Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Melina's Graduation

Two days ago, on 29 May 2011, the day before Memorial Day, our youngest daughter Melina Blue Gotera graduated from Cedar Falls High School. There's Melina on the right, with her eyes squinched tight in joy, hugging her BFF Sarah . . . don't the two of them look just ecstatic and glorious?

It was a wonderful graduation commencement. An English teacher was up there at the podium and represented the tribe in excellent fashion, with a funny and uplifting address . . . Ms. Marguerite DeMoss, one of Melina's favorite teachers. Just yesterday Melina showed me the fabulous Hemingway parody she wrote in Ms. DeMoss's "great books" class, where incidentally they read Dante. Faithful readers of the blog know of my longstanding obsession with The Divine Comedy. Gotta love it!

It's been an interesting four years for all of us in the Blue Gotera family &mdash rewarding, challenging, full of joys. Now Melina goes on to pursue her many interests: teaching, psychology, art, literature, music, and her great love, writing. These will be lifelong pursuits, I'm sure. Melina has numerous talents, but most of all she wants to be of service. She wants ultimately to help people and the world as much as she can. I know I'm her dad and all that, but I am certain Melina will lead a life that will be fulfilling not only for her but also for everyone around her.

And now, of course, you gotta look at pictures. There are also a couple of videos, but I won't put you through that. Many thanks to Melina's older sister Amelia, who was a most excellent photographer and videographer for the event.

Okay, here goes.

That's the happy-graduate-holding-her-diploma shot. Ain't she just beautiful?
(Remember, just click on any image to see it larger.)

This is Melina's other BFF, Jordyn. She's been a real rock for Melina, just a wellspring of support.
(I know, mixed metaphor . . . proud Dad syndrome.)

The kids: Amanda, Gabe, Melina, and Amelia. Yup, Melina's wearing really high heels.

My older son Marty and our lovely daughter-in-law Grace live in Germany and couldn't be here. We love and miss you guys!

Mary Ann and I . . . happy, proud parents with our baby all grown up.

And finally the picture from the top of the post, this time without all that Photoshop schmotoshop.

Congratulations, dear Melina. Her name comes from the Greek for "honey" and that's what she's been all her life. Sweet.

Melina, your Mom and I couldn't be prouder. We wish you all the best, ALL THE BEST, in life and love . . . laugh, laugh, laugh, that's the secret. We all love you!

Dear readers, I hope you will comment below. Let's talk. And thanks.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Wound, Burn, Glacier: A Poetry Exercise

This past semester — Spring 2011 — I taught a Beginning Poetry Writing course at the University of Northern Iowa. A few minutes before class was to start one day, I realized I had neglected to prepare an in-class poetry exercise, something to get students in the zone, as they say. Looking around my office for last-minute inspiration, my eyes lit upon the most recent issue of the North American Review, which brought to mind the fine short story "VIVA!" by Erin McReynolds.

I leafed quickly through Erin's story, looking for a paragraph that had fascinating words in it. I found one that contained the words blue light, wound, burn, glacier, Sssh, crushes. Bingo! Here's that paragraph as it appears on the page, with the exact lineation:
My boyfriend sleeps beside me, and his face is peaceful in
the blue light of my laptop. His lashes are long and I bend
down to kiss them. Because I'm used to telling him every-
thing, I whisper aloud the things I find on the Internet.
Things like, "A wound to the carotid artery results in a loss of
consciousness in under a minute," and, "They burn the organs
they remove during autopsy, unless the family wants them put
back in, for religious reasons." When he startles, his glacier
eyes wild with panic, I stroke his head. "Sssh," I whisper, "it’s
me," as if that should comfort him. He blinks at me and then
grabs me around the ribs and crushes his face to my chest. I
keep stroking his hair, whispering, "The human body contains
about five liters of blood."
I quickly xeroxed the half of the page bearing the paragraph (making sure Erin's entire name was visible) and then wrote instructions on the remaining white space: Write a 12-line poem using one word from each line in the paragraph shown. The chosen word from each line needs to appear in the same line in the poem. E.g., if you use the word "Internet" it should appear in line 4 of your poem. If you use "chest" it must appear in line 11. Okay? Ready, set, go. I left the 13th line of the paragraph out because it was short and thus had relatively few words. In class, I also told the students they could slightly alter the words, for example, changing "sleeps" to "sleeping."

Here's an image of that actual sheet (click on it to see a larger version); the handwriting shows how truly impromptu the exercise was.

