San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego


Writing Under Duress

It's been said that teaching is invariably a form of coercion. If this is true, then teaching writing is the worst kind of coercion.

The typical plan when trying to teach someone how to write is to introduce a kind of "rhetorical situation" into which the one learning is then immersed and left (equipped, maybe, with a battalion of inscrutable conventions) to wander about in search of authoritative ease in whatever "discourse-de-jour" happens to prevail in that setting, that classroom, that assignment, that teacher's head, whatever.

In writing courses per se, there is the double-discourse of "writing" as its own content, its own set of protocols (sometimes processes) which a student is expected to learn in order to convey mastery by the end of the term. Absent a disciplinary bias (like "history" or "anthropology"), the kind of writing prompt (short essay, research paper, narrative) often assigned has the look and feel of an airline magazine crossword puzzle -- a time-killing activity whose product is left behind once the flight (and the turbulence) is over.

Education in general can serve several purposes, several "functions," in the parlance of the early great sociologists (e.g. Durkheim). It can regulate the flow of professional talent, can ready young minds for civic participation, can tame dissidence for better immersion in corporate life, can stave off the influx of workers in the labor market.

Writing instruction, along these lines, serves related functions also instrumental in the broader regime of education (at all levels). It's good then, I think, to think about how writers (and writing teachers) engage in coercive practices when going about their related businesses.

The fetish of "originality" is obviously coercive -- placing an impossible demand. To be a writer of any kind is to gain fluency in what the theorists like to call a "discourse community," and where the early gestures of a beginning writer are invariably imitative and derivative, the innocent borrowing of words or strategies is often punished either as outright "plagiarism" or, perhaps worse, as just plain bad writing, the mark of cognitive underdevelopment. In this case, the coercion comes in the form of a double bind. Forced to negotiate a higher status (by learning how to write), the initiate seeks membership in a community for which high status (lessons already learned) is a prerequisite.

Writing assignments are coercive -- especially where the model/practice/evaluate system of interaction dooms the writer from the get go. Having little access to an instructor's criteria for selecting certain "model" texts, I must (as a student-participant, say) perform the double duty of decoding the text and then applying it somehow to my "own" discursive exercises. I must read (interpret) and write at the same time, in other words. Coercive direction in the writing classroom doesn't account fully for this double rhetorical duty.

Writing itself is inherently coercive. George Oppen's "words are enemies" glosses the phenomenal distance we human animals must endure between ourselves and the world of symbols into and out of which we find our respective/collective ways. The force or threat of writing lies in the opportunities for false witness, variance, difference, betrayal, mutability -- the potential beauties of poetic language, no doubt, but real nuisances when one's academic career is on the line.

"Process" is coercive -- where writing gets taught as a cognitive canoe ride from "beginning" to "advanced" with a whole slew of recursive activities along the way (thinking, jotting, brainstorming, clustering, outlining, drafting, revising, drafting, jotting, thinking, ad. inf.). Never taught to swim, the pupil (all categorical nouns fail, so I'll use them all) is thrown into the raging river and then asked if the boat looks dry and comfortable.

Writing as "social act" is coercive, substituting a bridge for the canoe. On one side of the river, ideology is a dense, swampy lowland, very difficult to traverse, threatening to pull you down and out each step of the way. Writing (in college, especially) helps you across the bridge (sometimes helps you build it), and then on the other side ideology is a dense, dark forest of really big, thick trees. Some you leave standing and examine from a distance, some you cut down, burn, recycle. Perhaps one you climb up into, building a nest of its leaves, never to come back down. If you're lucky (I think), you wander the forest in a state of blissful stupefaction, writing madly as you go. In all cases, the goal is to help the blind see, finally, all the ideology around them. Not a bad lesson plan, no doubt, but coercive all the same.

I'm not sure at this point if a non-coercive pedagogy is possible. I concede to those who recognize right away the operational contradiction implicit to such a dream (again, teaching is invariably coercive, so how can a ped-a-gogy be otherwise?).

Still, I look for it, and maybe in the act of looking there's the easing of coercion that makes writing and the teaching of writing come alive in different forms. It is wrong (or at least less than honest) I think when writers say that they "love" to write. In so saying, they erase or sublimate the experience of coercion that all writers have at one point or another. To be "driven" is closer to it. But really, we are almost always forced into it, for one reason or another.

To write, and maybe to come to that point where "love" is possible, is simply to make peace with coercion.

That new pedagogy I'm looking for would at least begin by naming writing for what it is.


Drop Lit. Take Comp.

A few time-honored and well-entrenched traditions in U.S. education have made it difficult to talk or write about writing as anything other than the pursuit of "literature" and literary exegesis.

