Ken Watson address 2011

Blood and Bone: an Anatomy of Wreading

Felicity Plunkett is an academic and poet with a passionate commitment to wreading. She has a PhD in English from the University if Sydney, and was Chief Examiner of English Extension 1 and 2 from 2004-9. Her first book Vanishing Point won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Award and was short-listed for the WA Premier’s Book Awards, the Judith Wright Prize and the Anne Elder Award. Her chapbook Seastrands (Vagabond Press) has just been released. She is poetry editor at the University of Queensland Press.

 

Imagine a room as I describe it. At first it seems spacious, but a second look shows you that only its extreme tidiness has given that impression. Everything has its fixed position, its proper place. The items on display are neatly shelved or arranged in glass cases. Each section is labeled; you can see little signs that say, for instance, ‘Novel’, ‘Poetry’, ‘Drama’. Other signs request visitors not to touch, not to leave fingerprints. Gilt-framed portraits and plaster busts of authors surmount the furniture.

(Ian Reid, quoted in Bellis et al, 165) 

Image of museum: http://www.ledlightingfactory.com/LED-Micro-Track-Lighting.htm  

This vision of a museum-style English classroom is one its author, educator Ian Reid, calls The Gallery. It is a place of proscriptions, printed on signs, and radiating from the effects of its extreme tidiness. It was in a place like this with its culture of tidiness that Virginia Woolf, asked to give a lecture on ‘women and fiction’, imagined herself unable to play the carefully delineated part of The Lecturer. I can’t, she said, offer you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to take away and keep on the mantelpiece forever. In its opening section A Room of One’s Own has Woolf visiting the university where she is to give the lecture, waved off the turf by a horrified gatekeeper. What she feels is a sense that she is trespassing. The place is inhospitable.

Image: Portrait of Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry e.g. at http://www.alchemistspillow.com/2010_01_01_archive.html

Not everyone feels similarly intimidated though, and some people, including Woolf herself, make art out of testing those very proscriptions:

Image of the Beatles ‘keep off the grass’: for example, at: http://www.fanpop.com/spots/the-beatles/images/17352982/title/please-keep-off-grass-photo

but there are more welcoming creative spaces.

In Reid’s room, with its confected awe, activity is minimal, and stasis cultivated. This kind of room can make you feel like a trespasser. It’s a stressful space, one in which if you move, you might break something, or leave fingerprints on the polished surfaces. What is there for students to do here but stand still and look? What can teachers to do here but point to things and offer taxonomies and catalogues?

There is no room for – and there is even a prohibition against – mobility, responsiveness, flexibility, intuition, and, especially a ‘hands-on’ approach. There is no room for error or restlessness. There is little here to nourish growth. It’s the kind of place poet Charles Bernstein imagines when he thinks of styles of teaching that are restrictive like ‘the narrow Chinese shoe that deforms our thinking to fit its image of rigor’ (Bernstein, 16).

Image: http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/china/clothing/

The opposite of this is a sense of welcome; of hospitality. Ian Reid offers a vision of this kind of hospitality in his Workshop:

Imagine, if you will… a room for making… It’s messy and noisy, because lots of people are busily at work. There’s argument, joking, gossip; there’s activity on all sides. One talkative group seems to be either dismantling something or piecing it together; another is intently mixing ingredients, several individuals here and there are bent absorbedly over benches, machines, easels, desks…a multi-media experiment seems to be underway in one corner. A few are silently preoccupied with their reading – or is it their writing?

                                                                                                         (Ian Reid in Bellis et al, 165)

(This is a photo of an exhibition of the art of children’s author and illustrator John Birmingham at Dovecot Studios in the UK http://www.flickr.com/photos/p22earl/3862716529 . It’s a place that invites engagement, response, creativity. It’s a place where the official who warned Woolf off the grass has been collected in the arms of a giant swinging gorilla, and is changing his world view.)