Impromptu or not, the exercise was incredibly successful. The 12-line exercise poems the students wrote in the course of about ten minutes were quite good, probably due in great part to the haunting strangeness of Erin's paragraph. After the semester, I looked back at the course and saw this exercise as one of the high points in the class. Via e-mail I asked the students if they would be willing to share in this blog entry what they wrote in response to this exercise. Two volunteered: David Hosack and Mandy Paris. My thanks to both of you.

Here is Dave's exercise; the words borrowed from Erin's paragraph are in gray at the right.
my face is not like yours
it does not light up when the phone rings
it has never been kissed
it sees things as they really are
it leaks the results to loved ones
before organ transplants go through
my face removes smiles from children and
disrobes religious men and
says "sssh" after the first chords of "happy birthday"
my face only blinks when it matters
my face is not like yours
my face is not like anybody's

—Exercise by David Hosack     [please do not copy or quote ... thanks]
· · · ·
David has written a fascinating poem here. I like how he drew from Erin's paragraph an obsessive focus on the face, that idiosyncratic image we advance into the world each day. Notice how Dave finds unusual and striking attributes for the face; my favorite is how the face can say "'sssh' after the first chords of 'happy birthday'" — how we can short-circuit each other's happiness with just a look. Also, Dave makes a savvy rhetorical choice here to abandon the "rules" in the last line: by not using one of Erin's words in his twelfth line, he ends the poem with a convincing and meaningful closing. Bravo, Dave.

Mandy, she told me, is usually meticulous in holding on to completed course materials but couldn't locate what she wrote that day. I remember that her exercise was as strong as Dave's. Instead Mandy offered to write something new in response to the exercise. Here is that poem, written at home with more practice, with more than ten minutes grace:
I push my face into that crook and I feel you
bending against me, limbs locking automatically.
You're telling me awful things, about your mother,
about your sister. You whisper because this
is an open wound. Our hearts beat together. . . .
The tip of your tongue burns as it reaches the
scalding thoughts at your temple. They remove
themselves, but linger, wanting a way back in.
Our eyes catch. I have nothing for you — yet
you search me. I can't comfort you, I can only blink —
and my ribs tighten like ropes around the beating organ
that contains every humane wish I had for you.

—Exercise by Mandy Paris     [please do not copy or quote ... thanks]
back in
Mandy's poem is a heart-rending portrayal of a vulnerable and touching moment shared by two people. Her closing image of the heart both as literal, physical organ and as the metaphorical, metaphysical "font of love," is breathtaking. Brava, Mandy.

The day of the exercise, I wrote along with the students, as I usually do. I was amazed that in three or four minutes, this surfaced:

P O E M   R E M O V E D

while being submitted for publication.

Please come back later. The poem may
return at some time in the future.

Thank you!

I'm an aficionado of crime fiction, especially when it centers on forensics. For example, just today I finished a Patricia Cornwell novel featuring medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta. In any case, I guess I'm well-primed to write about this topic. But what really surprised me was how much of a "real" poem this exercise was. I plan to work on this poem more: I need to work out who the speaker is and why he's where he is. Line 10 is an allusion to (perhaps a re-working of) a line in Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "Facing It"; I need to figure out if that echo helps or hurts the poem. Etc.

Since I had a few more minutes — the students were still writing — I tempted and challenged the muses by trying again. Perhaps lightning might ... well, you know. Here's what came of that second attempt:
Mary Wonders Why

Her boyfriend was just too sweet,
leaving on the screen of her laptop
pictures of dancing hearts and kissing
birds. All drawn lovingly from the Internet.
He never thought of any losses
between them, not in a minute.
He removed all possibility of anger
and defeat from them. Had his reasons.
His childhood was wild and panicked:
alcoholic father, angry mother, comfort
a rarity. He couldn't face it again
now. His jagged and scarred past always whispering.

—Exercise by Vince Gotera     [please do not copy or quote ... thanks]

wild panic
Not as good, quite a bit clunkier. Too much abstraction. (Probably my students who are reading this now are laughing, knowing how I rail so much against abstraction.) I don't seem to know what the poem's really about until close to the end. But for a five-minute writing, not bad. The fascinating thing here, I think, is that I've got the seed of a short story here: a man who, perhaps obsessively, tries to control his relationship with his girlfriend because of a traumatic childhood. Obviously nothing earthshaking there . . . I need still to find out what's really at stake for the character.

Well, that's all for today. I just wanted to tell you about an exciting learning moment in my class. Please don't copy or quote anything from the exercise poems above. They are only drafts. Thank you for your cooperation with that.

