Monday, August 31, 2009

Review of "An Undertaking" by Jeffrey Harrison

This is an expanded version of a grad school assignment - my review of Jeffrey Harrison's chapbook An Undertaking. (Have I mentioned my Poetry Workshop has a chapbook focus? It's really cool - each week we'll read 2 chapbooks (give or take) and write a one paragraph response to each, then choose one poem from either book and write a poem in response to, or in imitation of, or otherwise relating to, it. That's the first half of the semester; second half we'll continue reading chapbooks, start researching chapbook competitions, and put together our own chapbook type collections. Super cool, huh?) This is the first chapbook I've read and responded to for that class. I didn't love it, but I appreciate it. For more detail, read on....

Oh, and I may post reviews of all (or most) of the chapbooks I read for that class. I know I will post a review of Lisa Ciccarello's At Night, the Dead later this week, as part of the Read Write Poem Virtual Book Tour so stay tuned for more book-reviewing goodness :)

--- end babbling. begin review. ---

Jeffrey Harrison’s chapbook An Undertaking embodies its title in two ways. The word “undertaking” immediately conjures thoughts of a journey or a project, but once a reader sees that the chapbook is dedicated to someone who’s recently died “undertaking” seems to imply all things funereal. The collection opens with a poem called “Saint” in which the poet addresses a sculpted stone saint in a museum and asks for his prayers, and then the bulk of the chapbook contains a group of poems that focus on the suicide of the poet’s brother Andy at age 47 but also delve beneath the surface of his life and into the processes of grieving and healing. The collection closes with a poem titled “Visitation” in which the poet’s mother hears the song of white-throated sparrows and, in the song of these “family birds” she hears the memory of loved ones gone but also the knowledge that everything will be all right, and that the sparrows, like all people and things, “…will stay/ for only a few days before moving on.” In spite of the big subjects of suicide and death, Harrison’s poems are most memorable when they include concrete details like Andy’s seeming obsession with socks, discovered by his parents and brother only after his death, the rhyming scavenger hunt clues he wrote for his niece and nephew, and the silly songs he sang to a Newfoundland dog when the boys were younger.

Some poems like “The Investigation” and “Plea” use form, rhyme, and repetition to order the emotion while others explore different line lengths and stanza patterns. The poem “The Investigation” is particularly interesting to me because it makes use of the villanelle form to harness the emotion of the subject. The conversational diction and straightforward narrative style develop in the reader the same distance that the poet eventually achieves at the end of the piece. After struggling to understand his brother’s death, he realizes that he never really will, and that he has to “let it go”, a phrase that echoes throughout the poem. The structure of the poem and the enforced casualness of the language remind me of the way that many people deal with loss: we force ourselves to keep up with our habits and our schedules, to keep up appearances, and to speak and act as though things are fine. In life, as in the poem, the acting will eventually bring us to the reality.

Overall, the language in these poems is remarkably restrained, the opposite of the melodrama one might expect based on the subject matter. While I admire Harrison’s ability to process emotions rationally through words, I personally felt an almost-forced calmness in the poems and would have liked to see a bit more rawness emerge in this chapbook. The physical chapbook, from Haven Press, is a beautiful artifact: dark grey covers, letterpress printing on cover and title page, handsewn binding; and the poems contained inside tell a sad story in accessible language. An Undertaking is available on

Saturday, August 29, 2009

One week down.....

Week 1 summary is now posted on The MFA Chronicles. If you don't want all the details, here's the gist: it was a busy week. I’m only IN class for 12 hours a week, but there is a very definite balancing act I’m going to have to master of prepping to teach, reading/writing for my academic classes, reading/writing for workshop, AND still managing to run and have some sort of social life. I feel good about it though; I feel like I can do it, and I feel (after only a week) that I definitely belong here, I don’t doubt that for an instant, not even when I’m waiting for a bus in the pouring rain or sitting at my table glaring at an article about the Affective Fallacy.

I did however write a poem for workshop on Wednesday. I'd tried to write something and failed miserably on Thursday night, then after everyone left tonight (my roommate and I hosted four of the MA girls for dinner) I started from scratch and came up with something I'm much happier with.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I think I will like Tuesdays this semester

