Category Archives: poetry

reading a biography (in the absence of you)

[NOTE: Reposting from 2015 to commemorate year 100 of Kurt Vonnegut's birth 11 November 1922]

i found myself sitting in my office
suddenly crying April 11, 2007

having just learned Kurt Vonnegut died

& this lingered for days & days
sudden sweeping tears & anguish

for this man i never met or knew
except for words that poured into print

then more than four years later
i sat in my bed reading his biography

"He died April 11, 2007" its last sentence

& again tears filled my eyes & my chest heaved
although this is the only way biography can end

(i toyed with reading it backward page by page
like Billy Pilgrim watching the movie of war)

but this second time was in the shadow
        of the absence of you

my realization that you were not there
& you would never be there again

although you still walk this earth
having chosen to set me aside for another life

this second crying is selfish & empty
like the refrain of loneliness

running though Vonnegut's life
like a blue thread in a black black cloth

—P.L. Thomas

On Art, Imposter Syndrome, and Epistemic Trespassing

Ada Limón’s “The Raincoat” ripped through me as I read the poem; it begins:

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. 

I was diagnosed with scoliosis in the summer of 1975 as I was about to enter ninth grade. My entire high school experience was shaped (literally) by wearing a full upper-torso brace.

This was deeply traumatizing for an anxious, skinny, and deeply self-conscious teenager, but it was also unimaginably moving—especially in hindsight—because my working-class parents never hesitated to seek out, pay for, and support anything I needed medically or emotionally to straighten my spine and live somewhat normally once it was removed.

My scoliosis years are also my introduction to reading, collecting, and drawing from Marvel comic books.

Recently, I have come back to creating art although I abandoned my aspirations to be a comic book artist somewhere in my early 20s.

I started out simply tracing from comic books in 1975, but soon began drawing freehand from my favorite artists working at Marvel. By my senior year and into early college, I was drawing more realistic pencil work usually from photographs.

I was entirely self-taught because my high school in the late 1970s had no art courses (until my senior year when the only art class offered was during a required class), just as it had no Advanced Placement courses.

Early in life, I was engaged in self-education in a way that seems logical as I remained in formal schooling until I was 37, when I finished my doctorate.

Yes, I have degrees in education, but my real expertise is learning.

I also spent decades learning to be a serious cyclist and my own bicycle mechanic. And my life as a creative writer, now mostly poetry, is very much self-taught (although I did enroll in one graduate creative writing course during my EdD).

However, all of this sparks a real tension for me that can be captured well in two concepts—imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing.

While I have returned to art, prompted by my partner exploring art for the first time in her life through Procreate, I have had to revisit what it means to do any sort of work from a naive and inexperienced position while there are people doing that same work from a position of expertise and many years of purposeful pursuit of that work.

My nephew is a professional photographer, yet, much as my partner expressed, he recently worried over texting about his submitting an art display on school shootings. He and my partner are very aware of both imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing (although the latter, more so as a concept and not necessarily the term).

The conversations with both of them while I have committed anew to being a visual artist myself (which has not progressed as I anticipated; see here and here) have allowed me to think carefully and deeply about how to justify being self-taught, how to navigate imposter syndrome, and how to avoid epistemic trespassing.

First, as I explained to my nephew, to do any creative work, art for public consumption, takes a degree of arrogance—the assumption that your expression matters in some way and that others should or need to experience it.

As a writer, I have the fortunate “gift” that despite my trepidations and insecurities, once I feel the urge to write something, I do it, I do it with zeal, and then I share it. (Yes, later I suffer the terror of having done all that, but the terror never impedes my doing it, fortunately.)

But as we in the literary world know, arrogance is a dangerous thing; arrogance is so dangerous, much of literature bangs the warning drum repeatedly: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains” (“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley).

Next, then, since creative acts take at least a modicum of arrogance, the key is the most important lesson I learned over three decades as a dedicated student: The moment you have a “great idea” you must understand that there are many people who have already had that idea and spent years upon years purposefully exploring that idea (or behavior).

Your creative arrogance must be tempered by humility, a healthy alternative to both imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing.

A doctorate (not exclusively of course) like any advanced formal schooling or training provides skills in that humility—such as first knowing there are experts that have come before you (and concurrent with you), researching who those people and their work are, and then assessing how to navigate their expertise in ways that inform your coming to know and to do.