Oh, about the exercise itself. This word-from-line-from-found-text approach is not my invention. I first learned it in a Teaching Creative Writing class taught by Sena Jeter Naslund over two decades ago at Indiana University. Thanks, Sena! In any case, you can find many (probably better) versions of this exercise in books and online. Do try it yourself, though. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you end up writing. There may even be a "real" poem waiting for you to do this exercise. If you do use this exact exercise, I'd like to hear how it turns out.

Please write a comment below. I'd love to hear what you think. Hope you're having a great weekend!

Added 31 December 2011: There's a "reboot" of this in-class poetry-exercise topic in the post titled "Wound, Burn, Glacier ... Revisited" . . . new poetic responses/exercises by the poet Catherine Pritchard Childress. Check it out!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

On Dante and Doré and Childhood

A couple of days ago, my daughter Melina, who's a senior in high school, asked me to go with her to the local Barnes and Noble to pick up a Penguin edition of The Divine Comedy by Dante. As you may know from other blog posts, I have what seems to me an almost lifelong history with Dante, and especially Gustave Doré's Divine Comedy illustrations.

Well, not only did we find Melina her Penguin, we also found me a remaindered Divine Comedy (hardcover and only $17!), which is, I'm pretty sure, the same text and illustrations (Doré's, hurray!) that I used to sneak peeks at in my Lolo's sala. Actually, I didn't only "sneak peeks" . . . I used to pore and pore over that book. I was obsessed with it, at probably age 4 or 5.

Those hidden childhood hours with Dante made quite an impression on me. More particularly, the Doré illustrations are deeply imprinted in my memory. Looking through my new find, I quite vividly remembered many of the images &mdash specific ones! — first seen over fifty years ago.

Inferno, Canto 10
Inferno, Canto 19
Inferno, Canto 18

Filipinos have a pretty lively cultural connection with the occult and with death, so I was already well primed for these images. I quite clearly remember the image on the left above, of a grave sundered open and a corpse tottering up to speak. Perhaps my long apprenticeship with such imagery explains my interest in cinematic and literary vampires, zombies, Frankenstein, the aswang. (Remember you can click on an image to see a larger version.)

I also recall quite strongly the image in the center, where the punished are embedded upside down in holes in solid rock, burning. I recall my horror at this specific penance, imagining these people's nostrils filled with whatever noxious fluids feed the flames and smoke writhing around their legs and feet. Worst of all, they are constantly drowning. (Drowning just happens to be one of my greatest fears.)

Dante and Doré may have provided my earliest introduction to the nude female body. There are many examples in the book, but I do remember this image on the right, probably because of the woman's buxom form but also because she is smeared with shit. At that age I could already read quite well and probably easily decoded Dante's language: "filth . . . out of human privies," "so foul with ordure" (in Longfellow's translation).

Inferno, Canto 13
Inferno, Canto 15

Most of the time, it was the particularity of the punishment that got to me. Above left, sinners have been turned into mangled and distorted trees. The talking trees in The Wizard of Oz movie didn't scare me: they were originally trees . . . talking, yes, but still in their own natural forms. These are people who have been changed into trees, obviously not of their own choosing. This specific punishment seemed to me, as a child, quite brutal: trees cannot get up and run away.

On the right, a rain of fire. Yes, I knew about the tongues of fire that descended upon Jesus's disciples after his death. But I imagined those as friendly flames, like soft birds almost. Instead, we've got rain . . . really, rain couldn't give a care about you as it pelts your skin indiscriminately, but here it's made of fire. I distinctly recall imagining what those hundreds of firedrop burns might feel like on your naked skin.

Inferno, Canto 22
Inferno, Canto 24

In the image on the left, I remember surmising that the demon had chased down a misfortunate and thrown him into boiling water or even oil. I knew what jumping bubbles of oil looked like from watching my mom fry up dinner. That had to be boiling oil or worse! What really scared me, though, was the obvious virtuoso flying the demon is doing. That convinced me to avoid going to Hell. There'd be no way to escape from these flyers, with their serrated bat wings, pitchforks, and snakey tails.

Speaking of snakes, in the image on the right . . . what else is there to say? They sic snakes on you! Snakes. Snakes!

Inferno, Canto 28
Inferno, Canto 28
Inferno, Canto 31

The image on the right was (and is) especially troubling to me. Demons slitting your chest . . . so you could pull it open, exposing lungs and innards, the heart, to the sulphurous air of Hell. This particular image has stuck with me over the years. I only recently realized that the central figure here is Mohammed, and I am reminded, alas, of the misguided animosity some Americans currently have towards Islam.

