Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gay Wilgus

Dr. Gay Wilgus, City College of New York
The 573 was graced this weekend with the presence of dear friend Gay Wilgus, following her attendance at the Conference on College Composition in St. Louis last week. I met Gaywho is now a tenured professor in the City College of New York’s School of Educationover twenty years ago while we were in graduate school in New York. We were privileged to study together with Renate Bridenthal, co-author of Becoming Visible: Women in European History.

But we had first met in Michele Wallace’s English/Women’s Studies class. It was shortly after Invisibility Blues had been published and our professor's concern with representations of women of color in fiction and film, or lack thereof, was still very much on her mind. I asked Gay what, if anything, she recalled from our experiences in the class, and a wonderful conversation ensued.

GW: I remember Michele’s fascinating frame-by-frame analysis of movies with black women—Imitation of Life, Gone With the Wind, and others—in which she showed that if very dark women appeared at all, they were far back in the frame. I remember that the woman who served as the model for Aunt Jemima didn’t like pancakes at all!

FM: Are writing and visibility connected for you?

GW: In a big way. The most anguishing and potentially rewarding aspect of writing is that it can make one’s self—one’s opinions, emotions and perspectives—visible. Composition offers the challenge and possibility of writing from the self to the page in a way you can be happy with. 

The writing assignments I give my students are specifically not personal opinion pieces. This is because it’s typically all they’ve been asked to write as undergraduates. I think this might be related to a writing teaching movement in the 1980s influenced by Peter Elbow’s work, among others, advocating starting people right from where they are. The idea being that for a new writer, writing about the familiar takes the fear out of it. I find it problematic to ask students to express opinions about matters on which they have been given too little information. I’ve been put in that position myself and found myself thinking: I don’t have an opinion; I don’t know enough about it!

FM: So your preferred approach is…?

GW: Social Science writing. I ask in my child development courses, for instance, in which we study theories of development, that they observe children in their field research, write about what happens in the classroom or some other educational setting, and then correlate their observationswhat they’ve seen real children doto the theories—Piaget, for instance—and think through if what they’ve observed goes along with or contradicts what they’re reading. I want them to question the theory.

My aim is to help them develop an eclectic and large vocabulary of ways to understand and interact with children. I want them to consider different perspectives of children’s behavior. Teachers often go into schools with certain ideas about “badly behaved children,” and they don’t look beneath the surface of that behavior to understand the individual needs and learning styles of their pupils.

FM: How do you help your students to achieve this ability to correlate their own experiences in the classroom to theory?

GW: I conduct one-on-one writing conferences with every single one of my students. Before we meet I’ve read their papers, and have made written comments and criticisms in the margins. Our meetings offer an opportunity to be gentler, more caring and helpful. They can hear my voice—reading the comments alone, my remarks may appear hostile or nasty—but when we talk together, it softens the blow, the experience can be more encouraging.

Across the board, they have significant writing issues, often in structuring a point. The 5-paragraph essay gets a lot of bad press these days, perhaps because it's become so institutionalized, but I find its rigor helpful to my students. I ask them to photographically describe what they saw the child in the classroom do, paraphrase or directly quote from the reading with which it correlates, and then spell out the connection between the two. I ask them to write the introduction last—you have to know what’s in the paper before you can introduce it. In the conclusion they can offer a personal opinion, raise questions about the child, offer speculation, etc.

If I have a student who does not know how to write grammatically correctly, I teach them then and there, or do everything I can to make them aware, if necessary directing them to the university’s writing center for further assistance. I understand those who advocate "inventive spelling" and prioritize "expression" of ideas in order not to snuff out students’ fluency, but competency in grammar is a matter of respect. I want that for them.

FM: And your own academic writing?

GW: Terrifying to me! When I was writing my dissertation—and things would still be in draft—I thought, people are going to think it’s pedantic, stupid, or sub-standard in some way. I had to remind myself, often, that no one will see it until I’m ready for them to see it. Even now, I am constantly self-critical, engaged in self-loathing while writing. Once your ideas are on paper, it gives people the possibility to see you as you represent yourself. My writing process is one of constant revision, lots of revision, finding the right words, always looking for verbiage. Word retrieval is always an issue, using the thesaurus, but not quite capturing what I had hoped to say, that feeling that I know there’s a better word out there!

