S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

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As my husband selflessly and singlehandedly drove us to Florida Wednesday, we listened to the podcast “S-Town” and I submitted several pieces of my writing to various contests and publications, as well as worked on some freelance projects.

Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).

The Mad Hatter

As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.

“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”

One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.

On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.

Paradox

At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)

New Words

At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:

  1. proleptic
  2. mellifluous
  3. peregrinate.

Zora Neale Hurston

Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of

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During our visit, I spent lots of time building Florida snowmen (sandmen) on the beach with my niece, who has taught me many valuable lessons and inspired many of my personal narratives, availabe at richmond.com.

putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:

  1. “He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
  2. “He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.

These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.

Making Connections

One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.

 

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A part vs. Apart

For some reason, the confusion between “apart” and “a part” has been surfacing in my professional and personal life with increased frequency over the course of the last week or so. I noticed it in at least a third of the essay tests I finished grading just before winter break began, and it has appeared on my Facebook feed more often than I’d like to remember. Due to its recent, rampant presence, I thought the error merited some attention. Let’s get the difference between “a part” and “apart” all sorted out.

When “apart” appears as one word, it is an adverb that means “separate,” as in, “Take the toy apart” or “His feet were spread far apart from each other” or “He lives apart from his parents.”

When “a part” appears as two words, you have an article (“a”) and a noun (“part”), as in “one piece,” or one involved party.

The most common error I see is the use of the adverb “apart” where what is actually needed is the article “a” and the noun “part.” For example, one might write, “I am so glad to be apart of your special day,” when what one really means to say is, “I am so glad to be a part of your special day.”

If you think of it in this context, “He stood apart from the crowd” means something very different than “He stood, a part of the crowd.” In the former, he stands out. In the latter, he blends in.

Apart

A Part

Adverb Article paired with noun
Means: separate Means: one piece
He lives apart from his parents. He is a part of the high school band.

Creativity in Different Contexts

I would not say I am facing writer’s block. No, not exactly. I am still writing: blog posts, diary entries, college reference letters, the occasional short personal narrative.

But I cannot seem to type the first word of a novel for NaNoWriMo. I have several loose, underdeveloped ideas, not one of which has coalesced into anything remotely resembling a plot. In the face of this complete (but hopefully temporary) dearth of cohesive ideas for another novel, I had begun to feel tempted to wonder if maybe I’m not, after all, a creative person. The identity crisis this admission would lead to would be nothing short of catastrophic, though, so rather than give in to the temptation to see myself as, well, not myself, I decided to take inventory of my creativity. Essentially, I had to remind myself that while my primary means of creative expression is indeed the written word, I am creative in many other ways, as well: photography, painting, lesson planning, and re-purposing–as well as writing. The resulting morale booster is below. Maybe now that I have reaffirmed my creative ability, I can conjure up an idea for NaNoWriMo…

Novel ideas in any context fall under the umbrella of creativeness.

Photography

I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about the mechanical technicalities of photography–I cannot, for example, work a real camera, nor can I develop film, nor am I exactly proficient at photography programs like Photoshop. I do, however, know a bit about the art of actually composing a quality photograph. I am no stranger to concepts like perspective, the leading line, framing, or the rule of thirds, for example–and naturally used many of these techniques before ever learning they were “actually things.”

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The unedited photo above, taken on the shore of Lake Michigan in Covert, Michigan, in early in August, demonstrates the principle of the leading line. The wooden walkway disappearing around the bend acts as the natural entrance into the photograph, and, in a twist of luck, the curve of the clouds above matches the curve of the walkway and shoreline below.
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This photograph, also unedited, taken on the shore of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, in mid-August, demonstrates perspective, the rule of thirds, and something of a leading line, with the railing leading from the upper right corner of the shot, out towards the water.

Painting

Though I haven’t taken an art class since middle school, I have always enjoyed art. I rarely get to paint, but when I do, I find the act cathartic and liberating. It is one of the most relaxing, freeing, and expressive activities I have experienced.

