12 Winters Blog

The paradox of uniformity

Posted in April 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 13, 2017

Nearly a year ago I posted “Danielson Framework criticized by Charlotte Danielson” and it has generated far more interest than I would have anticipated. As of this writing, it has been viewed more 130,000 times. It has been shared across various platforms of social media, and cited in other people’s blogs. The post has generated copious comments, and I’ve received dozens of emails from educators — mostly from North America but beyond too. Some educators have contacted me for advice (I have little to offer), some merely to share their frustration (I can relate), others to thank me for speaking up (the wisdom of which remains dubious). To be fair, not everyone has been enthusiastic. There have been comments from administrators who feel that Charlotte Danielson (and I) threw them under the school bus. Many administrators are not devotees of the Framework either, and they are doing their best with a legislatively mandated instrument.

Before this much-read post, I’d been commenting on Danielson and related issues for a while, and those posts have received a fair amount of attention also. Literally every day since I posted about Danielson criticizing the use of her own Framework the article has been read by at least a few people. The hits slowed down over the summer months, understandably; then picked up again in the fall — no doubt when teachers were confronted with the fact it’s their evaluation year (generally every other year for tenured teachers). Once people were in the throes of the school year, hits declined. However, beginning in February, the number of readers spiked again and have remained consistently high for weeks. Teachers, I suspect, are getting back their evaluations, and are Googling for information and solace after receiving their infuriating and disheartening Danielson-based critique. (One teacher wrote to me and said that he was graded down because he didn’t produce documentation that his colleagues think of him as an expert in the field. He didn’t know what that documentation would even look like — testimonials solicited in the work room? — and nor did I.)

It can tear the guts out of you and slacken your sails right when you need that energy and enthusiasm to finish the school year strong: get through student testing (e.g. PAARC), stroke for home on myriad learning outcomes, prepare students for advancing to the next year, and document, document, document — all while kids grow squirrelier by the minute with the advance of spring, warmer weather, and the large looming of year’s end.

But this post isn’t about any of that, at least not directly. The Danielson Framework and its unique failures are really part of a much larger issue in education, from pre-K to graduate school: something which I’ll call the drive for uniformity. I blame Business’s infiltration and parasitic take over of Education. It’s difficult to say exactly when the parasite broke the skin and began its pernicious spread. I’ve been teaching (gulp) since 1984 (yes, English teachers were goofy with glee at the prospect of teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984, just as I was in 2001 to teach 2001 — we’re weird like that), and even then, in ’84, I was given three curriculum guides with precisely 180 pages in each; I was teaching three different courses, and each guide had a page/lesson for each day of the school year. Everyone who was teaching a particular course was expected to be doing the same thing (teaching the same concept, handing out the same handout, proctoring the same test) on the same day.

Not every school system was quite so prescriptive. I moved to another district, and, thankfully, its curriculum was much less regimented. Nevertheless, it was at that school that I vividly recall sitting in a faculty meeting and the superintendent uttering the precept “We shall do more with less.” The School Board, with his encouragement, was simultaneously cutting staff while increasing curricular requirements. English teachers, for example, were going to be required to assign twelve essays per semester (with the understanding that these would be thoroughly read, commented on, and graded in a timely fashion). At the time I had around 150 students per day. With the cuts to staff, I eventually had nearly 200 students per day. This was the mid 1990s.

The point is, that phrase — We shall do more with less — comes right out of the business world. It’s rooted in the idea that more isn’t being achieved (greater productivity, greater profits) because of superfluous workers on the factory floor. We need to cut the slackers and force everyone else to work harder, faster — and when they drop dead from exhaustion, no problem: there are all those unemployed workers who will be chomping at the bit to get their old job back (with less pay and more expectations). CEOs in the business world claimed that schools were not doing their jobs. The employees they were hiring, they said, couldn’t do math, couldn’t write, had aversions to hard work and good attendance. It must be the fault of lazy teachers, the unproductive slackers on the factory floor so to speak.

Unions stood in the way of the mass clearing of house, so the war on unions was initiated in earnest. Conservative politicians, allied with business leaders, have been chipping away at unions (education and otherwise) wherever they can, under the euphemism of “Right to Work,” implying that unions are preventing good workers from working, and securing in their places lazy ne’er-do-wells. The strategy has been effective. Little by little, state by state, protections like tenure and seniority have been removed or severely weakened. Mandates have increased, while funds have been decreased or (like in Illinois) outright withheld, starving public schools to death. The frustrations of stagnant wages, depleted pensions, and weakened job security have been added to by unfair evaluation instruments like the Danielson Framework.

A telltale sign of business’s influence is the drive for uniformity. One of the selling points of the Danielson Framework was that it can be applied to all teachers, pre-K through 12th grade, and even professionals outside the classroom, like librarians and nurses. Its one-size-fits-all is efficient (sounding) and therefore appeals to legislators. Danielson is just one example, however. We see it everywhere. Teaching consultants who offer a magic bullet that will guarantee all students will learn, no matter the subject, grade level, or ability. Because, of course, teaching kindergarteners shapes is the same as teaching high school students calculus. Special education and physical education … practically the same thing (they sound alike, after all). Art and band … peas in a pod (I mean, playing music is a fine art, isn’t it? Duh.).

And the drive for uniformity has not been limited to K-12 education. Universities have been infected, too. All first-year writing students must have the same experience (or so it seems): write the same essays, read the same chapters in the same textbook, have their work evaluated according to the same rubric, etc., etc. Even syllabi have to be uniform: they have to contain the same elements, in the same order, reproduce the same university policies, even across departments. The syllabus for a university course is oftentimes dozens of pages long, and only a very small part of it is devoted to informing the students what they need to do from week to week. The rest is for accreditation purposes, apparently. And the uniformity in requirements and approaches helps to generate data (which outcomes are being achieved, which are not, that kind of thing).

It all looks quite scientific. You can generate spreadsheets and bar graphs, showing where students are on this outcome versus that outcome; how this group of students compares to last year’s group; make predictions; justify (hopefully) expenditures. It’s the equivalent of the much-publicized K-12 zeal for standardized testing, which gives birth to mountains of data — just about all of which is ignored once produced, which is just as well because it’s all but meaningless. People ignore the data because they’re too busy teaching just about every minute of every day to sift through the voluminous numbers; and the numbers are all but meaningless because they only look scientific, when in fact they aren’t scientific at all. (I’ve written about this, too, in my post “The fallacy of testing in education.”)

But this post isn’t about any of those things either.

It’s about the irony of uniformity, or the paradox of it, as I call it in my title. Concurrent with the business-based drive for uniformity has been the alleged drive for higher standards: more critical thinking, increased expectations, a faster track to skill achievement. Yet uniformity is the antithesis of higher standards. We’re supposed to have more rigor in our curricula, but coddle our charges in every other way.

We can’t expect students to deal with teachers who have varying classroom methods. We can’t expect them to adjust to different ways of grading. We can’t expect them to navigate differences in syllabi construction, teacher webpage design, or even the use of their classroom’s whiteboard. We can’t expect students to understand synonyms in directions, thus teachers must confine themselves to a limited collection of verbs and nouns when writing assignments and tests (for instance, we must all say “analyze” in lieu of “examine” or “consider” — all those different terms confuse the poor darlings). This is a true story: A consultant who came to speak to us about the increased rigor of the PAARC exam also advised us to stop telling our students to “check the box” on a test, because it’s actually a “square” and some students may be confused by looking for the three-dimensional “box” on the page. What?

But are these not real-world critical-thinking situations? Asking students to adapt to one teacher’s methodology versus another? Requiring students to follow the logic of an assignment written in this style versus that (or that … or that)? Having students adjust their schoolwork schedules to take into account different rhythms of due dates from teacher to teacher?

How often in our post-education lives are we guaranteed uniformity? There is much talk about getting students “career-ready” (another business world contribution to education), yet in our professional careers how much uniformity is there? If we’re dealing with various customers or clients, are they clones? Or are we expected to adjust to their personalities, their needs, their pocketbooks? For that matter, how uniform are our superiors? Perhaps we’re dealing with several managers or owners or execs. I’ll bet they’d love to hear how we prefer the way someone else in the organization does such and such, and wouldn’t they please adjust their approach to fit our preferences? That would no doubt turn into a lovely day at work.

I’ve been teaching for 33 years, and over that time I’ve worked under, let’s see, seven building principals (not to mention different superintendents and other administrators). Not once has it seemed like a good idea to let my current principal know how one of his predecessors handled a given situation in the spirit of encouraging his further reflection on the matter. Clearly I am the one who must adapt to the new style, the new approach, the new philosophy.

These are just a few examples of course. How much non-uniformity do we deal with every day, professionally and personally? An infinite amount is the correct answer. So, how precisely are we better preparing our students for life after formal education by making sure our delivery systems are consistently cookie-cutter? We aren’t is the correct answer. (Be sure to check the corresponding squares.)

Education has made the mistake of allowing Business to infect it to the core (to the Common Core, as a matter of fact). Now Business has taken over the White House, and it’s taken over bigly.

But this blog post isn’t about that.

Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2017

This paper, “Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 on 23 Feb. 2017 as part of the panel titled “Imagining Space: Experiments in Narrative Form.” The paper veered from its original intent and perhaps a suitable secondary title may be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.” The panel was chaired by Liana Babayan, Augusta University. Other papers presented were “Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Architectural Liminality” by Adam McKee, Queensborough Community College, CUNY; “Haunted Houses from House of Leaves to House of Fiction” by Amanda Davis, University of Chicago; and “Contrasting Spaces in Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose” by Maria Slocum, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Other papers on William H. Gass’s work can be found at this site by searching “gass.”


“For me a book tends to exist in a metaphorical relationship to a building. For me architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists, say, metaphorically or philosophically” (Janssens 66). Thus spake William H. Gass in a 1979 interview, about midway through the composition process of his magnum opus The Tunnel, which was published in 1995 after a nearly thirty-year gestation. Sections began appearing in print as early as 1969 and continued off and on for almost two decades, garnering numerous accolades (for example, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1980), and in two instances being released as stand-alone, limited-edition books by art presses. In 1996 Gass’s massive book (over 650 pages of dense prose, riddled with myriad experimental techniques, a host of fonts, amateurish doodles, and other graphic representations) won the American Book Award. Meanwhile, it spawned copious reviews which ranged from fawning to furious. Even some of the novel’s harshest critics, however, acknowledged that it would take decades of scholarly work to fully come to terms with Gass’s achievement—no matter whether one believes he achieved a masterpiece or a monstrosity. Sadly, that work remains largely undone.

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This is at least the third paper I’ve presented at this conference chiefly focused on Gass’s The Tunnel. When his next novel appeared in 2013, Middle C, that much more manageable book led me away from The Tunnel for a paper or two; and I also did some work on Gass’s earlier publications: his first piece of published fiction, the novella The Pedersen Kid, and then a paper focused mainly on Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and On Being Blue. Pondering possibilities for this year’s conference, I decided it was time to return to the excavation site and say something further about The Tunnel. I’ve been coming here for more than a decade, and I can only recall one other Gass paper being presented in that time (a Willie Masters’ paper). (When I first started attending the conference I was a William Gaddis guy; I hadn’t yet fallen under the Master’s spell.) My hope has been that by keeping the spark of scholarly interest alive others will join the conversation—and that hope has rested mainly on the book’s artistic merits. However, between the time that I proposed this particular paper topic and now, something historically monumental happened which makes The Tunnel vitally relevant: the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States (and the rise of the alt-right in general). That is to say, the overarching theme of The Tunnel—which Gass has described as “the fascism of the heart”—makes the book amazingly and unfortunately up-to-date. Perhaps an appropriate secondary title for my paper would be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.”

gass-at-desk

Our times have led to a rekindled interest in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian books. For the same reasons it is worthwhile to descend into William Gass’s tunnel, a place whose squalidness has turned away many readers—but these, my friends, are squalid times. So, in the interest of truth in advertising, I am going to discuss (to some degree) the structure of The Tunnel and its relationship to architecture; but I’m also going to talk about the fascism of the heart and what the book has to say about the Trump phenomenon.

The basic plot of the novel is fairly straightforward (although plot doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Gass’s world as it does in most fiction writer’s): The first-person narrator, William Kohler, is a middle-aged history professor at a Midwestern university who has finally completed his magnum opus, prophetically thirty years in the writing, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He has sat down in his basement office to write the book’s preface (the final nail in this towering edifice, so to speak) when he finds himself blocked and therefore begins writing, instead, a very personal memoir about his unhappy childhood, lackluster career, loveless marriage, lost loves, disappointing children, and irritating colleagues. He slips the pages of this tell-all autobiography in between the manuscript pages of Guilt and Innocence so that his wife won’t see them (having no interest whatsoever in his life’s work), and, meanwhile, he begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement—or at least so we’re told. Gass himself has written in the liner notes of the audiobook edition of The Tunnel (45 hours of listening pleasure) that his narrator is “wholly unreliable”: “That does not mean he never tells the truth. He may always tell the truth. He may never. But he can’t be trusted. So he may not be digging a tunnel out of his basement” (emphasis added). Either way, writes Gass, “[t]he pointlessness of this activity has to be stressed.”

william-and-mary-gass

Returning to my opening quote, Gass has said that “architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists.” He has had a long-standing interest in architecture. It is difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg, as Gass married Mary Henderson in 1968. Mary Henderson Gass has had a distinguished career as an architect in St. Louis since moving there with her husband in 1979 when he accepted a professorship at Washington University. (He retired from the university in 2000.) Gass has found the experimental designs of architect Peter Eisenman especially akin to his own literary aesthetic. “He does crazy things in one sense,” said Gass, “but he is really a serious artist, first rank, I think. He is not just doing things to shock people, or surprise them or be different” (Janssens 68). Gass’s statement about Eisenman and his work sounds a lot like what defenders of Gass and especially The Tunnel have been saying for years.

