Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Report from China: Poets in Beijing, Saturday, April 16, 2011

By Stephen Haven, Professor of English

This post originally appeared on Amherst College's blog The Common:

During a spring 2011 guest teaching stint at Chongqing University, in Chongqing, China, near Sichuan Province, I flew to Beijing for a three-day visit. In the 1990s, I spent two Fulbright teaching years at universities in Beijing and still had many friends in the city. At dinner that Saturday night, I met a poet I had never met before: Lan Lan, 42 years old, famous in China, author of 9 books, mother of twins, a boy and a girl. The children joined us at the restaurant, caged songbirds overhead, hanging from the branches of small potted trees. The poet Wang Jiaxin was an old friend. He was there with his wife and his five-year-old son. There was another poet whose name I missed and his seven year old daughter. My old student Liu Ruiying was with us too—in the impossible position of being the only truly bilingual speaker in the room. Possibly Duo Duo was the senior statesman in the group, a poet I had long admired. Duo Duo joked that he would probably only order water. Then he ordered wine. Wine is good for high cholesterol, Duo Duo said. Yes, I said, if you can manage to drink only one glass. Yes, but we are poets: We must drink the whole bottle, Duo Duo said, and grabbed the bottle and laughed. Wang Jiaxin and I clinked glasses and toasted to 20 years. I first met him during my 1990-1991 Fulbright year.
Wang Jiaxin and his family
Lan Lan and Duo Duo
Duo Duo, Steve Haven, and Wang Jiaxin
Then Duo Duo said we have a very rare chance: we have Liu Ruiying here to help us talk to each other. Duo Duo was seated at the head of the table, Lan Lan to his left, Liu Riuying to his right. I sat next to Liu Ruiying, Wang Jiaxin to the right of me. Jiaxin talked mainly to his wife and child, and to the poet I didn’t know. I asked Duo Duo what Chinese poets he admired from the early years of the communist era. “No one.” From the early years of the Chinese Republic? “No one.” He said “I have a Chinese great-grandfather—classic Chinese poetry—but I have no father. The West is my father. There were no Chinese poets like Wallace Stevens in the last century.”

Duo Duo asked me what I thought of the difference between Continental and English poetry. I told him that—generally speaking—English poets give themselves more fully to traditional form, while continental poets are more experimental and cerebral, without making form their main concern. Maybe more like Stevens, though Stevens wrote in form. American poetry is somewhere in between. Duo Duo said, “No, that is not the difference. The difference is something else. British and American poets always have to “tell the story,” and at the end of their poems they sum up the story. In France and Germany poets don’t do that.” Duo Duo said he admired Rilke, Paul Celan, Apollinaire, Rene Char, Andre Breton. He complained that there is not enough translation in America. When he was in America he couldn’t believe that he could find only a slim volume of Rene Char’s poetry translated into English. He told me that he was utterly dependent on the translation of Western poets into Chinese and praised Wang Jiaxin for the gift to Chinese writers of 300 Celan translations. Duo Duo said he doesn’t read in any language other than Mandarin. He said he needed people like Wang Jiaxin.

I said that in good poems the story is not the full or even the real story. The poem is really about something else, as Eliot and other poets have said. The real meaning is always tangential. We talked about what can come through in translation: imagery, surrealistic effects, a poem’s story or argument at its literal level. Not the more subtle effects of form and music, suggested meaning and idiomatic language. Maybe that’s why poems that “tell the story” are not very effective when they are translated into Chinese. Maybe that is why modern, Continental poetry comes through better, because it is more powerfully built on imagery, especially when the imagery is surreal. Maybe Frost’s long narratives are untranslatable, I said, because they are so subtle, because they are that good.

We talked about American and British poets Duo Duo admires. He said he loved Roethke, Charles Wright, R.S. Thomas, Ashbery, Mark Strand, Whitman, James Tate, James Wright, Dickinson. When I brought up Jorie Graham he claimed to admire her too, and Hart Crane was also an important poet for him, many years ago. As Lan Lan speaks no English she said little to me during the course of the meal. She agreed with Duo Duo that she had little pleasure in reading poems that “tell the story.” She said that she loved Bishop and Dickinson. I found myself wondering which Bishop poems had been translated into Chinese, as Bishop often writes narratives.