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I painted the above piece during my freshman year of college at Michigan State.  I laid the canvas on the floor of my room, and painted it using, if I remember correctly, paper towels–and maybe some plastic grocery bags! I was too destitute to afford paint, canvas, and paintbrushes, so I improvised. The painting hung on my college bedroom wall throughout my undergraduate career, and currently hangs in our kitchen. People who see it often compare it to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a compliment I am humbled and happy to receive.  
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Most recently–this past spring–a friend and I turned our backyard rain barrels into canvases, transforming the drab black barrels into works of art. We spent roughly five hours with our husbands and my dogs in my husband’s hand-built, custom backyard workshop/shed/garage one Sunday, painting, talking, listening to music, and enjoying the fresh air as it blew through the open garage door. Above you see the barrels before our artistic efforts, and below, after. My friend’s is on the left, and mine is on the right. As with the first painting, several people have compared my rain barrel to Starry Night. I was trying to make it look like a jar of fireflies…
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When I was away at college in Michigan, I deeply missed Virginia Beach, a place I visited often during my high school years. This painting, which for a while was displayed on the mantel in my college home, alongside some paintings I convinced my roommates to compose with me, was my attempt at expressing my love for the boardwalk and beach. I also tried to work with perspective. Anyone who knows me and sees this painting immediately recognizes it is Virginia Beach.

Repurposing

When we think of creativity, we tend automatically to think of the act of creating something from scratch, and by default jump to activities like painting, sculpting, writing, singing, jewelry-making. But novel ideas in any context fall under the umbrella of creativeness. Finding a new use for an old item is its own form of creativeness. Both my husband and I excel in this area–perhaps he more than I, as he is actually capable of making new things out of old things, whereas I am only capable of envisioning what new things the old things could become. Our home is full of many of his creations, usually lamps, made of old gears, driftwood, piping, tripods, factory equipment, antique toys, old instruments, etc.

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An old, wooden road sign my sister and I salvaged from a burn pile in rural Vermont is now featured as wall decor in my husband’s and my bedroom, particularly appropriate because I am a high school teacher.
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A second wooden road sign, pulled from the same burn pile in rural Vermont, now hangs above our stairway, pointing the way to the family room and kitchen when one arrives at the bottom of the stairs.
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My husband fashioned the table lamp above from a piece of partially charred driftwood he found on the beach in the Northern Neck of Virginia. The small brass duck perched on the wood, he bought at an antique store in Kentucky, originally to sit atop the motor of his hot rod, where it did indeed spend several years tooling around Virginia and North Carolina in the open air. When he sold the hot rod, the duck found a new, less mobile perch on the base of this lamp.

Poetry Society of Virginia’s Annual Poetry Festival

If you’ve ever been to Richmond, Virginia, then you already know: We are a party city. We are the third most-tattoed city in the United States, just behind Miami and Las Vegas. We are fast becoming the craft beer capital of the world. And we throw a festival (or ten) almost every single weekend. This weekend alone, I attended Dominion Riverrock, an outdoor

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The skyline of Richmond, Virginia, on the shores of the James River, as seen from the suspension bridge to Belle Isle during a group hike organized as part of Dominion Riverrock.

festival celebrating Richmond’s active river life; Play Day at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, an open house with various arts and crafts workshops, from wood and metal working, to glass blowing, to pottery; and the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Poetry Festival and Conference. If you are reading this blog, you are likely a writer or a reader (or, most likely, both!), so this post will focus on the latter.

 

During my time at the festival, I was privileged to hear readings and lectures from Robert Arthur, the current Poetry Society of Virginia President; Nathan Richardson, a performance poet and workshop teacher for Hampton Roads Youth Poets; Gabriele Glang, a bilingual poet who teaches creative writing in Germany; and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, who was the Virginia Poet Laureate from 2006-2008. This post will provide take-aways from the lectures and workshops led by Mr. Richardson, as well as by Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda.

The Oral Tradition of Poetry, Nathan Richardson

The first lecture I heard focused on performance poetry, and was led by Nathan Richardson, himself a performance poet. One thing he said that struck me was this:

“Memory proved over the history of mankind to be the only fullproof [sic] method of safeguarding the thoughts, history, culture, literature, and law of the human race.”

How right he is, though it’s frightening, given how feeble our memories sometimes seem.

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Performance poet and writing teacher, Nathan Richardson, gives a lecture on the oral tradition of poetry at the Virginia Poetry Society’s Annual Poetry Festival and Conference on Friday, May 20.

But even more fallible are hard drives that can crash, flash drives that can break or become lost, papers that can tear or burn, ink that can smudge, lead that can be erased. Even pictures carved into rock will someday erode, smoothed out by the work of wind and water. For me, this was something of a wakeup call. I always feel like my creations are far more secure once written down on paper or typed up on the screen. But if I lose that paper, or if that flash drive fails me, I will wish I had committed my own lines to memory.

