Incomplete History

Dear Reader,

I know this blog is a bit later than the first Friday, but I was asked to write a guest post for HoCoPoLitSo (Howard County Poetry and Literature Society) to mark LGBTQ History Month, and I wanted to let that post get published first there before I published a slightly different version of it here – so much has happened since I submitted the blog to them, and I kept thinking/writing.  Now that it’s up there, here it is.  You can also check it out on HoCoPoLitSo’s blog.

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October is LGBTQ History Month. When I think about LGBTQ history, I am of two minds and the poems included in the LGBTQ collection on Poets.org perfectly reflect that split. Some of the poems are so absolutely ordinary in their subjects, like the poem, “our happiness” by Eileen Miles, and on one hand, I think, that’s progress: the lives of LGBTQ people are written and expressed in the same way as other lives. That’s equality, right? Being a gay poet doesn’t mean that you have to write every poem about the experience of being gay. Not every aspect, every moment of my life is about that, but my experience is most definitely shaped by it and so is my view of history.

If we’re really talking about history, the conversation is incomplete unless we acknowledge that nothing is really the same. Some might say, hey, you won the right to get married, so what are you complaining about? That reminds me of the poem, “On Marriage” by Marilyn Hacker where the poet talks about the way in which LGBTQ people “must choose, and choose, and choose / momently, daily” to affirm their holding handscommitment to one another, “Call it anything we want” when society doesn’t quite know how to accept or handle this kind of “covenant.” We talk a lot about “White Privilege” in cultural discourse, but we don’t talk a lot about “Mainstream Heterosexual Cisgender Privilege.” It exists. MHCP allows folks to do very ordinary things like hold hands in public without having to do a quick check of their surroundings. MHCP allows you to use whatever bathroom you want without being harassed or shamed or threatened.  It allows you to feel “normal” out in the world. Put it this way: there are times when showing affection to my wife in public – just a peck on the cheek – feels like a dangerous political act.

It hasn’t always been this way for me.  In fact, I enjoyed MHCP for most of my life.  I went to a conservative Christian high school, and though there were probably gay people around me (I’m pretty sure a few of my teachers were/are), since none of them were out, I feel as though I didn’t meet a gay person until I went to college. Riding through my high school years and my twenties as an MHCP was easy.  Being white made it even easier. Realizing I was gay later in life when I care less what the world thinks has made the sting of discrimination sting a little less.  Still, it was surprising to realize that the world had changed. Is it weird to say that I want to have it both ways? As Uncle Walt says, “Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” I want everyone in the world to see LGBTQ people as just normal, and I want everyone to know that our experience is different.

If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that being an LGBTQ person is a unique and still unequal experience in this country. There are subtle and unsubtle ways that society is set up to exclude and marginalize us. And some of the poems I browsed on Poets.org do address that fact. I find myself drawn more powerfully to these poems because I do want to acknowledge the difference that exits. A great example of this is “A Woman Is Talking to Death” by Judy Grahn. The poem was written in 1940, and the lines that jump out to me are:

“this woman is a lesbian, be careful.

When I was arrested and being thrown out

of the military, the order went out: don’t anybody

speak to this woman, and for those three

long months, almost nobody did: the dayroom, when

I entered it, fell silent til I had gone; they

were afraid, they knew the wind would blow

them over the rail, the cops would come,

the water would run into their lungs.

Everything I touched

was spoiled. They were my lovers, those

women, but nobody had taught us how to swim.

I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down

when I signed the confession of what we

had done               together.

No one will ever speak to me again.”

LGBTQ history is a history of fraught silence.  A friend of mine, Rob, hid the fact that he was gay the entire time he was in the Navy – it wasn’t just that he feared for his job, he also feared for his life, that other soldiers might threaten or harass him for being openly gay. He hid it until he completed his tour of duty, and then he came out to all of his friends. You might think that passing a law abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would end this discrimination, but you would be wrong. This discrimination still exists in the military – though now the target has shifted from being gay or lesbian to being transgender. Grahn’s poem was written in 1940; it is 77 years later, and we are not there yet. And because we live in the age of vindictive executive orders, we are too afraid that the next step in the movement will be a step backward.

