Posts in: CO200

End of Week 4 and the Block

Happy block break everyone! I definitely meant to write this post either last night or this morning, but found that I needed to give myself a little bit of a break before writing this! Although our final paper for this class was fairly short (especially since my last block ended with me writing my thesis), the idea of writing yet another something right after I finished my paper was more than I really wanted to do! Anywho, I hope you’ve all made it through the end of the block and can take some time to relax and rejuvenate before jumping into the last block of this school year!
We spent all of this week work4ing on our final papers, so I don’t have much to talk about on the reading side of life! Over the weekend, we were originally supposed to read a novel called Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, but our professor decided to make that an extra credit assignment (read it and write a reflection) because we wouldn’t have the time to do the novel justice. I (along with quite a few of my classmates it sounds like) decided to read the book, mostly because I’ve quite enjoyed the readings for this class, but also in part because I was already part way through it! I can’t say it was my favorite thing we’ve read this block (that award probably has to go to Brando Skyhorse’s The Madonnas of Echo Park), but it was still an interesting read! Of all the books we read, this book and the collection of comics, The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S dealt the most explicitly with sexuality. I didn’t spend any time comparing how the two works grapple with the issue, but it would definitely be a good thought experiment! They’re both somewhat gritty representations, but beyond that I don’t really have anything to say!

Our final day of class was a peer editing day. Whether intentional or not, I was partnered with another senior (not an English major though) and we’d both written our papers on the same short story. For all that it was a peer editing exercise, it was kind of exciting reading another paper about this particular short story. It’s all of ten pages, yet our papers went in two completely different directions! Although that can sometimes be a bit disconcerting, I think we both felt pretty good about it because we knew that at the very least, we’d picked a somewhat controversial, but definitely arguable thesis, which is kind of the whole point of those kinds of papers!

I hope you all have a wonderful week! With the class over, this is my last blog post, so thank you to everyone who has read it! I hope it’s been enjoyable and informative!

End of Week 3

Now that we’ve reached the end of week 3, almost all of the reading is done (we have one last book to read this weekend), which seems kind of crazy to me! After spending several years on the block plan, you would think that I’d be used to how quickly blocks come to an end, but the end of this block has definitely snuck up on me (maybe because I was in a double-block at the start of the semester)! To all my fellow students out there, good luck with your fourth week! We’re in the home stretch!

The readings this week have had a very different feel from the readings of the previous weeks, and the texts for almost every other English course I’ve taken. We started off the week with a collection of comics, which was definitely a new experience for me! I’ve never really read comics, even as a kid, so it took some getting used to because there is a very different set of skills involved in reading comics, especially when you read them through a literary lens. Although it was hard work in the beginning, I found it much easier and therefore more enjoyable once I settled into the rhythm of reading comics. Not sure I necessarily want to read more comics, but I’m glad I had the chance to experience a different medium and now I have a better idea of how to read comics if I ever need to do that again!

On Tuesday, we had a much-needed day off to read. As often happens around this time of both the block and year, a bunch of people are dealing with various illnesses, which, when coupled with the workload of English classes, make time off incredibly valuable! Reading days give us all a chance to recharge a bit, which helps out our discussions for sure! I always enjoy reading days because I have the chance to sit and read a book basically straight through. While most people probably think that sounds like a somewhat torturous experience, I think it’s a really interesting way to read books every now and then. Reading a book in one sitting helps me see connections that I wouldn’t have made if I had broken the book up into segments to read at various times. So if you have the time and patience, try doing it sometime! Maybe, you’ll see things a little differently too!

I think one 3reason the texts from this week felt so different to me is because they were more contemporary works. Although the comics were published in the late 1980s, the content deals with contemporary issues (modern relationships to land, the treatment of women and queer identities come to mind). Hernandez confronts these and other issues in a fairly head-on attitude, which seems much more like current-day approach than I would have expected from someone writing in the 1980s. Brando Skyhorse’s novel The Madonnas of Echo Park and Myriam Gurba’s collection of short stories titled Painting Their Portraits in Winter were both published in the last six years and depict a number of the same themes as Hernandez. Because the three works shared similar themes, I found myself tracking how the authors approached the treatment of women and queer identities. I haven’t had the chance to form any kind of conclusions from what I’ve noticed, but it’s been interesting to see the similarities and differences!

With fourth week upon us, I’m off now to read a novel and research articles for our final paper! To any of my classmates reading this, happy researching! To other students, happy fourth week! To everyone else, thanks for reading!