Or at least I really like this one. I slept till 8:30, then a leisurely getting-ready, hopped on a bus at 10:13am and was in my office on campus by 10:30. I read through the very good student papers as I mentioned this morning, then did some random online stuff and chatted with people coming and going. Heated up my lunch, then went to my Writer in the Community class. Ooh, I am so excited about this class! It will be such fun, definitely a challenge, but in a good way. It's kind of a service learning course - in small groups (2 or 3 people) we will run a 10 week writing program in some community setting (nursing home, youth center, prison, etc). We have complete control over how we run the program, and we'll be comparing notes and sharing our experiences as we go, reading a lot of pedagogy, and writing about it. We'll be writing teaching journals AND posting some highlights on a class blog. And we'll be writing a paper at the end evaluating the whole experience, and we have the option of applying to present our papers at conferences and/or submit them for publication somewhere. Super, super cool! The class is also very self-directed; there are a few sites that have ongoing programs from previous years, but we also have the option of researching and setting up new ones. L and I are trying set something with a local women's center. If that doesn't pan out, we'll probably work with LGBT youth somewhere. I'd actually prefer the latter, but since someone in the course already made a contact at the women's center, it seemed easier to start there. So, yeah, super exciting!

Also, because we'll be out in the community at least an hour a week throughout most of the semester, the actually classroom component of the course will be shorter than it is marked on our schedules. It will be about two hours instead of three, which is great, because that means I'll be done around 2:30 and can come home and go running.

Which I also did today. A sweaty, somewhat hilly, four miles. I have not hit a 5 miler yet since living in PA. I was supposed to do one over the weekend and ended up doing 3.5. The weekend before my 5 miles was about 4.5. I've just gotta get into a routine and commit to it, that's all there is to it. I keep promising people I'm coming to OH in October to run the half, so I've gotta get in shape! If I can do another good 4 miles Thursday (like I'm scheduled to) and a shorter run on Friday, then I feel confident about jumping back into my training schedule and going for the full 6 miles on Sunday. At least 5 though - gotta break that boundary!

Tonight, I have some reading/homework/prep for tomorrow's teaching. And I'm nervous about the workshop class; first class meeting is tomorrow. Oh, and my loan finally disbursed tonight, but they're telling me it'll be at least 3 days till it's in my account! Hopefully that means Friday so I can buy my freaking books! Ugh, money....

But this is a happy post. So happy Tuesday thoughts. The weather was great, the student writing was good, class was good, the run was good, it's all good :)

Prophecy (and some preliminary thoughts on grad school)

I realized this morning when my mother sent me an email saying that my brother had moved to Georgia yesterday that I'd dreamed about that event the previous night. Thinking on it, I had also dreamed about another real event the night before that. I was talking with J online the other day about fall, about this time of year, and how it feels so complex and bittersweet. People, no matter where we live or what we believe, are connected to nature and to the seasons. Some of us more than others, or more consciously, but we all feel it; we feel the days lengthen or shorten. This time of year, we feel the year winding down, the winter (the death) that is coming. The equinox is coming, and Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead. The veils between worlds are thinner then than at any other time; past and present, living and dead, "reality" and "unreality" are closer and more entwined, and sometimes overlapping. Things change in the fall. Things end, but more often for me, they begin.

(I will expand that and make it more logical at some point, perhaps, but for now, moving on to an unrelated thought)

First grad class was yesterday morning. It's the Intro to Graduate Study. Intimidating and encouraging at the same time. I thought class went okay; I was afraid I would feel like everyone else was better prepared than I was, but it felt like most of us were a bit overwhelmed, which isn't really a good thing, but it was good not to feel I was the only one. The assigned reading for next week is going to be a chore... Some of it at least. Some should be fun (or fun-ish).

My first day of teaching went well yesterday, and I asked the students to write for ten minutes at the end of class about themselves as writers, their experiences with writing, strengths/weaknesses, likes/dislikes, etc. I just read their material this morning (during my office hour - how cool to be able to say that!) and I must say that I am impressed. I don't know if Penn State really does have higher standards than state schools in Ohio, or if PA high schools are better, or if I just have an unusually skilled section of students, or what, but their writing, even uncorrected, handwritten, in class, is at a higher level than I expected. I am happy! And challenged. Yay!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ready As I'll Ever Be

Tomorrow, at 9:05am, I will attend my first graduate class. Tomorrow at 4:40pm, I will teach my first English 15 class.

This is so exciting and scary!

Last week was very busy. I got on the bus at 8:36 every morning and orientation started at 9:00. We were mainly in one particular room; the location of the building was convenient but the desks/chairs in the room were horribly uncomfortable. Not just not comfortable, but truly painful. We had lectures about the Composition program and English department policy, we got course syllabi and rosters and schedules and lesson plans. We heard from faculty and current graduate teachers about how exactly they conduct the first week of classes. We graded some practice papers and spent a whole morning discussing them; by the far the most fun and helpful morning of the week. We had people come in and speak to us about diversity issues, sexual harassment, the Writing Center, the Counseling Center, the Women’s Center. We got a tour of the library and free lunch that day. We spent one morning and a separate afternoon in a computer lab learning about all sorts of technology issues. It was exhausting, mentally and physically.