I am reminded here of critic J. Hillis Miller’s exploration of ideas of hospitality in his article ‘The Critic as Host’. Responding to a critique of a ‘deconstructionist’ reading as ‘plainly and simply parasitical… on the obvious… reading’, he delves into the etymology of parasites and hosts, positing ideas of a dynamic hospitality and reciprocity in his vision of texts and critics. He notes that the words ‘host’ and ‘guest’ ‘go back in fact to the same etymological root: ghos-ti, stranger, guest, host, properly "someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality."’ (Miller, 442).  

In his always-modest way, Miller points out that his reading of the idea of reading as parasitical shows the opposite possibilities of a deconstructive reading:  

My little example of a deconstructive strategy at work is meant, moreover, to indicate, no doubt inadequately, the hyperbolic exuberance, the letting language go as far as it will take one, or the going with a given text as far as it will go, to its limits, which is an essential part of the procedure. (Miller, 444).  

It’s an exciting, adventurous, mobile piece of critical writing, responsive to and generous about the criticism, and hospitable to the multifarious readings the phrase offers. Unlike the attack that prompts it, it seems generous, expansive and energetic.

Reid’s vital and multifarious Workshop finds students and teachers similarly dynamic, and engaged in similar versions of hospitality. They move like blood cells in the veins, some working alone, others collaboratively, pursuing numerous tasks within the flux. And like blood, which travels through the veins doing its work of transporting oxygen and nutrients through the body, fighting infection, the workshop participants are adaptable, differently composed and engaged in a range of activities, flexible and responsive.

Image of blood cells: http://stemcellumbilicalcordblood.com/donating-umbilical-cord-blood/donating-cord-blood/considering-cord-blood-donation/

Blood is also something many of us – or at least I – prefer not to think about too much. I look away during blood tests and make feeble jokes about my fear. I’m grateful for the healthy continuity of its efforts without my thinking too much about what’s going on. Blood is messy. Blood is associated with the unexpected, and with emergency. It has the charge of the taboo through its association with death and reproduction.  

Its healthy continuity and invisible industry and energy resembles the mobility and flexibility needed in the English classroom. Where hospitality and responsiveness underpin the culture, the ossifying effects of prohibition and proscription – don’t walk on the turf, or don’t touch the exhibits – are replaced by a sense of possibility, a yes. This is like the ‘yes’ Yoko Ono has in her ‘Ceiling Painting’, or the ‘Yes Painting’, first exhibited in 1966, when John Lennon was one of its first viewers. Viewers needed to climb up the ladder, take the hanging magnifying glass, and read the word painted on the ceiling. The word is ‘yes’.

Image of Yoko Ono’s ‘Ceiling Painting’ at: http://www.stretcher.org/features/yes_yoko_ono/ 

R. Keith Sawyer, drawing on actor training to build teachers’ improvisation skills, writes about this in terms of a ‘Yes, and…’ dynamic. The actor – and following this, the participant in the class discussion – accepts ‘the offer proposed in the prior turn, and [adds] something new to the dramatic frame.’ (Sawyer, ‘Improvised Lessons’, 192). Sawyer describes the training of actors in improvisation as training used in innovative professional development for teachers at such places as the Center for Artistry in Teaching in Washington, DC. The Centre Sawyer refers to is now known as the Center for Inspired Teaching. It produces a free journal, The Inspired Teaching Journal, available online, and offers other resources via its website: http://www.inspiredteaching.org).  

Charles Bernstein envisages something similar, writing specifically about ways of reading so-called ‘difficult’ poems, in his book Attack of the Difficult Poems: 

When reading poetry is not directed to the goal of deciphering a fixed, graspable meaning but rather encourages performing and responding to overlapping meanings, then difficulty ceases to be an obstacle and is transformed into an opening.