In the public schools and universities, for example, the path of "English Studies" has been for over a hundred years a dual path focused on "literature" on the one hand and "composition" on the other. A supplementary bias has the one celebrated for its cultural legitimacy (great societies yield great works) and the other dismissed as remedial skills training. One protects and hones the art of text interpretation; the other does the trench work of text production.

On the basis of these and related binaries, some have ignored the history of composition education in pursuit of a cleaner version of history focused on literary studies and the effective reading of texts. The cult of the "literary" has for generations kept "composition," and its teaching, under wraps and, quite literally, in the basement of higher education.

And this despite the fact that the "composition" program, despite its perennial ghettoization, has since its inception in the late 19th century provided the financial basis (the basement) on which literary studies enthusiasts have been able to build their puny empire. A few downy-chinned text readers can wax eloquent on Blake and Byron (or the Beats or Bernstein) precisely because English Department classrooms are jammed with tuition-paying fresh-people learning how to produce a readable essay.

With that in mind, I propose that we banish Literature entirely from English Departments. It seems only fair that Composition, having done the bulk of the work and generated most of the revenue, should earn the lion's share not only of department resources but also of the cultural capital otherwise looted for the sake of preserving delusions of literary grandeur.

Composition, with its emphasis on text production, democratic writing and reading opportunities, and spoken and written rhetoric, should assume its rightful position at the center of the "English" curriculum.

Literature can be good stuff, to be sure. But literary texts will take care of themselves, will not die away for want of the analytical skills of a few tweed-backed deconstructionists, and will certainly continue to be read and written regardless of how much stock a university curriculum board places in the perpetuation of great book traditions.

For decades, tenured Literature Professors have benefited from big salaries, light teaching loads, and small class sizes (very few undergrads actually WANT to read and write about Byron), while a pool of underpaid contingent workers (grad students and some "lecturers") have borne the weight of writing instruction without benefits, without appropriate training in some cases, and without voice in the decision-making processes of educational bureaucracies. This unequal distribution of wealth no longer makes sense and should no longer be tolerated.

Writing is not about reading and consumption but about writing and production. English Studies curricula have almost invariably taught a different lesson by prioritizing authors and their related products. Even in composition classes where literary works are introduced to "model" effective writing, to be a writer is to achieve authoring status, and where authors only exist in the bylines of these carefully framed models, the beginning writer is effectively de-line-ated in relation to embedded categories for which market-worthy "excellence" (marked by mainstream publication, mostly) is the only means of access. One can APPROACH writing, in other words, but rarely achieve it.

Where the mark of literary excellence is removed (in this case, by banishing Literature, its Authors, and its Exegesis), Composition is stripped of the implicit zero-sum game whereby a select few "get it" and most others can only look on and admire.

Where Composition instructors are held in high regard (and paid commensurately) by administrators, students, and colleagues, Composition can better perform the much-needed service of teaching writing as the art of textual production.

Literature does little more than credential Literature Professors. Composition channels the creative energies of today's beginning writers. The social economy of higher education should reflect this.


Press Release: SDPG Nominated for Award

SDPG has been nominated for the prestigious "Best Blogged Oxymoron of the Year Award" for a statement issued earlier this week.

The announcement came on the morning of Wednesday, April 16. Fait Accompli, an organization dedicated to "spellbound speculations" and "time travel," offered the nomination in response to the following statement, which appeared in the April 15 edition of the SDPG blog:

"I'm trying to survive as a writer without actually being one. Perhaps that's the best way to put it."

SDPG accepted the nomination, but according to an anonymous spokesperson, the Group is cautious about its prospects.

"We're hopeful, but then again, there's so much oxymoron out there you never know who's going to walk away with the award," the spokesperson said.

SDPG also promised more oxymorons in the near future. "We'll do what we can for as long as the luck holds out."

However, SDPG denied allegations that the oxymoron was deliberately planted in the April 15 blog in order to win back disgruntled fans lost in the wake of the Group's unexplained name change.

"We don't operate like that," the spokesperson said. "All of our oxymorons are free to come and go as they please."

Nonetheless, SDPG is grateful for the nomination and plans to attend the award ceremony, scheduled for later this year.


Merlin's Meritocracy
[getting the most from your group investments]

The great quasi-Marxist Max Weber once wrote about "status groups" in modern society as basically those places we can go, and those people we can hang out with, whose interests, identities, and self-perceptions pretty much line up with our own. One's sense of well-being, of accomplishment, of value in life, Weber might have said, were not necessarily class determined (a basic Marxist notion) but might also (or instead) issue from one's sense of self in relation to family, friends, or other potentially like-minded people.

I'm writing here in part because I long for my status group.

