One Small Drop of Water: Poetry at the Cellular Level

puddle
photo from pixabay

“No more pleasant sight has met my eye than this of so many thousand of living creatures in one small drop of water.”
– Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 17th century pioneer in microbiology

Last fall I did a poetry residency with a seventh grade science class. They were studying cellular structure and respiration followed by a unit on genetics and DNA. Their teacher and I discussed ways we could connect poetry and science with the students. We landed on the big idea of close observation, noticing deeply and seeing patterns—essential skills for both poets and scientists. We wanted the students to practice looking closely and describing what they saw in precise detail.

We asked them to consider the question:

What do we learn from looking closely? Continue reading One Small Drop of Water: Poetry at the Cellular Level

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Calmly, Joyously, Recklessly

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View of Lower Manhattan from Jersey City; photo credit, Wikipedia

We’re moving to New Jersey! Come August, the girlfriend, the dog, the cat and I will be making a home in Jersey City for at least the next two years while I get an MFA in fiction at Rutgers Newark.

I wrote in my personal statement for my application that I was tempted to draft a manifesto—something akin to Kerouac’s “Rules for Spontaneous Prose” or Henry Miller’s “Eleven Commandments.”

I’ve felt at times with some chagrin that I could have used a blueprint for how to live life as a writer. Earning an MFA in fiction, a new genre for me as a writer, feels like the right next step. The throughline in my meandering path has been stories—writing and performing my own, creating space for my students to tell theirs.

I spent my childhood reading voraciously—being fondest of orphan protagonists and hobbits—and banging out poems and plays on my father’s typewriter. Continue reading Calmly, Joyously, Recklessly

How to Do What You Love

Edouard_Manet,_A_Bar_at_the_Folies-Bergère
Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.                                                                                                           Henry David Thoreau

In a box somewhere I have a list I wrote at age thirteen of ways to make money. If memory serves, it included crafts I could make and sell, chores for which I could possibly get paid and babysitting for my neighbors. Babysitting’s the only one that provided any significant stream of income. In high school and beyond, I worked as a lifeguard, caterer, house painter and substitute teacher. But most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with some combination of teaching and waiting tables.

In the ‘90s I discovered the profession of teaching artist—someone who implements long-term residencies and short-term workshops in their art form in schools, jails, community centers and hospitals—and I’ve been doing it ever since. Last year I did residencies in Chicago, Evanston and Independence, Kansas, designed and led a handful of professional development workshops for teachers, directed the Chicago Public Schools All-City Theatre Ensemble and wrote educational materials for Lyric Opera Chicago’s student and general audiences. I also waited tables at two different restaurants. I got fired from the first by a sketchy owner, which led to an anxiety-ridden, touch-and-go September: no teaching work and no restaurant to fall back on. I’m still feeling the effects of a month of no income, though I did find another job—at a place where I work longer hours for less money. The whole thing left me demoralized and a teensy bit frantic—and wondering for the millionth time why I’m still waiting tables. Continue reading How to Do What You Love

Strange Paths

The_library_at_trinity_college

Even before I walked around every day with a massive research library in my pocket, I often looked things up. In the olden days, when I was working on a project, I’d hunker in library stacks for hours, lug home bags of books. My life was full of Post-its, torn off slips of paper, scrawled, sometimes indecipherable notes. I fondly recall sitting hunched in a carrel in my college library with books at my elbow, books at my feet. I liked finding notes or marginalia left by other readers who—months or years previous—had been curious about the same thing I was investigating at that moment. Continue reading Strange Paths

Forgive Me, But Now I Own Your World

photo by Terence Faircloth on flickr
photo by Terence Faircloth on flickr

My manuscript is out to six publishers, and now we wait to see what they have to say. In the meantime, what to post? I’ve started some fall teaching work and will have stories about those residencies down the road, but meanwhile, I’ve been meaning for some time to share a favorite student poem.