 

An additional lesson I took away from Mr. Richardson’s lecture was a definition of the musical genre of rap. I was unaware, as were, it seemed, all the other poets in attendance, that the term “rap” was born of the combination of “rhythm and poetry.” It’s essentially an acronym. I also learned that one “bar” of a “rap” piece is equivalent to one couplet in a poem.

His advice for poets was simple: “In poetry, leave space for the reader’s imagination.”

He also provided guidelines for poets who need to cultivate a poetic voice for poetry readings and slams. While the ratio does not necessarily need to follow this exact formula, Mr. Richardson advises that the poetic voice consists of 33.3% experience, 33.3% vocabulary, 33.3% passion, and .1% divine intervention. What does this imply for you if you want to become involved in performance poetry? It means first, that you must perform poetry–as much and as often as you can. Attend and perform at poetry slams and readings. Get the experience. It implies second that you must increase the number of words with which you are proficient–you must become more fluent in your own first language. Improve your vocabulary. It means also that you must love what you are doing–love what you are creating, love what you are saying. Be dedicated and passionate. Lastly, though, it means that a small percentage of what you are doing as a performance poet is out of your control. The words, the ideas, the rhymes will just come to you through some sort of divine intervention. You just have to do the leg work–the other 99.9%–first.

Ekphrastic and Collaborative Poetry, Gabriele Glang and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda

One of the foci of Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda’s workshop was the haiku. Before we began writing, Ms. Glang gave a few guidelines.

Haiku Guidelines

  • Do not mention the season about which you are writing. The image you convey with your words should make clear the season.
  • Always title your piece, and title it well. Think of a title as a free line with no syllabic restrictions.
  • Save syllables in the following ways:
    • avoid articles; use plural nouns instead
    • replace conjunctions with punctuation
      • the em dash can communicate change, epiphany, turning points
      • “ah!” can signify epiphany or surprise
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Gabriele Glang’s painting, “A Touch of Spring (Pink-Green),” served as inspiration for festival attendees to write haiku.

After providing us with these guidelines, Ms. Glang displayed a painting of her own creation, called “A Touch of Spring (Pink-Green),” pictured left, and we were given a few minutes to compose a haiku using the traditional three-line, 5-7-5 structure.

 

Ligne Donnee

The second exercise we completed in this workshop was writing a Ligne Donnee, or “given line” poem. We were paired up with another poet in the room and provided an art card that displayed one of Ms. Glang’s paintings. The art card my partner and I received is pictured below. Each of us then wrote just the first line of a poem, inspired by the art card. Then, we traded first lines with our partner. From there, we read our partner’s first line, and wrote a poem

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For the Ligne Donnee (“given line”) poem, participants were paired up and given an art card to inspire their collaborative poems.

based on that initial line.

 

My first line was:

Quicksilver cold stealing sunlight from the sky, icy, metallic sheen

The first line my partner composed was:

More light than water, the lake

I followed with:

lapping up sunlight spilled

between clouds,

poured over black foliage,

dripping down leaflet, branch, and bud,

saturating the bibulous bank,

infusing the gray-turning,

pale-turning glass,

impersonal, thirsty,

with borrowed warmth.

At least until dark.

Kasen Renku Form

The final exercise we completed in Ms. Glang and Ms. Kreiter-Foronda’s workshop was another type of collaborative poem, kasen renku. Within this form, the first poet composes a haiku (three lines in the traditional 5-7-5 format). The second poet reads it, and then composes two lines of seven syllables each. A third poet (or the first poet) reads the first five lines, and adds his or her own haiku. A fourth poet (or the second poet) reads what has so far been accomplished, and adds to it another two lines of seven syllables each. This process is repeated until the poem consists of thirty-six stanzas. This, along with the Ligne Donnee form, would make an excellent classroom activity for an English or creative writing class.

Conclusion

I so thoroughly enjoyed the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Poetry Festival and Conference, that I plan to attend future conferences, and am contemplating membership. Attendance allowed me to meet like-minded people, as well as produce a few new pieces of poetry. I also gained exposure to some very creative and productive poets. I learned about resources in my community, and came away with a few new lessons plans for my English classroom.