In explaining how The Tunnel functions architecturally, Gass has contrasted his work to James Joyce’s, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Gass said,

Now, the idea of a book as fundamentally or conceptually a structure in which you are being taken on a tour by the author—I think a lot of modern works are constructed this way, Joyce, for instance, makes Ulysses in such a way that it is not possible for you to conceive the book and hold it in your head at the same time, you have to go back and forth in it. He takes you through the first time; you may jump around in it later as you wish—and Finnegans Wake is certainly constructed that way. (Janssens 66)

Gass continued,

Joyce demands total recall, an ideal total recall. […] I am like I would be when I went through a building: I am putting the pieces together to compose the building which exists ontologically all at the same time, and which I can only know experientially one at the time, and therefore I can only conceive or conceptualize the way it actually exists; I can have an idea of how this house exists. (67)

In other words, when one reads Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, both of which are structurally linear (a second by second account of a single day in Dublin, Ireland, or the unconscious mind’s progression through a single night of sleep [perhaps]), one is at a different point on the overall timeline with each passing word, and one has to be mindful of that progression to make sense of the experience. In other words, how have we gotten from point A to point B . . . to point Z? Metaphorical connections must be made by recalling earlier parts of the text.

The brutally nonlinear construction of The Tunnel operates differently. To illustrate that difference, Gass referenced Eisenman:

Now in Peter Eisenman’s work, what he wants to do often is to make one experientially aware of other parts of the house at the same time [emphasis added]. So in one of his houses, called House Six, there is, for instance, in the second-floor bedroom a strip of glass that goes across the floor, from which you can perceive the living-room below, and vice versa. Similarly, there are holes in various parts, openings which allow you […] to look through the house. So I am always aware in that house of other parts. (67)

In the execution of this theory, Gass constructed The Tunnel in twelve parts (which he describes as phillipics, or bitter denunciations), and each consists of twelve “fundamental themes and a lot of minor ones would be sounded in different arrangements so that a central aspect or meaning of the text would emerge at the beginning; then sink down and be relatively innocuous or weak at a certain point”—all of which would be “superimposed on a completely different structure: the tunnel itself” (“William Gass”). Gass, incidentally, is simultaneously using a mimetic musical structure—Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system—but we don’t have time to go there too. Thus, while Gass’s narrator Kohler pinballs between his childhood, his career in the army, his grad school days in Germany, his various love affairs, his current life, etc., the author returns again and again to these major and minor motifs. In an artfully designed building each room, each hallway, each alcove, each stairway, and even outdoor spaces reflect certain colors, shapes, themes, and moods that tie them together as being parts of a consistently constructed whole. There are variations of course. A dominant color in the entryway may return as complementary accent color in the master bath, for example. A sailboat model in the library may be echoed by a nautically themed kitchen. So forth and so on. Thus it is with The Tunnel.

As illustration of this technique, I will focus on one of the novel’s major motifs and its juxtaposed doppelgänger: windows and mirrors. Gass seems to want us to pay special attention to windows as he titled the sixth phillipic “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” and it takes up the literal center of his book, pages 282 to 333 out of 652. Also, windows have been metaphorically important throughout Gass’s career. As H. L. Hix points out, “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s previous fiction” (124).  Hix’s observation is a valid one, but I think Gass takes the metaphor further in The Tunnel by pairing it with almost equally numerous references to mirrors. More regarding that in a moment. What follows are only a few examples of window references in the text. The first comes just a few pages into the book when Kohler recalls a car ride with his lost love, Lou: “The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved” (7). This car ride, only briefly mentioned here, foreshadows an episode titled “A Sunday Drive,” which describes in detail a family outing from Kohler’s childhood that is referenced repeatedly in the novel and also prefigures the narrator’s own family outings when he becomes husband and father (always with Gass, repetition, variation, point, counterpoint).

In the central section of the novel, Gass compares a blackboard to a window, writing, “The board is at once the surface of a pit-black sea and a bleak opening onto all our inner spaces. It is the brink of what we are, and hence a horror. […] unlike a window which is always full of the flitter of images […]” (311). Discussing the blackboard’s “opening onto all our inner spaces” (in that professors, like Kohler, use the blackboard to broadcast their beliefs to their students), Gass also connects blackboards to mirrors—both being framed objects antithetical to windows in their own ways. The book’s final reference to windows is about as far from the end as the first reference is from the start, and it’s in an imagined scene with Kohler’s hated wife Martha wherein “[I] lead her to the window [hand in hand … and] put our gazes on together” (650). Kohler imagines trying to get Martha to see the world as profoundly as he does, “but she would interrupt me with a snort from her derision because she despises oratory, wants to slap cheeks when they puff.” We notice the mirror opposites of the first window reference being a recollection of Kohler’s lost true love, Lou, and the final reference being an imagined scene with Kohler’s despised wife. Further linking the two scenes are references to face slapping, one metaphorical, the other imagined but likely. These examples constitute just a tiny taste of the repetitions, echoes, foreshadowings, and prismatic reflections, complications and contradictions that appear in some form or another on every page of the novel.

heide-ziegler-and-william-gassWhat then of the mirrors? Again, there are a plethora of references, the first being on page 10 and it is immediately paired with a window (via negation), as Kohler describes his dingy basement work space: “I’ve no mirror, cockeyed or otherwise. One wrinkled window. Above: a worn lace curtain like a rusted screen.” I believe that the pairing of windows with mirrors (and Kohler’s professorial blackboard) is related to the overarching theme of the book as delineated by one of Gass’s most adept readers, Heide Ziegler, a long-time friend and collaborator of William Gass (next to Gass in the photo from a 1991 symposium on postmodernism in Stuttgart, Germany). In response to reviews of the The Tunnel that ran from lukewarm to hostile, Ziegler wrote, in essence, a defense of the book which appeared in Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel (1998). In the interest of my waning time, I shall cut to the chase of Ziegler’s reading, which unknowingly anticipated the novel’s connections to our own desperate times. The key to understanding the book is in the phrase that Gass identified as its “fundamental subject”: the fascism of the heart. Ziegler writes, “[G]iven the pervasiveness of his message […] it is dangerous to miss the point. His message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists” (80). She suggests that the nostalgically tender (and rare) recollections from Kohler’s boyhood contribute to the idea that anyone is capable of being lured into the dark tunnel of fascism. That same boy—who relished dime-store candy and wanted nothing more in this world than a dog of his own to play with—became the young man who succumbed to the mob mentality of Kristallnacht in 1938 and threw a stone through a Jewish storekeeper’s window. I’ll supplement Ziegler’s fine reading by asserting that Gass’s frequent references to mirrors also emphasize Kohler’s (and everyone’s) potential for becoming the same sort of people he spent his academic life studying (gazing upon, if you will, as if through a window): the innocent German citizens who were transformed into the Nazis who were guilty of exterminating six million Jews. Ziegler writes further,

Given the right historical circumstances—economic insecurity, a time of depression—and given the right seducer […] your Everyman will follow that leader simply in order to flee his own loneliness, as well as what he believes to be undeserved misfortune. […] Since […] political agitators possess no true authority, they need to create scapegoats—the Jews in Germany, minorities all over the world. What Gass attempts, and obviously achieves, judging by the emotional responses to his book, is to change the Holocaust from a horrifying, unforgivable, yet singular European spectacle into a general historical possibility. That is the reason that The Tunnel is not about Germany or about Hitler. It is—potentially—about all of us. (80-81)

Referring specifically to the sort of finely tuned brainwashing the military is able to achieve but meaning more broadly the way anyone can be manipulated, Gass writes, “Eventually they compel you to act against your conscience, contrary to your nature, in defiance of every precept of morality and religion, until all that remains of you is your past, your prehensile tale [spelled t-a-l-e], your history. Then they begin on that” (242-43).

I hardly need to point out the parallels between Gass’s description of the Holocaust and our own time, with the rise of Trump and the rhetoric of the alt-right, especially their scapegoating of Muslims, immigrants, liberals, the press, and even the judiciary as reasons for our alleged decreased safety and floundering economy. What is more, on a personal note I’ll say how surprising and discouraging it’s been over the past year to view friends, neighbors and family via the window of Facebook and other social media and discover the fascism of their hearts—their willingness to believe Trump’s lies and to support his undemocratic, unpatriotic and unconstitutional schemes. How best to resist, other than simply by putting a hashtag in front of the word, is a question that millions have been wrestling with. Obviously political action is a necessary part of resistance to this wave of fascism. William Gass dealt with this question, too, in a powerful essay, “The Artist and Society” (first published in The New Republic, July 17, 1968). In it Gass suggests that the artist shouldn’t become involved in a revolution in the typical sorts of ways, but rather he must become involved through his art. He writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inaction is only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). Artists must resist, then, through their art. It is via their art that they can have a greater impact than a mere bomb’s momentary blast.

My original concept of this paper was to discuss how Gass’s techniques align his book with the intentions of aesthetically minded architects—how their conceived ideas, drafted as blueprints and 3D models, are transformed into lived physical spaces, and, similarly, how Gass attempts to make William Kohler’s surreptitiously written memoir materialize in the hands of the reader via the book known as The Tunnel. I planned to make good use of an interesting article coauthored by Gass and his wife, Mary, about the artistic principles of architectural design and their analogues in other forms of art, like writing. And I planned to talk about Gass’s hopes for the publication of his novel, what the publisher and printer were able and willing to execute, and what they weren’t. I also meant to explain my paper’s title regarding “modernism’s last gasp,” comparing, say, Joyce’s efforts to mimic a conscious or unconscious mind versus Gass’s efforts to create a consciousness. But alas those discussions will have to wait for another paper and another day. I encourage you, meanwhile, to risk a visit to The Tunnel, a book suddenly very much for our time.

Works Referenced

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88.

—-. The Tunnel. 1995. Dalkey Archive, 2007.

—-. William H. Gass Reads The Tunnel. [liner notes for the audio book written by the author] Clayton Studios, 2005.

Gass, William H., and Mary Gass. “The Architecture of the Sentence.” Conjunctions, 1999, pp. 93-108. [Available online]

Hix, H. L. “Twenty Questions on The Tunnel.” Understanding William H. Gass, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 76-139.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 56-70.

“William Gass with Michael Silverblatt” (5 Nov. 1998). Vimeo, uploaded by Lannan Foundation, 2011, https://vimeo.com/12812717.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass: Is There Light at the End of The Tunnel?Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 71-83.

Interview with Megan Sullivan: Clarissa’s Disappointment

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 12, 2017

My wife Melissa and I launched Shining Hall, an imprint of Twelve Winters Press, in 2015 in large part because we know how important children’s literature can be in helping children achieve sound emotional health. Many children struggle with issues of depression and anxiety that impact their developing self-esteem. As a society we’re aware of the angst of teenagers, but we rarely pay much attention to younger children and the emotional struggles they may be facing every day. In an effort to expand Shining Hall’s list, we established the Larry D. Underwood Prize for Children’s Literature (named for Melissa’s father who was an educator and a prolific author).

We received several terrific entries, but one stood out above the rest: Clarissa’s Disappointment, with Resources for Families, Teachers and Counselors of Children of Incarcerated Parents, by Megan Sullivan. Melissa, the contest judge, loved the book. She said, “Clarissa’s Disappointment is exactly the kind of writing I want Shining Hall to publish. It perfectly captures an issue that affects so many children and families, yet largely remains unaddressed in our educational system. Incarceration does nothing to help individuals and contributes to the destruction of families. I chose this wonderful book hoping that it will be read and used by adults and children to begin the healing process at some level. My father, Larry Underwood, dedicated his life to children and would have loved to meet Meg, read her book, and share in the transformation that is Shining Hall.”

When Melissa shared the manuscript with me, I especially loved the fact it was in essence two books in one: a unique children’s story and a resource for adults who are trying to help children deal with having a parent in prison. Twelve Winters has specialized in hard-to-pigeonhole books that draw from multiple genres — a characteristic which may make them unacceptable to other publishers, especially commercial publishers.

In the spring of 2016 we sent Meg the good news that her book had been chosen for the Prize and we would be publishing it in print and digital formats. The only obstacle was that the book needed illustrations. Luckily, Meg thought she knew of someone who would be perfect for the job: Daniel Jay. Dan was interested, and throughout the summer he worked on illustrations for the book. Then in the fall and winter, Meg and I collaborated on editing and producing Clarissa’s Disappointment.

I’m pleased to announce that Clarissa’s Disappointment was published February 6, 2017, and will be available everywhere. It’s become something of a tradition that when the Press releases a new book, I interview the author via email and publish it here on my 12 Winters blog. Thus I sent Meg some questions, and what follows are her unedited responses.