If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that we’re still in the middle of the story right now. What started with Alan Turing, Barbara Gittings, Christine Jorgenson, Alan Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, the Stonewall riots, James Baldwin, and Harvey Milk has led us to the defeat of DOMA, the rejection of Proposition 8, the victory of Edith Windsor, the success of Tammy Baldwin. But this complicated history also continues with events like the shooting in the Pulse nightclub and pronouncements that threaten the rights of transgender soldiers and that reinterpret Civil Rights laws to exclude protections for

flyerpng-0ca3f60658695046
Photo from Cleveland.com
LGBTQ employees. For all the poems that are out there, some things about the LGBTQ experience just defy expression.  Not everything is just about the right to get married or or what sports we can play or what bathroom we’re allowed to use – those things are important, but there are even heavier questions on our minds than whether you see us as equal – like whether you see us as human.  We’ve seen in the last week or so of our history that LGBTQ youth are not safe on college campuses around the country.  At Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio, flyers have appeared encouraging LGBTQ students to commit suicide, taunting them with the statistics that mock the loneliness and desperation that LGBTQ people feel with the disgusting tag “Fascist Solutions.”  There is no poem that expresses what I want to say to the monsters that distributed these flyers.  There is no poem that says want I want to say to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, the men who have given these monsters a voice in our society. This history is so raw, so painful, so new.  Current events are going to write these poems, and I want to read those poems too, not just the ones that try to normalize our experience.

One of the happiest days in my life was November 6th, 2012. That was the day that voters in my home state of Maryland affirmed the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, and I knew that I would marry my wife. Then, on June 26th, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that we should be seen as equal under the law. In a stunning closing paragraph, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” To read

Blog Photo
My wife and I at the Jan. 20 Women’s March – photo by Tara Hart
that, you’d think that we are living in a new era, but in reality, it isn’t quite true. We are living in a time that feels, in some ways, more dangerous than ever. In “Love Song for Love Songs,” Rafael Campo writes that it is “A golden age of love songs and we still / can’t get it right.” That’s what I think: If we’re going to talk about LGBTQ history and celebrate equality, we have to admit that, despite so much progress in the last few years, the last ten months have shown us that we still have so far to go. Sharpen your pencils.

 

 

© Ryna May 2017

 

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Deep Listening

Dear Reader,

This post is about something you have quite possibly never heard of: podcasts.  As in broadcasts for the iPod.  My first experience with podcasts was way back in 2004.  Podcasts were a fairly new iTunes genre, but I loved radio shows on NPR and audiobooks, so the podcast offered a familiar and simultaneously unique form – almost like a weekly magazine but free. My favorite: Pottercast, a podcast dedicated to rehashing everything in the Harry Potter lexicon and speculating on how the series might end.  One of my favorite episodes featured an interview with Matthew Lewis – he played Neville Longbottom in the movie franchise.

And now you’ve seen my nerd card. Photo on 4-29-16 at 10.33 AM

For some reason, despite the moderate success of standout programs like This American Life, podcasts didn’t really take off at first. They remained kind of a fringe form of media: low-budget, low-interest.  Eventually, the Harry Potter book series came to a close, and I stopped listening to Pottercast and all other podcasts for a while. While the iPod itself is now virtually extinct, podcasts have hung in there, playing to a small audience week after week.

But then came a little podcast called Serial from the producers of This American Life.  Season 1 of Serial hit the airwaves like a lightning bolt.  If you have any curiosity about podcasts at all, download this podcast immediately and start listening.  The well-produced series also presented a compelling mystery told by skilled storyteller and former crime reporter Sarah Koenig. Serial is the story of a closed case that feels pretty unresolved – the 1999 murder of a high school student from nearby Woodlawn, Maryland named Hae Min Lee.  Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime, but the facts and circumstances made his conviction, well, un-convincing.  (An aside: Syed won an appeal for a new trial and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is currently weighing the state’s appeal of that ruling for a new trial.  Justice is not just blind but painfully slow and bureaucratic.) Whereas This American Life had always focused on telling several bite-sized stories on the same theme in a single episode, Serial took a new approach.  Koenig unfolded the story a little bit more week by week; Serial not only held listeners in rapt attention but spawned other true-crime podcasts in its wake, including Undisclosed, Truth & Justice, and Accused.  This year the producers of Serial kept the ball rolling with a new podcast, S-Town, that presented something like a southern-gothic murder-mystery. No spoilers here, but the story takes a dramatic, strange turn that left me thinking, “What am I listening to?!” – yet I couldn’t turn it off. The new format of S-Town and Netflix-style dropping of all episodes at once pushed the genre in a new direction again.

