Saturday, November 27, 2010

The BBC says nobody will read this blog post. Prove it wrong!

A recent survey circulating on Facebook is a BBC list of 100 works of literature accompanied by a "challenge" (for lack of a better term) that most people have not read more than 6 of them. I took the challenge and have read or started to read or read excerpts from about 20 or so. Some I have read more than once. The BBC included the works of Shakespeare -- but wouldn't it be a more appropriate question to ask how many Shakespeare plays you have seen performed? I believe Shakespeare was the only playwright included in the list.

So on my drive back from 11 Mile Canyon after a brief afternoon of fishing, my thoughts naturally went to Hemingway and his short story "Big Two-Hearted River," and then to Maclean and his A River Runs Through It. But then my thoughts went back to the BBC list. Why that list? Why those titles? What does the list reveal about me if I read three of those books? Or twenty-three? Or fifty-three? How much different would my life be if I read seventy-three of those titles rather than somewhere around twenty? What if the only book I read on that list was Moby Dick (and how did Moby Dick make the list and not Huckleberry Finn?) What does the list reveal about "us" (and similar lists, too) even by the very choices of literature on the list?

When I was an English major at CSU, I proudly declared that I was an American Literature devotee -- much to the chagrin of Dr. John Boni yet much to the delight of Dr. Robert Zoellner. Any list I would dare to create would certainly show an American Lit bias -- and the list would reveal more about me, perhaps, than about those who responded. Would it reveal any more or less cultural or literary literacy for those who took my American Lit challenge? Was Dr. Boni's disdain legit because I favor American Lit more than British Lit?

When I got to Divide, Colorado, I started to wonder what if we changed the artistic medium and conducted a similar survey. What if the question became "The _ _ _ believes most people will only have viewed five of the following works of art." Then the list would include Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, Jasper Johns' US Flag, Picasso's Guernica, Kooninig's Woman I, Matisse's Dance, Dali's The Persistence of Memory, Diego Rivera's The Arsenal: Frida Kahlo Distributes Arms. My list, of course, could go on for 90 or so more paintings. Am I less cultured because I have only viewed, first hand, a handful of those works in a museum setting? What if the medium became baseball games, certainly artistry of a more kinesthetic sort? Am I less cultured because I have seen games in Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field but not in Fenway Park?

Literary works lend themselves to lists more than any other artistic endeavor because we all have the ability to hold those works in our hands and to take our time to savor those works. (Of course, the Internet allows us to "see" the above works of art but we lose all sense of dimension. For example, O'Keeffe's The Black Iris is 36" x 29"; Dali's The Persistence of Memory a mere 9.5" x 13"; Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" is 30 x 60 inches.) So we turn to our familiarity with and indulgence in literature to "say something" about us as a culture, as a society, as an individual. But what is that statement -- what does it say about us if we have only read six of these, or eight of those, or none of that list?

And does "our" list have to change? How many books have we read of writers from the Middle East? How many books of Latina/a writers -- books representing the voice and culture of the fastest growing ethnicity in the U.S.? If, as it is said, literature offers a window into another's experience -- and that literature serves offers us a mirror to look at ourselves -- what does the BBC List of 100 offer? Is it a multi-faceted mirror or a multi-paned window?

I'll bring this pondering to an end...not so much out of lack of interest to continue musing but because other obligations call my name.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day 2010

Even though it is bit cliche to be reminded that Thanksgiving is a day to express our gratitude and thanks for the blessings in our lives, here I am writing about those things for which I am truly appreciative. Actually, it is not the "things" but the people in my life for whom I am grateful. To paraphrase another saying: gratitude starts at home. And with that, I am grateful for the beauty of my daughter, Jessica, and her continual evolution into young adulthood. She amazes me every day. It's a joyful thing to watch -- this unfolding of a young life. The beauty is her physical self, of course, and her social self as she trusts her Self, shapes her life, and feels her way along a path that is not always sure or clear. She has dealt with the challenges in front of her with resilience and perseverance.

And I am grateful for the presence and love of Jannetta in my life today. She has a strength that is not superficial...a strength that is not forceful but is steady and committed and clear. So I get to share in that today. Her presence makes my life fuller, richer. I feel loved and possessed with the ability to be loving. William Faulkner says "Maybe the only thing worse than having to give gratitude constantly ... is having to accept it." I get to be grateful for Jannetta's life in mine and accept gratitude, too, for what we share.

And today I have a certain gratitude for my employer who gives me the opportunity to grow as a leader every day. I feel challenged in my work every day and given the opportunity to meet that challenge every day, too.

In short, today -- this day -- I get to express the gratitude to and for the people in my life who make it richer. Mother Theresa said "The best way to show our gratitude to God and the people is to accept everything with joy. A joyful heart is the inevitable result of a heart burning with love." I get to learn how to fuel that love every day with the people in my life.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Prose Poem

I watch her snap the skateboard's tail to the street just like her boyfriend does, mount it, one foot at a time, steady herself and roll to the corner. Her right foot steps off, kicks twice, three times, and she accelerates, soundlessly, her black hoodie flapping like wings by her own breeze. I wave at her back, she kicks again, accelerates, her boyfriend waits at school, she's a silhoutte obscured by the neighbor's trees, kicks again, rolls, gone. I take a backward step on the porch, my hand on the railing, think I hear her wheels rolling, hear her distancing herself in the cool autumn morning.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Inscription: Writers I Have Met (DRAFT)

So I was at the CLAS conference this past weekend and one of the speakers kept mentioning names of various writers she had met, their little quirks, maybe a nugget about their approach to writing. It wasn't name-dropping to impress her listeners, necessarily, and by the end of the presentation you realized how incredibly rich of an experience, in sum, she had meeting these writers. So it got me to thinking...who are the writers I have met and what is the sum impact of those encounters?