FM: Does reading fiction help with that?

GW: Yes, reading fiction or well-written social science theory both help. If I take the time to read fiction, it expands the whole project of writing for me, so much so that I sometimes think it would be more useful to write fiction rather than academic articles. A lot of people think this, that literature and movies can be more accessible, reach a larger audience, that one’s message can be relayed in a more palatable way, more appealing, like eating a nice, rich meal instead of bread and water, instead of the bare bones of academic writing.

FM: Then why perpetuate it? Why not try and change it?

GW: This is why I attended this particular conference. In my own recent research I’ve been videotaping my writing conferences with students. In trying to find an angle for analysis and discussion of my research, I stumbled upon composition rhetoric journals in which the academic writers are much more literary, humanistic, even funny. Hey, look at this! They’re academics but they write in a literary fashion. So I tried my hand at it, writing up my research, but the article got rejected…I’m not good at it yet. Lad Tobin is a big inspiration in this regard. But the point is, I am trying to move more toward the human, for lack of a better word.

One of the panels I attended at the CCCC conference was about writing instruction and emotion. What I want to know is, am I crushing my students with too much critique? Does that damage their sense of selves as writers? It’s important for them to be able to express themselves credibly and persuasively. The whole turn in early childhood education, or education generally, is toward teaching to the test, rote skills, rote learning and drilling. Concomitant with this is a withdrawal of self-directed exploration and experiential learning; any opportunity to engage in imaginative learning has been taken out of the curriculum.

One of my aims is to help students figure out ways without losing their jobs of meeting standards, helping their students to perform well on tests, but to teach in ways that are developmentally appropriate and child-centered. So they need to be able to explain to administrators how using music and movement, for instance, can support math and literacy. I want them to be able to make their case—to write it and say it.

FM: [Written word, spoken word…!]

GW: Pace bell hooks, we are teaching to transgress; we are teaching subversion. 

FM: Can I say that you said that?

GW: Yes! We travel back and forth to progress. In the 1920s, John Dewey advocated experiential learning, which is more meaningful than rote learning; the knowledge and abilities gained from experiential learning are more useful to the learner. In the 1980s, Luis Moll advocated acknowledging the “funds of knowledge” children already bring to the classroom, making that the source of curriculum. In some well-funded private schools, that’s the way they do it.

There are swings in educational ideology, there are moments in history, particularly in times of war and when their are new, significant waves of immigration, where you can see the shift toward Americanization and patriotism more pronouncedly. In one of the conference panels I learned that in our own time there is a move toward combining English as a Second Language with civics instruction.

FM: [Learning the vocabulary of the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, no doubt.] What about the future?

GW: I shied away from the panels on technology, but I did hear one presentation on research where a writing instructor videotaped herself marking her students’ papers, talking aloud. The students loved it, watching their teacher modeling the writing process, puzzling through how best to articulate her comments on their work, trying it one way and then another, exposing the difficulty of writing well, as if to say: See how hard it was to say that clearly?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Noose Is Up!

“What we call real estate—the solid ground to build a house on—is the broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests.” —The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne
By now everyone knows that the Rapid Deployment Unit of the St. Louis Police Department occupied themselves by busting some heads Thursday night, their occupation leading them to crack the skulls of a few Occupy the Midwest participants caught in the act of “taking space.” The assaulted squatters were daring to attempt to sleep in a city park on a stormy night in the hopes of creating a new encampment on what was Day One of the Occupy the Midwest conference, a four-day meeting of Occupiers from states to the north, east and west of Missouri. Someone else, presumably not the police, would be called upon to occupy themselves with mopping up the hemoglobin spilled on the sidewalks; head wounds, notoriously, are gushers. Doctors and nurses too occupied themselves dispensing sutures and sympathy, administering salves and analgesics; perhaps even a few prayers were offered up for the dazed and damaged head trauma victims, that they not be permanently brain damaged.