The Podcast Renaissance is going strong, and I am in awe of how many truly exceptional programs are being produced. Podcasts have transformed my commute, my workout, and my yardwork – I can’t wait to immerse myself in these episodes.  When I can’t sleep, I reach for my headphones- usually a bad idea because I get engrossed in the story and don’t want to sleep, but it’s better than the 2am television waste land. Search the iTunes charts, and you’ll find some truly esoteric stuff. There’s also some pretty mainstream stuff. Pottercast still exists, in case you’re wondering – they have a new episode up once or twice a month.fullsizeoutput_ce0

Of all the truly wonderful podcasts on the charts, I would like to focus on two of them for you that I am obsessed with right now: Ear Hustle and Revisionist History.

Revisionist History features Malcolm Gladwell, celebrated cultural critic and author of books such as Blink and The Tipping Point.  I love the premise of his podcast: that some things we take for granted as settled history deserve a closer look.  He takes on a wide range of historical and social issues, from Winston Churchill to country music to the educational system.  Gladwell always takes an angle that I am not expecting, and I truly do learn something every time I listen to it.  My only criticism of the podcast is that Gladwell sometimes goes too quickly for an oversimplification of complicated problems – maybe this is part of the limitation of a 30-minute conversation, or maybe he just really believes in Occam’s Razor.  A good example of this is in the Season One episode called “Food Fight” about wealthy private colleges Bowdoin and Vassar. He starts by comparing the dining options at the colleges and then progresses to a discussion of the efforts each college makes (or doesn’t make) to offer better access to low-income students.  His general point is that because Vassar has cut back on dining options and student amenities, they are able to admit more low-income students.  I asked a former student of mine who happened to attend Vassar during the time Gladwell recorded that episode, and she pushes back on his summation that basic options are the burden that more fortunate students must bear in order to increase opportunities for low-income students.  She pointed out that the college still spends plenty of money on non-student related amenities, such as champagne-rich faculty parties, new houses for administrators, and purchasing some rare, expensive golden bird for their art collection.  My student shared that Vassar made this acquisition at the same time they were preaching austerity to students, saying they’d have to cut back on providing access to basic health items such as sanitary products. So yeah, not just about food. But even though his food for students argument is a bit reductive, Gladwell does raise an interesting point about how colleges choose to use their money – and this applies to all colleges and universities, not just Vassar and Bowdoin. It makes me think harder about how my own college spends its resources.

In addition to Gladwell’s program, another real standout for me is the new podcast called Ear Hustle.  If you read Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black or have seen the sensationalized series on Netflix by the same name, you probably have some notions and also some questions about life for the incarcerated. Ear Hustle is set in San Quentin State Prison and produced by two prisoners, Earlonne Woods & Antwan Williams, and a local

ear hustle
The Ear Hustle Crew (l-r) Williams, Poor, & Woods (Photo from Rolling Stone)
artist, Nigel Poor. To “Ear Hustle” means to eavesdrop – thus the podcast is what it is like to listen in on what actually happens in prison.  One of my favorite episodes is called “Cellies” – about the pitfalls and politics of choosing and enduring a cellmate. That’s right – sometimes you have a say in who your cellmate might be, and the decision is pretty complicated. The episode called “SHU” explores the effects of long-term solitary confinement in Pelican Bay where SHU inmates are held.  SHU stands for Security Housing Unit, and it is absolutely the loneliest place on earth. Woods himself spent a year in SHU and can personally speak to the way it altered him.  His stint was nothing compared to other men who contribute to this episode – some of them spent decades in the SHU before getting released.  Fortunately, due to a 2013 inmate hunger strike, the prison changed its policy and no longer commits prisoners to the SHU indefinitely; the maximum time there is five years – which is still an awfully long time to spend with no human interaction and no chance to breathe fresh air or feel the sun.

Ear Hustle does not pull any punches and does not romanticize the plight of the inmate.  The inmates are not portrayed as animals or as completely reformed saints, but as flawed men who feel the weight of what they’ve done and who face the consequences of their choices daily. The self-awareness of the inmates is disarming and somewhat unexpected.  The goal of the project, I think, is simply to lift the veil so we can better understand these men – not to pity them, but to humanize them. Our criminal justice system needs desperate reform, and perhaps seeing prisoners as people – not numbers, not problems – is a good first step in that process. So the podcast is not just entertainment, but a subtle exercise in activism.