My scrawny ass, fully braced, standing at the bar of my parents’ house knew that I deeply wanted to draw something as wonderful as Gil Kane, something as stunning as Jim Steranko, something as beautiful as Frank Frazetta.

During that same time I was falling in love with writers—reading, reading, and mimicking.

Being creative requires that balance between arrogance and humility; however, I also think one other reality is very important to confront.

American culture tends to suggest that many human behaviors are for gifted people only—especially visual arts and poetry, for example.

So, most of us pause when we have creative urges—”Who am I …?”—although, and I cannot emphasize this enough, to be human is to be creative.

Creativity is not for the gifted only. Or better yet, we are all potentially gifted, and thus, potentially creative.

My new life of visual art isn’t what I planned or expected. It involves the wonders of technology (iPad and Procreate) that allow me to blend my very naive attempts at photographs, my latent and self-taught abilities as a visual artist, and my many decades as a purposeful and serious writer.

For me, then, I move forward arrogantly with the humility of “Who am I …?” as my background music while I work.

POEM: grounded (these lies you must come to terms with)

did they tell you
the feathers are merely ornamental?

that’s to keep you from trying

that's to keep you from flying

grounded
ground into dust

•

did they tell you
you are no bird—

or of course
we need the babies?

need you overfull
weighted down

•

these lies
you must carry

these lies
you must come to terms with

—P.L. Thomas

NOTE: My original poetry will now be posted here, but please find my poetry-only blog here for older poems.

POEM: the last rest area in Missouri (this trail of me)

I guess I’ve always been a delicate man

“Lemonworld,” The National
i tiptoe through your garden
but it is dark
so there will be carnage

i should have done this barefoot
and in the daylight
i realize stepping blindly

then i could feel and see
this trail of me
my silent destructions

(other people would just tapdance on your heart
or carelessly bloody your shins
ruthless and graceless)

in the morning you will find me surefooted
knees caked in mud
my head resting apologetically against your back door

—P.L. Thomas

NOTE: My original poetry will now be posted here, but please find my poetry-only blog here for older poems.

Teaching in a Time of Conservative Tyranny

My spring 2022 schedule includes three classes, two sections of upper-level writing/research and one first-year writing seminar. During my second class today, while students were completing individual work before a class discussion, I scrolled through Twitter and found this:

I quickly Googled the poem, and decided to interject an impromptu mini-lesson between students completing the individual assignment and the class discussion.

Although I have been a teacher educator (and first-year writing professor) for twenty years now, I quickly put on my high school English teacher hat and conducted a lesson on Dunbar’s poem, reading it aloud and asking students questions along the way.

I repeated the lesson (also not on the schedule) in my third class, where students offered similar responses to the discussion.

Overwhelmingly, students identified the mask motif as an exploration of putting on an emotional front, noting, for example, the juxtaposition of “smile” and “cry” in the line “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries.” (Interestingly, one student immediately contextualized the mask motif in the current Covid era.)

When I directly asked students to identify the “we,” most immediately spoke about a universality of the poem being about “society” or anyone who identifies with the speaker in the poem.

After walking through the poem (and confirming that students were not familiar with the poem or Dunbar), I pulled up the Wikipedia page on the poem to highlight that it had been published in 1895 and that Dunbar was a Black poet who was born during U.S. Reconstruction and published in the Jim Crow Era.

I then noted the poem is about Black people masking for white people—the core of Chanea Bond‘s Tweet and the student’s awareness that at least 4 out of 10 students in the U.S. are now being taught in states with educational gag orders, a growing list of state-level legislation being proposed and passed by Republicans from Florida to Virginia to Texas to Oklahoma to Indiana and anywhere Republicans have unlimited power.

These educational gag orders include curriculum bans (often directly and indirectly invoking Critical Race Theory), book/text bans, and so-call parental rights bills that allow any parent to trigger censorship or reprimanding a teacher. While this legislation is devastating to public institutions (K-16), some bills include potential fines for private schools who take any public funds.

Attacks on books have spread beyond assigned reading, classroom libraries, and school libraries to include public libraries as well.

This wave of gag orders and censorship has included violence and threats as well as overwhelmingly impacting Black texts and topics along with any writers or works that deal with LGBTQ+ topics or experiences.