But we socialized too. Except for the day the library gave us lunch, we were on our own for an hour to an hour and a half, so we got to eat with our classmates, or run errands with them, and just talk and get to know people. Thursday night, two of the other new MFAs and I walked over to the milk and cookie party. All the new MFAs were there and quite a few of the returning ones. We chatted and ate cookies and it was nice and relaxing. Friday night, my roommate and I and our neighbor drove out to a party at one of the faculty member’s houses; there was very good food, and I think all of the new students were there, along with a few returning students and a few other faculty people. Some wine was drunk by me, and much fun was had. Maybe 1/3 of us new folks convened at Mad Mex downtown after the party wound down and enjoyed some more laidback talking and drinking. Saturday was the EGO party. N cooked dinner for my roommate and I, then we went to the party. It was packed and hot and loud and crazy, but less so than the last time I’d been to that house (same house that hosted the first party of recruitment weekend). I got to talk with a few of the older students I’d either not met, or not spoken much with, before; and got to bond with a few of my fellow newbies. Some people got drunker than I had yet seen them, and I got drunker than I had been since moving here, but not too drunk. Four of us were singing along to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” in the car on the way home though. Fun stuff!

Everyone really is ridiculously nice, and, for a group of academic people, remarkably social. A handful of folks skipped the party last night, but most attended, and I think everyone there had a good time.

Today, I finished prepping to teach for the first week – I have outlines for each day, and I wrote out a full script for Monday and Wednesday, though I may not even refer to them; it was just helpful to write it. And I cooked a big pot of soup so I can eat leftovers this week, and I picked out an outfit to wear for my first day of teaching. I am as ready as I’m gonna get, and I am excited to get started and see how it goes!

I was thinking yesterday that I feel a little bit like I have lost sight of being a student this past week and just thought about being a teacher, but since our orientation was for teaching, that makes sense. I also have not bought my books yet, because I don’t have any money; I’m hoping my financial aid refunds tomorrow, so I can do that. My class tomorrow is Intro to Graduate Study; it goes from 9:05-12:05. Then I’ll eat my lunch (which I’ll pack in the morning), then hopefully go buy books, put them in my office, print out copies of an assignment sheet, pick up the copies of the syllabus that should be in my mailbox, and then spend some time reading for class – I’m assuming that we’ll have a reading assignment from that morning – and/or working on the 1-2 page writing assignment I have due for Tuesday. At around 4:00, I will switch my focus to reviewing for English 15, then get a cup of coffee and head to class. I’ll teach from 4:40 till 5:30 (I’m guess I’ll keep them at least 40 minutes if not the whole 50), then head home.

Tuesday I’m supposed to be in my office from 10:30-11:30, then I have my Writer in the Community class from 12:20-3:20. Wednesday is Poetry Workshop from 12:20-3:20, then office hours, then English 15. Thursday I just have English 602 from 1:00-2:15; that’s our teaching seminar. Friday the only thing on my schedule is teaching in the evening. I like that my schedule is busier early in the week, and freer as it goes on. I need to work in lots of writing time (as I have not been doing much writing recently) and my running time as well.

So, that’s where I am right now, on the eve of my first day as a grad student. I am so nervous and excited for this week, and I just want to get started!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Brain Full, Please Sleep

Here is a link to my post on The MFA Chronicles today:

It's a pretty fair summation of the first two days of orientation. So. Much. Information. Really, just SO MUCH! But it's good info, and I do feel like I could go in and at least get through the first day right now. We'll tackle days 2 and 3 later this week, and talk about/practice grading papers, and so on and so forth.

Tired now though, and going to get everything ready for tomorrow.

The MFAs are having a milk and cookie party on Thursday evening. Friday evening is a party at Dr. Glenn and Dr. Olson's house for all of us who've survived orientation. And Saturday night is an EGO (English Graduate Organization) shindig. So there is fun to be had as well.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Yet again, I am sitting on my balcony drinking coffee, with the laptop, doing nothing. This has been a very slow week: unpacking, getting settled, running a few errands, but not really *doing* much. Next week, all that will change. I'll be in Orientation from 9-5 every day, and then classes will start the next week, so I decided to take the time, while things are slow, to write out my goals for my MFA.

1. To write a lot! And to write the best poetry I can. To learn from my teachers and fellow students and from the new experiences I will have. To synthesize all of that in with my own existing voice.

2. To teach. To learn as much as I can about the theory and practice of teaching and to be the best instructor I can. To challenge and inspire and learn from my students. To be a force for good in their lives and their college careers.