The great thing about a podcast is that it allows for deep, extended listening.  I have always loved listening to things – it probably goes back to when I was a kid and used to listen to baseball games on the radio with my grandfather.  Too often, it seems to me that we do what I like to call resistant listening – especially when it is something that challenges us or that goes against things we already think or believe.  We don’t listen to understand – we listen in order to respond – because we live in a contentious, litigious society where everyone wants to have the last or loudest word about things. Podcasts are helping me become a better listener and by extension a better thinker about a variety of subjects – some things I never thought I’d be interested in.  Because of podcasts, I really think about the criminal justice system, I really think about how my brain works, I really think about my biases and how to be more aware of them.  Podcasts inspire research, questions, and conversations. From politics to pop culture, true crime to television, there really is something for everyone. And more than that, we can all stand to become better listeners.

In addition to the ones I have already mentioned throughout this post, here are a few podcasts that I highly recommend (all available through iTunes):

And I’m always looking for more.  If you are already a podcast lover, tell me: what are you listening to?

 

© Ryna May 2017

Teaching in the Time of Trump

Dear Reader,

I have taken a sabbatical from the blog for a few months now – in all honesty, the pernicious political climate defeated any desire I had to put together my thoughts for a blog post. Every idea I started with turned angry, and I generally believe anger is an impotent emotion.

angry trump
Trump speaks to supporters – photo by Politico

I am hardly alone in feeling the negative vibe in the air – most people in our society (70 % according to recent polling) feel that the country as a whole is more negative since the last election.  As the saying goes, the speed of the group is equal to the speed of the leader. You could restate this as the tone of the group is set by the tone of the leader. The leader’s tone is dangerous, angry, toxic. Horrible.

It has not been easy to resist the tone.  It has especially been a challenge at work, in the classroom.  How does one teach in the time of Trump?  It’s not easy.  First and foremost, we have to tolerate things we disagree with and realize that opinions about Trump run a full spectrum.  Despite how I feel about Trump, I have to model tolerant disagreement. Second, we have to acknowledge that everything we talk about in the classroom connects to the world around us, and the students certainly feel impacted by what’s going on out there.  Nothing feels quite normal to students these days.  They have anxieties and insecurities that get expressed in class discussion and in their writing. My students worry about their Muslim neighbors, their immigrant classmates, their LGBTQ friends, themselves. As much as we’d like to, we can’t shut the door and pretend that the world doesn’t exist; we have to talk about it. The only good way I can think to let the world in is by not focusing on Trump so much as what we read can teach us about ourselves. After all, even though a person like Trump seems new and unique in time, in truth he is not new but rather a regression.  We can learn lessons from stories, plays, novels, and poems that show us who we do – and don’t – want to be. These past few months, I have found some solace in knowing that the things we study teach us about why truth matters, why bullies can’t win, what happens when we demonize others, and what happens when we fight for the best version of ourselves.

One of the classes I teach is called Ethics in Literature, and one of the things we confront in this course is the idea of what is true. There is a dangerous way of thinking out there in the world that says, “If it feels true to me or if it confirms what I believe, then it must be true.”  In current political discourse, this is what is know as “Alternative Facts.”  In plain truth, alternative facts are lies.  One of the lessons we learn in ethics is that thinking so doesn’t make it so. “Many people are saying” is not a rational argument, and when we talk about big questions of right and wrong, objectivity is essential.  Here is an example: Person A thinks chocolate ice cream is the best.  That thinking expresses an opinion about ice cream.  Is chocolate ice cream the best?  Not according Person B who loves vanilla ice cream.  Can they both be right? Ice cream is a low-stakes argument.  But what if we apply that same process to a moral question? Moral questions can’t be decided based on a mere difference of opinion or preference.  It may be Person A’s opinion that pursuing stem-cell research is wrong because it makes him uncomfortable, but that is not enough to declare it morally wrong. Moral questions require justified thinking, not just opinion or preference. And saying something like “stem-cell research is wrong because I think it’s messing with the natural order” is not a rational, justified argument.  It may be how Person A feels, but that does not make it true.  There really is a difference between facts and feelings, and one of the most important things we can teach students is to believe in the independent objectivity of facts.

