August 30, 2009

All Good Things Begin with Coffee

I'm writing this from the Crazy Mocha Coffee Company in Pittsburgh's Bloomfield neighborhood--a few doors down from Howlers, where I'll be performing with the Typewriter Girls. Burlesque, fiction, and whiskey madness await. The special coffee of the day here is golden pecan, which seems like a good omen; 99% of all flavored coffees are gross, and pecan is the exception.

My week has been preoccupied with setting the syllabus for my Corcoran course. To save the students some money I'm going the handout route, versus one big anthology/reader. (Although if I HAD gone with a reader I highly recommend Portable Legacies--thanks for the suggestion, Amanda!) I now realize the secret attraction of anthologies: they ease the teacher's burden by artificially narrowing the focus of what texts can be used in lesson plans. Because at the end of the day, you have to pick something. And when the floodgates are thrown open, where do you begin?

I decided to stick with what I was excited to read, and what worked in a short format--nothing over 20 pages, many prose excerpts under 6. Each seminar (we only meet once a week, for three hours) is oriented toward a theme rather than a genre. So rather than doing three weeks of fiction, journalism, poetry, then memoir, we're going to have a week of food writing, travel writing, writing about music, writing about death, etc., with sample reading from all genres each week. I hope this creates more footholds for the students--I don't want someone to think "well, this week is poetry, and I don't get poetry, so I'm just going to lay low in class." It's also a philosophical statement of sorts, shifting the focus from the artifice of genre divides and looking instead at how writing intersects with the material of the real world. Taking a note from Denise Levertov--I believe in organic form. I believe in cultivating something true and compelling to say, then finding the genre that holds it best.

The good news is that the authors are a stellar constellation of modern and contemporary voices including Junot Diaz, Paul Bowles, Tillie Olsen, Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver, Li-Young Lee, Sandra Cisneros, Pablo Neruda, ZZ Packer, Martin Espada, Sylvia Plath--even a little Gerard Manley Hopkins for good measure. The bad news...well, there's no bad news during this halycon lull between the frying pan of selecting texts and the fire of learning which ones engage the students and which ones flop.

It was a long week. Teachers of the world, I salute you.

A syllabus is a personal thing. It's not just where you lay out a grading rubric and set deadlines. It's where you express your tone as a teacher; it's where you reveal what interests you; it's your first conversation with the student. I'm amazed that syllabi aren't guarded more closely and treated as intellectual property. There vulnerability in writing out what you hope is a flawless mathematical equation of X short assignments + Y major papers + Z participation points = A Fair Grade, then seeing how it works in the real world. It's the difference between designing the plane on paper and actually flying the damn thing.

Maybe after a few years the attachment eases, or maybe it's balanced by the pay-it-forward principle. I've been encouraged by the generosity of friends who are quick to say "Oh, do you want to see my syllabus?" and I'd want to do the same for someone someday. But for now it's like a newborn baby. I'm cradling it to my chest.

Oh oh oh, before I forget. One of the books I looked though for fiction was Bestial Noise, an early reader of short stories from Tin House. I remember reading it while sprawled in a long chair by the riverbank at Vermont Studio Center. I quickly found a story I'd liked at the time, "Rana Fegrina," and thought "Oh, yes! I have to teach this." Then it clicked--the short story is by my now-friend Dylan Landis, and it is part of Normal People Don't Live Like This, coming out from Persea in October. How surreal to remember loving the story, now knowing she would move to DC and we would meet, not knowing that it was on its way to anchoring a book whose characters were called "blessedly extraordinary" in Vanity Fair's "Hot Type" column.

Dylan had a flourishing career writing about interior design back in the day, and she just wrote a post over at C.M. Mayo's blog on "Magnetic Spaces." Go check it out. Be on the inside track--read Normal People Don't Live Like This before everyone else starts telling you to read it. Because they will. I was lucky enough to have a galley with me at Jentel, and I have to say: she's going to become a very big star very quickly.

...Okay, my coffee's cold. Time to stretch my legs from the four-hour drive and walk up the block to grab some Thai food, flip through a stack o'poems and try to pick out things I did not read when I was here in May for the gig at Gist Street. Wish me luck! Luckily I brought my dancing shoes.

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