CGS Prof. Megan Sullivan

What was your motivation for writing Clarissa’s Disappointment?

My motivation for writing Clarissa’s Disappointment was at least threefold. First, I believe such a book would have helped me when my father was incarcerated. I recall that when I was a middle-schooler, I read a book where the main protagonist, a boy, had a father in prison. I nearly gobbled that book up, because it felt to me that someone understood my predicament. I wrote Clarissa’s Disappointment in part because I wanted to offer that solace to others. I also wrote it because there are not many children’s books that focus on incarceration and none that I know that features what is called the “reentry period,” or that period of time when a formerly incarcerated person returns home to his community and family. It bothered me that the 2.7 million minor children who currently have parents in prison or jail as well as the untold number whose parents have been incarcerated in the United States might not be seeing their lives in print. Finally, I wrote the book because I could not get the voice of Clarissa out of my head.

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You’ve mainly done academic writing. How easy or difficult was it to transition into writing children’s literature?

It didn’t feel like much of a transition for me. Perhaps this is because around the same time I began conducting research on children with incarcerated parents, I also started writing what would become Clarissa’s Disappointment. It could also be that it didn’t feel like much of a transition because I see the primary purpose of all writing as about being the best writer one can be. I tend to think less about genres and more about doing the best I can for the kind of writing I’m doing.

Up to the very last, you were tinkering with the text to get Clarissa’s narrative voice just right. Tell us about that process, of creating the voice of this little girl.

Yes, I so wanted to get Clarissa’s voice right. The tricky thing was that because the book is both a fictional story and a resource for others, it was sometimes hard to separate the voice of the child from the voice of the adult. When I was writing I literally had Clarissa’s voice in my head. I imagined what she looked like and how she spoke. I imagined how she moved and thought and wrote, and I tried to convey all of this. Because Clarissa’s story is informed by my own, I was also conscious not to conflate Clarissa’s voice with my voice.

In addition to Clarissa’s story, you’ve included resources for families, teachers and counselors of children of incarcerated parents. Where did you draw from for these resources? Why did you think it was important to create a book that is essentially two books in one?

A huge shout out to Twelve Winters Press! Who else would have taken on this challenge of two books in one? I couldn’t be more pleased. I also feel incredibly honored and humbled that Melissa Morrissey chose the book for the Underwood Prize. This award is special to me in part because Melissa is a teacher; that she “gets it” is a huge vote of confidence.

Often those who are tasked with or have the potential to talk to children whose parents are incarcerated know too little about the topic to be helpful. A school counselor might be sympathetic to the plight of a child whose parents are no longer living together, but will he/she know how to respond to questions about visiting a prison? Families might know how they feel about a loved one who is in prison or jail, but do they know the best way to discuss this with children? Teachers and school librarians want to help children find that “just right” book, but maybe they too would like to know more about how to choose a book with the needs of children whose parents are incarcerated in mind. Furthermore, there is professional literature out there for counselors, teachers and others, and there are some books about incarceration for children, but I felt that combining the two would bring children and adults together in a way that could be especially powerful.

How did you find the illustrator, Daniel Jay? Describe that collaborative process.

daniel-jayI have long been enamored of Dan Jay’s work, especially his urban street and market scenes. I also appreciate that Dan is a scientist by training (he runs a lab at Tufts University), and has spent much of his career teaching others about the connections between art and science. He understands deeply the relationships between art and science, writing and life, teaching and reading. Dan and I are also friends, and even though some might caution against working with a friend, we didn’t have any problems.

 

Creating the illustrations forced you (all of us) to commit to Clarissa’s ethnicity, and you hesitated somewhat (if I recall) to make Clarissa African-American but ultimately decided to. Tell us about that thought process and why you decided to make the Pettigrews a black family.

I have always imagined Clarissa as an African-American or bi-racial child. I also know African-American children are disproportionately affected by parental incarceration. For these and other reasons I couldn’t imagine yet another book that failed to showcase children of color as the center of their universe. And yet as a white woman I did not want to appropriate another person’s experience; nor did I want to perpetuate a stereotype about children of color (i.e. that their parents are the only people in prison or jail). Ultimately I think I did the right thing, because Clarissa is the character I imagined, and I feel like I remained true to her. Yet I think I was correct to at least consider the tension, and it helped me to talk about this with you, Ted. I think writers are correct to acknowledge the tension.

You seem to have great respect for reading and writing (perhaps, especially, reading and writing poetry) for their therapeutic value. Is that true, and if so, where does that respect stem from?

I do respect the potential therapeutic benefits of reading and writing. I’m sure that partly this is because both are therapeutic for me and always have been, though I’ve never been much of a diary-keeper. I think the written word endures because it has something to tell us as readers, and I know writing helps us think about what we believe and how we feel. Maybe this is particularly true in the case of children’s books. I can remember being both transported and grounded by books as a child, and I think it would be wonderful if we could offer others the same opportunity.

What are your hopes for Clarissa’s Disappointment and its resources? How do you hope it will be used? How important will networking be in getting it into the hands of both children who may enjoy it and benefit from reading it, and also the adult professional audience that you’re targeting?

My dream is that Clarissa’s Disappointment will be in as many school and classroom libraries as possible. I also hope families and counselors and organizations that work with children will buy the book to have on hand. I think I will have to be a huge networker to make this happen, and luckily I’m up for the challenge. I feel like I’ve got this thing that I believe in without reservation and that I feel nearly as zealous about as one might a religion! I’m hoping to visit schools and do readings and talk about the book to anyone who will listen, and maybe even those who don’t want to listen!

My wife and I recently watched the documentary 13th. It wasn’t, of course, totally new information, but the scope of the problem is astonishing, depressing, rage-provoking. I presume you’re familiar with the film. What is your reaction to it, especially in terms of what it means about the number of children who are dealing with having one or both parents in prison?

13th is rage-provoking, and you are correct that it brings to mind the sheer number of children who are affected. We know that currently there are 2.7 million minor children who have an incarcerated parent in the United States, and we know that millions more have experienced parental incarceration. And yet I think what 13th should also make us ponder is that all our children have been impacted by incarceration. What today we call mass incarceration has hurt all our families and communities.

What are some other projects you have in the works? Other children’s stories? Academic projects?

My next book will be about the Irish writer Maeve Brennan. In 1934 Brennan’s father was the first Irish minister to the United States. When the family returned to Ireland, Maeve stayed and made her career as a journalist and fiction writer. She wrote for The New Yorker from the 1950s through about 1980. The New Yorker published many of her short stories, and two collections of her writing were published while she was alive; more of her work was published after her death. Brennan is often remembered for how she died (i.e. penniless and mentally ill), but her prose is among the finest of twentieth-century women writers, and I want to celebrate that.



Megan Sullivan
is co-editor of Parental Incarceration: Personal Accounts and Developmental Impact, as well as many essays and articles. She was awarded the Anthony Award in Prose from Between the Lines Literary Review for her essay “My Father’s Prison.” She is an associate dean and associate professor at Boston University. Megan was ten years old when her father was incarcerated. (Author photo copyright © 2009 Boston University Photo Services)

Daniel Jay is an adjunct professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and is a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. He is a nationally recognized artist whose mission is to inspire where art and science meet. He has had a number of solo shows, including the Boston Convention Centre and the French Cultural Center. (Illustrator photo copyright © 2014 Kelvin Ma)

 

Interview with Jim O’Loughlin: Dean Dean Dean Dean

Posted in January 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on January 19, 2017

I met Jim O’Loughlin, in person, in September 2011. My first novel Men of Winter had come out at the end of 2010, and our mutual friend Jeremy Schraffenberger (also, a colleague of Jim’s at University of Northern Iowa) helped arrange an invitation for me to read from the novel at Jim O’Loughlin’s long-running Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Jim was the consummate host, both from a literary standpoint and a personal standpoint.

Time passed (as it does), and in April 2015 I was delighted to do another reading for Jim and Final Thursday — this time a group reading of my story “The Drama of Consonants” (part of my forthcoming book Crowsong for the Stricken). It was great fun. Each paragraph in the story focuses on a specific character. I read the narrator part.  Jim pitched in and read a part, as did Jeremy Schraffenberger, as did my wife Melissa, plus some conscripted graduate students, and even Jim’s mother, who was in town for a visit.

Afterward, a group of us went to Whiskey Road in downtown Cedar Falls for refreshments and to talk shop. One of the news items we discussed was the fact that Jim’s collection of flash fiction, Dean Dean Dean Dean, had been picked up by a small press and would be out in the next year or so. I didn’t know Jim had a collection; for a brief moment I entertained the idea of trying to poach Jim’s book away from the competitor press, but it was patently unethical. (I’m blaming my wobbly ethics on the refreshments.) That summer I invited Jim to read from his forthcoming book at an event I co-hosted in Springfield, Illinois. It was a terrific reading, and Jim even got his daughter and son in on the act. The next day my wife and I had the opportunity to do one of our favorite activities: play tour guides for the O’Loughlin family as we visited various Abraham Lincoln sites in Springfield.

Time continued to pass — and the press that intended to bring out Dean Dean Dean Dean collapsed (as small presses will). I never like to see such things happen, but it afforded Twelve Winters Press the opportunity to pick up the book in its stead. In summer 2016, Jim worked with TWP editor Pamm Collebrusco to finalize the collection for publication. In the fall I stepped back into the process to create the book, working closely with Jim, who also directs Final Thursday Press in conjunction with the Reading Series.

I’m pleased to announce the publication of Dean Dean Dean Dean, a collection of flash fiction by Jim O’Loughlin, available in print and digital editions (Kindle and Nook).

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It’s become a tradition that when the Press releases a new title, I interview the author about the book and writing-related issues. The posted interviews attract a considerable amount of traffic on the Web. I sent Jim some questions, and here are his emailed responses.

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What do you find attractive about the flash form?

Here’s the thing: you will often find people who reluctantly admit that flash fiction is okay, maybe, because young people have such short attention spans now. What people? The generation that grew up reading the Harry Potter series, even the will-break-your-toe-if-you-drop-it fifth book? Readers don’t have a problem with long works. The issue is that many readers now process information quickly and have less tolerance for windy prose. Flash fiction speaks to that audience, and it is not afraid to fight for them in the arena of contemporary media.

Have you also been working on longer creative work as well?

I write both flash and traditional length stories, and I have a novel I’m currently revising, so I feel all kinds of fiction have a place.

Tell us about the Final Thursday Reading Series. How it began, how it has evolved, how you’ve been able to maintain it for so long … that kind of thing.

I started FTRS not long after I moved to Iowa. There was a local used bookstore, Bought again Books, that had just started a coffeehouse in an attached space, and they were open to new programming ideas. The monthly series started there in a room that comfortably fit a dozen people and broke fire code at about 40, and we hit both extremes over the eight years we were there. When the owner, David Crownfield, developed health issues and had to close the bookstore, the series moved to the Hearst Center for the Arts, a community arts center located in the former house of poet James Hearst. In this new location and with the support of the Hearst Center, the series has grown in popularity, attracting anywhere from 40-70 people each month. It’s in its 16th season now, and it has become an important part of the local literary culture. First, there’s coffee. Then, there’s an open mic. After that, a regional author takes the stage. Sometimes we wind up at a bar afterward. Occasionally there’s bowling or billiards. No one has gotten hurt yet.

My sense is that many of the flash pieces, if not all, were written with the open mic part of the Reading Series in mind, with your wanting to have a short piece or two you could read as time allowed or necessitated before the featured author’s reading. Is that true?

I typically start off the open mic each month, and I try to come up with a new piece each time. When the series first started, the open mic attracted some really dour poets — don’t get me wrong: I love dour poetry! I just found it was good to give the audience permission to laugh at the beginning of the night. Over time, having a humorous opening story to lead with became a conscious goal. Also, having a deadline I have to hit each month keeps me honest. It’s been good training, and the vast majority of the stories in Dean Dean Dean Dean got their start as performance pieces.

Who are some of your favorite writers of humor or satire? Do you see your work in this collection as being in the tradition of a specific author or group of authors?

I regularly teach a class on Mark Twain, Dean Dean Dean Dean riffs on Joseph Heller’s character Major Major Major Major, and I’m currently working on a critical book on Kurt Vonnegut, so those are clear influences on me. But I’m also influenced by writers like Louise Erdrich, who is a master of the short scene, and Jennifer Egan, who can create complex characters concisely (I claim the alliteration for myself).

Was it Edmund Gwenn who said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”? Do you agree? Is humor writing especially challenging? Do you begin by trying to write a humorous piece, or does the humor work its way into the narrative organically?

Maybe Edmund Kean? Google is divided on the attribution. Humor writing, like cilantro, free jazz, and the films of Baz Luhrmann, is not for everyone. But it is something that you can get better at over time, particularly if you get to see how an audience reacts to your work.

In terms of organizing Dean Dean Dean Dean, what was your thought process in terms of which pieces should be included, which excluded, and how did you arrive at the final order?

My main goal was to have the stories in the collection not be predictable, so I tried a range of different approaches and styles. I hope that keeps readers on their toes and eager to see what’s next.

What are some other projects you’re working on?

I’m currently revising a science fiction novel called The Cord. The book is set in the future on either end of a space elevator connecting the Earth with an orbiting station. No punch line: That’s really what I’m doing. If you don’t believe me, ask me a question about apex anchors or carbon nanotubes.