In the center, a man holding up his own severed head and talking. The original talking head, ha ha. I've had a long fascination with this sort of image, later centered upon The Green Knight, Sir Gawain's nemesis. Clearly I had forgotten that that fascination is rooted in this particular image from childhood. An image that was not so much horrific as it was interesting, especially with the perfectly round, collar-like neck of the man.

On the right, a more benevolent context. We see Dante and Virgil being transported by a giant (Antaeus, it turns out, who had fought Hercules and lost). As a child, I was very interested in giants from fairy tales and mythology, Greek and Norse. In this image, I recall being amused by the hero holding on to the giant's beard, afraid of being dropped. Dante, so unheroic, so much like an ordinary Joe.

Inferno, Canto 34
Inferno, Canto 12

I quite clearly remember gazing at the image on the left for long periods: Satan (or perhaps, more correctly, fallen Lucifer), frozen into ice. I was quite surprised to learn that in the deepest pit of Hell Satan would not be on fire but rather on ice. And he really seemed to me quite bored. Supremely so. I mean, he's got four wings and all. And nowhere to go. No way to go. Humpf.

You have to understand: at that age, I thought I was really seeing Hell. That this was what it was like. Not metaphor. Not imagined. But journalism. You sinned, you go to Hell, you're tormented by guys with sharp implements and leathery bat wings. And in the middle of it all, Satan imprisoned in a lake of ice.

But it wasn't all horror. I was also glad to see the creatures of mythology were real, and they lived down there. Look here on the right at the centaurs. Aren't they having a good old time? These horsy bro's horsing around with their spears and bows and arrows. As a kid of 5 or 6, I nursed a great interest in archery. The American Indians' versatile short bow. The great longbow of the English. And so on. Fun!

Purgatorio, Canto 12
Paradiso, Canto 12
Paradiso, Canto 31

At that age, I didn't find Purgatorio and Paradiso nearly as interesting as Inferno. (Actually, I still don't.) Purgatorio, even though it still featured punishments, did have a lot of pastoral fields and such. Looking through the book now, the only image I recalled from back then was the one on the left. And it's quite similar to the infernal images. A bunch of guys carting boulders up a mountainside. Like Jesus burdened with the cross, actually. At least it looks like they are having a modicum of success, not the futility one saw again and again in Hell.

Just as I thought Hell was exactly as Doré portrayed it, I thought Heaven was just like he shows in the center and right images above: a lot of synchronized flying by angels making circular shapes and patterns. As a kid, I was very interested in Paradiso as a destination more than as an actual location. And I really wanted to believe that the saved souls would be happy there.

I think I must have remembered the center image because the angels in the upper circle — a "garland" of "sempiternal roses," Dante and Longfellow called it — seemed just like a flying saucer ringed by bright landing lights. At that age, I was crazy about flying saucers. Remember that was the '50s and flying saucers were all over the news, absolutely de rigueur.

And on the right, well, that's some fancy flying, ain't it? Actually, I felt much more religious about it back then. I'm being pretty glib here. Pretty flippant. I remember imagining what a glorious sight that would be if you could be right there on that cloud with Dante. Millions of angels and saints forming a "snow-white rose" of concentric Seraphim and Cherubim and Archangels, with God ensconced in the center. Wow.

I mentioned zombies above, and I'm remembering how I saw the movie Night of the Living Dead as a teenager. Have you seen it? It's a black and white flick. Well, many years later, I was talking to someone and insisting that the movie was in color. Of course, I was wrong, but the important point is that I had "colorized" the movie in my head. I could still see scenes from the movie (as I can now today) but I saw them in color. (Though now that I know better, I remember them in black and white again . . . the imagination is funny that way.)

Well, I've had something similar happen with Doré's Dante illustrations. Here's something I wrote in a blog post three years ago: "I remember vividly the [Doré illustration from Dante] that showed people walking with their heads facing backward, a punishment for the sin of foretelling the future." I looked for that illustration in my new book, and it ain't there. It seems I manufactured that memory, made up a "new" Doré illustration. Amazing.

Anyway, that's all for today. If you've gained an interest in Doré from this blog post, go buy that Divine Comedy that's "bargain priced" at the Barnes and Noble. Or buy it from Amazon (price about the same). Or look at Bruce Johnson's online tribute to Doré. In any event, you won't be disappointed. That Gustave Doré is one hip artist. He had quite a sublime effect on my childhood. He's one cool cat.

