Round-Down: The Role of Writers in a STEM Obsessed Society

The Doctor, Leon SallesThe recent appointment of Dr. Suzanne Koven to the first-ever writer-in-residence program at Massachusetts General Hospital has me asking: is the U.S. as a nation starting to re-value creativity after years of putting math and science first?

An associate professor of medicine at Harvard and renowned writer, Koven, in addition to her MD, holds an MFA in nonfiction; her essays appear regularly in prominent blogs and publications. She often writes about the importance of using literature in medicine to reconnect to a sense of shared humanity with patients.

The news of the appointment of a writer-in-residence—who is herself a doctor— in a hospital as prominent as MGH may strike some as surprising, especially given the ways the arts seem to be losing their foothold in many secondary- and university-level programs, with initiatives like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math based curriculums), Race to the Top, and the Common Core placing emphasis on testable skills, such as those fundamental in math and science.

And yet, it shouldn’t be that surprising. Consider Apollo: god of many things, he was most notably responsible for medicine and poetry—it historically hasn’t been at all strange to be skilled in both.Continue Reading

Inclusivity & Authorship: Second-Person Pronouns

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Used poorly, second-person reads like a trope; used well, second-person as a narrative device adds inclusivity to literature, raises questions of authorship, and helps an author communicate politically-charged topics like globalization, race, and gender.

Mohsin Hamid utilizes second-person in his novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a tongue-in-cheek how-to for globalization. The unnamed narrator is born in an unnamed country and moves to an unnamed city for social mobility. “You” transcends preconceived notions of identity, and allows the reader to superimpose their own onto the narrator, which brings up questions of authorship—the writer has written the story, but the reader makes it their own. Hamid’s novel describes enough for the reader to remain grounded, but still vague enough, such as this description of the narrator’s move from the country to the city:

Dirt streets give way to paved ones, potholes grow less frequent and soon all but disappear, and the kamikaze rush of oncoming traffic vanishes, to be replaced by the enforced peace of the dual carriageway. Electricity makes its appearance, first in passing as you slip below a steel parade of high-voltage giants, then later in the form of wires running at bus-top eye level on either side of the road, and finally in streetlights and shop signs and glorious, magnificent billboards. Buildings go from mud to brick to concrete, then shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.

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Sincerely Yours

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Because I’d just read “The Bridge,” which I only half-understood, rendering it sacrosanct to my wide-eyed freshman mind, I’d taken Hart Crane at his word when he wrote in an essay that “Sincerity is essential to all real poetry.” Rilke said it earlier in his own letter-turned-rule-book for all young poets: “Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity.” Rilke had written the Duino Elegies, which perhaps can only ever be half-understood, having come to him as “a nameless storm, a hurricane, in [his] mind,” during which “everything in the way of fibre and web in [him] split,—eating was not to be thought of, God knows who fed [him].” This he wrote in a letter to Princess Marie of Germany, which made me even more quivery. How could I ever be a writer if starvation was a prerequisite to good art? I wondered with a mouth full of sourdough pretzels. But Rilke wrote it, and anything written by Rilke was heaven-sent and inalienable.

So when it came time to teach classes of my own, I preached sincerity. I told my students that only sincere writing was worth reading. If Crane and Rilke believed it, then it must hold all the world’s water. “Be free of deceit. Be sincere to yourself,” I told a classroom of undergraduates sitting shoulder to shoulder, a population whose greatest fear on earth is looking vulnerable and foolish in front of each other. My words must have had the same concrete efficacy as yelling to a weepy Little Leaguer on the mound, into cupped hands, to just “Relax!”Continue Reading

Depressing Graphs for Writers

Remember this series of graphs from last month that depressed the hell out of everyone? The one that reminded us that no book from a woman’s point of view has won the Pulitzer in the last 16 years?

We could cry about it, or we could look at some more depressing statistics and then cry about those. Let’s!

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Guns and Poems: Why is it (almost) impossible to write a great poem about guns?

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Poetry has a history of violence.

