Monday, December 31, 2012

On the Eve of This New Year

"Poetry is Necessary" reads the sign, the photo of which was texted to me by a young person in my family.

And of course my first thought is of all those graduate school classes in which the professor quoted and re-quoted all those sayings about poetry from the famous poets. 

But this sign, it starts me thinking about the impulse behind the words--"poetry" and then "necessary." This urge of simple declaration is somehow part human instinct, part prophecy-- a kind of spiritual mandate--like a giant sticky note we post on the universe to remind ourselves-- and each other--to pay attention! this is important!

And then I think this is a good way to end the year. And a better way to begin another.

So I am wishing you all a happy, healthy, peaceful and attentive New Year.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Of Poetry, Teaching and Awards

I've just been  named the U.S. Professor of the Year, Community College, by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

The Chronicle of Higher Education
writes: "The honor is the nation's most prestigious teaching award, with national winners chosen from four types of institutions: a community college, a baccalaureate college, a master's institution, and a doctoral, research university."

On Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012  I, along with three other national winners, gave an acceptance speech at the beautiful and iconic National Press Club. I spoke to an audience of about 250 persons which consisted of state winners, educators from across the nation, college and university presidents, journalists and Martha J. Kanter, Under Secretary of Education.

Below is the text of my acceptance speech.

Lois Roma-Deeley - Acceptance Speech

2012 Outstanding Community Colleges Professor of the Year
Lois Roma-Deeley
Professor of Creative Writing
Paradise Valley Community College

Click on the video to hear the speech. The text is below.

My thanks to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, CASE and to all who have made this day possible. I am deeply honored to receive this award.

Some say we live in a cynical age where the idea of "noble lives," of striving, failing and then trying again, are antiquated notions—relics from another age.

But I know better. My students have taught me well.

Our campus is an educational institution for "all seasons." At my college, the notion of a liberal arts education as a transformative experience is put into practice every day—where Shakespeare has meaning and purpose as much in the life of a nursing student as it does for a retired accountant; where the study and practice of poetry can reshape the lives of future firefighters and former business owners; and where the love of learning is in itself a value because it leads us to the very center of our own humanness.

Every day, I am witness to the countless efforts of students who refuse to give up. I see, in very real and concrete ways, those who believe—even if they don't yet fully understand—the power of the educational experience to transform their lives. My students know their liberal arts education will, ultimately, ask them to answer one simple question. And that question is not: What will you do with your life? Rather: How will you live your life?

The community college in America is one of our nation's best-known institutions and best-kept secrets. While it's true that some of my community college students come to our campus for workforce training, many also come for a quality liberal arts education. In my creative writing classrooms, my students—the future dietitians, computer programmers, musicians, teachers, lab techs, pharmacists and the like—sit alongside retired doctors, lawyers and accountants.

It would not be unusual to see how the 42-year-old roofer, the 25-year-old Serbian immigrant and the 16-year-old home-schooled Eagle Scout find they have more in common than anyone would ever suspect or how the former gang member and the current real estate agent form bonds that are as deep as they are extraordinary. My students know that a community college classroom is a place where the privilege of a quality education is not the exclusive purview of the privileged few.

We learn from each other. And if I am a good teacher, it is because I had good teachers. For example, my older brother, Nick Faraone, was the first in our family to finish high school and then college. He later taught high school for 33 years. But, as a young, first-year college student, he would sit me down at our kitchen table and teach philosophy, poetry, politics to me—a 12-year-old girl. What he taught me is this: nothing worth having is easy, that the riches of an intellectual life are mine for the taking and that, with patience and fortitude, nothing is beyond my capacity to learn.

The community college is one of our most democratic institutions. You can come to us for first, second and third chances, and how yes, we offer workforce development but also we offer our students a chance to become part of a vibrant liberal arts community with dedicated teachers who are also working artists and highly regarded professionals in their chosen disciplines.

All we ask is that the students come to us. And work hard. And dream big.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing Poetry in a Cynical Age

One day in my graduate creative writing class, a student asked our internationally famous poet-teacher what he thought about "writing for posterity."

Judging from his response, this was a not a good question to ask our normally very generous and very gifted writing professor.

"Poets write for their own times! Let posterity take care of itself!" is as good a paraphrase of his answer as my memory will allow.