All the images above are borrowed from Bruce Johnson's beautiful webpage on Gustave Doré. Mr. Johnson's website on artists and art is an excellent tool to learn about art history. A retired teacher of Latin, he has also created an interesting online guide to historical personages. Check them out.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Carrieola @ Women, Women, Women

Do you remember the poet/artist Carrie Arizona (aka carrieola on deviantART), whose work I featured on the blog a month ago?

Carrie's mixed-media "Cosmic Cradle on Canvas" will be exhibited in "Women, Women, Women" — the 7th annual international women's art show at Raices Taller 222 Art Gallery in Tucson. Click on the image above to read the found poem Carrie has excavated in a torn page from a book and embedded into her collage. (Once you get to the deviantART version, click on the image again for more magnification.)

This photograph of Frida Kahlo painting in bed, from Raices Taller's blog announcement of the exhibit, exemplifies the show's focus on "women artists that are daring both inwardly and outwardly and who continue to make art with the knowledge that art made by women has been largely ignored throughout much of cultural history."

The opening reception is at 7:00 P.M. tonight. The gallery is located at 218 E. 6th Street in Tucson (520.881.5335). Go check out the scene and say hi to Carrie for me. Tell her the man with the blue guitar sent you. Represent, Carrie. Peace out, everyone.

Friday, May 6, 2011

VidPo (2.0) - Ecopoetry, Beetles, and String

I had the honor a couple of days ago to have my poem "Beetle on a String" featured as a video on "Why Poetry Matters," a new YouTube channel.

This channel, an excellent video-poetry resource, was founded by Marty McGoey to bring attention to Ecopoetry. If you don't know what that is, Marty has an excellent video intro. He begins, "Ecopoetry is a type of poetry that has an emphasis on ecology and often has an ecological message."

I'm not really much of a nature poet, having been raised in the big city. Well, San Francisco's a pretty small city (only 50 square miles), but you know what I mean. Nature to me, when I was a kid, was confined to Golden Gate Park; the hills I knew were mostly covered in concrete and asphalt. But then Marty goes on to say that ecopoetry "is not just poetry about nature, but pushes through tradition showing nature as a neutral force, forever non-human."

Is "Beetle on a String" an ecopoem? I wondered. I've always thought of this poem as an apology to the insect world for my sins, in a way for all our transgressions as a species, against our six-legged counterparts who, after all, outnumber us humans. Marty says, ecopoetry "states that humans are accountable for the non-human world"; I might revise that to read that we "are accountable TO the non-human world." At least that's what was on my mind when I was writing that poem.

So I asked Marty, via facebook, along with some of his ecopoetry colleagues if "Beetle on a String" is indeed an ecopoem. They assure me it was, and that's how the poem ended up on Marty's channel. Thanks for the honor, Marty!

The notion of ecopoetry is still something fairly new to me. I'm working out how it might connect to my work. I'm thinking specifically of two other poems . . . my regular blog readers will remember I've been slowly putting my first book Dragonfly onto the blog and those two poems, "Miraculous Dragonfly" and "Mosquito/Manila Haiku," appear here as pages 6 and 7. Are these ecopoems? Marty does go on to say, in his introductory video, that "Ecopoetry connects us with the natural world and our animal counterparts." Fascinating.

Marty later asserts that ecopoetry "uses totems to make connections [and] encourages people to find their own totems and symbols in the natural world. In many ways, the dragonfly has been a kind of totem for me, as the poem "Miraculous Dragonfly" suggests. I think.

I'd love to hear from you, faithful blog readers, if you think those other two poems are ecopoems. And maybe also "Hunting Sponge," a poem that strangely or not-so-strangely has nothing to do with insects. Would you please write a comment below whether or not you think these poems are ecopoems?

Also, please visit Marty McGoey's YouTube channel. He's an excellent reader of poems, with a strong podcast voice. And the poems Marty's chosen to feature are all wonderful entrees into ecopoetry.

Okay. Comment below, please (on anything, really, not just ecopoetry). Watch some of Marty's videos. And have a great weekend. I'm looking forward to our graduation ceremony tomorrow at the University of Northern Iowa, where our speaker will be Michelle Obama. Yes.

Note added later on 6 May 2011: Live video of tomorrow's commencement speech by Michelle Obama will be streamed online at http://live.uni.edu/2011/05/07/spring-2011-commencement-special-guest-commencement-speaker-first-lady-michelle-obama, starting at 11:00 A.M. (CDT).

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