                                                                                                         (Bernstein, 48)

Charles Bernstein poster: https://jacket2.org/category/al-filreis-tags/charles-bernstein?page=1  

Bernstein doesn’t often see eye to eye with former poet laureate of the US, Billy Collins, yet Collins has a poem which expresses a similar point, arriving at it from a very different starting point: 

Billy Collins image: http://clatterymachinery.wordpress.com/2006/09/16/billy-collins-an-evening-with-the-former-us-poet-laureate/

‘Introduction to Poetry’


I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means. 

 

Implicit in both Collins’ poem and Bernstein’s vision is a version of Sawyer’s ‘yes, and…’. For Bernstein, this is part of what he calls ‘wreading’, a term used by various American educators to express the fruitful connections between reading and writing. Actors’ improvisation, connecting, and making what are known as complementary turns, which accept the prior turn and elaborate on it (Sawyer, 192) could be imagined as a kind of hospitality. Reciprocity and mobility are important aspects of such a turn; it is a mutual hosting like the one Miller describes.

My experience is that reading and writing can be connected in ways that are similarly positive and complementary. In my essay ‘The Charged Classroom’, I explore this argument. I take US writing teacher Katie Wood Ray’s idea of getting students to ‘read like writers’ and expand it to contain its corollary, writing like readers. I use the analogy of the pathologist, getting inside the body to understand its workings: opening a text as though it were a body, examining its pulse, skeleton and musculature, its rhythms and quirks. Pathologists look at one thing and then another – strands, to translate this metaphor into the language of the draft English curriculum – but always in the context of how one relates to the other.

Bernstein elaborates on wreading throughout Attack of the Difficult Poems. He makes a passionate case for making connections in learning, as well as for things sometimes deemed ‘difficult’, arguing that ‘We cannot make education more efficient without making it more deficient.’ (12) He argues for education that is

a place for open-ended research that can just as well lead nowhere as somewhere, that is wasteful and inefficient by short-term economic standards but practically a steal  as a long-term research-and-development investment in democracy, freedom and creativity.

                                                                                                         (12)

 Reciprocity and hospitality are here, the yes rather than the proscription, and the possibilities of different students doing different things, working alone or collaboratively on one part of the task or process. Blood, again.

Even as I talk about blood, and cells, the bones of the Australian curriculum are currently being built: its skeleton is emerging. One of the words within that (whether ultimately occluded or not) is ‘strand’. The strands in English are part of its skeleton. But a strand is more like a blood cell than a bone. And I would like to suggest that in thinking of blood as well as bones, we might move towards the kind of Workshop and wreading model.

‘Strand’ is one of those words with such a rich set of connotations that it invites found poetry. It is singular, yet it implies connectedness: it is something that can be unwound or unravelled from a group of strands. It is something that is all about combination. Its movement is sinuous; its nature flexible. In her poems, and in talking about her poetry, American poet Denise Levertov uses the idea of entwinement so elegantly I find it useful to think of hers as a poetics of entwinement.  

Image of Denise Levertov: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/denise_levertov


In talking about the process, I'm almost obliged to say, "First you do this. Then you do that. Then you stand back. Then you do that." But these things overlap and flow into each other. One has to use that linear description of a process that is actually much less linear, much more intuitive, doubling back on itself. But it's only for convenience sake that one has to talk about them as a sequence of discreet events, because they really aren't.

 

(from ‘A Poet’s Valediction’, Denise Levertov’s final interview, with Nicholas O’Connell http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/levertov/oconnell.htm) 

Entwinement is the kind of connection strands invite.    

Image: ‘Ultimate Strands’: http://yethzart.deviantart.com/art/Ultimate-Strands-87897396              

Making connections that count: this is implicit in the kinds of things Bernstein does in the classroom, which for him is a tertiary poetics workshop.  

Examples of Bernstein’s experiments:

  • Serial sentences: Select one sentence each from different source texts. Add sentences of your own composition. Combine into one paragraph, reordering to produce different results.

[So, one text opens itself to host others, so they become entwined, and responsive to one another.] 

  • Mad libs. Take the poem or other source text and put blanks in place of three or four words in each line, noting the part of speech under each blank. Fill in the blanks being sure not to recall the original context.
  • Erase the poem, leaving only the punctuation; only the prepositions; adjectives; verbs. 

