Friday, March 26, 2010

On Anticipation of National Poetry Month

I know I am home. Today when, at lunch, a table full of my colleagues, my friends, spent our time voluntarily making plans for celebration of National Poetry Month, I knew I was with my people. I do my best each spring to synchronize my lit class syllabus with the calendar as well, introducing poetry just past mid-April, hoping that by the time April Fool's Day rolls around, I've managed to light a spark or two at least.

Today was that day. Never do those fifty minutes of class time fly faster than when I'm teaching poetry. Even without the bell, I know when my time's nearly up by the rustle as obvious as hymn books scraping out of the racks as the preacher winds down his sermon and offer the altar call. I want to say, "Oh, sit back down. Let's blow off your math class today and just talk poetry." I've had wonderful teachers who loved poetry and passed that love on to me. I've also had teachers who firmly believed they held the answer key to all of the literary canon. For Mrs. Hopper, my fifth and sixth grade teacher, I am grateful for her willingness time and again to read to use Longfellow's "Skipper Ireson's Ride."

My family also passed along a love for poetry--nothing over the top. We just managed to be surrounded by it--Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, "The Duel"--the dreadful tale of the gingham dog and the callico cat, "Abou Ben Adhem" ("may his tribe increase"). Since Daddy's still preaching, he'll occasionally call and ask me to help him find a particular poem that's on his mind. I feel sure, too, that with a little prodding, he can still quote the last stanza of "Thanatopsis."

This month, I will keep reading as voraciously as ever, but I will be deliberately reading poetry. I have a backlog of chapbooks of friends and of friends I've never exactly met. That's where I intend to start. I'll be tuning in and sharing some of the best.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Revisiting a Favorite

If I didn't teach literature, I'm not sure how many books I'd read a second time--not that there aren't several I would love to revisit, but there are just so many out there still untouched. My re-reading experience, though, reminds me how much is to be gained by reading a book--or a poem or a story--for a second time or more. Sometimes even though the book hasn't changed, I have. Even when I've read a book recently, I make so many new discoveries the second time through.

This week my students in English 111 were to have read the first nine chapters of Ron Rash's latest novel Serena. I first read the book back before it went on the market, and I loved it. I had read Rash's three earlier novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight, as well as some of his poetry and short stories. Having taught Macbeth to high school seniors for many years, I particularly enjoyed the allusions and parallels.

Assigning a novel to a composition class is a tough sell, but all of our first year English classes are incorporating the novel this semester in preparation for Rash's appearance at our Writers Symposium April 22-23 on campus. Some grumbled a little, but as they've started to read, I've enjoyed hearing the chatter. Most gratifying of all, I get questions such as "Can I read on past the first nine chapters?" I overhear students saying, "Our cable went out, so I started reading it and then I couldn't quit." They hate Serena, the title character. I reassure them they are supposed to hate her. She's evil. She makes Lady Macbeth look like a Girl Scout.

When I recommend books to individuals, I can tailor my selections to fit the reader, but when I am helping to choose something for dozens, even hundreds of people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, I want to get it right. Since my overriding goal is to inspire a love of reading for pleasure, I want to do everything I can to make the literary experience a good one. In fact, my goal is for them to be ready for the next suggestion. I feel as if I'm participating in one big book club. I know, too, that having Ron Rash on campus to speak to them will be such a bonus. I can't wait to see what we pick for next semester.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Summer Hunger

Don't get me wrong: I love my job. I love teaching. I love my students. I love planning lessons. I do, however, loathe grading papers. I honestly believe I could teach writing better if, instead of sitting up all hours assigning a number grade to student essays, I could spend time one-on-one discussing the particular areas of improvement needed, I would be more productive.

What does this age-old English teacher complaint have to do with reading? Everything. I am always unnerved by the number of colleagues who don't read for pleasure during the school year. I do understand, though, but I refuse to give up. I do know, though, that while I'm falling behind in my personal pleasure reading, authors continue to pen and publish even more books I want to read.

Right now I'm working in time to read The Forger's Spell, the account of the Vermeer forgery scandal perpetrated during WWII. I'm still listening to The Castle in the Forest, and when I swap cars, I'm listening to The Virgin's Lover, Philippa Gregory's story of Elizabeth I alleged love affair with Robert Dudley. In my powder room, I catch a page or two of You Can't Drink All Day if You Don't Start in the Morning, another laugh-out-loud offering from Celia Rivenbark. On my nightstand stack awaits The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and Lemuria Books just delivered my signed copy of Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova.

Is it any wonder I'm X-ing off the calendar days until my summer vacation begins? I may not catch up then, but I can assure you, I'll make a valiant effort.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Listening Light

My book purchases vary from intentional to serendipitous: sometimes I go looking for a specific title, but just as often I fall for an intriguing title--or an enticing cover. My audiobook selections are more accidental. I work my way through the library shelves and then I search the shelves of off-price stores for books on CD. As expensive as they are at retail, I'm more likely to pay the price for a regular book. As a result, when I finish listening to one book, I have fewer choices for what to plug in for my drive than I do when I need a bedside book.

Lately, I've found myself listening to some darker fare. I just finished DeLillo's Falling Man, revisiting 9/11, and now I'm partway into Norman Mailer's last novel Castle in the Forest, which traces Hitler's (allegedly incestuous) ancestry--very interesting, but not prompting many laugh-out-loud experiences.

When I confess my audio addiction, lots of people tell me they just can't concentrate enough to listen in the car. I admit that sometimes I have to hit reverse myself, but I find listening much less distracting than a cell phone conversation, and I'm sure it demands less attention than texting!

For now, I have 13 more CDs to go, then one more recorded book waiting in the wings. With a weekend road trip in my immediate future, I hope to be ready to hit the library shelves again soon, hoping they've added some new acquisitions.