End of Week 2

Now that we’re at the end of our second week and more or less halfway through the class, people are beginning to feel more comfortable with each other and the course material, which means that we’re able to have deeper conversations with participation from a greater number of people! Yay! I’m really looking forward to weeks three and four and the discussion we’ll have then because we’ll all be even more comfortable and we’ll be reading more novels. This week we’ve focused on short stories, which has been fun because I think short stories are a really good way of developing analytical skills without overwhelming students with too much material to work with. But I almost always want more from short stories, so I’m definitely looking forward to novels because they contain a greater amount of complexity because they have more space and time to develop ideas, relationships etc!

For me, this week has reminded me of two very important things. The first is the skills required for a strong close reading assignment. I don’t think I’ve done a legitimate close reading assignment since my first year of college, so even though I use close reading concepts every time I write a paper, I forgot the absolute attention to detail required by a close reading. While writing these close reading papers, I keep finding myself wanting to make connections to other parts of the text or to other texts I’ve read. Although those connections will definitely help me out in the long-term, they are NOT the point of a close reading where you’re meant to stay within a specific passage and flesh out what you have in front of you! So lesson learned! It’s always a good idea to go back to the basics even when those basics challenge you do to things differently!

The second thing I’m taking away from this week is that just sometimes disliking a text is actually a sign of a good writer! We read Tomas Rivera’s Y no se lo trago la tierra (And the earth did not devour him for those who need the translation) earlier this week and I really, really struggled with it! Although quite short, it took me quite some time to read it because I would get so frustrated with how destabilized I felt while reading! I honestly felt like I wasn’t understanding what Rivera was writing, but after a little bit of reflection I decided that the instability of the text and narrative is quite intentional and helps give readers a better idea of the lives of migrant workers. After a few minutes more, I realized that I’d learned this lesson earlier in the school year when I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for a class. Sometimes not liking a text simply means that the author has done exactly what he or she set out to do! As a reader and English major, we sometimes have to take a step back from our personal feelings and take a moment to appreciate an author’s craft.

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Lastly, I noticed myself thinking about religion and spirituality with regard to almost every single thing we read. Maybe it had to do with the fact that it was Easter this past weekend or maybe that was just a fun coincidence! Either way, I fixated on religion quite a bit and probably had a better time than I should have thinking about the various ways the authors and texts treated religion and spirituality. Both Rivera and Américo Paredes seemed to have a more cynical view of religion than some of the other authors we’ve read in the past few weeks, such as Sandra Cisneros and Jovita Gonzalez. The authors presented both traditional Catholicism along with spirituality not based on religion (i.e. curanderismo in Bless Me Ultima [we watched the movie]). Although I found the authors’ portrayals of Catholicism interesting (thank you to my roommate who is always willing to answer any questions I have about Catholicism!), I was more intrigued by depictions of spirituality, probably in part because it is something I am less familiar with. I thought the way of interacting with the world and forming an intimate connection with the earth and those around them really stood out in the texts and movie. We also went to the Fine Arts Center to look at devotional art on Friday, which gave us another perspective on religion and spirituality. I thought the art pieces we looked at and the activities we participated in while at the center reinforced what we’ve read. Seeing the themes replicated in a different medium and across several hundred years was powerful indeed!

On a note not really related to this class, I was recently informed that in my first post I erroneously wrote “blogging world,” when I should have said “blogosphere,” so my apologies for that! The same person also pointed out several writing errors (or at the very least slightly sloppy instances of writing that I should probably avoid), so I apologize in advance for any further “mistakes” in any of my posts! In my defense, blogging is fairly informal and I haven’t had any glaring errors to really embarrass me!

End of Week 1

Hello everybody! Full disclosure: this is the first time I’ve ever blogged, so please be patient with me as I learn my way around the blogging world! As with the start of every block, this week has been a whirlwind of activity! For the first time all school year, I’m in a class at or near full student capacity, which as a fairly shy person has been quite the adjustment. Although being packed into an Armstrong classroom was initially a little overwhelming, I’m actually quite excited to be a part of such a large class. For most of the year I’ve immersed myself in upper-level English courses where I’ve been surrounded by fellow English majors. In contrast to my previous six blocks, Mexican American Literature has a wide range of students representing every grade level and a number of different majors. Although we’re only a week in, I’ve really enjoyed the different perspectives of my fellow classmates. The variety of their viewpoints is incredibly refreshing and I think will help generate some fascinating discussions later in the block when we’ve all worked through the beginning-of-the-block jitters.