Jim O’Loughlin is an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches courses in American literature, creative writing and digital humanities. He is the director of the long-running Final Thursday Reading Series and Final Thursday Press. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his wife and children. Dean Dean Dean Dean is his first collection. (Author photo by Carole Fishback)

Interview with Grant Tracey: Cheap Amusements

Posted in August 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 18, 2016

When I started Twelve Winters Press in 2012, I modeled it, spiritually at least, after the Hogarth Press, the legendary press operated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf (founded in 1917). Hogarth became known as a publisher of groundbreaking work, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1924), for example, and the Standard Edition of the translated works of Sigmund Freud, as well as Virginia Woolf’s own experimental modernist novels.What many people don’t know, however, is that the Woolfs also published detective fiction. (See Diane F. Gillespie’s essay on the subject.)

Hence I considered it not only serendipitous but a downright good omen when I discovered that Grant Tracey had written a detective novel. The Press brought out Grant’s story collection Final Stanzas in 2015, and in the biographical note he sent me he mentioned that he was writing a crime novel set in 1960s Toronto. Mindful of the Woolfs, I was intrigued, so I asked if I could read the manuscript. He promptly sent me Cheap Amusements, featuring Hayden Fuller, an ex-hockey player turned private eye. What a wild ride! I was determined that Twelve Winters would bring out this hardboiled detective novel that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre while also bringing something fresh and very contemporary to the form.

The book was released in hardcover as well as Kindle and Nook editions on August 11. I sent Grant some interview questions, and here are his unedited responses. Grant’s lively and insightful remarks are almost as much fun to read as the novel itself. Enjoy!

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You’ve had a long love affair with detective stories. Who are some of your favorite writers, and when did you first discover you had a taste for the hardboiled?

My favorite hardboiled writer is Raymond Chandler. I first discovered him in high school. I started with Hammett (The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest), but when I read Chandler I knew something special was happening with the language, a guarded romanticism tinged with sadness. His prose was poignant; his hero, Philip Marlowe, had heart, nobility, and dignity. I liked him. I wanted to be like him. He wasn’t an anti-hero. He was a decent person. And those similes: “He had a face that looked like a dried lung.” Love it. Needless to say my early forays into the hardboiled were somewhat derivative. I think I even wrote a ridiculous overripe description that went something like: “He had a past pluperfect face.” Whatever that means. The PI stories I wrote at seventeen, eighteen and nineteen were all set in Cleveland, of all places. What did I know about Cleveland? And my PI was housed at the Rosevelt Hotel. Yes, spelled with one “o”. I didn’t know anything about American history either, apparently. But those stories were a start and I had to begin somewhere.

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Can you point to any particular authors whose influence you can see in your own writing? Have you consciously adopted any technique from a beloved author or book?

Definitely Chandler in terms of plotting, and my own sense of hopeful optimism. Richard Stark in terms of lean prose and toughness. Donald Westlake for comedy and a lighter tone. Mickey Spillane for pure emotional violence. I love the energy of Spillane. In terms of appearance I see Hayden, in his 1950s crewcut, looking a bit like a Jewish Mickey Spillane. In terms of literary writers, who isn’t influenced by Hemingway? His style lends itself to the hardboiled. But two bigger influences on my voice are Steven Schwartz, especially his emphasis on interiority, narrative telling, and the inner story, and Bernard Malamud, my all-time favorite writer, with his emphasis on suffering, mourning, and the struggle to do the right thing. Like Malamud’s family, my mom’s family ran a corner Variety store and lived above it. At the risk of sounding preachy, I think of myself as a moral writer. Schwartz is a moral writer. So’s Malamud. I was born in 1960 and grew up on American television: The Defenders, Naked City, Combat, Star Trek, and The Loner. These stories presented weekly morality plays, and what I gleaned from their writers is an underlying feeling of optimism. If you treat people with respect and dignity and equality, then those people in turn will accord the same respect to others and have a stake in and contribute to society. I still have that feeling of hopeful optimism about what this country is and where it can go. I’m not big on dystopic narratives, even though most detective stories, in the American tradition are pyrrhic, the detective dies a little under the weight of the case and violent crimes he’s enmeshed in. Hayden Fuller is a fallen figure, but he empathizes with others, has a big heart, and tries to do right. He doesn’t always succeed, but who does?

Anyway, three other influences. Film Noir. I love the look and feel of the 1940s and 1950s and my PI’s name crosses tough guy actor Sterling Hayden with ultra-cool director Samuel Fuller. A lot of my painterly images are inspired by jazz album covers, the fashion of TV shows like The Green Hornet and Honey West, and the look and vibe of such masters of painting with light as directors of photography John Alton (check out The Big Combo) and Joe MacDonald (Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is essential viewing). The whole idea of the “third face” in Cheap Amusements came from Samuel Fuller, a former corporal in The Big Red One. Jazz. The novel was composed listening exclusively to hard-bop jazz of the 50s and 60s: Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the greatest drummer of them all, Art Blakey. I love that music. It resonates urban angst and urgency and when I feel jazz I see images. I don’t think about words, lyrics, or the words I’m trying to write. Instead, the sounds give me an improvisational feel and I trust my instincts. I don’t worry about plot or my plot outline; I just follow the flow and go wherever the character and the mood dictates. Like jazz musicians leaving the core of the chart for tangential free floats, I float and float in random images, and then return. Hockey. I’m a Canadian, a Toronto city kid, and hockey’s in my blood. It was the way my immigrant grandparents became Canadian and they and my parents, in turn, passed down a love of the game to me. I’m also an avid historian of the Original Six: the NHL from 1942–1967, so all of the hockey details come from imagined probabilities and stories that have been passed on from my father and mother. Recently, T. T. Monday has published two noir mysteries involving a relief pitcher, and I figured let’s have a PI who’s an ex-NHL’er. Ross Macdonald was one of the first hardboiled writers to have his hero (Lew Archer) feel fallen for being a “divorce” detective and slinking about in the dirty skinny of “cheaters.” So I gave Hayden a similar backstory, one that got him ousted from the good old, secret-handshake society of the Original Six NHL.

Obviously the mystery or detective story has a long history–many attribute the modern detective story to Edgar Allan Poe in the mid nineteenth century–so how have you tried to put your own spin on the genre in Cheap Amusements?

I guess my spin is to combine the old with the new. I want to return to those writers I love: Chandler, Spillane, Stark, Jim Thompson, but with a literary emphasis. Literary writing is all about character-to-character interaction. What do these counter points, opposites, draw out from each other? It’s not about following a plot. Detectives follow the plot string, yes, but to get the answers they need they read people and this is what most literary writers do (character over plot). Moreover, I wanted to have heightened lyrical moments, to allow the language of the story to take me places. There are a couple of such moments in Cheap Amusements. In one, Hayden slips into “pockets of silence,” zones of stillness, where he’s transported into being a kid at a fair; in another moment he slips into the transcendent contemplations that ice skating can bring.

I also, again at the risk of sounding preachy, want to distance myself from the somewhat sordid tradition of salacious sex and sexism that abounds in the hardboiled tradition. I travel in those areas (the femme fatale, pornography, sexual exploitation), but I try to place the emphasis on bad male behavior, men exploiting women, as opposed to Eve-like women asking us to join her in eating the apple. I try not to be too titillating about the sex. I try to right some of the past wrongs of the hardboiled tradition, but like Hayden I don’t always succeed.

We are billing Cheap Amusements as a literary detective novel. In your mind, what does that adjective mean in this case (ha), and how does it make your book different from, say, a more run-of-the-mill detective story?

Detective stories are often restricted to first-person or limited third point-of-views and I have both. I begin the novel with a brief, surreal limited third point of view because I wanted the past event that haunts Hayden to almost feel unreal, as if it’s not being remembered correctly. But the rest first-person, pretty traditional. However, as I said earlier, the emphasis on detective fiction needs to be on character and character-to-character interactions, what the detective observes and surmises. That’s literary. Moreover. Language. I hate invisible flat prose, the kind that abounds in bad genre writing. I want to engage readers with my language, characterizations, and plotting. I want to keep giving them the unexpected within the expected, the defamiliar within the familiar. I want the plot to take them on a journey where the answer to the central question makes sense but still surprises in some way. There’s also a lot of comedy in Cheap Amusements from the dialogue zingers to some of the situations. At least I kept cracking myself up while writing it. And I see that as investing in the absurdist, literary tradition.

Some early readers of the book have noted the main character’s similarities to you. How much of Hayden Fuller is you? How is he different from his creator?

Hayden is a 1950s cat in a 1960s world and I feel the same way. I’m a retro guy in the new millennium. My glasses, a kind of mask, are Malcolm X or Vince Lombardi inspired. I wear white socks. With everything! I just finally got a smart phone! Hayden sports a porkpie because I like them and I wear them too. Like me, he cares deeply about people, has a passion for hockey, is sexually shy, and is somewhat of a wise-ass (very confident in his comic touches that he likes to drop in any moment). He’s not me in the sense that he’s tough. I run, I mean a ten-second 100 meter dash, from conflict. And Hayden can skate! I was hopeless on skates, my weak ankles always nicking up the ice’s surface. I played two years of house league, was a defenseman, and my coach always had me playing one zone back. So let’s say the puck is in the other team’s end. My D-partner was parked at their blue line and I was parked at the checkered center line! However, I was a great road hockey player or ball hockey as we later called it. Played forward and goalie. But me and Hayden, we both believe in the goodness of people. We both aspire to be professionals and do our jobs the best we can. We want other people to succeed.

You’ve published more than fifty short stories and four collections. When did you decide to try your hand at a detective novel? Did the character of Hayden Fuller come to you fairly early in the creative process, or did it take awhile to develop him?

As I said previously, crime novels were my first love. When I sent my sister the Twelve Winters trailer for Cheap Amusements she said, “Broheem, this is what you’ve always wanted. I remember all those detective stories you wrote in high school and college. Film Noir, hot cars, and PIs.”

After getting my MA from K-State in English with a creative writing emphasis, I became totally committed to literary fiction, for years, publishing stories in small magazines, but I was always reading crime books. Noir, or mystery tropes figure in some of my literary stories: “Faraway Girl” and “Used and Abused” from Final Stanzas are indebted to those sensibilities. Anyway, a few years back I got hooked on the Hard Case Crime series edited by Charles Ardai and I enjoyed his mixing up of reprints with new arrivals, his retro blend of the old and new, and I thought what the fuck, I can do this, there’s a market for non-CSI crime stories. And between October–November 0f 2014, in 40 days, listening to jazz, I wrote the first draft of Cheap Amusements.

Hayden Fuller emerged very quickly. I didn’t have to think about him at all or create him. He was just there. It was so strange. The porkpie, the attitude, the passion for hockey. I could totally see him and be him. It was a perfect fit. And the voice was there. Right from day one. It was magical. Only about a quarter of all the stories I’ve written did plotting or characterization flow as easily. Usually, I have to do substantial rewrites or tweaks. With Cheap Amusements and Hayden it was a smooth ride, like I was behind the wheel of a ’63 Ford Galaxie. It was as if all the other detective stories I’d written as a kid were a warm-up for the novel I was always meant to write.

You’ve created some strong and independent female characters, which tends to run contrary to the classic detective noir. I know this was a conscious choice on your part. Why so?

Like I said before, I want to be a part of and apart from the earlier hardboiled tradition of salacious sex and sexist portrayals of women. I have three daughters. I believe in Title IX and the rights of women. Future Hayden Fuller stories will feature even stronger female characters.

Your daughter Effy is one of your closest readers, and biggest fans. How important to your process is her reading your work? Does anyone else influence your work in progress?

Effy’s writing is very bright. By that I mean her stories, characters, burn with passionate energy. They speak boldly, take risks, allow themselves to be vulnerable. They are always interesting. Her YA novels are amazing because Effy is totally committed to her story world and her characters. She cares so deeply about all of them. And I want to make sure that I’m equally committed, equally vulnerable, so I seek her guidance in making sure I’m being honest and fair. There’s a scene in the novel where Hayden cries. Is that part of the hardboiled tradition? I don’t care. It felt right and the honesty in Effy’s work encouraged me to pursue the same honesty in my own. She loved that moment, by the way. Effy also raises great plot questions and doesn’t let me skate by with nonsense. Hopefully she’ll soon find an agent for her work. It needs to be out there in the world. It’s that good. And if any agents are reading this, her name’s Effy Traicheff and she’s the real deal.

Mitchell D. Strauss, my all-around best buddy, is an avid crime noir reader (big fan of Harry Bosch) and after reading my first draft he told me I needed to toughen Hayden up a little bit. Take a little of the Grant Tracey out of Hayden Fuller. He also helped me create greater urgency in the overall narrative arc and pushed me to come up with a “splash” opening to draw readers in. Caitlin, my oldest daughter, reads all the time (fifty books this summer), and she loves all kinds of crime stories from Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels to Cheap Amusements. She helped with rewrites and replotting and honing in on Hayden’s sensibilities.

You’re frequently drawn to historical periods in your fiction, and Cheap Amusements is set in 1965. What’s the attraction of historical settings, and why the Sixties for this book?