Duo Duo, Wang Jiaxin, Liu Ruiying and I ended up in a beer garden for a night cap. Lan Lan went home in her family car with her children. Wang Jiaxin loves many different kinds of beer, having spent some years in Germany. We ordered mugs of German beer and took some photographs. Then I shared a cab with Liu Ruiying back to the North-Central part of Beijing, near where she lives and where I was staying at Beijing Normal University. A few days later I flew back to Chongqing to continue teaching a course on Dickinson and Frost. That was my third trip to China. Two Fulbright years, then a thirteen year absence, then six more weeks. For the third time in my life, with poets in Beijing, I eavesdropped on a conversation with the West. There is no summing up of that story…

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Recent Graduate Blended Creative Writing Minor with Marketing Major

By Erynn Franks, class of 2014

Erynn Franks in New Zealand, working with the education-focused nonprofit organization Capital E
About half way through my first real semester in college, I was sitting in Dr. Margot’s Introduction to Information Systems classroom when he came up to me and asked, “Erynn, what is your major and minor?” To which I answered, “I’m a marketing major and a creative writing minor.” I could tell he was somewhat surprised by my answer; his original purpose of this question was to convince me to add an information systems minor (which he succeeded in doing), but it turned into a several-minute conversation about how great of a combination marketing and creative writing were and how well they complemented each other.

Four years later, I am taking my last finals of my undergraduate career, remembering that conversation. The combination has helped me create content for many different target markets. One example is this past summer. I interned with Capital E, a non-profit organization in New Zealand who focuses their energy on teaching children through entertainment. It was my job to help promote Capital E and their upcoming events, mainly the Big RevEal, the reveal of their new location, to both parents and teachers. I had the opportunity to write press releases, create a scavenger hunt, communicate with magazines and newspapers, and help with social media. All involved different forms of writing, but with a whimsical spin, as Capital E had built an image of whimsy and fun. The combination of creative writing and marketing helped me maintain that image while reaching target audiences.

As I prepare for life in the real world, I am grateful I chose to pair my marketing major with a creative writing minor. I celebrate the struggle of switching between the two writing techniques, the creative versus analytical and the business perspective versus the English perspective, and remain confident in my ability.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Alumni Spotlight: Kathryn Simmons

By Kathryn Simmons, class of 2012, Integrated Language Arts major

I am a ninth and eleventh grade English teacher at a charter school in Columbus. My class is comprised of students who dropped out and regretted it, had to take maternity leave, were expelled, or moved after open enrollment. Most of my kids are either homeless, in gangs, parents, or a combination of those.

I really love my job, though I never expected to end up here. I had an interview that I thought I had nailed at a public school in my home town; I had prepared for hours for it. When I got the “Thanks, but no thanks” email, I went on an application rampage on the Ohio Department of Education website and filled out applications for every school within a forty five minute drive, including the schools I had no interest in. I am so glad I did. Most of my students come from a world vastly different than my own even though they are a twenty-minute drive away. They are gang members, refugees, homeless, parents, addicts, children of addicts, etc. I get stories from international students who had to flee their country in West Africa in the middle of the night because rebels were opening fire in protest to the government. One of my students told me how excited he was that in America he doesn’t have to pay for elephant insurance since there is no worry about elephants trampling their house, unlike their hut in Nepal. My proudest moment is seeing a male student completely turn his life around. After he spent several months in jail for a drive-by shooting in which he was the shooter, he got shot last Christmas and it was a close call. It scared him and I saw a complete turnaround. For one of his writing assignments, he wrote a twenty-page narrative about a young boy in the gang life that closely followed his own experiences. Their experiences have really opened up
my understanding of what my students need in their education.

To help make the connections between the students and the curriculum, I’ve been pulling up old assignments and notes from my English classes to brush up on books I never thought I would need, like The House on Mango Street. It was the first book I had to teach and one I never expected to see again (Thank you Dr. Waterman!) Sometimes I end up wanting to kick myself for not taking some parts of a lecture more seriously so that when I need to trace back the entire history of the English language I can do so (Thank you Dr. Donatini!).

Another professor I owe a thank-you is Dr. Knickerbocker. I remember so clearly that she would spend the first half of every class period discussing the books she had recently finished. Working in a charter school, our curriculum is preset and the students work at their own pace, which has its advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is the possibility for cheating—when students finish a novel unit, for example, they hand off answers to students approaching the unit. An advantage is the flexibility I have. Since we are a credit recovery school, the students work at their own pace and aren’t typically working on the same novels or assignments at the same time. I can change books for individual students as I see fit, and many of the books I have swapped were books Dr. Knickerbocker told us about. She would only discuss young adult novels. The books were never within the same realm; she covered books that would work for a variety of demographics and helped me to discover a number of books that my students relate to.

Going into my second year, one of my priorities is my international population. The modifications they need are tricky sometimes, and I wish I had more resources to support me. In particular, I have a small group of students who are from Senegal. They grow up speaking Wolof and Fulani, which are both complex languages. They can barely speak English, but in school, in Senegal, they speak French. So I’ve had to go back to my high school days and try to remember elementary level words to communicate with these students.

Charter schools can be tricky sometimes. The classrooms are not traditional, because these students are unable to function in a traditional setting. They need more individualized attention. I think they can be great stepping stones for beginning a career. My advice with charter schools is to find one that fits. Some charters are focused on specifics skills or subjects: job prep, athletic training, art and design, or, like mine, credit recovery. Each type of school creates a different culture because the goals of the students are different.