As we read Macbeth, we see what happens when we give way to our darkest impulses, when we seek to win at all costs even at the expense of other people. The witches set the tone for this early on by declaring that “fair is foul and foul is fair.”  Macbeth is a bully who decides to trash and destroy everything in his path. He wants power, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it.  The gluttonous desire for power is all consuming, as he ultimately realizes that he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – in other words, he is in over his head. The paranoid pursuit of power leads him to threaten and murder everyone he perceives as a threat in order to try and maintain his grasp on the throne. Ultimately, the bully defeats himself as everyone turns against Macbeth, refusing to accept his fatalistic vision. Shakespeare’s dark play shows us that ambition alone does not make a great leader, and while it may inspire fear, it will never inspire love, admiration, greatness, or loyalty.

macbeth
image from BBC

When we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we learn that how we treat others matters. When Victor’s creature wanders out into the world, he is not a monster.  The creature seeks love, acceptance, and understanding.  He looks for a place to belong.  But it is his difference in appearance and manner that ultimately creates fear in others.  Society can’t handle his difference, and they take out those fears on the creature.  The creature learns that he is “solitary and abhorred” – alone and hated.  This leads him to feelings of “hate and revenge” – the creature learns to treat others the way he has been treated.  At one point, the creature tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” The lesson is simple: when faced with someone different from our norm, someone outside of our comfort zone, we can treat them with respect and create better humans, or we can create monsters. Sometimes, for all the talk of America being “a great melting pot,” we sure do seem to resist people who are different from our norm.  Too often we regard each other with suspicion and derision – and the monsters we really create are ourselves.

But when we read The Hunger Games, we learn that we should not pit ourselves against each other. When we do that, we play the evil leader’s game. President Snow wants people from the various districts to distrust each other, not to talk to each other, and not to help each other. He wants them to see their survival as dependent on the demise of others. Peeta and Katniss refuse to conform to the image of “good tributes” in that while they understand they may have to sacrifice their lives, they refuse to sacrifice their character.  Their resistance is shown in small and big ways.  For example, on the eve of the games, Peeta says, “I want to die as myself” in the arena.  He does not want to fundamentally alter who he is for the sake of the game.  Snow is hoping that the tributes will all behave viciously toward one another once the games are underway, confirming the worst narrative Snow has tried to construct about the people from the districts.  It is a small act of rebellion on Peeta’s part to fight for his character in the face of a truly horrible fate.  In a much larger act of resistance, Katniss shows compassion to her ally, Rue.  When Rue is mortally wounded, rather than run away to save herself, Katniss stays with Rue so she doesn’t have to die alone.  Her rebellion is shown in the way she prepares a funeral scene for the fallen tribute and honors Rue’s district in an unprecedented show of solidarity.  What Collins’ book tries to show is that cooperation is how we win, and we must fight to stay true to ourselves even when circumstances try to force us to act in ways that hurt others. We must always search for and nurture the better parts of our nature – and that is the only way we really win, the only way to make ourselves great.

When we studied John Rawls’ theories on social justice, my students did an exercise where they created an ideal society behind their own veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance assumes that you don’t know who you will be or what place you will have in society, so in creating society, the goal is to try and set it up as fairly as possible for everyone. I challenged them to think affirmatively – create the society they want by deciding on what was good. The point of the exercise was to discover what things we truly value. Their list was encouraging: they want freedom, they want justice, they want equality, they want peace, they want respect, they want education, they want opportunity. What is made plain by the list they created is what they don’t want: prejudice, injustice, inequality, fear, disrespect, lack of education, and lack of opportunity.

The exercise could be easily dismissed by saying it’s too idealistic, but during this week where we have celebrated the anniversary of our nation, it’s fair to point out that the Declaration of Independence was pretty idealistic too. America was a dream. It took some work to get it going, and we are still wildly imperfect. Does that mean we should cease to try?  Perhaps the most essential benefit of studying the humanities is that art, literature, and philosophy help us understand how much bigger the world is.  Too often, we are locked within a selfish bubble, only concerned with what is immediate to us. This isolationist thinking is dangerous. As much as anything else, my goal as a teacher is to say simply this to my students: try. Try to imagine the world you want to live in. Try to figure out how you can go about creating it.  Try compassion.  Try to live with honesty and dignity. Try to treat others the right way, to earn respect by giving it. Try to be the person you think you should be, even when it’s hard. Try in small ways and in great ways. Change happens in depressingly slow ways sometimes, but then sometimes it makes massive leaps. But none of it happens if we don’t try and just pretend that everything is normal, everything is okay.

This is how I have learned to teach in the time of Trump.

© Ryna May 2017

For Your Grandma

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

Dear Reader,

Have you ever come to a fork in the road?  Have you wondered if they would lead you to the same place? How do you know which one to take?