I love the Sixties. So much optimism and a time of societal change: the Civil Rights Act, and the overall questioning of authority and patriarchal privilege. The era brought about the fight for gay rights, women rights, and war protest movements. I also just love the fashions, the look, the music (Dylan, Cash, the Stones), the TV shows.

Hockey is obviously a great love of yours. How does your passion for the game fuel your fiction?

In some ways the scaffolding for Cheap Amusements places elements of hockey into Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My Marlowe is an ex-NHL’er. The Sterwnood sisters are the Stabulas girls, hockey fans, and Eddie Mars, the gambler, is now Babe Migano, a crime kingpin with links, gambling and otherwise, to Maple Leaf Gardens. My story takes us into a demimonde of gangsters and sports, centering around Canada’s obsessions with hockey, and how such obsessions encourage reporters to look the other way, rather than at the institution’s flaws. Some hockey players did beat up their wives in the 1960s and the media didn’t address it.

I also loved writing all the hockey stuff, the inside info about the game’s history and sensibilities, and the novel does end with a hockey metaphor.

I know you’re thinking of the next Hayden Fuller mystery. Any hints about what that story may be about?

I’ve already started working on a sequel, “A Fourth Face.” Bobby Ehle, ex Leaf rear-guard, is accused of killing his ex-wife (she was stalked by him and beaten badly, but did he kill her?). He asks Hayden to find the real killer while Bobby contemplates fleeing to Cuba. Hayden’s journey leads him to a confrontation with Lennie Cassel, a Detroit mobster, Cliff Airedale, a plastic surgeon, and a host of other mobsters and corrupt businessmen and hockey scouts. Cheap Amusements supporting characters Babe Migano, Dawn Stoukas, and Sal Lambertino make their presence felt in this new two-fisted tale.

Readers have described the cinematic quality of your writing. How does your love of film and your passion for teaching film affect your narrative style? Who are some directors and/or screenwriters that you think have influenced your storytelling techniques?

In terms of straight-ahead literary writing, John Cassavetes and many of his films: Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), and Husbands (1970) is a prime influence on my work. I like his emphasis on characterization and the shifting tonalities that occur in his scene work as conversations move from one mood to another, directing the story. He always places characters first. And in my own writing I want the dialogue to move like a Cassavetes film. In terms of Cheap Amusements, my influences are painterly: hard-bop jazz records, 1960s muscle cars, and noir visuals, the Nighthawks-like nightscapes of Alton and Macdonald and the irrational chaos of Samuel Fuller, and how you can’t trust what you see. The world is a swirl of confusion. I want my visuals to create a mood of urgency and, at times, alienation. In terms of my liberal leanings and sense of hope I’ve got to go with the TV writers: Paddy Chayefsky, Gene Roddenberry, Reginald Rose, and Rod Serling.


Grant Tracey, thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has published more than fifty short stories and four collections of his fiction, including Final Stanzas (released by Twelve Winters Press is 2015). He teaches courses in creative writing and film at the University of Northern Iowa, where he also serves as fiction editor of the prestigious North American Review. In addition to his writing, teaching and editing, Grant has performed in over twenty community theater productions. Visit Grant’s Amazon page. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss.)

Danielson Framework criticized by Charlotte Danielson

Posted in April 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 27, 2016

I’ve been writing about the Danielson Framework for Teacher Evaluation for a couple of years, and in fact my “Fatal Flaws of the Danielson Framework” has been my most read and most commented on post, with over 5,000 hits to date. I’ve also been outspoken about how administrators have been misusing the Framework, resulting in demoralized teachers and unimproved (if not diminished) performance in the classroom. (See in particular “Principals unwitting soldiers in Campbell Brown’s army” and “Lowered teacher evaluations require special training.”) At present, teachers are preparing — at great time and expense — to embark on the final leg of the revamped teacher evaluation method with the addition of student performance into the mix (see ISBE’s “Implementing the Student Growth Component in Teacher and Principal Evaluation”). I’ve also written about this wrongheaded development: “The fallacy of testing in education.”

Imagine my surprise when I discovered an unlikely ally in my criticism of Charlotte Danielson’s much lauded approach: Charlotte Danielson herself. The founder of the Danielson Framework published an article in Education Week (April 18 online) that called for the “Rethinking of Teacher Evaluation,” and I found myself agreeing with almost all of it — or, more accurately and more egocentrically, I found Charlotte Danielson agreeing with me, for she is the one who has changed her tune.

My sense is that Ms. Danielson is reacting to widespread dissatisfaction among teachers and principals with the evaluation process that has been put in place which is based on her Danielson Framework. Her article appeared concurrently with a report from The Network for Public Education based on a survey of nearly 3,000 educators in 48 states which is highly critical of changes in teacher evaluation and cites said changes as a primary reason for teachers exiting the profession in droves and for young people choosing not to go into education in the first place. For example, the report states, “Evaluations based on frameworks and rubrics, such as those created by Danielson and Marzano, have resulted in wasting far too much time. This is damaging the very work that evaluation is supposed to improve . . .” (p. 2).

Ms. Danielson does not, however, place blame in her Framework, at least not directly. She does state what practically all experienced teachers have known all along when she writes, “I’m deeply troubled by the transformation of teaching from a complex profession requiring nuanced judgment to the performance of certain behaviors that can be ticked off a checklist.” Her opinion is a change from earlier comments when she said that good teaching could be easily defined and identified.  In a 2012 interview, Ms. Danielson said that her assessment techniques are “not like rocket science,” whereas “[t]eaching is rocket science. Teaching is really hard work. But doing that [describing what teaching “looks like in words”] isn’t that big a deal. Honestly, it’s not. But nobody had done it.”

Instead of her Framework, then, Ms. Danielson places the lion’s share of the blame with state legislators who oversimplified her techniques via their adoptions, and — especially — with administrators who are not capable of using the Framework as it was intended. She writes, “[F]ew jurisdictions require their evaluators to actually demonstrate skill in making accurate judgments. But since evaluators must assign a score, teaching is distilled to numbers, ratings, and rankings, conveying a reductive nature to educators’ worth and undermining their overall confidence in the system.”

Amen, Sister Charlotte! Testify, girlfriend!

Danielson quote 1

Ms. Danielson’s critique of administrators is a valid one, especially considering that evaluators were programmed, during their Danielson training, to view virtually every teacher as less than excellent, which put even the best-intentioned evaluators in a nitpicking mode, looking for any reason, no matter how immaterial to effective teaching, to find a teacher lacking and score them “proficient” instead of “excellent.” In her criticism of administrators Ms. Danielson has touched upon what is, in fact, a major shortcoming of our education system: The road to becoming an administrator is not an especially rigorous one — especially when it comes to academic rigor — and once someone has achieved administrative status, there tends to be no apparatus in place to evaluate their performance, including (as Ms. Danielson points out) their performance in evaluating their teachers.

Provided that administrators can keep their immediate superior (if any) content, as well as the seven members of the school board (who are almost never educators themselves), they can appear to be effective. That is, as long as administrators do not violate the terms of the contract, and as long as they are not engaging in some form of obvious harassment, teachers have no way of lodging a complaint or even offering constructive criticism. Therefore, if administrators are using the Danielson Framework as a way of punishing teachers — giving them undeservedly reduced evaluations and thus exposing them to the harms that can befall them, including losing their job regardless of seniority —  there is no way for teachers to protect themselves. They cannot appeal an evaluation. They can write a letter to be placed alongside the evaluation explaining why the evaluation is unfair or invalid, but their complaint does not trigger a review of the evaluation. The evaluator’s word is final.

Danielson quote 2

According to the law of averages, not all administrators are excellent; and not all administrators use the evaluation instrument (Danielson or otherwise) excellently. Some administrators are average; some are poor. Some use the evaluation instrument in a mediocre way; some use it poorly. Hence you can quite easily have an entire staff of teachers whose value to the profession is completely distorted by a principal who is, to put it bluntly, bad at evaluating. And there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.

Another crucial point that Charlotte Danielson makes in her Education Week article is that experienced teachers should not be evaluated via the same method as teachers new to the field: “An evaluation policy must be differentiated according to whether teachers are new to the profession or the district, or teach under a continuing contract. . . . Once teachers acquire this status [i.e. tenure], they are full members of the professional community, and their principal professional work consists of ongoing professional learning.” In other words, experienced teachers, with advanced degrees in their content area and a long list of professional accomplishments, shouldn’t be subjected to the same evaluation procedure as someone who is only beginning their career and has much to learn.

In fact, using the same evaluation procedure creates a very odd dynamic: You oftentimes have an administrator who has had only a limited amount of classroom experience (frequently fewer than ten years, and perhaps only two or three) and whose only advanced degree is the one that allows them to be an administrator (whereby they mainly study things like school law and school finance), sitting in judgment of a teacher who has spent twenty or thirty years honing their teaching skills and who has an advanced degree in their subject area. What can the evaluator possibly say in their critique that is meaningful and appropriate? It is commonplace to find this sort of situation: A principal who was a physical education or drivers education teacher, for perhaps five years, is now sitting in an Advanced Placement Chemistry classroom evaluating a twenty-year veteran with a masters degree or perhaps even a Ph.D. in chemistry. The principal feels compelled to find something critical to say, so all they can do is nitpick. They can’t speak to anything of substance.

Danielson quote 3

What merit can there be in a system that makes evaluators omnipotent judges of teachers in subject areas that the evaluators themselves literally are not qualified to teach? It isn’t that veteran teachers don’t have anything to learn. Far from it. Teaching is a highly dynamic, highly challenging occupation; and the successful teacher is constantly learning, growing, self-reflecting, and networking with professional peers. The successful principal makes space for the teacher to teach and for the student to learn, and they protect that space from encroachment by anyone whose design is to impede that critical exchange.

Ms. Danielson offers this alternative to the current approach to evaluation: “An essential step in the system should be the movement from probationary to continuing status. This is the most important contribution of evaluation to the quality of teaching. Beyond that, the emphasis should be on professional learning, within a culture of trust and inquiry. . . . Experienced teachers in good standing should be eligible to apply for teacher-leadership positions, such as mentor, instructional coach, or team leader.”

Ironically, what Ms. Danielson is advocating is a return to evaluation as most teachers knew it prior to adoption of the Danielson Framework.

(Grammar alert: I have opted to use the gender-neutral pronouns they and their etc. even when they don’t agree in number with their antecedents.)

 

 

Interview with Theo Landsverk: The Madman’s Rhyme

Posted in March 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 25, 2016

Shining Hall, an imprint of Twelve Winters Press, has recently released the book of children’s poetry, The Madman’s Rhyme, written and illustrated by Theo Landsverk. All of my press’s releases are special, but this one is especially so because The Madman’s Rhyme began as a class project by one of my students, and I approached Theo about transforming the project into a publishable book. He was interested, but we had to wait for him to be old enough to sign the publishing agreement. Also, the manuscript wasn’t quite long enough to be a book, so he took some time to add more material, and also to tidy up some of the illustrations via Photoshop.

Everything came together by end of 2015, so we went to work on producing the book, which was released in hardcover and Kindle editions in February. It’s become a tradition for me to interview the press’s authors when their work is released, so I sent Theo some questions and what follows are his responses.

cover-image

How would you describe the process you used to create “The Madman’s Rhyme”? Did the poetry tend to come first, and then you illustrated the poems? Or did the art come first and the words followed?

I would describe the process to be like the growth of a plant. First comes the seed, an idea. Then roots come next, which would be a line of poetry. More lines of poetry trickle after each other until a stem of poetry is produced. Once the poem was completely grown the illustrations would blossom around it.

Which did you find more challenging, writing the poems or creating the artwork? Why?

I found both of them to have their challenges, but by far the poetry itself was the toughest part. Fragments of poetry would pop in my head without trying but the hard part was completing the poem. Some days I had more poetic creativity and inspiration than others so that also caused some trouble when I was on a deadline.

The Madman’s Rhyme is considered children’s literature; however, some may consider the themes of some of the poems as being more adult. What are your thoughts on the “appropriate age” of your book?

It is hard to judge a true “appropriate age” for poetry because any age group can enjoy it thoroughly. I myself can enjoy a Dr.Seuss at the age of 18, so if the concern is that older audiences may feel too aged for such childish literature I would say that is nothing to worry about. A lot of my poems tend to have insight on deeper things and darker subjects making some question if this book is suitable for younger children. I can’t really judge that myself because at the age of 8 I was reading Poe’s poetry and stories. To say it shortly, age is irrelevant when reading poetry.

I have compared your work to the Brothers Grimm and even Edgar Allan Poe. Do those comparisons work for you? Did you read the Grimms as well as Poe growing up?

I feel rather honored to be compared to those works because those are what I indeed read growing up. When I was young I was very fond of fairytales and Disney movies, but I was more in love with the rustic and crude Brothers Grimm stories. They were like the unedited Disney for me. I also read a lot of Poe’s works. I admit it was a lot for an 8-year-old to even try to comprehend deeply, but I still enjoyed it and kept reading his works. It was Poe who inspired me to write poems to begin with.

Did you enjoy reading children’s books of poetry when you were very young? What were some of your favorite children’s books or children’s authors?

I loved reading children’s poetry books growing up. Shel Silverstein’s books had me in awe and held my attention span for so long with his witty words and pen illustrations. I would say his works are right in line with Poe’s when it comes to those who inspired me the most. I also really enjoyed Dr. Seuss, but who didn’t?

