Monday, January 27, 2014

Poetry as Gift: My Experience Teaching a Community Outreach Workshop

It was exactly a month ago that I taught a community outreach workshop through the Palm Beach Poetry Workshop. The theme: “Gifts Given & Received,” & was to be held at the Crest Theater in Delray Beach.
The Director of Community Outreach thought it would be fun. “I really think this should be a fun workshop,” she told me. “And our participants just want to generate new poems—not attend a highly academic seminar.” Fun? And paired with “poetry workshop” to boot? Was she friggin’ crazy? My experiences in Graduate Workshops (Capital “G” & “W”, if you really know what’s good for you) led me to believe that the purpose of workshops was to unravel bones, no?
“I’ll bring the snacks & cider!” she added.
It took three weeks of serious thinking in preparation for the two & a half hour class. I emailed colleagues & former professors & consulted some literature; a few tips here & there. Finally I was ready, & then an amazing thing happened: I threw it all away—all except the prompts & a couple of worksheets I’d made. I had the entire workshop scripted, only to decide as I was sitting in my car inside the parking garage to leave it all behind. I decided I didn’t want to be just another piece of furniture in a classroom—I wanted to be there, in the moment.
I wanted to have fun, too. Then I proceeded to walk into a room where I was the only male in a room filled with females, not one of them under the age forty-five. Most were old enough to be my grandmother.
            And yet, it only took only two writing prompts for a truly amazing thing to happen: a breakthrough. The most rewarding thing that can come out of any writing workshop. Unfettered writing—the most righteous kind.
               One woman shared a poem about a father who abandoned her & her younger sister before she broke down crying in the middle of class. Another about growing up a Jew in a Bronx tenement building filled with Latinos. “They taught me how to love,” she said. Another about being White & privileged, born on the “right side” of the track. How she’d sneak away to the “Black side,” the “wrong side.” How they taught her about Jazz, & how she came to love them for it. 
               At the end of the workshop, one of my students shared about teaching writing to special needs children & children who came from violent backgrounds & how important it was to make them feel safe—only then could they write. Then she turned to me & said: “This is a safe room. I feel safe here,” everyone nodding their heads in agreement.
               For the record, that was the single most rewarding workshop I’ve ever attended & not because I was the one teaching it—I barely taught anything. I was more like Ariadne in Inception—the architect who designed the world—& they filled it with their ideas & creativity.

A graduate of Florida Atlantic University's Creative Writing M.F.A. program, Michael J. Pagan’s work has appeared in The RumpusDIAGRAM,  Pacifica Literary Review, Spork Press Verse, The Coachella Review, BlazeVOX, Spittoon Magazine, Tupelo Press, Menacing Hedge and Mad Hatters’ Review among many others. He currently lives in Deerfield Beach, FL with his wife & daughter.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

a postcard from here.

I left university in 2011 with a degree in English and a desire to possess and experience something somewhat like the grand design hidden within the world. The Success on the horizon. I entered the world like a writer and drew deep breaths of the landscapes of our country. I barreled onto the blue highways of America; a life counting time on an aluminum frame on the edge of civilization and the whirr of engines making music of the silence. I pushed my legs until the miles seeped into my pores and came out as drops of sweat. 

But, all rides end somewhere and in Colorado in 2012 I hit an inch lip after a four mile hill going somewhere in the vicinity of 40 miles an hour and lost control of my bicycle. I wobbled wider and wider until my bicycle fixed a trajectory that ended with the guard-rail. I bailed, covered my arms and rolled into the pavement. 

Oliver Sacks wrote that “a man needs a narrative to maintain himself,” a framework, I think, that enables the experience of enlightenment to morph into feelings of the sublime. The color of the exposed palm is a radiant red, and when the bones are visible then they are white. At 40mph, with the palm extended to stop the body rolling, the skin is pushed under itself and curls. Each turn collects different pieces of rubble, but most of the gravel stays touching the palm.

My experience with the ever-burning creation of all humanity—a quarter of a century of collected moments. The opportunity that Florida Atlantic University presents is to put to torch my own narrative and forge and bend into existence an ember of the sublime outlined red against the enveloping darkness of our cosmic insignificance. There is nothing as pleasant as a mote of dust captured in the light. A bicycle ride on the shoulder of the highway in the rain. 

Alan Watts wrote, “the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scripture is like eating paper currency.” All I do as a scholar and writer is in pursuit of the world of life that is beyond myself: it is not to idolize, not to bankrupt, nor to destroy the literary scripture, but to inhabit my own lens and share with others this opportunity passed down to us. Communion. 

No man is an island entire to himself. The edge of the ocean is only another highway—an extension of the land—from here I am connected to my home. This is my home. I have rejoined my family of new faces and set foot down on the pages of my narrative to continue in pursuit of the god burning within our collective imagination. 

Can I explain this?

I landed in Florida before the New Year and felt the rejuvenating wonder that comes with endings and beginnings. The narrative continues onto another chapter and if it had to end anywhere it would start on the night of the 9th.  

It was a Montana spring rain, or an autumnal high desert downpour—but the land did not need to be quenched—and from moment to moment it changed from torrential downpours to spring drizzles. It is all in a different climate, but the experience is forever a reminder of somewhere else and tonight the sky was sobbing.