Over the ensuing years, from that point in my writing life until now, I have often thought about that moment.

As I look to "our times," I can't help but be stilled by wonder at how cynicism, crassness, mean-spiritedness has replaced--for lack of a better word--the idea of --nobility.

I define "nobility" as the practical application of striving toward something better--a better life, a better culture, a better self, a better sense of what it means to be human.  The idea that--yes, things are not good, not ideal, not "as they should be" but, given all that, we must try. We must endure and then endeavor to march toward our better natures.

Because it is only in the trying--and, yes, in the failings--that we humans make a better race.

Let's not confuse "better" with the knee-jerk, facile, bumper-sticker, philosophical kitsch which would have us believe that "we feel you" and "create a good day" and "we can do better" are the bippity-boppity-bo words that will, instantaneously and without effort,  make everything okay.

On the other end of this magical thinking spectrum is the pervasive cynicism I see politics as well as in "high" and "low" culture." As if simply negating everything and everyone is the answer to how we should live. As if the idea of  "Just tear it down--negate it--and don't-worry-your-pretty-little-head- about-the-hard-work of getting issues solved" is a viable way of being and living.

Or worse, there seems to be a mandate to replace, if you will allow me to paraphrase Mr. Rogers of the famed children's show, "simple and deep" with "complex and superficial."

Contemporary poetry is not immune. This kind of cynicism I find in today's poetry as in today's culture always reminds of the eighth grade boys in my neighborhood who would pack together and--with long drawn out hoots which were always accompanied by distorted faces and a multitude of punches to any and all available arms--would deride anything they didn't understand, anything that went beyond their adolescent needs and wants.

 It wasn't--isn't--cool to be complex. Or subtle. Or nuanced.  Or, heaven-forbid, striving toward some better self and some better world in which self-reflection and self-correction were--are-- a necessary virtue.

And  I'm not talking about the "put on a happy face" kind of writing you might find in greeting cards or repeated on day time talk shows. I'm talking about writing that makes us think and feel and strive  upward....

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What the Olympics Can Teach Poets About Writing

Poets need so much more  in their lives besides a "room of one's own" and enough money to live.

Poets need to cultivate a resilient spirit as well as patience, fortitude and persistence.  These attributes are essential to the creative experience--both process and product.

This July take a lesson from the athletes competing in London.  When the camera zooms in  any one of the thousands of athletes participating in the games, take note.

Look in the  Olympian 's face as she or he is preparing to meet, in the one upcoming moment, the culmination of  countless hours of practice, pain, hope, exhilaration, criticism, failure, success, resolve and self-correction. You will see, as I do--regardless of the sport or the year in which the Olympics take place-- countless examples of people who do not give up on themselves, on their sport, on the audience which supports the sport and--if some of the "behind -the- scenes stories" can be believed --the often unseemly and sometimes unfair politics of their sport.

These men and women have come to participate. And they will do everything in their power to make sure that no one and no thing will stop them from doing so.

How many poets can say the same thing of their involvement with poetry? How many poets can honestly say that that participating in the life of poetry is a thing unto itself--precious, necessary and filled with an undefinable grace which makes all their efforts worthwhile and noble?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

How to Attend a Poetry Reading

It goes without saying the discussion as to the "usefulness" of poetry has been going on for some time now. I might venture to say we could look all the way back to the Greeks and find the kind of criticism of the entire discipline that, in a nutshell, goes something like this: Poetry is useless.

But if you really believe that you wouldn't be reading this. And if it were really true--that poetry is, indeed, useless and therefore pointless-- how is it that poetry has been around all these thousands of years?

The corollary to the "useless-pointless" discussion is the  ideas that poetry and poetry readings are "boring."

I could say here how I have given reading all over the United States--and  have attended readings given  all over the country--and I always look into the faces of the audience. I do not see bored, restless people who  choose to spend their time in useless and pointless endeavors because of some deep seated need to waste a Friday night or Saturday afternoon--or what have you...

no, I see people who look like they need something that only the poetic experience can give them.