It was true a few hundred years ago, when bards wrote of knights and of great battles, and it is true today, when poets pick up their pens to write about the trauma of war, abuse, or repression. Whether they abhor it or glorify it, there is something about human violence that has always called poets into action. In fact, the link between history and violence is so intimate, you might even say that poetry is a history of violence.

Lately, as the public debate about guns continues in the U.S., I’ve thought about that history of violence. I know I’m not alone in thinking that the debate has grown depressing. Each side takes its familiar positions. Not only does nothing happen, you start to feel that no one is even listening anymore. I’ve found myself wishing the debate had a little more creativity, some space for openness, for change. And so, even though it might seem strange, I’ve begun to wonder what poetry could bring to the conversation.

So I started to look for poems about guns. And what I found was very surprising—there was so few of them. Searching anthologies and online databases I found countless poems about the effects of war, hate, and violence. But I found almost nothing about guns specifically. And I began to wonder why.

Maybe, I thought, the reason is obvious. Guns just aren’t poetic. They are blunt. They are obvious. There’s nothing subtle about them. I’m reminded of an episode of The Office where Michael Scott goes to his improv class and proceeds to ruin every single scene by entering with a gun. Guns are heavy-handed, and that’s one thing no artist wants to be.Continue Reading

Interactivity and the Game-ification of Books

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As an undergrad studying creative writing one of the first things I remember learning was the sin of gimmickry. Readers, I was taught, would see through your cleverness—it would be vile to them and they would hate you. But as a kid and teenager my favorite books employed some pretty neat sins and I don’t remember ever hating those authors. I relished a novel approach to novels and welcomed those books that didn’t just swim in standard conventions. Some of the most memorable artifacts of my youth, in fact, were more bound riddles than books, and each riddle taught me how to open myself up to uncertainty, ambiguity, and irresolution (all concepts more true to life than your traditional cut and dry, happily-ever-after tale).

More specifically, the books I tended to gravitate toward were texts in which the role of the reader could more aptly be described as that of a player, or collaborator. (Though one could argue all books are collaborative in nature, the ones I tended to flock to were especially open-ended, demanding a higher degree of interactivity.) I would remain captivated by these books infused with a sense of play/collaboration and it would eventually become an important element in my own work.

I first devoured picture books like the Where’s Waldo series, for instance, less interested in the eponymous red and white striped protagonist than in the sheer overstimulation of colorful characters and anachronistic situations swirling in the background. They might have been my first writing prompts, actually. I remember writing little stories about the wizard and how he came to be lost in the scene, or what events must’ve transpired to rip a Viking out of time and space to plop him smackdab in the center of a bustling mall.Continue Reading

“Poets should always take public transportation”: An Interview with Maureen Thorson

MetroDCIn her second book of poems, My Resignation, Maureen Thorson immerses us in the story of two people figuring out how to start a new life together. Her poems are finely textured, moving, and often humorous. She has a keen appreciation for the quirky natural detail or odd snippet of conversation that perfectly captures a moment—and her work shows us again and again how those moments add up to our lives. Maureen is also the author of a previous book, Applies to Oranges, as well as a number of chapbooks, and the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.

Matthew Thorburn: Would you talk about your process for writing the poems in My Resignation and putting this book together?

Maureen Thorson: The poems grew out of little notes and quotations that I jotted down in the months after my husband and I first moved in together. I knew I wanted to make something out of them, but I also wanted to preserve their “present-ness” by not reworking the individual snippets very much. So I ended up typing all the notes into 11×17, four-column sheets, trying to preserve as much as possible the formatting of the original, handwritten notes. Once I had four sheets filled, I printed them out and started drawing circles between bits and pieces that felt emotionally or narratively connected. I refined the poems by adding interstitial stanzas, or remixing bits of separate snippets together. For the final section of the book, which takes place three years after the moving-in period with which most of the poems are concerned, I relied less on this collaging process, but wrote more directly.