3. To learn to network. I've never been good at this, but I'm hoping to learn and to make a lot of friends and professional connections. To contribute positively to workshops and classes and to the department. To join some sort of professional organization(s) and contribute to the larger community.

4. To take a non-fiction workshop, to develop a plan for the non-fiction book I want to write.

5. To put together a cohesive collection of poetry. To develop good writing and submission habits. To publish poems, and, ultimately, a collection.

6. To develop my voice and abilities as a critical reader and writer, to prepare and publish scholarly articles, to apply to (and get accepted into) the PhD program here at Penn State.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Lovely Day (and a bunch of boring details)

Well, I did walk to campus yesterday to get my student ID and set up my computer access and my email account. I actually liked the picture for my ID, which was a nice surprise, as I normally hate the way I photograph. Today I went and picked up the books I'll be using to teach freshman composition. Looked through them a bit this afternoon, and while it's kind of overwhelming, it's also very exciting. I am also desperately waiting for my tuition bill to post so that I can get my student loan money deposited into my checking account; it is this whole involved process where the bill doesn't actually post until after you activate you computer account, and then you have to submit it to the bursar, and then they can't "refund" your loan money until after the first day of classes. Even though I have a tuition waiver, I did request loans this first semester to help with the costs of moving and getting settled and leaving my old job and all of that stuff. I'm broker than I should be right now, but I have a very small paycheck coming next Wednesday (leftover from my job) and then hopefully, if all goes correctly, I'll have the loan disbursed the following week. I'm in no danger of starving in the meantime, but I can't afford to ride the bus, so I guess I'll be walking my first couple days of orientation; it should take about 35 minutes. I timed the walk to Burrowes today (the English building where I picked up my comp books) and it took 37 minutes; Willard, where orientation is being held, is slightly closer.

I actually had a very nice day today. We got our modem delivered this morning and now have real, reliable, internet that actually is intended for our use. I got back from campus around 1:00, I think, baked some sugar cookies, walked to the grocery and got a few things, read for awhile, then went running around 5:45. Had a nice run, for the first time; I don't know if I'm getting used to the hills, or if I just picked a better route this time. I also made a really yummy dinner: pasta with zucchini, chickpea, and tomato sauce. Yum, yum, yum. And lots of leftovers too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

First post from PA

Well, I’m here. I moved in on Saturday with the help of my wonderful moving posse. They left on Sunday afternoon, and I started unpacking. Sunday and most of Monday were spent unpacking and organizing. I checked out the grocery store and the Goodwill Monday afternoon and went for my first run in this new neighborhood. At first it felt a bit like running in Dublin did, past the apartment complexes and the cul-de-sacs, but then I turned up Whitehall Road, and it suddenly felt like southern Ohio: I was running beside a black-topped road, with fields sloping down to my left, hills rising softly through the humid air, passing separate houses with gardens and fruit trees and falling-down barns. It was lovely and homey.

My roommate arrived on Tuesday. I must say it is odd to have a roommate again. I am old and set in my single ways, so having someone else in the apartment just seems strange. She is nice though, and seems really laidback, and I am sure we’ll get along fine.

I still have not done anything all that constructive, in terms of going to campus and getting my id or my books or anything, but that can wait I guess. I am desperately poor right now, and trying to hang in there. I did however, on the topic of constructiveness, write a poem on Monday while sitting on my balcony.

Pennsylvania Morning #1

Walking my dog this first morning
we follow a path behind the building
bordered by an overgrown tree line -
maples and elms, a dark-leafed shrubby thing
I can’t identify, and plenty of weeds.
I recognize many of these plants from Ohio,
Queen Anne’s Lace, tall purple thistles
that punctuate the verge with danger,
wild grape vines with pointed leaves
and dusty curling tendrils, and the yellow tongues
of touch-me-not that nevertheless invite
my touch. I remember the blossoms as orange
when my mother took me hiking
on the Cleveland Metropark trails
she’d known as a girl and taught me
how they work and why; I wonder if
these are a different species or if
my memory is wrong, but the striated
green pods are swollen just the same,
and when I close my finger and thumb
around the largest it bursts just like
I knew it would. The pod splits,
its sides curl open like streamers,
the inside is white, the seeds fly free.

Also, I am now participating in a collaborative blog called The MFA Chronicles; all the contributors are starting MFA programs this fall and we’ll be comparing notes and sharing our experiences with each other and with readers. If you’re interested in the MFA process, check it out. So far I have posted an introduction and a long post about how I chose the programs to which I applied and how I ended up at Penn State. Feel free to give them a read if you want, but I’ll probably cross-post a lot of things here, if I think they’d be of general interest.