Throughout the week, our readings have given us all a glimpse into some important US history surrounding the settling of the West. Although a decent chunk have some background knowledge on how the West was settled, especially with regard to land acquisition, this is the first time we’ve learned about it from a non-white perspective and the differences are pretty astounding! I certainly never imagined the legal battles landowners became involved in that resulted in the destitution of a huge number of Mexican landowners. Silly me figured that the US gained the land through the same violent measures used against Native Americans in previous years! Long story short, I already feel like I’ve learned a lot and never expected to learn so much history in a literature class!

Yesterday, as part of class requirements, we attended Kristen Iverson’s lecture on Rocky Flats and the book she wrote about growing up in that area. For anyone who doesn’t know the significance of Rocky Flats (and believe me, yesterday I was one of those people), it was a facility in Arvada that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The area is profoundly contaminated and many people lived or live nearby in complete ignorance of the health risks associated with the plant. As a native of Denver, Colorado, the information Ms. Iverson talked about was shocking and horrifying. Plutonium has contaminated soil, air, and water and there is almost no clean-up happening in large part because of expense. Although the plant was shut down a number of years ago (interestingly after the FBI raided it, which has one government agency investigating another government agency), numerous employees and local residents are experiencing debilitating health problems, including cancer, as a direct result of their exposure to chemicals from the plant. Even though I was a little unsure about the talk, I’m so happy that we all went because it taught us important facts about Colorado, but also helped us draw parallels between current issues and what we’ve been reading about in class.

Lots to think about and discuss after this week! Like I said at the beginning of the blog, I’m new to this, so still exploring what I can do, which means pictures or something along those lines will appear in my next post once I’ve figured more things out!

On Migritude

I have finished my final paper (mostly). There are no unread books in the pile on my desk – all of them contain copious penciled-in notes. This afternoon, I will flee into Colorado’s vastness, once again, to confront whatever anticipated bad weather awaits me with some kind of joy. Soon those of us who have collected to look deeply at poetry, to carefully investigate the world, to reconsider ourselves, will scatter again. The approaching change feels sudden, abrupt, too soon. Yet to move and grow is natural; this class has been an experience of change, a moment of growth.

Our study of Shailja Patel’s Migritude, then, is remarkably appropriate as we move in a multitude of directions from this central place of study. Patel’s engaging book is simultaneously a transcript of her one-woman show and an anthology of her explorations of herself. It is a political statement, a study of race and acceptance, and a magnificent work of art. Her blackness is unique among those we’ve studied; she is a Kenyan of Indian heritage who has lived in Britain and America. Yet none of this makes her any less black. Indeed, her “migritude” is a play on the earlier ideological negritude movement; it allows Patel to simultaneously identify as black and as almost identity-less, a member of a group of people whose very roots lie in their rootlessness.

This apparent contradiction was not an unusual encounter. We proceeded to read Ezekiel Mphahlele’s essay “Voices in the Whirlwind,” which presents (helpfully) a plethora of arguments about black poetry. The unfortunate aspect of this abundance of arguments is that many of them seem to contradict one another. Perhaps, though, this confusion is a fundamental part of black poetry.

Michelle said this morning, after we had read the poems we created to mimic the voices of those we studied (which also managed to reveal an array of ridiculously incredible word-workers with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to rub shoulders for the last three weeks), that she hoped the class had managed to confuse us further about the meanings of the words in its title. I am not meant, I think, in the end, to understand the meaning of the word “black” or of “poetry,” and even worse, I don’t think I will ever be able to define black poetry. Luckily, though, the point is not to define. The point is to learn and grow and change and move, and in that, I think, I have succeeded.

 

p.s. I discovered a few more photos from Baca. They’re not particularly fitting, here, but they’re lovely. Many thanks to the most fabulous Michelle Decker, for the photos and for everything else.

Baca at Dusk The Mountains

On Humiliation and Being Humble

There is a certain stillness that settles in the air in this fragment of mountainous desert where I have almost surprisingly found myself for the last three days. In this temporary escape to the Baca campus I have a sense of being contained in some dusty snow globe, mysteriously separate from the familiar. But I am not contained; the sky is vaster, the mountains rise up sharply from the yellow plain to reach broadly upwards. To the south and west, the land extends endlessly. In the midst of these immensities, I am small. I am small and humble in the silence of vastness, captured as I walk slowly against the wind on a dusty road in this singular moment. It is precisely the place to submerge oneself in poetry, in this physical manifestation of the instant-occupying lyric.