I will, admit, however, that I often see confused people. Those who have not been taught how to attend a poetry reading. Those who don't know what to expect or how to act. Those who may have been embarrassed or shamed by some ill educated junior high school teacher who --as Billy Collins has so famously written--insisted the class "torture a meaning" out of of a poem. Or worse--this mythological teacher we have all encountered at some point in our lives--the one we had to learn how to  survive with all the courage of one of Victor Hugo's character's in Les Miserables--forced us to scan a poem but never taught us how find joy in the reading and hearing of a poem.

But I digress. As usual.

Here's how to attend a poetry reading in order to enjoy it.

1) Forget what people tell you about poetry. It is the first and most profound of the "People's Art." Therefore you have a right to be there. So relax and let the poetry wash over you.

2) Poetry readings are not created equal. Like all public performances--are sometimes great experiences, sometimes not so much. Understand that. After a while and with some experience, you will know if a poet is giving a reading that is phoned in or if the poet is simply not a gifted reader. Or if the poet reads so theatrically that the reading obscured obvious flaws in the writing. Or if the poet transports you--and the entire audience--to another dimension. Then you will know the word "good" will never, ever be enough to describe an experience like that.

3) Come prepared. When you are familiar with a poem or a poet, the experience of a reading becomes  so much deeper. Try to read a few poems before you attend. Don't worry if you "get" the poems. Just read one or two and then see what happens inside you when you hear the poet read the same poems.

4) There is an etiquette to follow at poetry readings--just like at football games, pool halls, the symphony and public debates; there is an "understanding" on how to behave. Typically, audience members do not applaud after each poem is read. It is traditional to only applaud at the end of the reading. Think of this as listening to the symphony--the whole is greater than its parts. I have, however,  seen a few poets who do not want this kind of response to their work. They like it when the audience seems to not be able to contain themselves. Okay, then, Go with it. However,  I just have to say, I don't like this practice as it is encouraged by such poets as I think it diminishes the performance. I find it distracting, unnecessary and a bit too much.

5) Which brings me to the next point--a good poetry reading is a performance. No eating while the poet is reading. No texting. No passing notes.  Behave yourself. The poems speak to one another and you need to be quiet, sit still and hear the "conversation." Really, be polite. Or don't come at all.

6) Poetry readings get better the more you attend and your understanding of the art form grows. This will happen.

7) After a reading, buy a book. Or buy a book beforehand. Support the poetry. Support the art form. Most poets do not make any money from their books. In fact, it often costs the poet money to promote his or her books. So, if you think poetry is an important part of the human experience, try and buy a book if at all possible.

8) After the reading, the poet will be in a kind of post-reading fog. So when you  get your book signed by the poet, remember to be kind....write your name on a piece of paper so the poet doesn't have to think about how to spell it.

9) After-the reading, do not shove your own poetry into the hands of the poet who has just given his or her all to the crowd. This is not about you or your work. If you have only come to the poet's reading because there is an open mic reading, that is fine. But think about how this poet might teach you something about poetry. Really, you should consider this a free lesson in how to write poetry. (or, in some cases, how not to write poetry). Be respectful. Be open. If you like the poet's work, consider writing a brief review on Amazon.

10) There is simply nothing like participating in a great poetry reading. Nothing.  Next time you go, bring some friends.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What To Do When You're Not Writing Poetry

Poets are not patient people.

Or so it seems to me. 

While writing--and especially while writing well-- poets tend to believe time can rearrange itself, that the earth is spinning on its axis with a happy hum, that the news of the day will wait like a patient puppy at the front door and that, in general, existence, itself, is distilled down to a concentrated form which is found, only,  inside verbs, nouns, comma, periods, line breaks and white space.

What poets do not seem to possess is a patient understanding of themselves in the world of the pre or post writing experience.

There has been much written about how to overcome writer's block. Etc. Etc. Etc. Yet I can't recall much discussion regarding that twilight state which lies somewhere between "I need to write; I am writing" and "I can't get a single word on the page."

Poets should look to the fiction writers for some instruction on what to do when not writing. Fiction writers tend to see the world as one gigantic imagination lab.

During the period between just-have-written and soon-to-be-writing--a state which is defined not by being blocked but rather one of collecting and recollecting images, words, thoughts--the etcetera of writing experience--the poets are staring at their shoes, feeling abandoned by their most profound impulse to write. But, given this same state -the fiction writers are observing--sometimes passively, objectively, sometimes interactively--the world as it approaches them.

Poets can learn from this state of imaginative collection of images, ideas, thoughts and emotions.