It was written in a third grade poetry class. We read William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say:”

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I asked students to write a poem, in the style of Williams if they wished, that apologized for something. Most students wrote poems like this one from Justin A: Continue reading Forgive Me, But Now I Own Your World

On Octopuses, Faith and Holy Curiosity (And Half Pint)

Andromeda in Clash of the Titans, 1981
Judi Bowker as Andromeda in Clash of the Titans, 1981

I mentioned this spring that I had an excerpt from The Saltwater Twin published in Hayden’s Ferry Review. It’s in Issue 56: The Chaos Issue, and it’s called “And Now, the Octopus.” It’s about faith—having it, losing it and sometimes finding it again. It’s also about octopuses.

Here’s where I wrote about writing it—way back in June 2012.

Hayden’s Ferry asked me to provide some contributor’s remarks for their blog, which you can read here. In them, I discuss my inspiration for the essay and what Einstein called “holy curiosity.”

And here, for your delectation, is an excerpt:

I was fourteen the summer my aunt and uncle got cable, expanding our formerly limited selection of afternoon entertainment. Moby Dick couldn’t hold a candle to MTV, or such classic films as The Pirate Movie, Grease 2 and Clash of the Titans. Every afternoon my sisters and cousins would crowd onto the sunset-orange, velour sofa bed in my aunt and uncle’s spare room and watch Clash of the Titans over and over, mesmerized by the cartoony violence, naked ladies and Harry Hamlin’s suntanned torso and pouty lips. Continue reading On Octopuses, Faith and Holy Curiosity (And Half Pint)

Till You’re Done Growing Up: An Open Letter to My Theater Students

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The All City ensembles are part of a free Chicago Public School program which provides opportunities for collaborative arts making to CPS students. This spring, I directed the All City Theater Ensemble with fellow teaching artist Ashley Winston. Our 8th through 12th grade students created an original performance called “Listen,” which explored the theme of voice and which they performed at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. This is an open letter to my students.

Dear All City Ensemble,

I want to share some thoughts that have been percolating since our show last month at the Harris Theater.

This spring, Saturday afternoons were my favorite part of the week, and that’s because of you. It was inspiring to see you dive in wholeheartedly to the process of creating an original performance that was fun and full of meaning for you and for your audience. It was a joy for me to talk, read, write and bring about a show about ideas that matter with some cool and interesting people. (That’s you.) I felt proud and moved by the energy and commitment you brought to rehearsal—reading Langston Hughes, Casandra Lopez and Afzal Ahmed Syed; discussing race and music and community; writing poems, rants and new definitions; blocking and choreographing and memorizing.

Sometimes, when you’re a teacher, you’re not sure if your students get it—that is, whatever you’re wanting them to get—you’re not sure what they take away. I hope you learned something about trying new things and messing up and trying them again. I hope you discovered something about taking risks and setting boundaries. I hope we created a space where you felt safe and respected. I hope you gained a sense of how to make something from scratch, from just an idea, of how to collaborate with a group, of how to say yes, and. I hope you learned some things about theater and writing—about rhythm and repetition and imagery, about physicality and blocking and specificity. I hope you walked away feeling heard. I hope you continued to develop a sense of your unique voice and some thoughts on how you might like to express that in the world.

I found a tribe and a home in theater when I was your age. (At which time I was obsessed with Prince the way some of you are obsessed with Drake and One Direction.) I loved how theater brought worlds into being. I loved telling stories. I loved living in stories. I loved the way the kids in a show fell in love with each other, the friendships and flirtations that came about from hanging out and getting to know one other. I loved the challenge of theater—all the skills it called into play, the ways it made me stretch. I loved the energy that sparked between performers, crew and audience.

I think you felt that energy that comes from working on a show with an ensemble you’ve come to know during the weeks of rehearsal. I hope you’ll continue to learn from one another. I hope you made some memories and some friends that will stick around a while. I know a lot of you had hurdles to overcome to be part of All City—you shuffled schedules, battled illness, juggled school and other extracurricular activities, memorized lines and blocking. I want you to remember the feeling of accomplishment you had that Sunday afternoon at the Harris. Take out that feeling whenever you need it.

I couldn’t find the right song for the end of our piece. I wanted something that related to our theme of finding your voice and asking to be heard. I wanted it to be uplifting, a little anthemic, but not too hokey, not too on the nose. I fell in love with the refrain in Chance the Rapper’s cover of the Arthur theme song “Wonderful Everyday.”