He notes:         

Dispense only as appropriate and under the supervision of an attending reader.  Individual experiments are not liable for injury or failure resulting from improper use of appliance.  Any profits accrued as a direct or indirect result of the use of these formulas shall be redistributed to the language at large. Management assumes no responsibility for damages that may result consequent to the use of this material in educational institutions or individual writing projects. 

http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/syllabi/CreativeWreading.html 

The practical hospitality of hosting a text exemplifies this. Get inside its structure and shapes to find its bones, its template in a ‘Yes, and…’ responsive improvisation. For example, listen to a poem which is structured using a pattern, such as Simon Armitage’s ‘You’re Beautiful’. (Audio of this poem, and numerous others, is available on The Poetry Archive.) 

Image of Simon Armitage: http://www.simonarmitage.com/ 

The poem works in skewed couplets, which represent a love relationship from the point of view of the speaker, who sees himself as ‘ugly’ as compared with his ‘beautiful’ lover. It’s a warped kind of love poem, perfect to approach with a ‘Yes, and…’. These are examples of its couplets, from different parts of the poem. The second line in the couplets tends to expand as the poem progresses, conveying a subversive playfulness in the speaker’s approach.


You’re beautiful because you’re classically trained.
I’m ugly because I associate piano wire with strangulation. 

 

You’re beautiful because you couldn’t live in a lighthouse.
I’m ugly for making hand-shadows in front of the giant bulb, so when they look up, the captains of vessels in distress see the ears of a rabbit, or the eye of a fox, or the legs of a galloping black horse. 

 

In ways like these, the teaching of language and literature are entwined. Grammar, too, can be woven in. As posited in ‘Taking the Grrr out of Grammar’, fear of this word, grammar, need not preclude teaching it (or hosting it). The authors write: 

                              We wrote on the board:

 

specialists those bearded old

Lithuanian ten linguistics

 

We then asked the students to rearrange the words into an English phrase, and to a person, they came up with:

 

those ten old bearded Lithuanian

linguistics specialists 

We noted that ‘grammar’ is what enabled them to make that decoding, and we asked them to articulate, if they could, the rules that require ‘those’ to precede ‘ten’ or ‘linguistics’ to follow ‘Lithuanian’. Their struggles helped us make the point that the native speaker of a language knows a lot more grammar than he or she is necessarily able to describe.

                                                                                                         (Tchudi and Thomas, 47)

Excitingly, you could read their project as being about travelling from the idea of grammar as being about proscriptions ‘Never use…’ towards a ‘yes, and…’

They invite students to think about grammar less in its prescriptive/proscriptive – ‘keep off the grass’  -- sense, which, as they show above, students intuitively know and understand, and more on its descriptive, enabling and hospitable effects. They use the term ‘grammar’ in its broader sense to develop a deep concept of grammar as a descriptive tool. They ask students to ‘write a ‘how to’ grammar of something you do well, say the basics of playing a musical instrument or… making a quilt’ or ‘create a fairytale with a moral or ‘grammar’ of human behavior’ (47). 

Finally, an illustration from a classroom in Sydney in the last year. As many of you will know, the Red Room poetry company offers a range of resources. Its education program includes the Papercuts Program. Their Education Director is Tony Britten, whom many of you will know, and Tony is bringing his experience to the role to expand what might be seen as poetry’s hospitality, and a hospitality to poetry. In 2010 I conducted a series of workshops at St George Girls High School facilitated by teacher John Turner. The students were Year 10 pre-Extension students, and we worked on our version of the Red Room’s kit ‘The Cabinet of Lost and Found’. We had our own vision of this, re-imagining the idea of the Glory Box. It was subversive and playful, and involved excavation of the dreams and hopes of women in the past, and what the dreams and hopes of a group of young women today might look like. It was explorative and experimental. The students used all sorts of found materials (including a mother’s wedding veil and old family photos) to assemble their poems into postcard-sized pages of a book, and the Red Room subsequently commissioned artist Tamryn Bennett to make these into an artist’s book.


