Sunday, April 4, 2010


To give you a sense of my vision for Trillium, I thought I'd offer here the Rationale I gave to QEP when asking for more funds to support the journal.  I tried here to outline the unique role Trillium plays on our campus.  I'll only add that recently I had a discussion with a business professor at the college, and she spoke about how vital she sees creativity to success in business.  Without it, how can one be innovative?  How can one see new ways to solve old problems?  I often wonder if the American education system puts enough stress on creativity--something no standardized test is able to measure.  I'm honored to be a part of one of Piedmont's creative outlets.


The updated version of Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy created by his former student Lorin Anderson recognizes “creating” as the highest form of thinking (see Fig. I).

Fig. I Bloom’s Taxonomy, from

Trillium’s goal is to encourage this highest order of thinking campus-wide.  Our journal encourages students to use their knowledge, whether scholarly, extra-curricular, or personal, to create works of literary and visual art for publication.  As the updated taxonomy suggests, this work demands a solid knowledge basis not only in the artist’s or writer’s subject matter, but also on the conventions of his/her chosen media.

Our team of student editors, working under the guidance of an experienced literary journal editor (Dr. Sian Griffiths), evaluates each work, building on their understanding of craft.  Our discussion of each piece leads to comparisons with other published works.  Again, these students are applying their understanding of literature to both analyzing and evaluating the work of their peers, which employs the highest orders of thinking.
Finally, our graphic design team is working under the supervision of graphic design professor Kaitlin Wilson-Bryant to create a logo and website that will best represent Piedmont’s campus and our students’ work.  They’ve met with the student editors to establish a vision for the journal that guides the designers in their creative efforts.

Trillium has a wide-ranging impact on student learning across all disciplines on our campus, and this grant would greatly enhance our ability to reach all Piedmont students.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Meter in "Christopher Robin" by Mas Rapido

I couldn't resist another bit on poetry in song lyrics.  I was listening to Mas Rapido's "Christopher Robin" this morning on my commute (good driving song--I'm linking the title to a YouTube video in case you don't know it) and started thinking about how clever this song is in its use of meter.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the lyrics on line, so I'll have to be a little dangerous and transcribe them myself, but here's a snippet:

Christopher Robin, Christopher Robin's dead
He had a circus living inside his head
He was a poet, he was a setting sun
He was a beacon shining for everyone.

The rhyme on the page is overly heavy, but the music downplays the rhyme and plays up the rhythm, and the rhythm is what I want to talk about here because it's pretty darned cool.

Because I don't have a way to mark this above the syllables themselves, I'm going to use ' to mark stressed syllables and - to mark unstressed syllables.

"Christopher Robin" scans as follows: ' - - ' -
"Christopher Robin's dead" scans: ' - - ' - '

In other words, the lyrics, start with a strong dactyl and immediately shifts on us by substituting a stressed syllable for an unstressed in the last syllable of the second foot.  (If you have no clue what I'm talking about, this link may help.  Wikipedia also has a decent entry on meter, though it might be a little overwhelming and contains far more than you need to know for the purpose of this little essay.)

I hear the meter for the first verse as (depending on how you emphasize and where you mark the feet)--

Christopher Robin, Christopher Robin's dead   ' - - ' - ' - - ' - '
                       (dactyl, trochee, dactyl, trochee + ' foot)
He had a circus living inside his head                 ' - - ' - ' - ' - - '
                       (dactyl, trochee, trochee, trochee, iam)
He was a poet, he was a setting sun                  ' - - ' - ' - - ' - '
                        (dactyl, trochee, trochee, iam, iam)
He was a beacon shining for everyone.              ' - - ' - ' - - ' - -
                        (dactyl, trochee, trochee, iam, pyrrhic)

(You could also see line one as dactyl, trochee, dactyl, dactyl if you don't here "dead" as stressed--and the way the singer lowers his voice, we're sort of asked *not* to stress it, but since the word naturally tends to fall as a stressed syllable, I've marked it that way.  Ah, the fun of meter!)