I had been among the hundred or so who attended the General Assembly earlier that evening under the St. Louis arch. But I was not at the mêlée primarily because I sensed there would be one, and my head...I have a dread fear of being clubbed...for better or worse, my head, it's the best of me. In graduate school I had known Kimberly Flynn, a great friend of Tony Kushner's, an absolutely brilliant woman, who after a head banging taxi cab accident felt herself to be never quite the same. Some of the scenes in Angels in America about illness and incapacity are near transcriptions of conversations that she and Tony had about her own sense of diminishment after she was clobbered in the backseat of that cab. Litbloggers Jacob Russell and Stephen Mitchelmore have both written about their head injuries from bicycle accidents, the long recoveries, terrible vulnerability and helplessness, for Stephen the continuing fatigue, loss of productivity. So I keep my distance from police and their penchant to bludgeon with truncheons, and worse.

And His Handiwork

Lightning crackled dramatically and the humidity surpassed the unseasonably high temperature as we talked about the rules under which we would proceed. Roles of the volunteer organizers were defined—timekeeper, note taker, stacker, etc.—and the concept of “progressive stacking” was explained, a principle intended to give priority to voices of those traditionally not heard under present hierarchies. We reviewed the hand signals agreed upon for non-verbal communication, embodied strokes and flutters of consensual meaning—warning, questioning, reminding—prescribed movements to bind our intentions with our acts.

If poetry was to be found under that monument to gateway (and I was attentive to poetry's presence), it was inscribed in those hand signals: index finger up for point of clarification; fist in the air for speaking in one voice; arms crossed over the chest for blocking, to be used rarely and only if something seemed in opposition to core principles of the Occupy movement; and the wiggling of all five fingers on both hands to indicate enthusiastic approbation of whatever proposition was on the ethereal table, something akin to the sprinkling hand motion that usually accompanies the rain washing the itsy-bitsy spider down the spout.

I had told friends that I was going because I wanted to see this second iteration of Occupy with my own unmediated eyes, glean whatever insight might be available, inspiration too if it were there to be garnered. Also, I wanted to support the idea of regionalism, vote with my feet, so to speak—after all, my father Marvin L. Madeson had run for St. Louis County Supervisor almost 40 years ago on the ingenious reform platform of practical regionalism—and I was especially on the lookout for Wisconsin activists in the hopes of  acquiring some sense of their momentum as they struggle in mass protests in Madison against their own Kevin Englers who wish to dispossess first state workers then, once that door is open, all workers of promised pensions, salaries, benefits, rights (all except their own, that is; never their own!).

Missouri State Senator Kevin Engler

And His Legislative Output

I had participated in Occupy St. Louis last fall, had been there in the courtyard at the Fed on Day One. Six months ago much was made of the fact, especially on Fox news, of how tolerant the city had been of the protest, how reasonably the police had acted, informing the Occupiers of their intentions to enforce the curfew and evict them from Kiener Plaza, issuing warning, multiple warnings, giving every chance for the protesters to clear out before they (just as the Christmas decorations were scheduled to go up) shut the encampment down. It was a party line that seems to have been integrated by many of the Occupiers as well, this idealization of the cops as fangless vampires who hustle you off the premises if not respectfully, at least unbloodied.

“Individuals whose affairs have reached an utterly desperate crisis almost invariably keep themselves alive with hopes, so much more the airily magnificent as they have the less of solid matter within their grasp whereof to mold any judicious and moderate expectation of good.” —The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The cops were also under the arch on bicycles, stationed maybe twenty yards away from where we congregated, boyishly costumed in short pants rather than riot gear. But still I cringed when St. Louis Occupiers told our guests that our cops weren't that bad, assuring them that it wasn't Oakland, that they shouldn't be afraid. My forearms instinctively crossed over my chest, and I roundly kicked myself for not having brought a placard with the bolded language of the SEC-sanctioned caveat placed in every securities prospectus next to the 1, 3, 5, and 10-year graphs: Past results are no guarantee of future performance.

“Can you not see the blood on my head?” Arthur Miller, The Crucible

Someone pointed out that as the weather conditions were worsening and the lightning storm was rolling our way, we would be wise to move away from the stainless steel arch and adjourn to Kiener Plaza under the protection of the balustraded concrete terrace. Back at Kiener, a minstrel show was enacted adjacent to the amphitheater. After a brief discussion about the overwhelming police presence—for now they crowded among us, no remove at all—someone invited a representative of the police to address the Occupiers and explain why they were there impinging on our right to assemble and speak freely amongst ourselves.