We encountered newness not only in geographical location but in the words we studied. As we continued moving forward in time, we met artists of prison cells and protest in writing and music. Wole Soyinka of Nigeria wrote of his imprisonment, both in prose and poetry, in books smuggled to him during his detainment. He described the humiliation of imprisonment as an emotion of dignity in that it creates an environment of solidarity and suggests a previous and consistent uprightness and dedication to a cause or mentality. We explored other poetries of prisons that depicted the struggles of entrapment and brief glimmers of hopefulness. In Robert Johnson, legendary singer of blues, we looked closely at the relationships between white and black music, notably the capitalization of black music by white people and other similar appropriations of black culture for primarily white gain.

The song “Strange Fruit” and a podcast considering it further forced us to examine racism in the northern parts of the United States and how whiteness creates value – the photograph of inspiration for the song is immediately shocking not only because of its explicit interest in two hanging black bodies but also because of the grinning white faces beneath them. “Going to Meet the Man,” the story of a lynching, was disturbing. It incited discussion regarding the sexualization of blackness and the dialectic of simultaneous desire and disgust for other bodies. We considered Bob Dylan and “Hurricane” – both the song and the film – to investigate our perceptions of who can write black poetry.

In light of this, I think I’ve decided that perhaps a definition of black poetry does not exist. It is ambiguous, defined by each moment that chooses to take on blackness and poetry simultaneously. I am humbled and delighted in every instant that I learn and change. I am also humbled by the world that both contains and frees me. I’m not sure that I have Soyinka’s humility – in fact, I’m quite sure that I don’t – but it remains humbling to engage with his dignity.

The Sangre de Cristo range near the Baca campus

On Change

We have moved away from the epic. No – we’ve abandoned it. We’ve left Son-Jara in Africa to leap forward in time and spread ourselves across the continent and the ocean. In only three days, we have changed.

More precisely, maybe, I have changed. Or the poems have changed. Or everything has changed; the moody skies seem somehow more reminiscent of spring than the summer-like sunshine of the weekend. In any case, our literary window has broadened to include colonialism in Africa, that vast and unpleasant (to use the most mild word applicable here) thing that roughly coincided with slavery and oppression in the Americas. To continue with uncouth generalizations, the political and theoretical freedoms of blacks on both continents were achieved with arguable success in somewhat similar eras, resulting in altogether new poetic possibilities.

A study on the legendary Shaka (or Chaka, depending on who you ask) and his varying permutations throughout time led us violently into an investigation of perhaps earlier white engagements with South Africa. We read of nostalgia and repression and God in 19th century Africa and looked closely at the imitation of European poetry and form. To read these mimicries begs questions: can oppression be discussed in the language of the oppressor? Is there a certain power in copying form but twisting words to contradict the very creator of the arrangement?

As we traveled closer yet to ourselves in time we encountered America and the Harlem Renaissance in conjunction with the concept of negritude, which found its origins in a collection of African writers (mostly) in France and describes a literary and ideological movement of, in exceptionally brief summary, black pride. We read Léon Damas and Helene Johnson, Léopolde Senghor (who was the first president of Senegal, in addition to being a prolific writer) and Langston Hughes. They approach freedom and its absence in their works, speak of ancestry and of a future but they all recognize and embrace their blackness in the light of the lingering effects of imperialism and colonialism.

Aimé Césaire’s play, “A Tempest,” looks, too, at the remnants of colonialism that lingered still in the 1960s and which, truthfully, continue to drift almost unrecognized through our lives today. So while it may seem that we have changed, that in the last three days we have moved into and through and out of imperialism, perhaps we haven’t really changed and I haven’t really changed (much) and, in the end, even this abnormally cloudy weather still carries us forward towards more seasons, the same as always.

On Defining Poetry

Earl Miner writes in his book, Comparative Poetics, that “…the lyric [is] literature of radical presence.” He goes on to explain that the lyric is accomplished through the intensification of moments, rather than the passage from one moment to the next (as in narrative literature). I take this to mean that, essentially, poetry is the broadening of instants, the stretching of seconds into explanations and understandings. Or something along those lines.

Fortunately for my fresh-from-spring-break-brain, we didn’t begin here, in the depths of a philosophical and almost-mind-boggling discussion about the nature of poetry. We began, instead, in poetry itself, exploring an anthology of black poetry that has collected writings from across time and space. We read about the possibility of the evolution of ancient Greece out of Egypt and read Egyptian love poetry. We delved briefly into the biblical Song of Songs and looked closely at the perception of gender (particularly the fascinating mirroring of relationships between men and women and those between people and God).

