Featured Poet: William Shakespeare

Today is one of the more commonly accepted birthdates for William Shakespeare, so he gets a turn here on the blog tonight.  Happy 450th, Will!  Isn’t that a milestone?

I thought about posting one of my favorite of his sonnets, the one we used as a reading at our wedding, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments…”  But then I thought that might be too expected, and instead I considered some of my personal history with the bard.  Don’t worry, I won’t go into it all here.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!  But I do want to share one anecdote.

When I was in high school, my boyfriend took me to see Henry V at the cinema.  At the time, all I really knew of Shakespeare was Romeo and Juliet and scraps here and there of historical data and maybe a play fragment or two.  I had heard of Othello and Hamlet and Macbeth but hadn’t read them yet.  I had heard of The Taming of the Shrew because Moonlighting had done an episode called “Atomic Shakespeare” that my parents had recorded on their VCR and let me watch one day when I was home, sick, from school — since I’d already watched it at my grandparents’ house with my aunt.

I had no familiarity with any of Shakespeare’s histories at all.

So this boy took me to see Henry V because a friend of his had told him how good it was.  As far as mainstream American audiences were concerned, this was our first really good look at a young and really good-looking Kenneth Branagh.  And, in my memory, the movie was an unusually modern and accessible Shakespeare Film.

I fell, a little headfirst, in love.

Not with my boyfriend.  Not even with Branagh, though I did come out of the movie with a little bit of a crush on him.  Not with Judi Dench’s acting, though it was marvelous, and not with Christian Bale — then a teenager and adorable to my eyes because he was about my age and also, clearly, a really good actor.  (I felt sickened looking at his character’s corpse on the battlefield.)

I fell in love with language.  With the manipulation of it by Derek Jacobi, the Chorus.  With Brian Blessed’s enormous stage presence when he said, “Tennis balls, my liege” — a line that still cracks me up when I think about it.  With the overwrought and latently anxious descriptions of “a most excellent horse.”  With Emma Thompson trying to say “neck.”  With the two bishops whispering conspiratorially in a torchlit corridor at the very beginning of the film.  With Lord Scrope, whom I felt so bad for because I was a teen and susceptible to his gothic face, and I was heartbroken by his betrayal, and I felt torn when they arrested him, though his treason be “another fall of man.”

The part that stunned me the most, though, was that even though I’d never read the play, watching the movie, I understood nearly every sentence.  And it was here that I began to understand why Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen more than read.  The idea that language could make more sense to me — to me, a lifelong avid reader whose favorite toys as a child were actually books — that it could be more familiar to my brain on a stage rather than on a page was startling to say the least.

Henry V broke open a floodgate for me, and with every piece of Shakespeare I read after that, I was able to read more and translate less as I went along.  My self-confidence flourished.

So instead of sharing one of the many technically astute, even perfect, sonnets (such tiny masterpieces), I want to present here a part of Henry V.  So many glorious speeches to choose from — Hal was the first motivational speaker I ever knew — and the one I’ve picked is the very first one in the play, the Prologue.  It’s about what actors do on a stage in front of an audience, yes, but it’s also about what we as writers do, embroidering stories on the imagination, creating something, everything, from nothing but incorporeal thought.

It’s Derek Jacobi in a black trenchcoat, backstage, lighting a single wooden match.

Oh, a Muse of fire, indeed.

***

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

 

Fashion Friday 9/20/13

Today was the homecoming pep rally, and we were all encouraged to wear our school’s colors, one of which is purple.

shoe pic 1
What? It’s purple.

These are the Iron Fist brand American Nightmare shoes, but I like to call them my zombie stompers.  They have a shoe like this called Zombie Stomper as well, but I don’t care for its neon color palette.  So there.

Even better from this angle.
I’ve got spirit, yes I do. I’ve got spirit, how about you?

These shoes have four-inch heels, and they make me almost as tall as some of my students.  Win.

I especially like the little bows on the backs and the criss-cross lacing up the heels.  And the poetry fragments on the inside don’t hurt.