 “There is, at least, no flattery in my humble line of art.” —The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne
 An officer in a white shirt, higher ranking than the blue-shirts on the bikes, came forward to address us. But he would not speak up, a pretense at once undermining and making a mockery of the just moments ago articulated principle of progressive stacking, he would not permit his own voice (the voice of unabashed state Power) to be heard. He stated his concerns about public safety, blah, blah, blah, in a near whisper, and one of the Occupiers, a naif (and a goddamn fool!), repeated his words, calling them out for the small crowd gathered round. It would prove to be a canny exercise in preemptive capitulation and co-optation, a symbological violence foreshadowing the material violence soon to be so disgracefully andGod help uslawfully (depend on it) manifested.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Put It In Your Mouth

Photo by Steve Hull

 The Dairy Queen was just a huge big deal when it opened in Budweiser Falls. Somewhere out there at some shining corporate headquartersa suit-and-tie-clad executivehad looked on a map and seen our town, seen us, and deemed us worthy of a franchise. Even as we dealt with the guilt of abandoning our local drugstore’s soda fountain counter, we marveled at the wonder of soft custard cones double-dipped in gold brick chocolate.

I was seventeen, shapely, and licking a dripping cone on the late spring afternoon when he pulled his little European roadster into the gravel parking lot with a roar. It squeezed between two pickups, the only other vehicles in the lot. His fleshy pink lips protruded from behind a full black beard and formed the words car trouble. Tangly-haired, he wore John Lennon spectacles which screamed to me: Imagine! Imagine you were rich enough to have your own  late model import in which to zip around the countryside. His license plates said New York.

Pride rather than attraction made me prop up Dreiser’s Sister Carrie where he’d be sure to see it. Stirring a long pour of sugar in his enormous coffee, he perched on the corner of the formica table closest to me.

“You seem like an intelligent girl.” He spoke slowly in case I wasn’t.

“Why’s that? Because I can read? Go back to New York.”

“Oh, you can read.” He laughed. “Can you tell me where the garage is? Not to park, my car’s overheating.”

“Mister, in Missouri, in the country anyways, we don’t need parking garages. We have plenty of parking without paying for it. As for the auto repair, it’s kind of hard to explain. I’ll have to draw you a map. You can read a map, can’t you?”

“Couldn’t you just...uh... show me? C’mon, take a ride.”

I said it to everyone. “I’m going to show this guy where Foley’s is. If I’m not at Glee Club tomorrow, he did it.” And everyone laughed except the stranger.  I closed my book, tossed my almost finished ice cream, and got in the car with him. He’d graduated college, he said, and was traveling cross country before starting law school in the fall. He was going to get a look at the Good Ole USA from the driver's seat of a fast car, and then head back East for his real life. I was local scenery, my virginity a souvenir like the shot glasses from Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky rolling around in his glove compartment.

After we dropped off his car—smoking manifold, Foley said as soon as we drove up—he asked me if I wanted to get something to eat. “Sure,” I said. “There’s a place we can walk to, and the chicken fried steak’s pretty good.”

“What the hell’s a chicken fried steak?”

“Don’t curse,” I told him.

We settled in the booth at Sunny’s, the one nearest the jukebox and looked over the glossy  menus. We made our choices and Merveene the waitress who was a regular fixture there, probably still is if the Tareytons haven’t asphyxiated her, gave me the fish-eye. 

“Darcy, your folks know you’re on up here with a stranger?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I lied. “But he’s no stranger. He was over at the High for Career Day. I’m interviewing him for The Igloo.”

“Uh-huh,” she said not believing a word, shifting her weight onto her back leg, jutting her hip. 

“Whatchu having?” she asked Warren. “I’m guessing you like fresh grown country meat?”

“I’ll take whatever’s easy,” he answered, not backing down. “The Blue Plate Special sounds good.”


“The same.”

“Now, how’d I know you were going to say that? Two Hot to Trots, to stay,” she yodeled into the kitchen pass-through window for all to hear. Everyone got a good chuckle out of that: two Hot to Trots.