What did you see today that you have never seen before?

Was it that building that "magically" appeared on the corner near your house? Was it the square bit of glitter stuck to the side of your shirt? Was it the sad looking stranger in the supermarket? The knock on your front door?

Look outward. Make a list--without emotion and without judgement--of the small images, the small moments of your day.

Go ahead. Try it. See what happens.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Poetry, Place and History

Poetry lives in the air. Of that I am convinced. Perhaps, as poets, what we do is to split time in two and step into that place where poetry is being born. Call it  a place of"seed time" or galactic dust--whatever--just know that it exists.
 Recently, I traveled to Europe, spending time in London and Paris. I couldn't help but feel--in the ancient rocks and on the cold winds of Stonehenge-- that  some kind of poetry is being born.

The feeling was visceral. As though the poem of place and history will not be denied--the thoughts and emotions rooted in those who lived so long ago--was taking shape in its own longing. And that longing has a shape and weight and clarity.

And it was waiting--it waits--for us to call it forth.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Celebrating National Poetry Month, 2012

I celebrated National Poetry Month by giving two readings: the first reading was for The Distinguished Poets Series of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey honoring the 2011 Paterson Poetry Prize winners. The finalists included myself, Michael Cirelli, W.D. Ehrhart, Erica Miriam Fabri, Rebecca Foust, and Jackie Sheeler. Elizabeth Alexander was the 2011 Paterson Poetry Prize winner. She, unfortunately, could not attend the reading due to the sudden death of her husband. My condolences to Elizabeth and her family. 

Maria Mazziotti Gillan (shown directly below) who is executive director  gave a brilliant introduction. Tony Medina is shown below reading from his poetry collection My Old Man Was Always on the Lam (NYQ Books) as is Jackie Sheeler reading from her collection Earthquake Comes to Harlem  (NYQ Books) and Erica Miriam Fabri reading from her book Dialect of a Skirt (Hanging Loose Press.) My thanks to my husband for taking these pictures. Micheal Cirelli (Vacations on The Black Star Line, Hanging Loose Press), W. D. Ehrhart (The Bodies Beneath the Table, Adastra Press) and Rebecca Foust (All That Pitiless Song, Many Mountains Moving Press) read as well.

 The other reading I gave was at the library in my home town, North Babylon on Long Island in New York. The library which is located directly across from my old high school. How wonderful to see my family and old friends!
With my  friend Cathy Freyer Taylor who I met
in high school

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Women Writers--5 Lines to Remember

In honor of Women's History Month, here's a list of 5 lines to remember written by women writers.

"....I chose to walk here. And to draw this circle."
--Adrienne Rich

"Man, I am talking with you
In my secret woman voice
And I would like it to feel
Like something from the inside of your head.'
--Alicia Suskin Ostriker

you a wonder.
you a city
of a woman"
--Lucille Clifton

"Right now as I am talking to you and as you are being talked
to, without letup, it is becoming clear that gertrude stein has
hijacked me and that this feeling that you are having now as
you read this, that this is what it feels like to be inside
gertrude stein. This is what it feels like to be a huge type-
writer in a dress...."
--Lynn Emanuel

"....if life
survives us, the body will
be our book & keep on
--Meredith Striker

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Villanelle Reading, AWP off-site, Chicago, 2012

My time in Chicago at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) was punctuated with readings, meetings, greetings--and filled with seeing friends, old and new. I gave two poetry readings and had a chance to read with some terrific poets such as Patricia Smith, Robin Becker, Martha Collins, Marilyn Nelson, Annie Finch, Kate Sontag and many others. Here are some photos taken
at the AWP off-site reading, A Celebration of the Villanelle, held on Friday, March 2 at Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois. It was a wonderful night!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Seven Great Lines About Poetry

"I, too, dislike it."
            --Marianne Moore

"A poem should be more than what anyone can say about it."
          --Norman Dubie

"The poetry is in the living."
          --Rita Dove

"...out of the quarrel we make with ourselves we make poetry."
          --W.B. Yeats

"Poetry speaks and listens: it is real."
          --Octavio Paz

"Poetic talent doesn't operate in a vacuum...."
          --Wislawa Szymborska

"Poetry the best words, the best order."
          --Samuel T. Coleridge