The mask being used to hide the racism and bigotry of these complaints and legislation is an insincere claim that student discomfort must be curtailed.

Some of the most extreme versions of gag order bills include requirements that teachers provide a year of lesson plans before the academic year in order for parents and others to review and approve them.

First, let me confront that last point; my impromptu lesson today was one of the best I have done in recent memory. Students were engaged, and I watched in real time as my students confronted ideas, as my students learned and became different people than when they walked into class today.

While lesson plans are important, they simply are not as valuable as being prepared to teach, and being prepared to engage with your students; a fundamental misunderstanding about teaching is that (as these gag orders and parental rights bills reveal) too many people think the job of the teacher is to transfer knowledge/content to students.

As most any teacher will tell you, we teach students—not lessons, not history or English or even The Great Gatsby.

As students and as future educators, my students today needed and deserved the lesson that came from a teacher’s Tweet. They also benefitted from a brief experience with how to read and engage with poetry along with the tyranny of partisan politics that is shutting the door on their lives as free individuals.

But my impromptu lesson today grounded in a text that may soon be banned from classrooms exposes the catastrophic misunderstanding of texts. Not a single student today recognized the powerful racial message intended by Dunbar because those students lacked historical and literacy context that is already missing from their formal education without the educational gag orders.

As I have stressed during this manufactured outrage from the Right, traditional education is already incredibly conservative.

Reading Dunbar’s poem, in fact, for its universal appeal strips it of its radical power—and cheats students from confronting the historical realities of Reconstruction and Jim Crow for Black Americans.

In 2022, students, teachers, teaching/learning, and academic freedom are under assault by conservative tyranny. There is nothing American or noble about censorship.

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is a seven-decades long slogan of the UNCF, and with the greatest of ironies, it now seems a central goal of Republicans to insure all minds are wasted.

Bond’s student is our canary in a coal mine, and soon, every classroom may be just as dangerous, literally, as a coal mine if we refuse to heed that student’s concern.

Poetry of Pain, Poetry of Hope

When I posted my newest poem yesterday, we weathered winter (silence & shouting), I realized this is my first poem of 2021. It is unusual since it is mostly a poem of hope, a poem uniquely set in the Covid-19 pandemic.

As I looked back, I also realized that the last poem of 2020 was about my aunt’s suicide, a human throat (ineffable), a poem of pain anchored to the frailties of being human—although this poem too cannot avoid the ghost of the pandemic lingering there.

My newest poem feels out of character for me, a person prone to cynicism and a general negative outlook on life paraded as a “realistic” view. The poem is also unusual because most of my poetry comes in bursts; first there are entire sections that come to me whole (often in sleep or near sleep) and then several hours of tinkering and shaping the poem that is calling to me to bring it forth.

I ended 2020 in the paradox of writing about the ineffable, a suicide of a family member who filled me with contradictory and confusing emotions. So starting 2021 with some hope feels both odd and perfect as I sit in South Carolina where spring is teasing us with warm weather and pollen.

we weathered winter (silence & shouting) is a spring poem, and I could have written something like it even before a pandemic. But the poem did not come in a burst; it came over many weeks and quite unexpectedly:

we weathered winter once again
the sun slipping away later & later
daylight & hope expanding

this winter like all winters
was unlike any winter before
unlike any winter ahead

The opening section above did come in a burst, which I typed out on a Word document many weeks ago. It sat on my screen since then, was eventually closed out, and then almost nearly forgotten.

A couple nights ago, I had what I consider sort of a poem vision that accompanies words, specifically “everything ascending into the trees.” In my slumber brain, I was writing a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, and I was jumbling literally all people climbing into trees with some nondescript memory of watching a nature show about monkeys scurrying into the trees when avoiding predators. I also was thinking about the Crakers from Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

When I woke up, I began playing with that kernel and eventually the second section appeared:

i imagine late at night
you do not understand
the silence & shouting

everything ascending
into the trees
completely quiet & afraid

But this could not have developed if I had not remembered the “winter” section abandoned weeks ago. I opened the file, thought about the need for section dividers, and plopped in the section section, drafting and playing with the original ascending idea as well as the “do not understand” part that also came to me during the night.

What developed was a poem with three-line stanzas, with two each per section. What I began to imagine, though, was how this ambiguous ascending scene matched the winter/end to the pandemic idea of the first section.