It took about five years to put the book together. Many of the first drafts I discarded, or folded together in trying to get a narrative arc that wasn’t forced, and which felt true to the sometimes fractious emotional process of becoming a couple.Continue Reading

Why the Exquisite Corpse works

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The first time I took part in an Exquisite Corpse, I was an undergrad in Lisa Russ Spaar’s workshop at UVA. I like to imagine she performed the exercise with her mentor, and he with his, and on and on in a long lineage of collaboration and gifting that befits the exercise itself. Here’s how one variation works: each student writes the first line of a poem on a sheet of paper. (Fiction and visual art are fair game, too.) The line can be long or short, full or fragmentary. Students are given a minute or so before passing the paper to the left; now holding her partner’s paper containing the first line, the student writes a second. Then – here’s the fun – that student folds the paper so the first line is concealed and only her line is visible. And the paper moves like this around the room, the classroom a factory of folding and writing, until our original paper comes back around as a poem to which each student has contributed a line.

The point is to create, not to publish what we’ve made. This exercise is vital for the writer who feels that the latter is master to the former. (Repeat after me, people: publication will not make me, rejection will not break me. Publication will not make me, rejection…) And the Exquisite Corpse is joyful creation. That’s reason enough for all writers to practice it. The only time my students have cried from laughter is during the Exquisite Corpse – even students in my prison class. Those kinds of tears, of course, are seldom shed in that universe. We laugh because we experience surprise, humor’s main ingredient. Afterwards we read the poems aloud to our fellow writers whose mouths are agape in waiting to hear with what clamor or harmony our lines speak to each other. Every poem should hold us this captive. A fresh image is an unexpected image, and a defied expectation transforms us, or should. A person caught off guard must reflect on their belief system – define what it was, and how it’s changed – and grow to fit its new shape.Continue Reading

Why Bother with Craft?

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“Craft” was a dirty word at art school, a subtle derogative. The college dropped “and Craft” from their name so recently that the signs on the highway still held those words. Once, in a class critique, a peer called a hand-painted map used to make a stop motion short “crafty,” and my face stung, as if slapped.

Now I deal with another kind of craft; not so much a dirty word but a kind of quiet discussion held among writers and readers. “Craft” is a fluid term; used in aeronautics and astronautics to speak of a single vessel, or the skill of deception, or a verb analogous to “make.” Craft in literature is comprised of narrative elements and literary devices: the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story.

The first week in an MFA in creative writing, students were told they’d be studying craft and one student objected—said he couldn’t write a craft essay when the choices he made in a narrative were inherent.

They’re not, the professor argued; they’re studied and learned qualities, practiced until they become inherent, or second-nature. Craft in literature is the metaphorical and invisible toolbox you take with you. Like a filmmaker studies the nuances of cameras, microphones, and lighting to create a scene, a writer reads books for syntax, structure, theme, and studies the methods of employing devices like irony and metaphor as a way to point toward meaning, to elucidate a deeper truth. Jack Hart, author of Storycraft, said, “an awareness of all the different forms in which you can tell true stories using narrative techniques is important to succeeding with a broad variety of materials.” (Nieman Storyboard)Continue Reading

Harold Bloom’s Song of Self

Harkness_Hall_at_YaleHere’s the story of my first and only encounter with Harold Bloom. It was the first week of a new semester, my last semester of graduate school, and I was waiting in a stuffy seminar room packed with sharply dressed undergraduates. The luckiest students had secured seats around the grand conference table while the rest of us stood in rows along the walls. Bloom arrived—looking exhausted, moving slowly—and took the vacant seat at the head of the table. He lectured for about fifteen minutes on Shakespeare. I don’t remember a word of what he said. What really stuck is what followed.

Enrollment, he explained, would be limited. There was no room for graduate students. (Disappointing, but expected.) Those undergraduates who were serious about taking the course should now take out a sheet of paper and write a paragraph or two making their case for receiving one of the coveted spots. In the meantime, he was going to wander Harkness Hall and find an empty classroom to sit in. Students could bring their applications to him there. Where? He couldn’t say. They would need to look for him. He would wait.

And with that, he left.Continue Reading