***

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Bringing into the Fold: A Review of Marie Marshall’s Poetry Collection NAKED IN THE SEA

When I was in high school, one of my classmates and I found ourselves mildly obsessed with the poetry of Sara Teasdale. We found a copy of her collected works in the school library and took turns checking it out, over and over again, until it never spent any time in the stacks anymore. We loved that book.

Even if I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward her verse now, Teasdale sparked something important in me: she helped me get past my hatred of poetry.

In my high school English classes, we mostly read poems from that no-woman’s-time between Emily Continue reading “Bringing into the Fold: A Review of Marie Marshall’s Poetry Collection NAKED IN THE SEA”

My Creative Writing Students’ Poetry Blog

My high school Creative Writing class is focusing on poetry this year, and they’ve got a blog.  Pop on by if you’re interested and check out some of their work.  They’ve just started posting to it this week, so there are only a couple of poems up so far, but the kids are open to constructive feedback from other writers and readers, should you feel so inclined.  🙂

Here’s the link.

Thanks for stopping by!  🙂

Three of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read Which Made Me Miserable While I Was Reading Them

It seems like everyone comes out with a list of must-read books each summer.  And since I’m clearly too late to jump on that bandwagon, I thought I’d do it up a little differently and give you some suggestions of books which are very, very good but which made me rather unhappy while I was reading them.  These are books which were well written or technically astute enough to break through my misery, distaste, or other negative reaction to convince me they were still awfully good books.

And a warning: this post isn’t just a series of book reviews.  I’ve often said that one Continue reading “Three of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read Which Made Me Miserable While I Was Reading Them”

“I Am Worried About My Grade”

Today I finished my semester.  Grading finals is always a manic marathon accompanied by an earworm devised by my frantic brain.

Grading, grading, grading,
gotta do my grading,
get those finals graded, rawhide!  YA!

Have you ever noticed that manic activities are frequently backgrounded by some lyrically-varied version of “Rawhide”?

Maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, one of my colleagues sent this cartoon to me, and it cracked me up.  I’ll refrain from saying “story of my life” because, frankly, most of my students are awesome kids I really enjoy teaching.  But situations like this do come up on occasion.  They are admittedly rare at the school where I teach, but I’m told I have a reputation for being a frightening teacher, so maybe I’m just lucky and don’t have to deal with it so much.  (This sort of thing used to happen pretty often when I taught at a local college, back in the day.)

Check it out.  Enjoy the end of the school year, all those of you affected by it.  And have a good Memorial Day weekend!

Academic Calendar Conditioning (and a Reminder)

So I’ve been on the schedule of a typical academic calendar for thirty-five years now, nonstop.  My husband assures me that this consistency is the reason for the reinforcement of my periodic stress.  In other words, I’m conditioned to be overworked and therefore stressed out beyond reason from about the end of April through Memorial Day.

I cannot argue with his logic.  Especially not right now, when I’m in the middle of the busiest two weeks of the school year.  I would argue, but frankly, I don’t have time.  There’s a stack of papers nine inches tall waiting to be graded, and I haven’t even given my final exam yet.

There are other times during the year when I am similarly busy and stressed out.  However, between Thanksgiving and December finals I’m too happy about the holiday season to worry about it much.  Then, I’m blissfully able to remind myself that being behind at school is always a finite problem:  the semester always ends, and by hook or by crook, report cards go out, and then I’m done.  But right now, the summer break, when I can devote myself more fully to my writing, is so close that all I can think of is how burnt out I feel every time I sit down to work.  The glorious weather and the wall of windows in my classroom that look out onto a lovely courtyard do not help.  (My friend Amber, who used to teach at UC Santa Barbara, could see the Pacific Ocean from her office window.  That would be worse, I think, but only for my work ethic.)