Warren feigned interest in the title on the thick paperback. “It’s for school,” I lied. In English we were reading Thornton Wilder—the one where all the people fall off the bridge. They never would've taught anything with even a hint of the sex act in it. I was reading it on my own, hoping to pick up some solid vocabulary words for my upcoming SATs, or so I'd told Mr. Bradley our school librarian who'd warned me: no happy ending in this one, Darcy. I’d also read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Colette, Henry Miller, and even some of Anaiis Nin from his stacks. He had slipped these in among the tamer classics, the dirty parts being the reward for an advanced literacy. Though to my utter disappointment, there were no dirty parts in the Dreiser; it was all euphemism, suggestion, and innuendo. Now, whenever it comes up I always say that Dreiser left out the most important passages: What happened to Carrie in those rooms with Drouet and Hurstwood?

Warren Wineburg didn’t deserve my cherry, but he got it anyway.

I walked him the back way through the woods to the town’s one and only motel. He laughed when I told him for the longest time I'd thought it was called Vacancy because that’s what the neon sign always blinked. I waited outside, cowering behind the ice machine while he got the key from the office. He opened the metal door, long ago painted battleship grey, whistled for me like a hunter calling his hound, and I slipped in. Would that I’d slipped right back out!

I flipped through the Bible in the bedside table drawer while he was in the shower, on the lookout for the hottest parts in the Song of Songs—The roundings of thy thighs are like the links of a chainThy two breasts are like two fawns. Curious, I went into the bathroom and knelt on the closed toilet seat to watch him. His legs were not as pillars of marble set upon sockets of fine gold. His body was on the scrawny side with just a couple of bumps on his arms where the rest of the muscles were supposed to be. He was hairy, almost furry, all over, even his ass. He turned to show me his penis. It was the first man’s penis I had ever seen, though I’d seen plenty on livestock.

“I’m circumcised. Haven’t you ever seen a circumcised penis before?”

“No,” I admitted, neglecting to mention that I hadn’t seen an uncircumcised one, either.

“Put it in your mouth,” he told me. And before I’d even been kissed, I had a mouth full of what the boys called a boner. “You look pretty with my dick in your mouth. Now suck it.”

Like circumsized, the vocabulary words I picked up for the rest of our time together would never appear on my SAT test. Nothing he did really hurt me, but it didn’t feel good, either. He laughed loud and hard when he realized he was popping my cherry, the blood from my torn hymen wetting his thrusts.

“I always want to remember this night,” he said without a trace of romance. Kodak had just introduced the pocket-sized Instamatic and when he showed me his, it was another first. Flash! Me holding his hard cock between my tits. Flash! Me blowing him. Flash! Me with cum on my face. Flash! Me splayed and trussed like a Thanksgiving Day turkey. Flash! Me pretending to diddle myself with a broom he found in the closet. Flash! Flash! Flash! He used all twenty shots on the film and a pack and a half of flashcubes. But the one that hurt the most is the one where he mocked me the most. He posed me spread eagle on the bed, my hands tied behind my head with his woven canvas belt, my hair covering my face and the Budweiser Falls library’s Penguin Paperback Classic of Dreiser’s masterwork propped up on my swollen breasts. Flash!

When it was time for me to be getting home, he wouldn’t let me take a shower. Not enough towels, he said. “Let me call you a taxi, baby. I’d be a gentleman and drive you home, but…” There was no way I could have the cab pick me up at the motel, it’d be all over the county in no time. “No, I like to walk.” He urged some cash on me anyway. At the door, he cleared his throat and orated a little speech. “I had a great time. You’ve got a silken, wet pussy and a tight round ass, but your big tits are your hands down best feature. Take the money and buy a good bra, with support. Keep ‘em that way. You’ll go far in life.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Our place was just shy of three miles from the motel down a dark country road. Chafed as I was, it felt good to be loping along under the protection of the stars, both dippers directly overhead. I let the black night envelop me, the peepers trilling me home, but about half way there I realized I’d forgotten the damn book. I could never explain it being found at the motel. Oh, the shame, shame, shame of it, having to retrace my way, knock on the door and awaken him, see him leering at me cockeyed through his easy sleep, and duck under his arm on the doorpost to retrieve the book. Inside again I was momentarily frozen by the debauched setting, especially the dark stain of my very own blood bruising the sheets, the rank smell of it mixed with his semen, our sweat, the 7 and 7 he drank after I left. 