I know you’re interested in animation. What do you find so attractive about animation compared to “still” art? What are you goals as far as being an animator?

Animation is visual storytelling. It is bringing life to artwork. The possibilities are endless with animation and those are the reasons it fascinates me. My goal in animation is to work for a big-name company and make children’s movies.

Are there any poems or pictures in The Madman’s Rhyme that you’re especially proud of? Why?

It is really hard to choose because I am proud of them all, but I must say my favorite poems are “Feed Me,””Sip the Sorrow,” and “Wallpaper.” I am not too sure the reason why but those are the ones I treasure most. When it comes to illustrations, those for “Wallpaper,””In the Trenches,” and “Feed Me” are my favorites.

You did some of the illustrations free hand, and for others you used Photoshop . Do you prefer one approach to the other?

I prefer traditional. It feels more personal and almost mystical to illustrate traditionally. The physical process is more rewarding to me and the product is visually unique.

This is your first book, but you’ve won other awards and accolades – for example?

I have won numerous awards in the regional Scholastic Art competitions and New Berlin art competition throughout my high school career. I have also won a poster competition for drug and alcohol abuse awareness.

Do you have some other projects you’re working on, or what are your plans for school, etc.?

As of right now I do not have any major projects I am working on, just small ones to experiment with mediums. My plan for school is to go to the DAVE School (Digital Animation and Visual Effects school) in Florida.

Theo at Hoogland reading

Theo Landsverk reads from The Madman’s Rhyme at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois, March 17, 2016.

Interview with Pauline Uchmanowicz: Starfish

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 28, 2016

Since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 and beginning to publish in 2013, oftentimes I’ve had to do a fair amount of detective work to find the projects I wanted to bring out. For example, I might read a writer’s work that I like very much in a journal , and their contributor’s note says they have a novel, or story collection, or poetry collection that’s looking for a home–then I go about tracking down the author and trying to get a look at their manuscript. In other instances, wonderful manuscripts have come to me out of the blue, as if handed down by the literary divinities. Such was the case with Starfish, a collection of poems by Pauline Uchmanowicz.

Last June my wife Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and we had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Stephen Haven, the director of The Ashland Poetry Press. After the conference, Stephen and I stayed in touch about this or that poetry- or publishing-related issue. In the fall, an email arrived from Stephen with a manuscript attached to it: a collection of poetry by Pauline Uchmanowicz. Stephen admired the collection, but it wasn’t going to fit into Ashland’s publishing schedule, so he was wondering if Twelve Winters may be interested in it.

I, too, was much impressed by the work, and downright moved by many of the poems. I contacted the poet, who directs the undergraduate creative writing program at SUNY New Paltz. It turns out she was at the NAR Conference also, and she had visited Twelve Winters’ table, and picked up The Waxen Poor, a poetry collection by J. D. Schraffenberger, so she was familiar with the Press and with the quality of the work we were producing. Soon we came to an agreement to release her spellbinding collection in print and digital editions.

I asked Twelve Winters’ contributing editor John McCarthy to work with Pauline to finalize the manuscript for publication, and I’m happy to report that Starfish was released last week, available in print, Kindle and Nook editions. It’s become a tradition that I interview our authors about their books, and so what follows are Pauline’s unedited responses to a series of questions I sent her.

Starfish - cover darker blue

You’ve been published widely, including two chapbooks of poetry, but Starfish is your first full-length collection. Would you discuss the evolution of this project, and its path to publication?

Bill Knott, with whom I studied in the 1980s, liked to boast that Stéphane Mallarmé wrote few poems in his lifetime, and “nearly all of them perfect.” Also during the 80s, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (to paraphrase remarks he made at a public reading) said it surprised him when poets proclaimed to be working on a book: “You don’t hear a painter say, ‘I’m working on a museum installation.’ A painter works on a painting; a poet works on a poem.” (The present-day art and publishing worlds might contest this dictum.) Meanwhile, Virginia Hamilton Adair—though her work appeared widely in top literary journals—published her first volume of poems, Ants on the Mellon, at the age of eighty-four.

So, for the past thirty years, always “working on a poem” until as realized as possible, I was never in a hurry to publish a full-length volume until the time to do so felt right. Now is the time.

Pauline half profile 2

Stephen Haven, director of The Ashland Poetry Press, shared your manuscript with me because he was impressed by it, but budget issues were impacting his wherewithal to bring out new titles. Obviously it’s been challenging for poets to place their work with presses for a long time (forever?), but is your sense that it’s becoming more and more challenging?

Thank you for mentioning Stephen Haven, a wonderful poet to whom I owe sincere gratitude. The fact that he passed my manuscript on to you in part illustrates what follows.

In some ways, because of independent, small-press, online, and self-publishing, it’s easier than ever for poets to place their work—but in many ways much, much harder, due in large part to the proliferation of MFA programs and professionalization of Creative Writing as an academic discipline. Moreover, these days there is so much competition—and among very good writers. At the same time, the poetry world has always been somewhat insular, with established writers helping younger ones break into publishing. Poets continue to need support from the literary community and also must make themselves known within it—whether small-scale or large. For better or for worse, writers today who “network” increase their chances for publication. Of course, many talented writers (and editors) rightly promote others like themselves.

Crucially, the current wave of small presses—perhaps the lifeblood of “print” today—remains vital to keeping publishing possibilities alive, often through contests and awards with submission fees to defray costs. Also, due to the sheer volume of books that come out each year, poets have to do much more of the marketing and promotion than ever before, even if working with national or university presses.

All that said, working closely with Twelve Winters Press has been a privilege, my own input valued throughout the publishing process.

Starfish is divided into three parts. What was your thinking in terms of its structure, and the arrangement of the poems? Were there any agonizing choices, or once you figured out your modus operandi did the structure come together fairly easily?

In addition to book design (and TWP does a great job), the ordering of poems remains essential among elements in any poetry volume. While I’d like to claim a grand scheme for organizing Starfish into three sections—a trinity of mind, body, soul, for example—instead my decision was based on how poems might meaningfully unfold consecutively as well as side-by-side (verso and recto). Specific themes, motifs, and catalogs became apparent, such as a suite of poems that questions what to relinquish, what to retain, proceeding from the final lines of “Beachside Burial”: “why no one returns / for what was left / behind?” But broad categories do emerge. For example, the middle section has several seaside poems, while in contrast the final one is announced by the poem “Landlocked.” Also, after working for so many years on the manuscript, I had a fairly good idea of where to place each selection.

The poems in the collection tend to be brief, often a single stanza. Has this brevity been typical of your poetry throughout your career, or is Starfish a departure in this regard?

My preference as a reader has always been for small, well-made poems featuring suppressed subjectivity (as in the absence of “I”) and universal emblems—poems that likely will endure in terms of structural integrity and subject matter—fifty or a hundred years from now. The poetry of Ted Kooser, mid-career Louise Glück, and Jean Follain, respectively, comes to mind. So yes, “miniatures” have been a staple of my work all along. Sometimes I do aim to write beyond a page or two, but the process can feel forced (for me), so that I end up editing a poem down to its imagistic essences. With small poems, one can hone in on manifold parts, such as verb choices and rhetorical figures that underscore meaning overall.

I recently attended a program by Juan Felipe Herrera, the U.S. Poet Laureate (and a former creative writing teacher of mine); and one of the issues he discussed was the difficulty associated with writing a long poem and maintaining the intensity of the emotion from beginning to end. Would you agree that longer poems (however one may define “long”) can be challenging for a poet, especially in terms of sustaining the poem’s energy and emotional impact?

Associated with poetry writing today is the buzzword “elliptical,” meaning that beyond sustaining long form and retaining within it a unified vision a poem ought to take surprising, unexpected leaps relative to imagery, as Billy Collins’s work notably does. Such a poem might arrive at an epiphany or apocalyptic closure, circling back to early moments in its body. But I agree that it can be difficult to sustain vision overall in long form, which some poets resolve through use of numbered or titled section breaks. Also, I do see many poems published today that are long-lined and long form, confessional in tone and at times adopting diffused autobiography for “emotional impact.”

Your question also reminds me of a former newspaper editor I worked with who, on the subject of “length” and wordiness, once quipped by way of analogy, “I would have written you a short letter—if I had time.” The challenge of poetry writing in general, I believe, is to use the least amount of words possible to achieve what critic Paul Fussell calls “absolute density.”

Juan Felipe also said that for him, in revision, he often cuts the opening and ending lines of a poem, finding that its core is where the “heat” resides—and by cutting the beginning and ending lines, he can intensify the poem’s emotional impact. As a poet and as a teacher of creative writing, does his process strike a familiar chord with you? How would you describe your writing and revising process?

Juan Felipe’s revision process has resulted in good poetry for him, and in some ways resembles how I work. Like for many poets, a piece of my own may start with a line or an image that places pressure on what follows; I don’t usually cut first lines. Other times, I know where a poem will end, so the challenge becomes building to those final lines. This was the case with the allegorical poem “Death,” which ends with the eponymous figure speaking to a recently departed soul.

But I do find myself cutting not just last lines but whole stanzas. And in teaching creative writing, I sometimes do recommend that student poets cut a final line or couplet, which could serve as the opening of a “new” poem. I’m also big on recommending transpositions, so that the placement of engaging or charged material resonates at well placed moments within a poem.

Speaking of teaching . . . many writers/poets who teach find teaching rewarding but also draining, especially their creative energies. How do you balance teaching with your creative output? Do you find that teaching in some ways encourages and informs your writing and publishing?

The fresh and surprising output of young writers is always delightful to me, making it easy to devote energy to their creative endeavors over my own. Whether teaching writing or literature, I aim to be “fresh” myself in terms of readings, written assignments, and pedagogical approaches. One can spend hours reading and commenting on student work, or on preparing lecture notes and assignments. And in addition to a heavy teaching load, during any given semester I’m directing an independent study, Honors Program thesis, or editorial internship—sometimes all three at once.

Since I direct an undergraduate Creative Writing program, a huge block of my time and energy goes into programming—over a dozen events an academic year with demanding details involved, from booking writers to securing funding. We also put out an expansive student literary magazine, which I edit.

I believe all of these endeavors “encourage” my writing. But the way it gets completed is the same for how teaching and administrative tasks do: I compartmentalize. I’ve always admired writers who work every day—say by rising at 5 a.m. to squeeze in an hour before going to a job. That’s not me, though my writing notebook is always within reach beside the morning cereal bowl and coffee cup.

Which poems in Starfish were the most difficult to write? Were there any technical issues with the poems that presented particular challenges? Are there poems that you’re especially proud of?

Almost every poem in Starfish was difficult to write, some requiring a ridiculous number of drafts (Bill Knott sitting on one’s shoulder, as it were). The same technical issues attend to every selection in the book: the aim of achieving “absolute density” mentioned above. But every once in a while, a poem just “happened.” For example, flipping through a notebook one day, I came upon “Postmark” (untitled at the time), which I barely remembered even writing. So the challenge was to find the emotional center of the poem then to tinker with a few words, and also find an expressive title. A recurring technical puzzle for me in general involves line breaks. I tend to end-stop (rhythmically) lines and always want to find alternate ways of phrasing or incorporating enjambment instead.

At one point, I was proud of the meta-poem Explication de texte, which actually did come about when I was teaching a graduate seminar with close reading at its core. The poem is a single sentence, with every line commenting on itself by using the language of prosody. Usually though, the “current” poem I’m working on most enchants me.

You do other sorts of writing besides poetry (reviews, for example). For lack of a better way of asking this question—do you feel that all your writing, regardless of form or genre, comes from the same place? Or do you have to tap into different parts of your … brain … soul … psyche … to write, say, verse, as opposed to an essay or review?

No matter what one writes, there’s always a rhetorical performance involved, and many of the devices and techniques used to craft poetry influence my writing in prose, from sharpening and tightening for readability and clarity to aiming for lyricism or metaphors that suggest the subject at hand.

Does writing a book review or author profile derive from a different aspect of consciousness than writing a poem? Sure, absolutely, because one’s energy is on representing and championing other people. What does come from the “same place” though is the desire to write as exactingly or as beautifully as possible.

How important do you believe it is for younger poets to be well studied in the history and traditions of poetry? Do you believe it’s crucial to become at least proficient in fixed forms (like the sonnet or sestina) before working with less formally structured poems?

Not to lapse into clichés here, but we all know too many young people who become turned off to poetry before they even engage it fully because canonical works are not familiar to them in terms of imagery or cadences. So I tend to start with free-verse short forms (readings as well as writing assignments)—to focus on what a line is and how it operates—then introduce basic poetic units. But I do believe it’s vital and necessary for younger poets to study and understand historical traditions and also to experiment in fixed forms and accentual-syllabic meter. My tendency though is to always insert the qualifier that a poem crafted in response to an assignment (write a sonnet, write a poem in terza rima) may “modify” a fixed or traditional form.

Overall in teaching poetry writing, I take a page from Martín Espada’s pedagogy: the goal is for each person to develop a unique poetic identity in terms of language and subject matter, with focus on the image (Espada). Thus, learning to read and write poetry means understanding and appreciating poetic images.

