Weekend Write-In: Varsity Line-Up Starting Four

I have taught writing to high school students for twenty years. As public school teachers, we spend a great deal of time writing curriculum according to whatever directives the district and state demand. These change often, driven by the whims of new administrators or politicians. Ideally, according to my evaluators, if you want to teach one of the courses I do, say the senior poetry class, you should be able to read my unit plans on a shared website and, essentially, do what I do.

But whenever a real human being has to teach one of my courses, I begin by recommending one of the following books. Not only do they help me get my students writing and thinking, but they help me get writing and thinking. Best of all, they DEFY proscriptive regulations on how to write curriculum and ask only that real writers describe real lessons that work. Amazing, right?

naming the worldNaming the World. Bret Anthony Johnston, ed. For prose writers and/or teachers of prose writing, I can’t imagine a more helpful book. Johnston (author of Corpus Christi: Stories and Remember Me Like This: A Novel), compiles lessons from Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Packer, Tom Robbins, Elizabeth Strout and Steven Almond, among dozens of others. The lessons are creative, easy to follow, and include both individual and group pursuits. The index includes lists of writing warm-ups to get writers to what Johnston calls, “Ass in the chair time.” Indispensible.

practice of poetryPractice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach, Chase Twichell and Robin Behn, eds. What Naming the World does for prose writers and teachers of prose, this book does for poets and teachers of poetry. Another compilation of lessons by writers for writers that work. This is a dog-eared, well-loved addition to my bookshelf at home and at school.

the discovery of poetryThe Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes. If you want to learn more about what poetry is and how to go about writing it; if you want models both contemporary and classic for the various elements you study; if you want a book whose writer speaks to you, invites you to enjoy both the reading and writing of poetry, you can’t do better than Mayes. I use this book with both my senior poetry class and with my AP English students because Mayes makes poetry accessible. She offers you, especially, many poems to choose from and, in this way, guides you toward learning from those writers whose work you most admire. All textbooks should be written like this: Mayes wants you to love poetry first and foremost and then, if you choose, to write some of your own.

on-writingOn Writing by Stephen King. This book is half memoir, half craft lessons. Unlike the other books I’ve listed here, King doesn’t offer exercises. Instead, he describes his own life as a writer and then he offers tips to fiction writers. Teenagers love this book, and adults understand why King has sold so many books. You can imagine him speaking to you over beer (or, since he doesn’t touch the stuff), strong coffee. His advice is straightforward and far from high-brow. Great read.

These books, for me, get the job done. I especially value hearing from writers who write and teach.

What can you add to this list? What books help you write? Teach? Think?

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Home, With Cats

Minx (L); Enzo (R)

Minx (L); Enzo (R)

Why does that image fill me with such joy? It didn’t used to be like this. Or did it?

Outside, voices around the firepit. Downstairs, Dennis’s fork clinking against his salad bowl. Upstairs, me without an idea for my blog and Minx giving himself a bath beside me. He never looks at a loss for what to do with himself. He isn’t worried, for example, that he has a sexy female name, or that he only has a tooth or two left in his head. Or that, considering the square footage of his ample body, his tongue is a small enough weapon against filth. So I’m a cat lover. So what? This is the new (?) me. A living cliche`. Poet. Cat Lover. Tea Drinker.

When I was a kid, we had cats the way some people have an ant problem. Cats proliferated, an army of gold fur against any rodents stupid enough to hang around the grain bins. They stayed outside, gathering on the back steps for leftovers, slinking through the fields and woods, dashing out of the hayloft when we approached. They were feral things, wild-eyed, hissing.

But their kittens, if you could find them, were tame as lambs. We dressed up Tammy, our first calico, in my doll clothes. Litters in the barn attic kept me entertained for hours when all of my adolescent friends were playing CYO basketball or blow-drying their hair into feathers. What could be better than those little triangular kitten faces? They way they walked, plucking leg after leg up off the dusty barn floor?

I guess I’ve always had it in me.

On my kindergarten report card, Mrs. Carpenter wrote that I demonstrated an affinity for poetry. I don’t remember poetry in kindergarten. I remember oak tag (and how it was severely rationed which made it all the more precious to me; god, I loved that stuff). I remember recess in a leafy, well-shaded, wall-offed yard. I remember feeling lucky that I didn’t have Mrs. Friend next door whose voice I could hear through the coat rack. I remember Chris K. chasing me around the room on his scooter and having to dash behind the ironing board in the play kitchen. I remember a see-saw. But I don’t remember poetry.

Anyway, maybe certain loves are with us always, just waiting for a day when our kid begs us to take her to the cat shelter and we agree, thinking it’s cheaper than the movies.

This is how much I love cats: I got up this morning and found Minx mewling on the porch roof outside the bedroom window. The screen door was opened on the porch, Minx’s trademark six inches (How he gets it open when we can’t and use the other door, instead, is more testament to his brilliance) and Enzo, too, was gone.

The first thing I found to put on was not a bra, but a plain white t-shirt. And it’s raining so it became some kind of weird spring break flashback (not that I ever partook; never received an invite to that one), but the point is: I didn’t care. The movie in my mind spooled forward, starring my doomed hero and the fisher cat and coyote villains. Without Enzo, who would keep me company leaping about in the sheets as I folded them? Who would perch on the bathroom sink to make sure I flossed? Who would climb into every closet, cupboard, drawer, I opened?

I wish I could love an apex predator, I thought as my neighbor paused in his driveway and then hurried into his house. Wouldn’t life be so much less risky? But, instead, I love cats.

A few years ago, I interviewed for a job as head of the English department. Although I had more teaching experience, a much younger colleague was chosen. When the principal explained his choice, he said it was very close between us, but the deciding factor was that he believed my colleague would be able to generate more data than I would.

I’ll give him data: Every year in my poetry class, I conduct a very scientific hand-raising survey. Who here owns a cat? Most kids raise their hands. Coincidence or cliche`? What’s the goddamned difference?

Anyway, these days I channel my inner cat. Choose whoever you choose, I chant. I will maintain my superior indifference.

So here I am. While other people are out there leading the world with facts and figures, I sit typing away, steeped in gratitude that, just when I was about to a) cry, and b) get arrested for indecent exposure, Enzo padded out of the barn, lynx-like, dismissive, keeping close to the foundation. Getting soaked, after all, is so disgustingly homo sapien.