Near tears I found what I was looking for on the floor at the foot of the bed face down on the nylon carpet, some pages turned in on themselves. I grabbed it and smoothed them down the best I could as I fled, stroking the bentness away. I dashed around the parking lot and down the gravel path to the road, running until my breath was spent, until I had to stop and double over, a crimp in my side, pebbles in both loafers. In the still, silent night, his voice traveled the hundred or so yards of my sprint, and when it caught up with me I heard it as clearly as if he were standing next to me, his pink wet lips inches from my ear.

“Nighty night, Sister Carrie.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

Callion Hamblin Is Still Dead

Photo by Steve Hull

People who stroll by the Written Word, Spoken Word booth in The Factory sometimes notice the Word of the Day posted on the white board. The Word of the Day is meant to provoke a lively off-the-cuff téte-a-téte with curious, word-starved customers who pay $10 for a ten-minute brainwave massage as we talk together about the meaning, etymology, affect, vibration, associations and reminiscences prompted by the word, each one serving as stimulus for thought and communication

Time slows down when you move out of the chit-chat zone and delve into an exploratory one, checking in with your own innate wisdom and facility with language, swimming freely in the refreshing pool of the collective unconscious. Part of what you get for your money at WW,SW is that experience of stretching or elongation of intellect, of energy, of ambition (yes, words make you ambitious to use them). It's improvisational fun and therefore risky and daring, taking that running leap off the linguistic high dive—you never know what's going to get churned up in the tumult of the free fall!

The current posting—“CALLION”—is a word, or an event, that has not yet been given its due by this community, particularly the political dimension of the brutality. If this account is accurate, the shooting was NOT  MENTIONED at the City Council meeting on Feb. 28th, the first meeting of the Council after bits of Callion Hamblin were blown to smithereens on our city streets. This cannot be good governance by any definition, to give the police carte blanche, to require not even a modicum of accountability to the public, to suppress basic information, to...oh well. It seems Callion will have to wait until next spring's report to become even a bullet point on Chief Baker's powerpoint slide. He's not to be spoken of, his ashes (what was left of his body after the police and coroner were through with him, was cremated) thoroughly swept under the proverbial carpet. Here's our chief sweeper:

In a few days, I too will be erasing Callion's name from my white board. After all, Delfeayo Marsalis is coming to the Parkland to replenish our spirits, I'm confident, and we have to prepare for the gift of live jazz. Maybe he'll speak of these events, if only to say Callion Hamblin's name aloud even just once! I hope so, because the silence has been deafening. 

“Angel Cry”
By Callion Hamblin

While sleeping one night, I had a dream
And it left quite a tale to tell.
I dreamed I saw an Angel
But she wasn’t looking very well.
Her heavenly body was bruised and battered,
Her wings were ripped and torn.
I noticed that she could hardly walk,
She was tired, weak, and worn.
I walked over and asked her,
“Angel,tell me, how could this be?”
She tried to smile as she gathered her thoughts
Then she spoke these sad words to me
“I am your Guardian Angel,
A very rough task you can see
I’ve lived a wild life with you
That I’m sure you must agree
And what it is you see
Is what you have done to me.
My wings you see are ripped and torn
A noble badge I bare.
So many times they’ve shielded you
From dangers you were unaware.
Yes Cal, each mark tells a story
Of pains, dangers, I’ve bravely destroyed
You’ve made me wish more than once
That I was unemployed.
The alcohol and drugs you’ve used
Without care, and dangerously.
And whenever you thought you just lucked out
Well just take a look at me.
I’ll always be here to watch over you
At least until my powers fail
As for when that will be I just can’t say
Because I’m getting old, weak, and frail.”
When I awoke I thought about that dream
And how much she seemed to care
Then I looked around at these cold prison walls
And my heart sank with despair.
Then I thought about my sentence
And I wondered if I should even try
Then somewhere in the distance
I heard a tired, battered angel cry.