I don't necessarily like the term ("status" is hopelessly loaded and invariably used pejoratively, while "group" means close to nothing), but the idea is perhaps worthwhile at least for what it promises. Writers, for example, should find their *affinity kin* (?) and hold tight to the non-cash rewards that such economies of active alignment might afford.

There should be "merit" earned in such alignments, in other words, and most likely where they exist there probably is. But the issue of merit, I think, should always be held close to the question of "status group" affiliation, especially if we're talking about writers, artists, educators or other groups typically left hanging under capitalism.

Basically, where there's no money (and the possibility even of losing some in the effort), little prestige (the main currency in Weber's account), and so few tangible rewards, what else might make it worth it, after all?

I think this question is more, not less, important in today's political and economic climate. With U.S. imperialism on the rise, and global capitalism pretty much defining the much-hailed (in conservative circles) new world order, where do you go to get your "stuff" these days if you're not into sweat shops, stock options, smart bombs and perpetual war economies?

The U.S. education system breeds merit almost like bacteria. Maybe that's why anyone who has read this far might find it a rather unsettling and unusually placed word in this context. Schools perpetuate meritocracy as the chief ideological cover for what amounts basically to socioeconomic selection and stratification. Garnered "merit"--in the guise of test scores, grades, citizenship awards, good attendance reports, and teacher endorsements--grease the wheels whereby little kids (and then bigger kids) turn over from grade to grade. If you go to public school in this country, you EAT merit for lunch everyday. You EARN it. You WIN it. You BUY it. And finally, you GET BY on it, or you don't get by at all.

So, assuming for now that the kind of merit you might, as a public school graduate, earn or win or buy is really just the means to a more prosperous (ideally) end, my question for this fine Spring day is simply this: Is there a way, really, of making merit itself valuable, a way of finding "status wealth," to bastardize Weberian theory, in choreographing merit outside of (and this is important) traditional channels of, say, school or college or university. A way, in short, of making social group affiliation really matter through the organized distribution of merit.

I'm not talking about school kids now. In fact, I think almost every kid who goes to public school (any school, really) is pretty much screwed inside that system--regardless of how "far" they go in it--unless a new generation of educators (myself among them) can find a way to play DOWN the ideological abuse that comes in the form of meritocratic *rewards* for what amounts to good behavior, conformity, and compliance with the dictates of one's predetermined "place."

I'm not talking either about writing contests, journals, web zines, small press publishing deals, grants, or any of the other ways in which some writers and teachers today are rewarded for years of admittedly (in some cases at least) good, hard work and self-sacrifice. Such rewards are not necessarily bad things (they often pay off in much-needed ways), but they mis-place the merit, to put it simply. They turn merit into currency of one sort or another. They translate "status" into economically readable code, and this code gets fed back into the meritocracy, breeding more bacteria, duplicating the system, making it seem like it matters (materializes) in ways that it really doesn't anymore.

I am leaning, I guess, toward a sense of merit-based exchange among those who proudly self-identify as "writer" or "educator" (or ideally, for this "group" at least, as BOTH) which rewards everyone equally (democratically) while still offering up the "goods" (prestige) that potentially goes with "status group" affiliation. Merit should be distributed--or delivered, and specially--in such a way that means and end conflate and ultimately disappear in the meeting of PEOPLE over moments of writing, reading, teaching, and action. Writing, in this context, is never "its own reward."

Fluffy and dreamy discourse, at this point, I know. But I'm convinced that there is no time left--not to mention no resources, no capital--for "making it" in any conventional sense as a writer, unless you already have, in which case you've read too far. I mean that to take the time, to manage/budget the time necessary to cash in on merit (it happens variously, to be sure), is to deny the special urgency that comes with living, writing, maybe teaching, learning, in a post-preemption universe.

I'm trying to survive as a writer without actually being one. Perhaps that's the best way to put it.

We didn't necessarily invent--or bring upon ourselves--the dirty economies that seem to prevail in the waxing moments of global hegemony. But we can go forth seeking out new channels and new methods for "getting by" (and maybe even "making it") in the non-cash economies of "status group" alliances.

That is the dream of this blog, at least, however foggy and ill-defined at this point.


What Poets Can Do

On the Buffalo Poetics list over the last several days there's been a discussion thread running under the subject, "what poets can do."

I haven't read a word of it, much as I've wanted to. Reading the subject line, over and over again, has been work enough--a kind of self-inflicted virtual torture, the question that won't shut up and gets louder each time.

What can poets do?

Stop being poets, of course. Maybe then their actions will line up with the necessary actions required these days. We all know what we have to do.

Sadly, having so much to do (regime change is hard work, George), I have very little time for writing this blog.

Much ado.


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