Alice Walker has this story called “Everyday Use.”  It’s a fantastic story that I teach almost every semester.  It’s a story about a mom and her two girls, told from the perspective of the mother.  The two daughters are as different as they can be.  One is called Maggie, and she is not terribly sophisticated, and maybe she has passed up some opportunities to get herself farther ahead in life.  But she did that so she could stay with her mom. Maggie is a good person, genuine. The other is named Dee – actually she has changed her name to Wangero. The change is symbolic of her new, better life. She left home, went to college.  She has become her own person.

So there’s an interesting thing that always happens when my students and I talk about this story.  No one really likes Dee.  They think she has appropriated her culture for selfish reasons, they think she is out of touch with what matters, they think she should appreciate her “old” life more than she seems to.  They think Maggie is “nice” because she stayed with her mother.  They think Maggie has missed out on a lot, but her choices somehow seem easier to live with.  These are all true observations.  Here’s the interesting part: they like Maggie, but they don’t want to be her.  They’d rather be Dee.

This story means something to me because sometimes I feel like the outlier in my family.  I moved out on my own after high school.  I stayed behind in Maryland when my family moved on to Pennsylvania so I could start my own life, be independent. I wanted to be “more” – always have.  I have remained in Maryland as my family has come full circle and returned to Tennessee.  I put myself through college.  I think differently. I do feel like I have chosen a different kind of life.  Not a better life, but a different life.

There are things about my southern heritage that I really miss, and I acutely feel like I am not part of them at times.  There is a line in Walker’s story where Dee wants these quilts that are family heirlooms – she wants to display them as art, which in its own way is a way to honor them, but not quite the right way maybe.  After some argument about them, the mother says that Maggie can make more – she knows how to quilt.  The implicit statement is that Maggie is part of the culture and Dee is not.  I think about this a lot lately.  The fork looms – what will make the difference?  This is the difficult choice so often in life.  Both options seem to have their advantages, but is there real difference in choosing one path over the other? Are we destined to be who we will be no matter what? Would Dee be a “better” person if she had stayed close, learned to quilt?

I have always wondered about this.  It has been looming larger lately as I contemplate what the next phase of my life will be.  I have accomplished many personal and professional goals, so naturally I am thinking about what is next.  In this mindset, I recalled a poem I wrote in 1999 when I was a sophomore at the University of Baltimore.  Just a month after I wrote it, my great-grandmother died, and I read it as part of her eulogy at her funeral.  It was a way to honor her memory and what she meant to our family.  Just this year, the Blackbird Poetry Festival ran with the theme of “Histories and HerStories,” and I decided to revise it to read it at the festival, this time thinking of all my grandmothers and how there is this legacy that maybe… the thought is hard to finish.  It may be true that you can never go home again.  Or maybe it’s not.  I don’t know.  Grandmothers seem to be the key to memory somehow, they are the stuff the tapestry is woven from. Maybe it’s that we all revolve around them  – they are the center of the universe for big occasions, like Christmas morning. Or maybe it’s the food – the smell, the taste, the good feeling. At any rate, here is the poem, and of course it has to do with food. 

“For Your Grandma”

 

On her pale, wrinkled hands, each line a dozen stories

Of days spent combing the hair of her grandchildren,

Pulling out splinters, washing out scratches, and wiping away tears.

Rough, scaly hands riddled with scars of picking, pickling, and canning,

Purple fingers, purple hands, stained from beating the beets,

The evidence of a life spent reaping the fruit needed for living, every day.

I watched her sometimes while she cooked.

Her fingers, long probing rods, kneaded the bread,

And her flour-covered hands tossed, slapped, and shaped sticky globs

That were thrown onto the biscuit pan

And shoved with purpose into the hot oven.

In a strange, wordless language, she smacked the helpless

Dough into perfect submission.

If you are from The South, you’d better be able to make biscuits.

They should be made of lard and flour, laced with butter, milk, and salt.

They must rise, golden and perfect.

They better not be made with Bisquick.

Otherwise, you might as well live in Maryland.

In my grandmother’s house, biscuits were a form of currency,

Good as money, the bread of life.

The oven timer was a siren call to the breakfast table,

A starting gun for the day, a blessing, a prayer.

I am a long way from that Tennessee kitchen, and

I hope she does not hear this: but I cannot remember

How to make biscuits the way she did.

I do remember her hands.

Wherever she is now,

I want her to see: my mother, my sister, me:

We have risen, we are golden, we are delicious.