Recently I was reading Paul Valéry’s thoughts on writing poetry, and I was particularly struck by his belief that too many young poets, of his day, put too much faith in inspiration, and therefore not enough effort into the hard work of writing and revising a poem. What role do you think inspiration plays in the process, and would you tend to agree with Valéry (as I’ve represented him here)?

I can’t speak to young poets as a whole, but while some known to me reject revision, believing “inspiration” to be an article of faith, most come to the realization that drafting, revising, and polishing are important aspects of “writing” poetry.

On this subject, when interviewing Charles Simic for a profile in Chronogram magazine, and mentioning that his sparse, elegant poems appear divinely made, I was reassured when he stated, unequivocally: “There’s no muse. I don’t take dictation. It’s really a slow process of making the poem—of endless tinkering and revising to make it sound inspired.” So, a goal is for a poem to appear inspired—as if just written down in a single sitting—even if its genesis was far different than that.

Nearly every poet I know enjoys public recitation of their work, and many seem to feel that public performance is the truest way for an audience to receive their work. What are your feelings? Do you enjoy sharing your work via your voice, and do you feel you’re able to represent your poetry more completely than when it is merely read on the page?

Nationally and internationally celebrated poets I’ve heard speak on page-versus-stage poetry have maintained that a poem should read easily on the page and also be easily comprehended—for its lyricism as well as its meaning—when read aloud. I believe if a poem has integrity it will be well received in print or performance. As far as reading one’s work aloud, for me, that takes practice as well. I’m especially struck by what Richard Blanco says on this subject in his brief memoir, For All of Us, One Today, about how he prepared to read his occasional poem for President Obama’s second inaugural. If you watch the video of Blanco’s performance it appears seamless and effortless—but hours and hours of rehearsal went into his four minutes or so on the podium.

Who are some poets, past and present, that you especially admire, and why? Would you point to any poet or two who have been particularly instructive or inspiring?

My list is long and lengthy. I like all kinds of poets and poems from various eras, mainly beginning with the British Romantics (John Keats and William Blake, especially) and moving forward. I like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman from the nineteenth-century American canon. Poets I read over and over again in translation include Jean Follain and Wisława Szymborska. I like dozens and dozens of American poets (some already named but worth repeating here): Lucille Clifton, Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Martin Espada, Linda Gregg, Carl Dennis, and often whomever I happen to be reading or teaching at the moment. I also seek out books by poets whose works I’ve enjoyed reading in literary journals, or who may have won a distinguished prize, like Ansel Elkins for Blue Yodel (Yale Younger Poets Award, 2014). It’s always good to check out what young writers are up to today.

What new projects are currently underway?

I’m “working on a poem” (and another, and another). My notebook is stuffed with nonfiction essays in progress and I’ve recently written a number of short fiction pieces. My next deadline (about one week from now) is for four book reviews.


 

Pauline Uchmanowicz is the author of two poetry chapbooks and has received residency grants at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A freelance writer in the Hudson Valley, her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts Journal, Radcliffe Quarterly, Woodstock Times, Z Magazine, and elsewhere. She is associate professor of English and director of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz. (Author photo by Franco Vogt)

Accidental Poets: Paul Valéry’s influence on William Gass

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 18, 2016

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held at the University of Louisville February 18-20. Others papers presented were “The Poet Philosopher and the Young Modernist: Fredrich Nietzshe’s Influence on T.S. Eliot’s Early Poetry” by Elysia C. Balavage, and “Selections from ‘The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927-1937’” by Yuki Tanaka. Other papers on William H. Gass are available at this blog site; search “Gass.”


In William H. Gass’s “Art of Fiction” interview, in 1976, he declared two writers to be his guiding lights—the “two horses” he was now “try[ing] to manage”:  Ranier Maria Rilke and Paul Valéry. He added, “Intellectually, Valéry is still the person I admire most among artists I admire most; but when it comes to the fashioning of my own work now, I am aiming at a Rilkean kind of celebrational object, thing, Dinge” (LeClair 18). That interview for The Paris Review was exactly forty years ago, and viewing Gass’s writing career from the vantage point of 2016, I am here to suggest that, yes, Rilke has been a major influence, but Valéry’s has been far greater than what Gass anticipated; and in fact may have been even greater than Rilke’s in the final analysis. Assessing influence, however, is complicated in this case, I believe, because a large part of Gass’s attraction to Valéry’s work in the first place was due to his finding the Frenchman to be a kindred spirit. Hence it is difficult to say how much of Gass is like Valéry because of Valéry’s influence and how much is because of their inherent like-mindedness.

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A quick survey of Gass’s work since 1976—which includes two novels, a collection of novellas, a collection of novellas and stories, and eight books of nonfiction—may imply that Rilke has been the greater influence, as Gass intended. After all, Gass’s magnum opus, The Tunnel (1995), for which he won the American Book Award, centers on a history professor of German ancestry who specializes in Nazi Germany (Rilke allusions abound); and his other post-1976 novel, Middle C (2013), for which he won the William Dean Howells Medal, centers on a music professor born in Vienna whose special interest is Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg; and, glaringly, there is Gass’s Reading Rilke (1999), his book-length study of the problems associated with translating Rilke into English. However, a more in-depth look at Gass’s work over these past four decades reveals numerous correspondences with Valéry, some of which I will touch upon in this paper. The correspondence that I will pay particular attention to, though, is that between the title character of Valéry’s experimental novella The Evening with Monsieur Teste (1896) and the protagonist of Gass’s Middle C, Joseph Skizzen.

Before I go further, a brief biographical sketch of Paul Valéry: He was born in 1871, and published two notable works in his twenties, the essay “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci” and Monsieur Teste; then he stopped publishing altogether for nearly twenty years—emerging from his “great silence” with the long poem “The Young Fate” in 1917 at the age of forty-six. During his “silence,” while he didn’t write for publication, he did write, practically every day, filling his notebooks. Once his silence was over, he was catapulted into the literary limelight, publishing poems, essays, and dramas, becoming perhaps the most celebrated man of letters in France. By the end of his life in 1945 he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature a dozen times.

The title for this paper comes from Gass himself. In his 1972 review of Valéry’s collected works, in the New York Times Book Review, he wrote that Valéry “invariably . . . [pretended] he wasn’t a poet; that he came to poetry by accident” (The World Within the Word 162). By the same token, Gass has insisted in numerous interviews (and he’s given many, many interviews) that he’s not a poet, that the best he can achieve is an amusing limerick. Others, however, have asserted that Gass’s fiction is more akin to poetry than prose, that his novellas and novels are in essence extremely long prose poems; and in spite of his insistence on his not being a poet, he would seem to agree with this view of his work. In a 1998 interview, for instance, Gass said, “I tend to employ a lot of devices associated with poetry. Not only metrical, but also rhyme, alliteration, all kinds of sound patterning” (Abowitz 144). Moreover, about a decade earlier he said that “all the really fine poets now are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t stand a chance” (Saltzman 91). Critics have tended to include Gass in the group of writers whom Gass described as poet-novelists.

For your consideration, from The Tunnel:

A smile, then, like the glassine window in a yellow envelope. I smiled. In that selfsame instant, too, I thought of the brown, redly stenciled paper bag we had the grocer refill with our breakfast oranges during the splendid summer of sex and sleep just past—of sweetly sweating together, I would have dared to describe it then, for we were wonderfully foolish and full of ourselves, and nothing existed but your parted knees, my sighs, the torpid air. It was a bag—that bag—we’d become sentimental about because (its neck still twisted where we held it) you said it was wrinkled and brown as my balls, and resembled an old cocoon, too, out of which we would both emerge as juicy and new as the oranges, like “Monarchs of Melody,” and so on, and I said to you simply, Dance the orange (a quotation from Rilke), and you said, What? There was a pause full of café clatter. (160-61)

And beyond Gass’s poetic prose, he has written actual poems, besides the off-color limericks that populate The Tunnel. In Middle C, for example, there is a longish, single-stanza poem written via the persona of the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen. It begins, “The Catacombs contain so many hollow heads: / thighbones armbones backbones piled like wood, / some bones bleached, some a bit liverish instead: / bones which once confidently stood / on the floor of the world” (337). And, perhaps more significantly, there are the translated poems in Reading Rilke. There was a celebration held at Washington University in St. Louis in honor of Gass’s ninetieth birthday, Passages of Time, and he read from each of his works in chronological order, except he broke chronology to end with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet,” which concludes,

Oh, his face embraced this vast expanse,
which seeks him still and woos him yet;
now his last mask squeamishly dying there,
tender and open, has no more resistance,
than a fruit’s flesh spoiling in the air. (187)

It was a dramatic finale, especially since the event was supposed to be in July, near Gass’s birthday, but he was too ill to read then; so it was rescheduled for October, and the author had to arrive via wheelchair, and deliver the reading while seated. Happily, he was able to give another reading, a year later, when his new book, Eyes, came out. (I wasn’t able to attend the Eyes reading, so I’m not sure how he appeared, healthwise, compared to the Wash U. reading.)

My point is that, like Valéry, Gass has downplayed his abilities as a poet, yet his literary record begs to differ. The fact that he broke the chronology of his birthday celebration reading to conclude with a poem—and he had to consider that it may be his final public reading, held on the campus where he’d spent the lion’s share of his academic life—suggests, perhaps, the importance he has placed on his work as a poet, and also, of course, it may have been a final homage to one of his heroes. In spite of Gass’s frailness, his wit was as lively as ever. When he finished reading “The Death of the Poet,” and thus the reading, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Once the crowd settled, he said, “Rilke is good.”

Evidence of the earliness of Valéry’s influence or at least recognized kinship is the preface to Gass’s iconic essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), which Gass devotes almost entirely to the connection between the collection’s contents and the way that Valéry had assembled his oeuvre. Gass writes, “It is embarrassing to recall that most of Paul Valéry’s prose pieces were replies to requests and invitations. . . . [H]e turned the occasions completely to his account, and made from them some of his profoundest and most beautiful performances” (xi). Gass continues, “The recollection is embarrassing because the reviews and essays gathered here are responses too—ideas ordered up as, in emergency, militias are”; and then he describes his book as a “strange spectacle” in which he tries “to be both philosopher and critic by striving to be neither” (xii). So, Gass recognizes the parallel between the forces at work in Valéry’s literary life and his own. Gass has readily acknowledged the slowness with which his fiction has appeared (notably, it took him some twenty-six years to write The Tunnel), citing two reasons: the slowness with which he writes, and rewrites, and rewrites; but also the fact that he regularly received opportunities to contribute nonfiction pieces to magazines and anthologies, and to give guest lectures, and they tended to pay real money, unlike his fiction, which garnered much praise but little cash over his career.

This parallel between the circumstances of their output is interesting; however, the correspondences between Valéry’s creative process and his primary artistic focus, and Gass’s, is what is truly significant. In his creative work, Valéry was almost exclusively interested in describing the workings of the mind, of consciousness; and developing complex artistic structures to reflect those workings. T. S. Eliot noted Valéry’s dismissiveness of the idea of inspiration as the font of poetic creation. In Eliot’s introduction to Valéry’s collection The Art of Poetry, he writes, “The insistence, in Valéry’s poetics, upon the small part played [by ‘inspiration’ . . .] and upon the subsequent process of deliberate, conscious, arduous labor, is a most wholesome reminder to the young poet” (xii). Eliot goes on to compare Valéry’s technique and the resulting work to that done by artists in other media, most notably music composers: “[Valéry] always maintained that assimilation Poetry to Music which was a Symbolist tenet” (xiv). James R. Lawler echoes Eliot when he writes that Valéry “makes much of the comparison of poetry to the sexual act, the organicity of the tree, the freedom of the dance, and the richness of music—especially that of Wagner” (x).

The wellspring of music composition as a source of structural principles for poetry (or highly poetic prose) is arguably the greatest correspondence between Valéry as artist and Gass as artist. Examples abound, but The Tunnel and Middle C offer the most radiant ones. For the The Tunnel Gass developed a highly synthetic structure based on Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School’s musical theory of a twelve-tone system. Consequently there are twelve sections or chapters, and in each Gass develops twelve primary themes or images. He said, “[T]hat is how I began working out the way the various themes come in and out. It’s layered that way too. . . .” (Kaposi 135). In The Tunnel, Gass’s methodology is difficult to discern because Gass gave it a “chaotic and wild” look while in fact it is, he said, “as tightly bound as a body in a corset” (134). He achieved the appearance of chaos by “deliberately dishevel[ing]” the narrative with “all kinds of other things like repetitions [and] contradictions.” He said, “[T]he larger structure must mimic human memory, human consciousness. It lies, it forgets and contradicts. It’s fragmentary, it doesn’t explain everything, doesn’t even know everything” (134). For Middle C, the use of the Schoenberg system is much more overt, with Skizzen, its protagonist, being a music professor whose specialty is Schoenberg and Skizzen’s obsession with getting a statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive just right. Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation: “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352). Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.