I used to have insomnia the beginning of August every year, from the time I began teaching until the time my daughter was born.  (Then I didn’t have the insomnia because I was just so damn tired all the time I couldn’t possibly have trouble falling asleep.  Not at any time, not in any place.)  A lot of my colleagues experience this also, the inability to sleep well (or, in some cases, at all), for about two weeks before the school year begins.  I suppose we should all count ourselves lucky that we care so much about teaching that we worry whether we will do it well enough.  I will say that my colleagues continually inspire me with their energy, talent, and devotion to their students’ success.  As teaching careers go, I’m at what Bull Durham would call “the show.”  And I’m grateful for that.

But this means that for a while a few times a year, the other stuff I do suffers a bit.  For example, my blog.  Let’s just call this post a long-winded apology for not a lot of substantive sharing lately.  It’s not that interesting and important things haven’t been happening.  They have.  I’ve even had a few episodes of mildly worthwhile introspection about them.  But since Easter, it’s been a maelstrom around here.  Yes, work has been busy.  Yes, my daughter turned seven.  Yes, my writing has been doing interesting stuff.  But also, people have died.

Some of all that I may blog about this summer; I don’t know.  I am fairly certain, however, that I will write much more substantial things for you, dear readers, more often than I have the last several weeks.  I appreciate that you’ve stuck with me thus far.

I’ll be done with this school year by the end of May.  I’ll still have school work to do over the summer, of course — the idea that teachers don’t have to work during the break is a damaging myth worthy of Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” — but my time will be more my own and less frenetic.  Or at least that’s the plan.

Until then, go on and vote in my poll from last week.  You know, the one about The Silliest Thing You’ve Ever Heard.  Tell everyone you know to vote also.  Do it before tomorrow, when voting will close.  I can’t wait to find out who the winner is, especially since at the moment there is a three-way tie for first place.

And as for all the rest, thanks for hanging in there with me.  All the best.

Because Language Matters

Not terribly long ago one of my students deeply disappointed me by using the word “gay” in my classroom to refer to something he really thought was “stupid.”

Rather than directly point out the boneheadedness of his statement, I asked him whether he meant to say that the idea in question was homosexual.

He looked at me blankly.  “Huh?”

“Or did you mean to say that it’s really happy and carefree?”

“No,” he said, looking at me as if I’d just asked the most asinine question in the world.  “I mean it’s stupid.  I don’t like it.”

“Then why did you use the word ‘gay’ to describe something that clearly isn’t?”

“Because.  That’s just how I talk.”

I appreciated his candor, even though I vehemently disagreed with his logic, because his frankness led to a productive discussion about the words we use and why we use them, about the concept of “framing the debate.”  When people use “gay” to refer to something that they simply don’t like, they demonize a percentage of the human race, sometimes without meaning to and sometimes with malicious intent.  They’re ascribing a quality which is Other from themselves in order to show disdain for something, but the problem with this, of course, is that this practice implies that Otherness is somehow bad or wrong, when in actuality, it usually isn’t.

“Okay, so how about I don’t use the word ‘gay,’” the kid suggested, “and instead say something else.  How about…I don’t know, ‘pagan.’  I can say ‘pagan’ instead of ‘gay.’  Would that work?”

“Are you talking about ancient folk religions?” I asked.

“No, of course not, I’m talking about something stupid,” he said as if irritated, as if stunned that I hadn’t been paying attention.

“Then.  That.  Doesn’t.  Work,” I said as evenly as I could, angry that this otherwise smart kid either was goading me on purpose or was actually, unfortunately, sincere.  I wasn’t sure which possibility was worse.

“Then I’m not sure I see your point,” he said.

I explained that when you refer to something you don’t like in a pejorative way by naming it with a quality which is different from you — when actually there’s no logical reason to do so — you are, intentionally or subconsciously, demeaning anyone who actually does have that quality, solely because it is different from you.

We discussed Otherness and respect, and why respect and acceptance are different from tolerance.  (One person even pointed out the narcissism implied by the idea that anything which is different from oneself is bad.)  It took a while, but I think the student finally understood my point.