I’m gonna get by when the going get rough                                               I’m gonna love life ’til I’m done growing up                                                     And when I go down                                                                                             I’mma go down swinging                                                                                   My eyes still smiling                                                                                           And my heart still singing

Here’s the secret no one tells you about growing up—it never really feels like you do. I think that’s a good thing. Approach with caution those who think they’re done growing up. There’s always something to learn, something to love about life. We can always ask the questions I heard you ask in our discussions, the questions you ask in your performance: Who am I in the world? How do people see me? Who do I want to be? I hope for you what I hope for myself: that you can love life till you’re done growing up and that you’ll keep growing (learning, listening, dreaming, evolving) till your life is done—a long, long time from now.

Have a beautiful summer, young artists.

Love,                                                                                                                     Maia

Theatre

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brandon

Quotes!

Gabrielle_Chanel_en_marinière

cocoThat’s a quote from Coco Chanel that I used last week to kick off a theater/social studies residency with eighth graders in Evanston. We’re exploring the 1920s and ‘30s through theater and creative writing. The first week we looked at changing images and roles for women in the 1920s; then, the students investigated their own relationship to fashion by writing about an article of clothing that was significant to them in some way. The quote sparked a discussion about clothing and culture and the connections between the two, both in the 1920s and today. (Also, 1920s slang is the bees’ knees.)

As an eighth grader myself, I was fond of quotations and tended to season my writing liberally with them—drawing from top 40 songs as well as my mother’s trusty Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, which is apparently the longest-lived and most widely distributed collection of quotes there is. Its first publication was in 1855. (Side note: when I was in eighth grade, one couldn’t call a quotation a quote without risking the wrath of one’s English teacher. Quote was the verb, quotation the noun. Now, apparently one can although it’s considered informal usage.)

These days I feel like we’re inundated with pseudo-meaningful quotes photoshopped in every font imaginable onto pictures of sunsets or snowboarders. On coffee mugs. Reusable shopping bags. The internet is rife with sites devoted to cataloguing quotes on every subject under the sun. There’s even a primer on how to come up with a good quote of your own that offers up these helpful tips: Continue reading Quotes!

A Handful of Residencies

Regular readers may remember I resolved to finish The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures by the end of March and also that that was going to be a tall order. Well, I’ve made significant headway, but I’m not there yet. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some of my students’ work. I’m currently teaching five residencies with Chicago public school students who are creating theatrical performances from scratch.

On Saturdays I’m directing the CPS All City Theater Program which brings together teens from across Chicago. For this performance, we’re investigating maps. I was inspired by the fact that the students in the program come from neighborhoods all over the city as well as this quote I came across in my initial research for the residency: Continue reading A Handful of Residencies

I Am Not Trayvon Martin: Some Thoughts on White Privilege

 
photo by LaDawna Howard
photo by LaDawna Howard
A note about this post:
This is a blog about writing. Here, for the past 19 months I’ve documented the experience of working on my first book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. I’ve written about research, procrastination, setbacks, pep talks – basically held forth on whatever I’m thinking as I chip away at this manuscript. But sometimes something happens that sort of knocks everything else out of your brain and becomes all you can think about. A colleague of mine has a gardening blog. In a recent post, he reflected on a plant called Snow on the Mountain, green spaces, contemplation and privilege. And Trayvon Martin. So I’m taking a cue from him and allowing myself to express some thoughts that are currently crowding most everything else out of my brain.
 

Last Sunday morning saw a proliferation of hoodies on my Facebook home page. Hoodies and status updates shouting, “We are all Trayvon Martin!” Or sometimes, “We are all Trayvon’s mother.” These were posts by liberal, thoughtful white people — teachers and homemakers, professors and artists. I get the point. It’s a show of solidarity. And even though it’s just Facebook — even though you’re not, say, marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 — still you’re showing up and saying you’re sickened by the blatant racism and brutality of this incident. You’re sickened by the fact that some people are still protesting that racism has nothing to do with the murder of an unarmed seventeen year old black boy. At least that’s what I think you’re saying. But after I closed my laptop and went on with my day, I felt unsettled about all the well-intentioned white people on Facebook shouting “We are Trayvon.” Because it’s not enough. And it’s not the whole picture.

Continue reading I Am Not Trayvon Martin: Some Thoughts on White Privilege