The silence/shouting contrast along with the sense of fear in ascending to escape something, to feel safe, needed something to combine the impressions. That is when I began to think about two beings huddled together, a conflating of two beings huddled together in a tree and two beings cuddling in sleep; and thus the third and last section:

how we huddle here
like lovers entwined asleep
hoping with spring

maybe there will be drums
maybe there will be horns
maybe there will be singing

One of the many things we have lost due to the pandemic is music concerts so my message of hope—imagining us all sitting in trees, afraid of Covid-19 and hoping for a return to something closer to normal (not a tree life)—about the possibility of returning to large crowds at a concert (drums, horns, singing).

The sound motif—silence, shouting, music—works, I think, to create the sort of tension that comes from the change of seasons. In the case of winter to spring, that tension is the feeling of hope resting against a nagging fear that spring somehow may not come after all.

My initial joy over the first section—the “W” alliteration of the first line I dearly love—were mostly affections of language, although I thought the idea of pandemic winter being more different, just as every winter is different, was clever enough and engaging. But there was no poem there.

The missing elements were about breathing a story into the “we” and also allowing those characters to develop even as I left much of the context ambiguous and even not directly spoken.

What is the job of poetry? I have been wondering. My poetry of pain next to my poetry of hope.

I understand that poetry is essentially concrete—images, characters, plot, setting; poetry is about the physical world doing stuff. But I also know that poetry is about what is not stated, what is not specifically identified.

My poem of pain ends with a sort of brutal specificity that attached itself to my own experience of discovering the cold details of the suicide. My poem of hope is suggestive, elusive, and in the most basic sense, hopeful.

Hope became symbolized by attending a concert, The National. Something I have done before so something I can reconstruct and imagine. During the writing of the poem, I had “I’ll Still Destroy You” on replay in my brain, although mostly different lines than what I chose to preface the poem: “Put your heels against the wall/I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you” cycling over and over in my mind’s ear.

2021 is now racing by, and with spring, many of us in the U.S. are overwhelmed with hope for more than the usual joy associated with longer daylight and warmer weather.

What if the vaccinations allow us to return to something we have missed—gathering close together to sing along and sway to the drums, the horns, and the singing?

I am hopeful because it is too painful not to hope.

The Writing Models Dilemma: On Authentic Writing and Avoiding the Tyranny of Rubrics

While my journey to the fields of English and teaching started with science fiction and comic books, a love of reading that was steered to so-called “literature” by my high school English teacher, Lynn Harrill, I walked into my first high school classroom as a teacher of English primarily committed to teaching young people to write.

My goal was not simply to have my students write well, but to write authentically, to write in ways that existed outside traditional classroom essay writing.

Teacher preparation for teaching high school English was for me (and remains mostly so) grounded significantly in teaching literature. As a result, I spent the first 5-10 years as a teacher teaching myself how to be a writing instructor.

Far too many of my practices were quite bad, even harmful. However, one thing kept my writing curriculum afloat—volume. I somehow recognized very early that people learn to write by writing (see LaBrant, 1953).

But I also began my career as a teacher of writing by embracing two contradictory commitments: (1) I was always anti-five-paragraph essay; however, (2) I tended to remain grounded in a (ridiculous) commitment to using an authentic-template approach.

It took me several years to recognize that teaching writing wasn’t about finding the right template, but about rejecting the tyranny of the rubric/template approach.

Without rubrics/templates, however, teaching writing to a relatively large number of students, most of whom are not genuinely motivated to become writers, is incredibly challenging. None the less, rubrics/templates are conducive to managing the teaching of writing, but they are essentially the enemy of authentic writing.

A watershed moment for me in teaching writing came with helping writers who wanted to write poetry. Writing poetry and teaching people to write poetry are very similar to writing and teaching students to write essays in that both can be accomplished in some superficial way with rubrics/templates, but that those outcomes are only pale imitations of the forms being attempted.

Most of us have participated in the clunky 5-7-5 approach to writing a haiku poem for class just as most of us have performed the five-paragraph essay.

The watershed moment in understanding how to approach the teaching of poetry included a direct move away from templates and mechanical structures (haiku, sonnets, etc.) and toward the conceptual elements that define a form or genre.

While prose is driven by the formation of sentences and paragraphs (both concepts that are not as easily defined as many think), poetry is most often characterized by lines and stanzas (even prose poetry is anchored to the norms it resists).