The last line, like the first, has a hard caesura in it--how very Anglosaxon and how pure awesome.  But also, look at the way each line consistently opens with the same metrical foot pattern (dactyl + trochee) and then shifts.  The rhythm of the words themselves has us guessing, which leads us subconsciously to listen especially well to the second half of each line.  We're waiting to see what will happen next, what rhythmic surprise the band has in store for us.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that Mas Rapido sat down and said, "let's mess around with some dactyls and trochees in this song."  (I'm not going to suggest that they didn't either.  This is clearly an intelligent group of song writers, and I would not be so fool hardy as to assume them ignorant.)  That aside, good musicians are aware of the rhythms they create in the words themselves and how those rhythms must respond to or react against the music of the guitars, bass, drums, etc.

These are the things I think about when I'm driving in to teach you all.  Are you guys as blown away by this song as I am?  I can't stop listening to it. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My Summer Vacation: suggested readings for a fictional escape

The setting: a small, wind-beaten cottage off the Oregon coast.  "Cottage" implies, perhaps, too much coziness.  It's small and drafty and was once painted white but the wind and salt have stripped much of the paint off the side facing the coast.  Eggs and bacon fry in a beaten skillet alongside a whistling kettle on the old gas stove.  The drizzle appears to have settled in to stay.  After breakfast, you'll read for a while in the once-gold easy chair that sits next to the small wood stove that taking the chill off of the cloudy and cold summer morning.  Amongst the pile of novels you've brought are a few story collections, and you decide to start with a few quick stories from those.  The cliffs here at the edge of the world calls for a little grittiness and realistic depictions of human weakness, but the weather calls for a little humor--where else can one find sunshine in such a place?

George Saunders "Sea Oak"
If you're offended by bad language and coarse behavior, this is not the story for you; however, the story is one of the funniest satires of contemporary America I've read.  The main character works at a restaurant called "Cockpit" that appears to be a male version of Hooters to support his deadbeat welfare mom sisters and his minimum wage earning and unfailingly optimistic aunt.  When his aunt dies early in the story, things appear to turn for the worse...until she comes back and the characters are forced to re-evaluate what exactly could be worse than their unflinchingly American lives.

Louise Erdrich "Sister Godzilla"
There is simply no finer writer in America today than Louise Erdrich.  As always, she creates a vivid world in a small space.  Here, one girl confronts her own insecurities after being caught making fun of the nun who teaches her.  As she struggles to please the teacher she feels she may have hurt, she reveals a deep sympathy towards the nun that suggests her fears of having hurt are, at their core, fears of being hurt.  The characters are fiercely strong and so clearly drawn that Erdrich doesn't seem to be creating a world but reporting one.

Robert Olen Butler "Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of a Parrot"
This story, like the other stories collected in Tabloid Dreams, takes its title from tabloids, but tabloid writing ends there.  Butler imagines a full back story into the protagonist, a parrot, who has been purchased by the wife he had in his last life and now must watch her move on.  Butler manages a nice balance between humor and sympathy as we watch the man/parrot struggle with issues of power and control when both his physical power and his spoken language are all but taken from him.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lyrics and Poetry

Historically, a lyric was a poem.  Poetry was made to be sung, accompanied by a lyre (the root of lyric) and thus we still emphasize the sound and the rhythm as crucial elements of poetry.  The jazz influence of the early 20th century showed that these sounds could work through dissonance as well as euphony, and contemporary poetry continues to experiment with the sounds of words.

I've heard it said that poetry is dead, but the radio speaks otherwise.  Perhaps that's a dated reference: Pandora speaks otherwise.  At any rate, I can't talk about poetry and not also talk about music.

Most of what I hear is fairly stupid or banal--the lyricists have not aspired to poetry--but some lyricists have clearly tried for something greater.  I mentioned Johnny Cash's song "Folsom Prison Blues" in class a few weeks back, and I stand by that as a well-crafted narrative poem.  It's spare and surprising in all the right ways, and this is why it's stuck with us for so long.  Brian mentioned "Avalanche" by the Butthole Surfers yesterday, and I said I'd stand by that one as well (although I'll admit I've never cared for the band's name). 