 

And because you can’t talk about biscuits without really wanting one, here is a recipe for biscuits like my Grandma Odum used to make – they really are the best.  The key is the lard:

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour

1 tspn salt

1/3 tspn baking soda

5 tbspns of lard

2 tspns of baking powder

1 cup of buttermilk

1/4 cup or so of melted salted butter

  1. Mix dry ingredients and sift into mixing bowl, then cut in lard until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
  2. Stir in buttermilk until it is incorporated with the flour mixture. The dough will be kind of wet and very sticky.
  3. Flour your hands and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough in the flour just enough to make it workable – you don’t want it to stick to your hands too much, but don’t work in too much extra flour either or the biscuits will be heavy and taste of raw flour.
  4. For each biscuit, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a large egg or a small lemon and pat out in the un-greased pan with your hands. You don’t want it to be really flat, just pat it down a bit so it’s relatively biscuit-shaped and about 1 inch high.
  5. Bake at 475 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Keep your eye on them while they’re in the oven so they don’t burn.
  6. Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter.  Enjoy the awesome.

 

© Ryna May 2016

Understanding Poetry

Dear Reader,

April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry.  At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival.  Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets.  In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird.  His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.

The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways.  Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem.  Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.

The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry.  Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting.  My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade.  My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth.  One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class.  I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth.  I still remember the entire poem even now.  But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon.  It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.

I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students.  1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it.  Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this.  Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.

I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks.  In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry.  When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.”  In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that.  Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia.  For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.

© Ryna May 2016

 

Required Reading

Dear Reader,

In college, one of the things I was most excited about was all of the great books I was going to read.  Even between semesters, I sought out reading recommendations from my favorite professors – I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  Over summer break, I averaged 2 books a week – a habit that, until I went back to school for my doctorate, I was able to maintain long after graduation.

Today, I read an article about the books that most frequently appear on college syllabi, and it got me to thinking about the best books I’ve ever read.  If I were ever to design my own course in reading “Great Books,” these are the 7 works I would have on my 15-week syllabus, with explanations.  Note: I fully admit that some great books are not on this list, and I’ll also admit a serious Western Lit bias, but this is an impossible project; however it also a fun one to think about.  So, in 15 weeks, this is what we would read:

1. The Great Gatsby

I have great affection for Fitzgerald’s most popular book.  I love the era it is set in, and I do believe that it is the quintessential narrative of the aspiration, excess, and fallacy of “The American Dream.”  An alternative to this on the same theme: Death of a Salesman.

2. Beloved

No other novel honestly spooked me as much as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  It is a haunting story of slavery and the impossible, regrettable moral choices the protagonist faces.  Shivers.  Also in this lane: a contemporary novel called The Known World.

3. Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe’s novel is a postcolonial masterpiece.  It was one of the first books I ever really read about another culture, and it was fascinating to consider the alternative view of Christianity in the world.  In this same vein, also a good bet: The Poisonwood Bible.

4. Hamlet

Of course there is Shakespeare on this list!  My favorite play to watch may be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but my favorite play to read and sit with is definitely Hamlet. I love this play because, even though I have read it dozens of times, I always find something new it in.  I have never read another play like it.  Its depths resound.  Sorry – can’t find anything really comparable – except maybe Macbeth.

5. The Things They Carried

Of all the books and stories about war, this one is the one I always come back to.  Tim O’Brien is an amazing storyteller.  I remember the first time I ever read “On the Rainy River.”  I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica, and was a real gut-punch.  If you like this one, you’ll also love Dispatches – a non-fiction story about a reporter in Vietnam.

6. 1984

I probably like Animal Farm better, but 1984 is just scary.  It’s scary because it’s so true.  I think even George Orwell would be surprised at how right he was about the world to come.  When I first read the book, I kind of laughed at the idea of “Big Brother.”  Not so funny now.  Huxley’s Brave New World is also frighteningly on the nose.

7. Last but not least, Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s gothic novel raises all of the questions we are still asking about the limits of human knowledge and achievement along with the ethical responsibilities we bear when we push those boundaries.  The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells provokes these questions as well.

So what do you think?  If you were assigning “Great Books,” what would be on the list?