The Epic of Son-Jara drew us further into an older Africa as the week progressed. The story is told by griots, maintainers of an oral storytelling and history-keeping tradition in West Africa. To read this text in English, translated from a version of the epic told to an audience, is to witness a story almost completely different than the “original” one. This is not to mention the absence of a truly original story, given the nature of a fluid and necessarily changeable oral tale. This reading challenged my concepts of poetry and storytelling by conflicting with more traditional western notions of lyric and verse, which adhere, at the very least, to static written form. Here arose Miner’s claim about the nature of poetry, allowing it to exist more as the accomplishment of making an audience feel or understand something instead of as a collection of words strung together in a specific, intentional way.

The story also allowed us to discuss reading the poetry of those who are not white males through the lens of their non-white-maleness. In other words, we often read the poetry of white males as universal truths, while the words of any minority are read with regard to their “otherness.” We further explored the diminishing nature of looking at African epic tales as cultural “artifacts” or “expression” rather than poetry, and sought the universal messages in the epic.

This epic tale has sent us into a cloudless weekend (in the wake of a damp, midweek, midday snowstorm). The bluebird sky anticipates us. I’ll be reading this weekend’s poems in the already-green grass in this early springtime sunshine. And while I’m still not sure entirely what poetry is, or what blackness entails, or where exactly black poetry lives in the spectrum of literature (nor am I sure that I’ll ever know), I’m certainly a few steps closer.

We All Hate Helens, We Hate All Helens

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Last night we read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, an interpretation of the life of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and of the twelve maids that are hung after the slaughter of the suitors. Atwood asks in her introduction, “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?”

In class, we drew connections between the Helen/Penelope relationship of The Penelopiad and the Helen/Annie relationship in Bridesmaids.

  • In The Penelopiad, Helen calls her cousin, Penelope, “little duck” or “little ducky.” In Bridesmaids, Helen constantly refers to Annie as Lillian’s “childhood friend,” and calls her “cute” or “sweet.”
  • In The Penelopiad and Bridesmaids, Helen slyly draws attention to how she is prettier than Penelope/Annie, disguising it as a compliment or assurance. On page 154, Helen tells Penelope, “Divine beauty is such a burden. At least you’ve been spared that!” On the flight to Vegas, Helen tells Annie that having a little scotch is ok, that she does it all the time and is fine, “and I’m a lot smaller than you, so–” 
  • Star and Sandor pointed out a great one – on page 188, Helen tells Penelope, “We could do a trip to Las Vegas. Girls’s night out! But I forgot–that’s not your style.” Annie wanted to have the bachelorette party at Lillian’s family’s lake house.

Star found a great still from Bridesmaids showing that the airlines that the bridesmaids took to Vegas was called Spartan Airlines. Helen is in her element, buying everyone’s ticket so they can “experience First Class at least once in their lives.”

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In The Penelopiad, Penelope tells us that the dead characters from these myths, such as Helen, Penelope, and Odysseus, can “have another try” at another life, being reborn into the modern world. Penelope explains, “Helen has had more than a few excursions. That’s what she calls them – ‘my little excursion'” (pg 187). Could Bridesmaids Helen be one of these excursions? Haunting.

 

Bachelorette Party

“It’s a lucky person who can read Pride and Prejudice and watch Bridesmaids in the same day. We are lucky.” – Lisa B. Hughes

On Monday night, we watched Bridesmaids (2011). Since the ladies in that film missed out on a rockin’ bachelorette party for Lillian, our “Setting The Table” group decided to throw one for our class.

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If you have seen the movie, what do you think the Vegas bachelorette party would have been like, if Annie hadn’t had them all escorted back to Chicago? Was the flight in fact the bachelorette party? Becca had “a class of alcohol” and explored her sexuality with Rita, Megan invited “not a air marshall” man to have sex with her in the bathroom, and Helen got Annie to get drunk/drugged and do something stupid. A flight is a strange, liminal space, as is Vegas (are we in Paris? Egypt?).

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Is there a Queen Bee in Bridesmaids? Who is it supposed to be? The bride? The maid of honor? Why is Helen such a Mean Girl? She doesn’t have a posse, she doesn’t even really have any friends. In Mean Girls, conflict between Regina and Cady begins when Regina “takes Aaron back.” Their female competition is over a man. Helen and Annie fight over a woman, Lillian. Does this change the methods of fighting?

Lisa explains that this is really a “sad breakup movie.” Does Annie and Lillian’s love and friendship die with Lil’s marriage? Is Annie really joking when she says “No I’m not [excited at the proposal]!”

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(on Sunday we had brunch at Lisa’s house. She baked us a cake of rainbows and smiles)

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