Without using syllable count, then, line formation and line breaks are something many poets intuit or feel—stanza formation as well.

When I work one-on-one with an emerging poet, I attack lination (line formation and breaks) and stanzas by asking the poet to be aware of the “why” in those formations and whether or not there is any pattern guiding that “why.”

It is about having a purpose, not that one purpose is correct.

This work is very complex, but it is at a conceptual level, not the mechanical framing of rubrics/templates.

Teaching writing at the conceptual level, however, can seem abstract to students (who lack the rich experiences with text as writers for those concepts to be concrete); therefore, I soon began seeking ways to merge concepts to the concrete.

Here I also began to blend more intentionally my responsibility for literature and reading instruction with my writing curriculum by presenting our text readings as models for our journey as writers.

To be authentic in our pursuit as writers, I eventually realized, ours was not to reject rubrics but to reimagine our paths to rubrics. I knew that handing students stilted rubrics/templates was mostly about compliance and did not foster the sort of conceptual understanding my students needed.

The teacher-created rubric makes most of the writer decisions for students that they need experiences with in order to be authentic and autonomous writers.

However, I needed to help students develop their own toolbox of rubrics drawn from a wide and rich reading of texts that model the many ways that writers produce any form or genre.

Poets create poetry always in conversation with forming lines and stanzas just as essayists are aware of beginnings, middles, and ends as they navigate sentences and paragraphs.

For at least thirty years, then, I have been providing my students compelling models of the sorts of essays they are invited to write and walking them through reading-like-a-writer activities (see here and here).

And for the past two decades, where I teach undergraduate and graduate students, I have worked diligently to provide my students detailed models with my comments embedded to walk them through some of the more mundane elements of writing in formal situations (college essays, scholarly writing, public commentary)—citation, document formatting, etc.

Two of those models (linked above) are for cited scholarly essays using APA and public commentaries. Periodically, I create new models and revise my embedded comments, seeking always to refine the effectiveness of using models for teaching writing.

Now here is the dilemma.

Many years ago I had to accept the sobering fact that research shows that teaching writing by models is only modestly effective, far less so than something as clunky and inauthentic as sentence combining (sigh).

But I also live the reality that models often fall short of why I use them and how they should support students writing authentically.

This spring, in fact, I have implemented two new models with embedded notes, and I have been increasingly frustrated by the jumbled efforts at public commentary in my upper-level writing/research course.

That frustration, however, has led to a new understanding, coming 36+ years into teaching writing.

My models with notes are primarily generic examples to walk students through some of the structures and formatting expected in formal cited essays or when submitting a public work for publication. While I am frustrated always with students failing to format as required with these models right there in front of them, I have resolved myself to this process taking several rounds for students to “get” these (trivial) elements of submitting original writing.

My ah-ha! moment this semester has been to recognize that students have repeatedly ignored the public commentary assignment and have clung instead too directly to the model by creating a backward rubric/template for their public commentary submissions.

I soon realized that many of the students simply mimicked exactly my number of and types of paragraphs provided in the model (much of which wasn’t appropriate for this specific assignment).

Of the two major writing assignments, of course, writing a public commentary is the one more foreign to my students, the one about which they have the least expertise. In desperation, they have reverted to the inauthentic process most of them have experienced as writing instruction—prescriptive prompts and conforming to rubrics.

I have been long aware that my writing instruction is mostly unlike what students have experienced. What I ask students to do is extremely hard, often frustrating, but something they genuinely can just suffer through briefly and return to the normal ways of writing essays in college.

There is little I can do about this outlier aspect of my classes and practices, but I am now better equipped to have the rubric/template urge conversation earlier and more directly with students.

Using models and models with embedded notes can be more effective with greater intentionality and my diligence in responding to students who resist working toward conceptual levels of understanding by defaulting to rubric/template mode.

The dilemma with using models to teach writing is a subset of the larger problem with nudging students away from performing as students and toward performing as writers (or whatever role we are trying to achieve—pianist, scientist, historian, etc,).

This newest round of better understanding how to teach writing is yet another adventure in teacher humility—confirming that I must always be diligent about what I am doing and how they guides (or misleads) my students in pursuits we share.

Teaching and learning are different sides of the same complicated coin.