 

© Ryna May 2016

Music and Memory

“No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—”

– from “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins

The other day I was working on my laptop while a popular singing competition played in the background when I heard the first few plaintive piano notes of the song “Walking in Memphis”  and I suddenly started seeing a memory play in the movie theater of my mind of a time I was stranded with a bunch of my friends in a Myrtle Beach hotel twenty years ago, January of 1995.  We had gone to Myrtle Beach for a business conference, and the morning we were set to leave, we got the news that I-95 was shut down through most of northern Virginia by a massive snowstorm.  There was nothing to do but stay a few more days and wait it out.  There was an entire floor of the beachfront hotel, the “Captain’s Quarters,” that was given over to entertainment: a bowling alley, a pool table, several arcade games, and a jukebox.  I remember playing that song on the jukebox several times while we were there.  I know I have not thought of this in at least a decade, but now here it is, just as if it happened yesterday.  It’s strange how we can be pulled so immediately into the past by music.

Actually, the more I think about it, it is not strange at all.  Music and memory are powerfully related. I used to give my creative writing students an assignment that starts with the line “The first time I heard [insert song title here], I was…”  They were always great stories because the memories were so clear – students could recount things with startling detail and emotion.

I associate certain days with certain songs.  I remember being in the living room of our house in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee on a pile of blankets with my brother and sister and hearing the spooky song “In the Air Tonight” on the radio.  I was eight, and it was the night my father died.  There are so many things about that day that have faded from memory, but not this thing. Even now, when I hear the song, it’s as if I slide down a rabbit hole right into the middle of that room.

I also remember in the months after my father’s death lying on the floor of our new house back in my mom’s hometown of Athens, Tennessee and playing the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey over and over again.  I would crawl out of my bed journeyat night when I was sad or scared and could not sleep and go huddle right in front of my mom’s living room stereo.  The first night I did it, I just pushed play on the tape deck and the sound came out at me like a warm blanket, wrapped me up, and hushed me to sleep.  After that first night, whenever I found myself too traumatized to sleep, I crawled to the stereo in search of that peaceful lullaby. Play.  Rewind. Play. Rewind. Until sleep came over me. Years later, when I was in high school, I had a friend who was learning to play it, and I could not get enough of listening to her play those first few measures. Even today the song elicits a physical reaction – a deep breath and warm tingle that runs up the spine.

Music has been shown to help elderly people with memory recall.  This is important to on a personal level because my grandmother suffered from alzheimer’s and dementia, a disease with a genetic predisposition.  Perhaps I will face that too someday, but even if I am lucky enough to avoid it, I know that it is a fact of getting older that our memories become less distinct over time, and there are some things that I definitely want to remember, good and bad.  I want to remember working on a paper once about Virginia Woolf sitting in McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland with my little portable CD player and finding that for some reason, I felt most inspired when listening to “Sylvia Plath” by Ryan Adams.  I want to remember my sister, when we lived on Andrews Air Force Base, sitting in the backyard with her junior high friends dangling their painted toes in a baby pool while George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” blared through the speakers of her pink boom box as they sang along in the worst possible tableau you could imagine for preteen girls.

I have so many memories of my brother that are connected to music, such as the songs by Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister that he used to play in his room, the Tesla tape that he used to play every morning as we drove to high school in our red Nissan Sentra (we were beyond cool), and the black Metallica t-shirt he was buried in.  It was his favorite. But there are two that are the most powerful.  One is from when we were kids living in Florida.  He was probably around thirteen years old, and I walked into his room unannounced – something you should never, ever do to a teenaged boy by the way – and he was jumping around on his bed wearing shorts and these white tube socks singing, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…” by James Taylor.  It was funny then, and he was kind of embarrassed, but now it feels different.  Those white socks, for some reason, get me every time.  The way they were flopping off the ends of his feet, too big for him.  It kind of breaks my heart.

But the one that really breaks my heart is from the day after he died.  I just had to get out of the house for a little while, get away from all of the sadness, but that really wasn’t possible to do.  So I drove to the restaurant where he used to work and I just sat there in my car.  This song “One” by U2 came on.  Then the tears really came.

When I am old I still want to remember the things that have broken my heart along with the moments that have filled it.  I want to always remember “Lovely Tonight” by Joshua Radin but as performed by my friend Will at my wedding.  We stood at the top of the stairs and I gave my soon-to-be wife’s hand a squeeze before I walked down the aisle with this song drawing us to the altar, drawing us into happily ever after in front of all of our family and friends.

We are so lucky to live in this time where our life’s playlist is so easy to access, catalogue, and replay.  Our music tells our history in a way that words cannot quite reach, and for that I am grateful.  Sweet as any madeleine shortbread, these songs comfort and fortify me and summon up the remembrance of things past. As long as I can hear these songs, I am always in touch with who I am, who I’ve been, and who I want to be.

© 2015 Ryna May