The first two writers I met were at the same event in Denver in 1977. I first met Yusef Komunyakaa when he was a student at CSU and was attending a poetry reading by Adrienne Rich. I went to the event with Victoria McCabe, a poetry instructor at UCCS. We met other folks from CSU, too, including Bill Tremblay, an English professor. The encounter with Rich was brief and uneventful. A quick introduction and she was gone. After the reading, though, Victoria and I went to somebody's apartment and talked about Rich, poetry, and, no doubt, the state of the world. I was 20, working in a factory in Colorado Springs, and taking a class or two at UCCS. Later, when I had returned to CSU, Komunyakaa wrote in his chapbook, Dedications & Other Dark Horses, "To Vince -- Hopefully this book gives you a glimpse into the eyes that I see through. Hopefully I am where the heart takes root, where the blues begins in all of us. Yusef K."

Although it is not a "meet" the author encounter, this is a pretty cool story. In 1981, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I read with interest the announcement about a poetry reading in Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley -- a bit of a drive from Palo Alto, but worth it. The poet reading: Adrienne Rich. I made the drive over and listened to her read -- this rather small, Jewish woman, who moves me with her poetry. She signed her book A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. In 1986, when I was in the Stanford Teacher Education Program, Adrienne Rich was a guest professor. I went to one of her lectures, sat way in the back, and at the end of her class session, went down to her podium. Reintroduced myself to her and explained I had seen her in 1977, 1981, and now. She laughed, held my outstretched hand for a beat or two after the shake had finished, and we went our separate ways.

Two years later, in March of 1988, I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read in San Francisco. He was, by then, a professor at Indiana University. He was on his way to winning the Pulitzer Prize. In my copy of Dedications he wrote "For Vince -- Here in California where the light brings out the hidden images. Peace & Magic, Yusef"

I had a long drought of book signings in the 1990's. It wasn't until the summer of 1999 that my inscriptions took on a new momentum. At that time, I was teaching English at Palmer High School and had the opportunity to go to San Antonio as one of 26 teachers selected for the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. The focus was Mexican-American Literature and Culture in the Classroom. It was a seminal summer for my teaching / education career.

At that Institute, I was honored to meet Rudolfo Anaya who inscribed my copy of Bless Me, Ultima -- one of my favorite novels to teach. He wrote "Vince - A Great Future! Rudolfo Anaya" I met other Latino and Latina authors as well: Pat Mora who wrote Aunt Carmen's Book of Practical Saints and inscribed my copy with 'For Vince, Joy! Pat Mora July 1999." Cristina Garcia, in her lovely novel about three generations of Cuban women called Dreaming in Cuban, inscribed "To Vince, Good luck with your writing. Cristina Garcia." A young writer named Sergio Troncoso wrote "To Vince: I hope you enjoy these stories about the moral character of my community in El Paso. Sergio" Elva Trevino Hart, in Barefoot Heart / Stories of a Migrant Child, wrote "For Vince -- from my heart & hands to yours-- with Love, Elva 7/17/99."

One of my favorite inscriptions is in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street. I told her the copy was for my daughter, Jessica, and she wrote "Para La Jessica. Felicidades! Many happinesses to you today -- always. Sandra Cisneros. July 9. 99." A few weeks later I was honored to have dinner with Ms. Cisneros. I was encouraged by the professor who proposed the NEH Summer Institute to contact Cisneros. I emailed her and waited. She replied. We could go to dinner Saturday night. Well, the conference was over Friday night and I was driving back to Colorado Springs the next day. She replied we could go Friday, but it would have to be after her dance class. We agreed to meet at a local smokehouse. I was a bit surprised at her choice. When I showed up at the restaurant, I was only mildly surprised that she had a chaperone. It was her house painter who, she explained, was there because she did not like to meet people alone. I could understand. Our conversation ranged from Mango Street, to the act of writing, to the fact that it is difficult to be a teacher AND a writer at the same time because the creative energy is aimed at creating engaging lesson plans not on the writing a writer may choose to do.

When I talked briefly with her about Mango Street she said "it seems so long ago that I wrote it" and that echoed the sentiments expressed by Anaya when I spoke with him about Bless Me, Ultima. For novelists, those works are old news. At this point, Mango Street was 15 years old (published in 1984) and Ultima was 27 years old (1972). Talking about these works, they both showed the pride similar to that of a parent for a child with the recognition, too, that lives move on. Cisneros was just working on Caramelo. Anaya was working on mysteries. What they did talk about was commitment, to routine, to dedicating time to writing every day.

The poets, on the other hand, were a bit more ... immediate ... in their response. Poets see the world through image, or insight, or impulse, or maybe an intuitive moment. In two lines, the poet expresses an image, an inspiration.

So the impact of those encounters...these encounters with writers let me know that craft is the result of work. Writers write.