Monday, September 13, 2010

Teaching Abraham Smith

I guess that's a sort of misleading title for a post. I can't take credit for actually teaching Abraham Smith. Wish I could! It would be confusing, but a cool thing to brag about.

Anyway, my intro to CW class is reading his book Whim Man Mammon, as I've mentioned before. This is the first of two longform works we're working with, the second being Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai. When you tell people (or anyway, when I told them) that you're going to teach two really interesting, beautiful, and yes, challenging books like this in an intro class, they get pretty nervous. Maybe they start to shift from one foot to the other. Maybe their eyes roll back in their skulls as if they're seeing visions. Anyway, they make it sound like a pretty bad idea. Naturally, I was nervous that they were right to be afraid. I got more nervous in re-reading the book in preparation for class discussion. After Thursday's class I feel vindicated. This is going to work. This is already working.

The class was initially sort of irritable about the experience. I asked them how they felt about the book. One student said she kept wondering why I was doing this to them. Others said it was boring. Others said they just didn't understand it. Others called it nonsense, in a derisive way. We read some of the poems aloud and talked about why a person would write this way, what would make them happen, what would make a reader love it. We looked at particular words and sounds that repeated, the way they transformed through a poem. We speculated about how one might make those decisions.

Some of the students who had read the book before, and who had seen Abraham read when he came to NMSU, really loved it. I had suspected there would be this kind of split. There are YouTubes of Abraham reading, and I'm having them watch those for tomorrow, when we'll talk more about sound in poetry, and about joy. I didn't have them watch those the first time, though, because I wanted them to struggle with the text itself, as most readers will have to do -- to ask themselves "why." Not because I expected them to have a great answer on the first asking, but because in leading them to ask, and then giving them some kind of answer, I could model for them the sort of thinking that they'll need to do more often as writers and readers. I wanted them to struggle with a text so they could feel the struggle of making decisions in writing. And of course because this is how we usually read.

One student compared the poems to a game where people sit in a circle and they have to go around, one by one, saying whatever comes to mind, in a response to the last person, but hopefully, as much as possible, an unthinking response. I don't think that's an accurate description of the poems but I do think it's a useful way to think about them, so we played the game for a little while, and then we discussed the results and how it felt to play the game. I talked to them about how the part responsible for unexpected words was the smartest part of them -- the same part, or a part related to, the part that does the complicated calculations necessary to predict the arc of a thrown baseball, and to catch it. We talked about the way people are worst at baseball when they try to control how they catch the ball, how it comes to them, rather than snatching it from the air. The point being that the most interesting writing comes first from the back of the head, or whatever, from outside one's control -- this being a callback to our discussion of the impossibility of responding to "say something smart" with anything smart, the ease of responding to "say something stupid." The freedom.

By the end they seemed excited about the book. They admitted they'd been reading it wrong. They were going slow and trying to discern the argument. They were reading it like a Shakespeare sonnet. They should have been reading it like you read something you expect to enjoy, which is to say, without much concern for the author or his intent, but for your own pleasure.

Which often syncs with the author's pleasure. The specific reason I wanted them to read Whim Man Mammon is I think it's a very clear example of a writer writing from exuberance, writing from joy and thrill, rather than trying very very very hard to say something smart. Hopefully they will come in tomorrow having better found and understood the joy. We'll talk about sound in poetry. I am thinking we'll try to perform it, and to talk about the differences between reading, speaking, hearing. This has been fun, though! I'm glad we're reading difficult, beautiful, interesting books.

Some of them are already reading The Last Samurai. They're excited. Me too! Me too.


  1. I just started reading the DeWitt because of the love it gets in these parts and am sad I didn't earlier. :( I remember when it came out, holding it in the bookstore, thinking hmm, and I put it back.

  2. There is no bad time to read it! Also I can tell you for a fact that if you stay up all night reading it on Christmas and write her a weird e-mail at like 5:00 am there is a decent chance she will write you back kindly.

  3. Very nice!

    I did stay up till about four reading it the other night, but wasn't touched by Yule Tide magic.

    I wish I had read it when it first came out because its scope is so inspiring--in a writerly kind of way, I mean. It's got so many little narratives packed into this one overarching narrative. I think it would have done good things for my own work at a time when I needed it.