Let me return to another Valéry-Gass correspondence which I touched on earlier: their concern with the workings of the mind or, said differently, consciousness. Jackson Mathews, arguably the most herculean of Valéry’s translators into English, begins his introduction to Monsieur Teste with the statement that “Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that this pursuit led through man into the world” (vii). Valéry’s interest in the mind was present in his earliest published work, the essay on Leonardo’s method and, even more obviously, Monsieur Teste, that is, “Mr. Head” or “Mr. Brain as Organ of Observation” or something to that effect. However, it was during Valéry’s twenty-year “silence” that he delved into the phenomenon of consciousness most critically. Gass writes, “Valéry began keeping notebooks in earnest, rising at dawn every day like a priest at his observances to record the onset of consciousness, and devoting several hours then to the minutest study of his own mind” (“Paul Valéry” 163). As noted earlier, Gass fashioned The Tunnel, all 800 or so pages of it, to mimic the human mind in its intricate workings. In Middle C, Gass pays much attention to Skizzen’s thought processes, especially his copious writing, revising, critique of, and further revising of his statement about humans’ unworthiness for survival. Such concerns are everywhere in Gass’s work, including his most recently published, the collection of novellas and stories, Eyes. I would point in particular to the novella Charity, a challenging stream-of-consciousness narrative, all a single paragraph, that mercilessly bounces between the main character’s childhood and his present, and, chaotically, various times in between, all the while sorting through his feelings about the act of charity and how he came to feel about it as he does in the now of the story.

In the limited time remaining, I’ll turn to the correspondence between Valéry’s character Monsieur Teste and Gass’s Joseph Skizzen (though I think William Kohler, the narrator of The Tunnel, has significant Teste-esque qualities as well). The convention of The Evening with Monsieur Teste is that the narrator is a friend of Edmond Teste’s, and he goes about attempting to describe his friend’s character. There is very little action per se, and as such almost nothing in the way of plot, in a conventional sense at least (very Gassian in that regard). He tells us that he came to “believe that Monsieur Teste had managed to discover laws of the mind we know nothing of. Certainly he must have devoted years to his research” (11). In Middle C, Joseph Skizzen is obsessed with what he calls his Inhumanity Museum, essentially a record, largely in the form of newspaper clippings and personal notes, of humans’ ceaseless cruelty to one another. The collection is associated with his ongoing struggle to word just so his statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive. Monsieur Teste becomes almost a recluse, desiring little contact with other people. He is married, but the narrator suggests that Monsieur and Madam Teste’s relationship is more platonic than passionate, due to Edmond’s preference for the intellectual over the emotional. Similarly, Skizzen never marries in Middle C, and in fact never has sex—he flees as if terrified at the two attempts to seduce him, both by older women, in the novel. Ultimately he ends up living with his mother in a house on the campus where he teaches music history and theory, his few “pleasures” consisting of listening to Schoenberg, assembling his Inhumanity Museum, and revising his pet statement. What is more, Teste’s friend describe Edmond’s understanding of “the importance of what might be called human plasticity. He had investigated its mechanics and its limits. How deeply he must have reflected on his own malleability!” (11-12). Skizzen’s malleability is central to his persona in Middle C. He goes through several name changes, moving from Austria to England to America, and eventually fabricates a false identity, one which includes that he has an advanced degree in musical composition, when in fact his knowledge of music is wholly self-taught. One of the reasons he gravitates toward Schoenberg as his special interest is because of the composer’s obscurity and therefore the decreased likelihood that another Schoenberg scholar would be able to question Skizzen’s understanding of the Austrian’s theories. But over time Skizzen molds himself into a genuine expert on Schoenberg and a respected teacher at the college—though his fear of being found out as a fraud haunts him throughout the novel.

To utter the cliché that I have only scratched the surface of this topic would be a generous overstatement. Perhaps I have eyed the spot where one may strike the first blow. Yet I hope that I have demonstrated the Valéry-Gass scholarly vein to be a rich one, and that an even richer one is the Valéry-Rilke-Gass vein. A couple of years ago I hoped to edit a series of critical studies on Gass, and I put out the call for abstracts far and wide; however, I had to abandon the project as I only received one email of inquiry about the project, and then not even an abstract followed. Nevertheless, I will continue my campaign to bring attention to Gass’s work in hopes that others will follow me up the hill, or, better still, down the tunnel. Meanwhile, if interested, you can find several papers on Gass’s work at my blog.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” 1998. Ammon 142-48.

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Eliot, T. S. Introduction. The Art of Poetry. By Paul Valéry. Trans. Denise Folliot. New York: Pantheon, 1958. vii-xxiv. Print.

Gass, William H. Charity. Eyes: Novellas and Short Stories. New York: Knopf, 2015. 77-149.  Print.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life. 1970. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. xi-xiii. Print.

—. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. 1999. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

—. The Tunnel. 1995. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2007. Print.

—. The World Within the Word. 1978. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Print.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” 1995. Ammon 120-37.

Lawler, James R. Introduction. Paul Valéry: An Anthology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. vii-xxiii. Print.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 46-55. [online]

Mathews, Jackson. Introduction. Monsieur Teste. By Valéry. Trans. Jackson Mathews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. vii-ix. Print.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. 1896. Trans. Jackson Mathew. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.

Notes on images: The photo of Paul Valéry was found at amoeba.com via Google image. The photo of William H. Gass was found at 3ammagazine.com via Google image.

 

The fallacy of testing in education

Posted in October 2015 by Ted Morrissey on October 18, 2015

For the last several years education reformers have been preaching the religion of testing as the lynchpin to improving education (meanwhile offering no meaningful evidence that education is failing in the first place). Last year, the PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) made its maiden voyage in Illinois. Now teachers and school districts are scrambling to implement phase II of the overhaul of the teacher evaluation system begun two years before by incorporating student testing results into the assessment of teachers’ effectiveness (see the Guidebook on Student Learning Objectives for Type III Assessments). Essentially, school districts have to develop tests, kindergarten through twelfth grade, that will provide data which will be used as a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation (possibly constituting up to 50 percent of the overall rating).

To the public at large — that is, to non-educators — this emphasis on results may seem reasonable. Teachers are paid to teach kids, so what’s wrong with seeing if taxpayers are getting their money’s worth by administering a series of tests at every grade level? Moreover, if these tests reveal that a teacher isn’t teaching effectively, then what’s wrong with using recently weakened tenure and seniority laws to remove “bad teachers” from the classroom?

Again, on the surface, it all sounds reasonable.

But here’s the rub: The data generated by PARCC — and every other assessment — is all but pointless. To begin with, the public at large makes certain tacit assumptions: (1) The tests are valid assessments of the skills and knowledge they claim to measure; (2) the testing circumstances are ideal; and (3) students always take the tests seriously and try to do their best.

assessment blog quote 1

But none of these assumptions are true most of the time — and I would go so far as to say that all of them being true for every student, for every test practically never happens. In other words, when an assessment is given either the assessment itself is invalid, and/or the testing circumstances are less than ideal, and/or nothing is at stake for students so they don’t try their best (in fact, it’s not unusual for students to deliberately sabotage their results).

For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the PARCC test (primarily) in terms of these three assumptions; and let’s restrict our discussion to validity (mainly). There have been numerous critiques of the test itself that point out its many flaws (see, for example here; or here; or here). But let’s just assume PARCC is beautifully designed and actually measures the things it claims to measure. There are still major problems with its data’s validity. Chief among the problems is the fact that there are too many factors beyond a district’s and — especially — a classroom teacher’s control to render the data meaningful.

For the results of a test — any test — to be meaningful, the test’s administrator must be able to control the testing circumstances to eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) factors which could influence and hence skew the results. Think about when you need to have your blood or urine tested — to check things like blood sugar or cholesterol levels — and you’re required to fast for several hours beforehand to help insure accurate results. Even a cup of tea or a glass of orange juice could throw off the process.

That’s an example that most people can relate to. If you’ve had any experience with scientific testing, you know what lengths have to be gone to in hopes of garnering unsullied results, including establishing a control group — that is, a group that isn’t subjected to whatever is being studied, to see how it fares in comparison to the group receiving whatever is being studied. In drug trials, for instance, one group will receive the drug being tested, while the control group receives a placebo.

Educational tests rarely have control groups — a group of children from whom instruction or a type of instruction is withheld to see how they do compared to a group that’s received the instructional practices intended to improve their knowledge and skills. But the lack of a control group is only the beginning of testing’s problems. School is a wild and woolly place filled with human beings who have complicated lives, and countless needs and desires. Stuff happens every day, all the time, that affects learning. Class size affects learning, class make-up (who’s in the class) affects learning, the caprices of technology affect learning, the physical health of the student affects learning, the mental health of the student affects learning, the health of the teacher affects learning (and in upper grades, each child has several teachers), the health and circumstances of the student’s parents and siblings affect learning, weather affects learning (think “snow days” and natural disasters); sports affects learning (athletes can miss a lot of school, and try teaching when the school’s football or basketball team is advancing toward the state championship); ____________ affects learning (feel free to fill in the blank because this is only a very partial list).

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And let me say what no one ever seems to want to say: Some kids are just plain brighter than other kids. We would never assume a child whose DNA renders them five-foot-two could be taught to play in the NBA; or one whose DNA makes them six-foot-five and 300 pounds could learn to jockey a horse to the Triple Crown. Those statements are, well, no-brainers. Yet society seems to believe that every child can be taught to write a beautifully crafted research paper, or solve calculus problems, or comprehend the principles of physics, or grasp the metaphors of Shakespeare. And if a child can’t, then it must be the lazy teacher’s fault.

What is more, let’s look at that previous sentence: the lazy teacher’s fault. Therein lies another problem with the reformers’ argument for reform. The idea is that if a student underachieves on an exam, it must be the fault of the one teacher who was teaching that subject matter most recently (i.e., that school year). But learning is a synergistic effect. Every teacher who has taught that child previously has contributed to their learning, as have their parents, presumably, and the other people in their lives, and the media, and on and on. But let’s just stay within the framework of school. What if a teacher receives a crop of students who’d been taught the previous year by a first-year teacher (or a student teacher, or a substitute teacher who was standing in for someone on maternity or extended-illness leave), versus a crop of students who were taught by a master teacher with an advanced degree in their subject area?

Surely — if we accept that teaching experience and education contribute to teacher effectiveness — we would expect the students taught by a master teacher to have a leg up on the students who happened to get a newer, less seasoned, less educated teacher. So, from the teacher’s perspective, students are entering their class more or less adept in the subject depending on the teacher(s) they’ve had before. When I taught in southern Illinois, I was in a high school that received students from thirteen separate, curricularly disconnected districts, some small and rural, some larger and more urban — so the freshman teachers, especially, had an extremely diverse group, in terms of past educational experiences, on their hands.

For several years I’ve been an adjunct lecturer at University of Illinois Springfield, teaching in the first-year writing program. UIS attracts students from all over the state, including from places like Chicago and Peoria, in addition to students from nearby rural schools, and everything in between (plus a significant number of international students, especially from India and China). In the first class session I have students write a little about themselves — just answer a few questions on an index card. Leafing through those cards I can quickly get a sense of the quality of their educational backgrounds. Some students are coming from schools with smaller classes and more rigorous writing instruction, some from schools with larger classes and perhaps no writing instruction. The differences are obvious. Yet the expectation is that I will guide them all to be competent college-level writers by the end of the semester.

The point here, of course, is that when one administers a test, the results can provide a snapshot of the student’s abilities — but it’s providing a snapshot of abilities that were cured by uncountable and largely uncontrollable factors. How, then, does it make sense (or, how, then, is it fair) to hang the results around an individual teacher’s neck — either Olympic-medal like or albatross like, depending?

As I mentioned earlier, validity is only one issue. Others include the circumstances of the test, and the student’s motivation to do well (or their motivation to do poorly, which is sometimes the case). I don’t want to turn this into the War and Peace of blog posts, but I think one can see how the setting of the exam (the time of day, the physical space, the comfort level of the room, the noise around the test-taker, the performance of the technology [if it’s a computer-based exam like the PARCC is supposed to be]) can impact the results. Then toss in the fact that most of the many exams kids are (now) subjected to have no bearing on their lives — and you have a recipe for data that has little to do with how effectively students have been taught.

So, are all assessments completely worthless? Of course not — but their results have to be examined within the complex context they were produced. I give my students assessments all the time (papers, projects, tests, quizzes), but I know how I’ve taught them, and how the assessment was intended to work, and what the circumstances were during the assessment, and to some degree what’s been going on in the lives of the test-takers. I can look at their results within this web of complexities, and draw some working hypotheses about what’s going on in their brains — then adjust my teaching accordingly, from day to day, or semester to semester, or year to year. Some adjustments seem to work fairly well for most students, some not — but everything is within a context. I know to take some results seriously, and I know to disregard some altogether.

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Mass testing doesn’t take into account these contexts. Even tests like the ACT and SAT, which have been administered for decades, are only considered as a piece of the whole picture when colleges are evaluating a student’s possible acceptance. Other factors are weighed too, like GPA, class rank, teacher recommendations, portfolios, interviews, and so on.

What does all this mean? One of things that it means is that teachers and administrators are frustrated with having to spend more and more time testing, and more and more time prepping their students for the tests — and less and less time actually teaching. It’s no exaggeration to say that several weeks per year, depending on the grade level and an individual school’s zeal for results, are devoted to assessment.

The goal of assessment is purported to be to improve education, but the true goals are to make school reform big business for exploitative companies like Pearson, and for the consultants who latch onto the movement remora-like, for example, Charlotte Danielson and the Danielson Group; and to implement the self-fulfilling prophecy of school and teacher failure.

(Note that I have sacrificed grammatical correctness in favor of non-gendered pronouns.)