For Thursday (9/10) we read “My Dog is a Little Obese” by Ellen Kennedy, “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie” by Junot Diaz, and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. The theme was DIRECT ADDRESS and INSTRUCTION. As on Tuesday, we spent most of the time on the fiction piece. I think this is because fiction feels “easier” to talk about than poetry, like you’re not going to screw up the technical terms or something. And I think that having a teacher who is primarily a fiction writer contributes to this atmosphere, so I’m going to work harder in the future to check myself. But I think there’s a second reason as well, which is that a relatively straight prose narrative like the Diaz story (or Hemingway last week) yields itself to a kind of knee-jerk cultural studies reading, where the text is really just a pre-text for the themes and politics it evinces or brings to light. Especially with a piece like this one by Diaz, where the narrator is giving “you” instructions on how to re-arrange your apartment so you don’t look as poor as you are, and then impress the various girls you might have invited over, with particular race-based instructions for each one. I hate this way of reading.
It’s not the students’ faults; it’s just how they’ve been taught to process texts, by going for the socio-political throat of the thing at the expense of its aesthetic achievements (and the techniques used to execute same). For me, what makes the Diaz piece exciting and astonishing, is not that he “takes on” race or class issues–I expect that he’ll do that, or anyway, I’m not surprised. What makes it wonderful is how he pulls off a flawless narrative voice–totally believable, authentic, and engaging–and never once drops the central conceit of the direct address, even as he sneaks an actual no-fooling plot into the story through the back door. And that he does it all in what, five pages or something. And how, at the end, after “your” hookup with the girl is abruptly abridged in muted anguish, it’s not her putting her shirt back on that signals the true end of the experience, but rather when she combs her hair, “the sound of it stretching like a sheet of fire between you.” Because for all intents and purposes, that’s what it might as well actually be. But once more, I don’t blame the students. They’re eager, which is just how I want them. They want to swing for the fences of everything–and they should. And I’m glad that they see all the political and racial stuff in the story. Frankly I’d be worried if they didn’t.
Which is why the reaction to Ellen Kennedy’s poem, “My Dog is a Little Obese” first concerned me. They didn’t understand why the narrator felt bad about paying for the four clif bars at Albertson’s, especially after not feeling bad about all the ones that were stolen. Some of them theorized that perhaps the speaker felt bad about all the stealing, when she’d had the money to buy what she wanted all along. Some of them didn’t know what Albertson’s was. I finally broke down and asked if we had any vegans, anarchists, or failing that, kids who’d been punks in high school in the room. Turned out we didn’t, so I explained that for this narrator, stealing from corporations is a positive value, whereas patronizing a corporation is something like a crime. Talk about cultural studies… But at least it made sense to them after that. Onward then, to the burning question of the title.
Now, this was where the class really shone. Once again, they found something I’d never seen before, in a poem I’ve probably read forty times. I had come in prepared to disown the title, because I had no explanation for it other than that Ellen probably thought it was a funny thing to write. But the students linked the dog in the title to the half a clif bar that gets placed in the bowl about midway through–another part of the poem I’d taken for mere randomness, which perhaps proves at least one of the dangers of trying to critically read the work of people you think you know something about. The students told me plainly that the speaker in the poem fed the other half of the clif bar to the dog (they inferred that the bowl was a doggie bowl) and that this which is why the dog was a little obese. This made complete sense to me. I was totally elated and also felt a little silly. Then the real fun came at the end, when we realized that the final lines of Kennedy’s poem reveal that the speaker is not in fact the “you.” It turns out in the second to last line, that there is a definitive “I” in the poem, and that “you” is some other person that I is addressing. So Kennedy became the sort of middle part of the Venn diagram, because her poem is instructional, like Diaz’s story, but its mode of direct address is not merely rhetorical. Like Marvell, Kennedy is trying to convince somebody to do something (“put your tongue in my mouth”).
We spent the least amount of time on Marvell. My logic ran as follows: it’s probably the best poem ever written in English (top 5, anyway) so really what’s there to say about that? Besides, I wanted us to get to our writing exercise, and I had already talked for too long, so instead of saying much about Marvell we just read it out loud together. I had one of the students start, and she went through about half the first stanza (till around “the conversion of the Jews” or so) and then I picked it up for a few lines, then another student took over, then another. After we finished, we talked about rhyme for a minute and then I told them it was time for the writing exercise.
The exercise was to write a direct address modeled on any of the three pieces we’d read, in which the student was to offer “instructions for doing something that is not usually explained” (ie racially profiling in dating, or stealing health food bars) or else to “talk a person into doing something he or she isn’t sure about doing.” We spent not quite 15 minutes writing. Just to show I’m a sport, I did the exercise too. Then I called the class back to order and it was sharing time. Volunteers were a shade slow at first, but then things picked up and in the end we had more volunteers than we had time for. I’ll have to plan for more sharing time in the future. Also, to my surprise and delight, the Marvell rubbed off more than expected, and two of the pieces presented were in highly competent rhymed verse!
So that was class. At the end I handed out “Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful” by Christine Schutt, along with the following four Emily Dickinson poems: “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “I felt a funeral in my brain,” “There came a wind like a bugle,” and “Just lost, when I was saved!” The Schutt story is in A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, and all the Dickinson poems are Google-able. Tuesday’s discussion will be a lot more open-ended than today’s. I’m rapidly learning to trust my students to make connections between works, rather than force them to see what I see. And in so doing, I am learning to trust myself to guide them through that process of learning to see for themselves. Of course what they don’t know is that Schutt is a huge Emily Dickinson fan, or that I picked these Dickinson poems from a list Christine made because I emailed her and asked her to. If they’re really quick on the trigger, they’ll have thought to Google me, and could even be reading this post right now, and thus learning the secret, but my suspicion is I’m not really on their minds when I’m not in front of them, yapping, which is probably–again–just as it ought to be.