Image: Red Room Company’s Papercuts Program: http://redroomcompany.org/education/

 

Images from my workshop via the Red Room at St George Girls’ High School:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/redroomcompany/sets/72157626536125312/

We began our writing by immersing ourselves in reading. This is an approach described and elaborated in Brian Henry’s piece ‘Teaching Writing without Writing’ (133). Henry teaches courses entirely based on exercises such as found poetry, cut-ups, homolinguistic translation and so on.  

As we ranged over a lot of poems, the students got especially interested in T. S. Eliot and Modernism, a passion of mine. In Year 11, the students have continued studying Modernism and one student, a musician, created a musical hosting of T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. The piece demonstrates a deep attentiveness to the poem’s rhythms, and an immersion in the world it evokes. It re-imagines and understands the poem. 

I’ll finish with this clip, because it illustrates the way creative freedom has led, for this student, to a responsive, ‘Yes, and…’ creative reading of the poem. To me, the work expresses an eloquent ‘Yes’, which it is my hope can be at the heart of reading, writing and teaching as we move into the new curriculum.  

But before that, bringing together the skeins of this imaginative foray: connections, strands, blood and bones; hospitality with its responsiveness, flexibility and creativity and the mutually fruitful relationships between reading and writing, I wanted to read a section from Gail Jones’ novel Sixty Lights that captures something of this in a beautiful image of reading as connection. You’ll notice that her metaphor of séance again invokes Miller’s idea of the etymological roots of host including ghost.

What process was this? What self-complication? What séance of other lives in her own imagination? Reading was this metaphysical meeting space – peculiar, specific, ardent, unusual – She learned how other people entered the adventure of being alive… There were sight-lines, image tokens, between people and objects and words on a page, that knitted the whole world in the purest geometry of connections.

(Gail Jones, Sixty Lights, 114) 

Image of Yoko Ono ‘Ceiling Painting’: http://signsoflife10.wordpress.com/emilie-halpern/influences/

 

 

Works Cited

Armitage, Simon. ‘You’re Beautiful’. Audio available at: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=90

Bellis, Natalie, Parr, Graham and Doecke, Brenton. 'The Making of Literature: A Continuing Conversation'. Changing English. 16.2 (2009): 165–179. Print.

Bernstein, Charles. Attack of the Difficult Poems. Chicago: Chicago U P, 2011. Print.

Henry, Brian. ‘Teaching Writing without Writing’. Poets on Teaching: a Sourcebook. ed. Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Iowa: Iowa U P, 2010. Print.

Jones, Gail. Sixty Lights. 2004. Sydney: Vintage, 2005. Print.

 

Levertov, Denise. ‘A Poet’s Valediction’, interview with Nicholas O’Connell http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/levertov/oconnell.htm. Web.

Miller, J. Hillis. ‘The Critic as Host’. Critical Inquiry. 3.3 (1977): 439-447. Print.

Plunkett, Felicity. ‘The Charged Classroom’. Teaching Australian Literature: From classroom conversations to national imaginings. ed. Brenton Doecke, Philip Mead and Larissa McLean Davies. Adelaide: Wakefield Press and AATE, forthcoming 2011. Print.

Sawyer, R. Keith. ‘Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation.’ Educational Researcher 33.2 (2004): 12-20. Print.

-- ‘Improvised Lessons: Collaborative discussion in the constructivist classroom.’ Teaching Education. 15.2 (2004): 189-201.

Tchudi Stephen and Lee Thomas, ‘Taking the G-r-r-r Out of Grammar’ The English Journal, Vol. 85, No. 7, The Great Debate (Again): Teaching Grammar and

Usage (Nov., 1996):46-54

The Poetry Archive http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/home.do

Wood Ray, Katie with Lester L. Laminack. The Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts). Chicago: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. Print.