“There’s a party going on right here…”

Kool and the Gang gave my generation “Celebration,” our very own 1980 party anthem.

Go ahead and turn on the music if you like; it makes an ebullient backdrop to this introduction.

Of course you might know “Celebration” if you’ve made it to the Galactic Dance Off in Kinect Star Wars, or if you happened to catch the 2011 Parks and Recreation episode titled, “The Bubble.”  Or Dancing With The Stars,“Hollywood Night” episode in 2013, or in the films Eat, Pray, Love or Wreck-It Ralph.  According to its IMDb listing, it’s been included in a lengthy list of films, television shows, video games and remixed too many times to by too many DJs to name so you might have heard it at a party or music festival.  In other words, the song’s life has extended well beyond its birth in the disco era.

But is this the first time “Celebration” showed up in one of your classes? I suppose the even bigger question might be, what’s it doing here?

Like all good writing should, the answer begins with a story.

Imagine you enter a party.

Photo Credit: E. Beranek

I’ll let Kenneth Burke take the story from here.  If you’ve never heard of Burke, don’t feel bad.  He was a literary theorist, a philosopher, and a critic, among other things. His influence is wide among academics, yet he’s not a household name.  There exists a Kenneth Burke Society, a Kenneth Burke Journal, and his oft-told-in-university classrooms “parlor story” that explains a philosophy of academic inquiry which we’ll adhere to.  I quote from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form.

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When others arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before…The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. It is from this ‘unending conversation’ that the materials of your drama arise. (110)

This parlor, or party if you prefer, and its “unending conversation” is one metaphor for academic inquiry.  The literary art forms we’ll study and create this semester, and the analytical and aesthetic conversations we’ll have about them, have been going on long before we arrived on the scene in much the same way that humans used drums and horns and vocals long before Kool and the Gang created a song with enough staying power to outlast the end of disco. What does this have to do with you? Return to your imaginary parlor and the conversation you walk into.

…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable…

It is from this “unending conversation”..that the materials of your drama arise. Nor is this verbal action all there is to it. For all these words are grounded in what Malinowski would call “contexts of situation.” And very important among these… are the kind of factors considered by Benthem, Marx, and Veblen, the material interests (of private or class structure) that you symbolically defend or symbolically appropriate or symbolically align yourself with in the course of making your assertions.

R.I.P.

To be sure, the unending conversation will go on long after you and I leave the party, even life itself.

But right now we are in Kenneth Burke’s imaginary parlor. So, let’s make something memorable happen.

This is all true.

“Nomade, 2007” by Jaume Plensa, found in Des Moines Sculpture Garden, Iowa
 Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

 

Everyone asks why there can be no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say. I say there’s enough to blow your mind in the world without having to stop and say:

But. Is. This. True?

I say, only those who don’t have to worry about the next meal and the roof overhead have the luxury of stopping to study this thing called “self” and why writers might create one. I say you’d better look around and share your voice with those too weak to speak and you’d better write true or you might be dismissed.

How real is this?

Let’s say:  911,395,855

That’s how many “undernourished people in the world right now” there are. Were. It grows by the second.

1,557,016,576 is the bigger number of the bigger number of “overweight people in the world right now.” Growing too.

Real time statistics fluttering up each second on StoptheHunger.com

Who could make that up?

Do you know how many bodies are – according to the very real “Famine Scale” – a “cause for concern?”

That real scale is made up of steps based on body counts, numbers per thousand, steps reaching toward heaven on piles of corpses creating an overall “Crude Mortality Rate.”  Is there any other kind of mortality rate from a preventable death?

These silent statistic sentinels hold back a monsoon. Behind each digit rounded to the nearest million

is a name,

a name with a real live birth date and a coming-too-soon death date

with mothers human

and fathers too

real

infants.

Meanwhile, we’re over here stuffing ourselves. Really really, I could write a story about that, replies the one who writes novels as if this has never occurred to me.

As if I’ve never read Hamsun or Kafka, García Márquez, or Lispector, or Morrison or Martel.

“But what about testimonial literature?” my friend from Argentina asks, the one who survived barely the unclean war and has lots of fiction to contribute.

“We call it fiction so no one can say, ‘that didn’t really happen.’”

I say, enough of that open door.

“But what about censorship? Your perspective is so Freedom of Speech American,” says my friend who won’t let me use her name or place her birthplace on the map.

Exactly, I say, my freedom means I can limit your “write to censor.”

And then, the intake of breath. And the question, as if I’ve never read Dante.

“Ah, but why allow poetry?”

They all ask this, as if I’ve somehow allowed myself to unwittingly be trapped by the “I.”

“Is poetry true the way nonfiction is true?”  They ask, licking their chops, waiting to pounce upon a debate I may be unprepared for. Yes, I say, and now I can let David Shields and his Reality Hunger Manifesto take over because he got to the page first.

“The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems.”

And I’ll defend further than David, to where my limb droops under the weight of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s line: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Poems are true the way music is true the way photography without Photo Shop is true, the way flesh and sunrise and dirt and death, birth and hunger and warm hands are true. The poet is the response, the mirror, the lens to reality. Poetic inspiration – quite literally, poetic inspirare from the Latin “to breathe” – is shaped by the willow whistle of crafted composition to give language to the universal human experience.

You can write a poem without a character, a poem about an apple, a pie, a sun.

You cannot write fiction without character.

I can’t keep track of every human right now.