Here are the lyrics:

Marky got with Sharon,
Sharon got Sharee,
She was sharing Sharon's outlook on the topic of disease,
Mikey had a facial scar,
and Bobby was a racist,
They were all in love with dying,
They were doing it in Texas,
Tommy played piano like a kid out in the rain,
Then he lost his leg in Dallas he was dancing with the train...
They were all in love with dying,
They were drinking from a fountain,
That was pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain.

I don't mind the sun sometimes the images it shows,
I can taste you on my lips and smell you in my clothes.
Cinnamon and sugary and softly spoken lies,
You never know just how to look through other people's eyes
Some will die in hot pursuit in fiery auto crashes,
Some will die in hot pursuits while sifting through my ashes,
Some will fall in love with life and drink it from a fountain
That is pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain.

I don't mind the sun sometimes the images it shows,
I can taste you on my lips and smell you in my clothes.
Cinnamon and sugary and softly spoken lies,
You never know just how you look through other people's eyes

Another Mikey took a knife while arguing in traffic,
Flipper died of natural death, he caught a nasty virus.
Then there was an ever present football player-rapist,
They were all in love with dying they were doing it in Texas.
Pauly caught a bullet but it only hit his leg,
Well it should've been a better shot and got him in the head.
They were all in love with dying
They were drinking from a fountain
That was pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain.


This one isn't narrative like "Folsom Prison Blues," but from the first lines on, I know these lyricists care about sound.  (Alliteration and assonance abound.)  And I like what's left UNsaid.  Too many writers (myself included) give too much.  They don't give the reader a place in the poem. 

Here's what Louise Gluck wrote on the unsaid:

What I share with [poets in my generation] is ambition; what I dispute is its definition. I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum. … It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.  (Gluck, Louise. "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence." Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry. New York: Ecco, 1994. 74-75.)

It takes a great deal of confidence in your images and your language to give up control and leave things unsaid, but ultimately, this is one of the features that great poetry shares: it lets the reader share the questions and the discoveries and it doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

Now I'm not saying that the Butthole Surfers song is *great* poetry, but I will say it's better than average and has a lot of the traits I'd like to see from the young writers submitting to us at Trillium.  The lyricists give us images of people in various states of moral decline and lets us draw from it what we will without telling us how to feel or what to think, the way less confident writers might.  It strikes me that this is worth thinking about.

Friday, February 5, 2010

How Do I Solve a Problem Like Maria?

or musical submissions.

It seems there are a bunch of issues here tumbling around trying to get our attention: the music, the lyrics, the interrelationship of the two, and a certain je ne sais quoi.

I'll be the first to admit, I have strong opinions about music.  I'll also be the first to admit, I need to list to a piece several times before I can make up my mind.  Still, I've never tried to articulate what draws me to one piece of music and not to others.  Why do I react so strongly against Tori Amos and in favor of Nirvana?  Why do I click past any DMB or Creed song but listen to Josh Ritter or The Fleet Foxes or Belle and Sebastian?

Most importantly, given that others whose discrimination and taste is the equal of my own actually love Tori, the DMB, and Creed, how do I determine, beyond my own whimsical taste, what is musically decent and what is not?

Why do I feel so confident in my abilities to discern a good poem from a bad one, and so reluctant to apply the same taste to music?

I'm going to be listening to each of our musical submissions a lot in the next month or so, trying desperately to transcend taste and get some answers...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

41 Poetry Moves

This link should get you to my brother-in-law's post about contemporary poetry moves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Aesthetics, cont.

I also have to post this image, which I found for my Cowboys and Indians class the other day and am newly in love with.

I love the combination of bold graphic design and older style text--this love of the old blended with the new seems to be a hallmark of my aesthetic at the moment.  Steampunk gets me for the same reason, though I like the texts far less than I like the images: