily have become. We develop sympathy for the mother and the father’s weaknesses and inconsistencies, even as we get to know the two sisters through their rebellions: arguments about wearing their King Jesus t-shirts and misadventures with the boys they meet along the road. If anything, I might like to see a little more resolution of the issues of underage drinking, date rape, and teen pregnancy. The issues are there and portrayed realistically, but never quite acknowledged by the characters or resolved, though a full resolution might be too much to ask of the 15-year-old narrator. We are left with haunting questions that make this so much more than the typical road-trip novel. The changing relationship between the two sisters, and their understanding of their parents’ humanity provide the heart of a story that will remain with you long after the road trip ends.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Fear and What Follows

Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A MemoirFear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A Memoir by Tim Parrish

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fear and What Follows, takes a chilling and at times difficult, even challenging look at America of the 1970’s, specifically the city of Baton Rouge and the school and neighborhood where Parrish grew up. It was the time of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Tim’s brother was a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD before it even had a name. It was a time of integration of schools and neighborhoods, and of the white flight that resulted. And it was time of racial violence and unrest, in which young Tim is willfully engulfed. The book is an attempt to understand the choices that were made and the forces that drove him to make those choices. Yet it is not an apologia where we end up feeling sorry for and defending the main character. Instead, I think we are asked to put ourselves in his place, but also in the places of the even tougher kids whose violence goes unchecked and the Black kids who are both victims and violent themselves. We are asked to understand and confront the causes of violence and racism in ourselves. I don’t think I have read a more brutally honest account that is so beautifully written. It has the credibility of lived truth, yet the narrative is as engaging as any thriller.

View all my reviews


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 264 other followers