I don’t want to add imaginary numbers to the people to keep track of in my heart.

Everyone asks why there is no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say.

It is all too true.

____________________________

What you just read, is one example of a manifesto.  Put, most simply, it’s “a public declaration of intentions, opinions or motives,” according to the authors of “Writer’s Community,” a blog dedicated to writer development.

Can you write a manifesto for your final?

Words in the Wild

world is a book                      Poly Canyon, San Luis Obispo                                             Photo by Catherine Keefe

What did you see this weekend? What surprised you? What did you learn?

I saw the writing on the wall.

I took this photo during an exploration of Poly Canyon where the learn-by-doing projects for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design are open to the air and free to the public.

According to the Cal Poly website:

A portion of Poly Canyon encompasses a nine-acre outdoor experimental construction laboratory that for more than four decades has been the host site of several structures designed and built mostly by students of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design.

On a quiet November Saturday I saw families climbing in and out of seemingly abandoned structures and groups of students following leaders in brown straw hats. I saw piles of crushed, empty green plastic party cups. Green is the Cal Poly school color. Go Mustangs! I saw Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, smashed and flung below The Cantilever Structure. And I saw a small leg bone, presumably from an animal, about the size of a baby coyote. I saw The Shell House and The Stick House and The Underground House where I took these photos. I saw a plastic pan with dried black paint and a roller.

words on walls

 

I bellowed to cows I saw across the canyon. I saw vineyards and brocolli on the bush in a field and a flock of turkey vultures, which I later learned is called a wake. I learned that San Luis Obispo is one of California’s oldest communities.I saw the infamous downtown Bubblegum Alley where I stuck a chewed wad of Wrigley’s Extra Polar Ice. 

I saw three good friends.

I learned that life offers every surprise and delight you need, if only you stop to look.
What did you see this weekend?

For more information on Poly Canyon, check out Inside San Louis: Architecture Graveyard Hike.

I was here

As you head off into the world to explore somewhere new, think about how your presence might alter the space.

peace

Fall. Peace.     Trabuco Canyon, CA                                        Photography by Catherine Keefe

How does the act of writing create or perpetuate myth about places?

Is there any such thing as an impartial observer?

What of our past do we bring to our present experience?

“Take only memories, leave only footprints,” Chief Seattle once said.
Will you write about memories or footprints?

“I’m eager to explore my new surroundings,” an ENG 103 student wrote.
Will you take the spirit of exploration with you, or approach the experience as a drudgery homework assignment?

Be attentive as you explore.
Be open and curious.
Be aware that your presence will linger after you’re gone.

As active agent, you determine what kind of silk or wool or nubby yarn this experience will become in the tapestry of your life.

Sneak peek

Writing About Place syllabus is almost ready to launch.

Trabuco General Store

Trabuco Canyon, CA             Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

The course is inspired by this Joan Didion quote from The White Album.

“Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner… a great deal of Honolulu has always belonged for me to James Jones… A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” Joan Didion from The White Album.

Here’s to figuring out how to claim our place.

 

The never ending party

Niall MacMonagle, dubbed “Ireland’s best-known English teacher,” once said,

You can’t bring home a Matisse and hang it on the wall.  If you want to hear a piece of music live, you’ve got to gather an orchestra.  But bring a poem and you’ve got it in your head and it stays with you.

I feel that way too about poems, and parties, and students.  Good ones stay in my head and heart to enrich each subsequent day.

DSC00315

Take a moment to celebrate your hard work before you leave this unending conversation about writing, begun long before any of us were born.

We’ve had a few laughs, tried out a few beats, and explored the rhythms, mysteries, and wonders of the universe through language.  But the party continues forever.  Raise your hand and be counted. Raise your voice. Leave behind well-crafted words. And for heaven’s sake, please don’t turn out the lights.

Old story. New beginning.

You are here.

Crystal Cove, CA. Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

The surge gathers force.

A swell peaks, begins to curl.

It’s time to roll.

Welcome to the wild ride that is the beginning of any creative endeavor.

One of my favorite poets, Tony Barnstone, wrote in the introduction to his book, Tongue of War,

According to Japanese esthetics, the object is of most interest before or after the climax (the flower bud, not its full bloom; the cracked teapot, not the perfect one), whereas in the West we tend to emphasize climax, epiphany, the world and the mind at its height….Our lives are a moral continuum, not something to be judged by our best and worst moments.

So if I embrace Eastern taste, then new students are of the most interest to me in the very moment before a semester begins.   But if I accept a Western stance, then I’ll have to wait until the end of the semester when I can reflect on how it went and perhaps come to an epiphany about writing or teaching.

As Barnstone explores in his book, the truth is that life, and by extension writing, is a continuum.  “Good writing” is not a fixed point on a compass.  We will not be judged by our best and worst word fusions.  We revel on the breath in, the inspirare, the moment just before.  We concentrate on the great middle, the wave, its risings and fallings and churnings and smoothings.  We may or may not unearth an epiphany,  a great ah-ha! to share with readers.

I know for certain one thing about good writing and that is: it only happens when we show up at land’s end, wade into the sea until we can’t touch ground, then dive deep, and once again deeper.  The syllabi, under construction now but with a guaranteed delivery date of the first day of class, reflect this.  Your courseload is heavy with the need to show up in class, read, write, edit, repeat.

I hope you can swim.  I know you can breathe.

Come on in, the water’s fine.