No one has used the word “gay” in that context in my class since.  And that’s good, but I’m not naïve enough to imagine that it’s because I changed the social thinking patterns of a bunch of young people.  More likely, it’s because getting read the riot act, no matter how politely, in front of one’s peers sort of sours the mood.

Or maybe it’s because I have a really big, colorful, eye-catching poster above the white board in my classroom that says, “F*G ISN’T FUNNY.  Stop hate.  Start now.”

***

In a particularly insightful essay about the n-word versus the f-word (and I don’t mean “fuck”), a friend of mine* once shed light on the conflicting ways in which American society treats discomfort with issues of race and sexuality.  He wrote about the “Black Codes” enacted after the Civil War which “limited the access blacks had to the basic rights the rest of the nation enjoyed,” such as the ability to serve in the military and the right to marry.  (Interracial marriage was outlawed in this country until just a few decades ago.)  He contends that today, there are de facto “Gay Codes” in effect which affect a range of life experiences from professional opportunities to what someone does in the privacy of one’s bedroom with another consenting adult.  Developments such as the recent repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the very slowly increasing number of states which have legalized same-sex marriage are chipping away at these inequalities, but it’s a rough road.  Civil rights battles are always protracted and painful.

Witness, for example, the atrocities of lynchings in the first half of the twentieth century.  Witness the atrocity of the death of Matthew Shepard just before the turn of the twenty-first.  And note the way people reacted to both situations in their respective time periods.  As my friend wrote, “The fatal beating [Shepard] endured left his skull so badly shattered that the doctors in the hospital he was rushed to were unable to operate.  It also left most of the country shocked and horrified.  But it was only the brutality of the killing that evoked such a large emotional response; the anti-gay motives common to numerous incidences across the United States could not spark such a reaction on their own.”

These incidences he refers to include, among other thoughtless acts found in high school hallways, the use of the word “gay” to refer to something one does not like.

***

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m offended when people diminish the value of another human being simply because that person is different.  Bullying is a terrible practice, made no more palatable by the real circumstance that it is motivated by fear or self-loathing or ignorance just as often as (if not more often than) by mean-spiritedness or herd mentality.

When my high school students use these kinds of slurs, I’m reminded of the elementary school children who won’t let one child play with them because they don’t like the exotic food his mother packs him for lunch.  I’m reminded of the seventh grade boys who tease the girl in their class whose breasts have already developed.  I’m reminded of adults who are so socially stunted that they avoid co-workers who practice different religions or who speak different languages at home or who sport the occasional tattoo or piercing.  What are these people thinking?  Probably a lot of things, but I’ll bet at the forefront of all of it is Otherness, and a subconscious inability to comfortably process it.  It would be great if we could all start teaching the children around us right now that it takes all kinds to make a whole world, and that all people are equal.

And maybe if we work on that hard enough, eventually we will all teach ourselves, too, that sometimes those old patterns of behavior we may have been raised with aren’t necessarily the best way forward.  I’m far from perfect, and though the environment in which I was raised was a good one overall, I wasn’t explicitly taught these progressive ideals at home — and certainly not at all in grade school — back in the 70s and 80s, but I’m finding that the more I work on it in my daily life now, the easier it is to erase those old uglinesses away from my children’s interactions with the world.  As they say, lead by example:  repeated actions become habit, and repeated habits become character.  So the message is simple:  say what you mean, and think before you speak.

And yes, I’ve heard the argument that this “evolution” of the word “gay” is just part of a natural progression of language, that the word used to mean “happy” and then it meant “homosexual” and now it means “stupid” or “objectionable.”  I can see the logic in that thought process, but I reject it.  What motivates it is, at best, laziness and at worst, a rationalization of malicious behavior and a lack of respect, and we cannot, on either a societal level or a personal one, tolerate that sort of thing if we want to live in a free and fair world.

And what intelligent or conscientious or foresightful person doesn’t want that?

*  This friend has chosen to remain anonymous, although I am using his words and ideas with his expressed permission.