Dark. Warm. Rainy. The stars are hidden and the city lights burn.

Out into the streets on a well-oiled Trek 530 Multi-Sport, a mature pine green. North along the sprawling empty lots scattered between buildings and stadiums, to another shoulder off another local road that somewhere meets with another blue highway.

We join our hero barreling north toward the only slight rise in the area—an overpass across Spanish River—2 inches and rising of rain collected on the northern side of the road, the winking white line of the shoulder flirting through the percolating clouds. At the summit, the grand 200 foot summit, he attacks the rain and slaloms—wider and wider—throwing waves with each carved and precise motion to the outsides of his saddle. 

The skin on his left palm is white as opposed to the rosy right. His smile grows as the water fans further and further—the ground is flat and he studies the road intently. The pitter-patter and the whirr and the callback of pedestrian walkways break the raining silence.

The narrative continues and descends into illegibility as what is written blends with what is lived. And all the while here we sit and read. Communion.

Jason Stephens graduated from Boise state in 2011. He joined the MFA program here at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring of 2014. He is the son of Jim and Joan, brother of Jenn, Josiah, and Justin, uncle of Hunter, Wyatt, James, Alex, and Scarlett. He rarely misses appointments, regularly exercises, and doesn't swear too often.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Perils of Research

            When it comes to the research essay, I’ve always been of two minds.  On the one hand, the research essay presents an amazing opportunity, an opportunity to chose any topic in this world — primates, for instance — and make myself an instant expert on it.  I have an insatiable desire to know everything about everything, and this, of course, is why the research essay has always appealed to me. 
            So I soak up research like a sponge, and like a sponge that has become too full of water, the information starts to seep out of me.  It comes out in drips and drabs.  Trivial facts about primates flow into conversations with my friends and family.  “Did you know that bonobo societies are run by women, and they are the only non-violent primates?”  “Gibbons bond with their mates by singing together every morning.”  My friends and family start out fascinated by the information, but eventually their fascination disintegrates into mere tolerance.  I like to think this is their subtle way of telling me that it’s time to put it all on paper.  When I sit down to write the essay and have done the research this thoroughly, it is always the easiest essay that I have ever written.  The well-researched essay basically writes itself. 

            But then there is the darker side of the research essay when the research takes over.  It takes over my subconscious, and it takes over my essay.  It haunts my dreams at night, and transforms what I set out to write — a comic piece comparing primate and human bonding — into something completely outside of my intentions — a tragic condemnation on primate research.  I read my finished essay not sure whether to be proud of the piece I’ve create or to throw it away and start over.  Is it better for me as a research writer to follow the research where it leads or to seek out the research that will allow me to write the essay that I set out to write in the first place?  Which is the more honest way to write? 
            It is the same dilemma that Eula Biss faced when writing her acclaimed essay “Time and Distance Overcome.”  What she set out to write was an essay on the telephone pole, and what it became was an essay on lynchings.  Had her research on the telephone pole not led her to hundreds of articles on lynchings, she would have written an entirely different essay, likely beautiful, but likely less powerful and less renowned. 
            She chose to follow the research, and it is the path I, too, most frequently choose.  I have told myself that it is the most honest way to write.  But I cannot help but feel that, in a world full of tragedy, following the research will lead me down many dark roads, and sometimes it may be better to rage against the darkness and seek the light.  Within every subject, lightness and comedy can be found, and I cannot view these things as being any less honest a part of the human experience than darkness and tragedy.

Shari Lefler is an MFA student, specializing in Creative Non-Fiction at Florida Atlantic University.  She was born and raised in Boca Raton, FL, a place she sometimes tries to leave but always returns to on account of other places being cold.  She spends her spare time trying to cuddle with her dog that spends its spare time trying to escape her grasp.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Year, New Semester

Welcome back! I hope everyone had a good winter break. This is a blog about new beginnings, about New Year's resolutions, about choices you will need to make as MFA students...

First things first. Did you write over break? If you did, wonderful(!) - now you have more material to work with. If you didn't (well, and even if you did write), what experiences did you have over break that you can bring into your work? Start taking notes now so that you'll have access to all those vivid, specific details associated with the present tense (or at least not-so-past-tense).

You should (hopefully) be registered for classes. Remember that as MFA students, you will take 21 credits of workshops, ENG 6009: "Principles and Problems of Literary Study," 18 credit hours of literature and/or theory classes (just fyi, for MFA students, ENC 6700 does count as one of these classes. The colloquium does not), and six thesis hours. Wherever you are in your progress through the degree, be thinking about which books have most deeply influenced you. Consider which professors you'd like to work most closely with for your thesis. Think about which stories/poems/essays you can bring in to your thesis project.

Did you make a New Year's Resolution? If not, why not choose one from my list below? Any of these would be great resolutions for writers:

1. Start a writing group and meet at least once a month to discuss each other's work.
2. Read at least one book (that is not assigned by a professor) a month.
3. Go on a trip and take notes on it. Somehow work this experience in to an essay, memoir, poem, story, or novel.
4. Begin a blog. It will help if you choose a topic  - this will narrow your focus.
5. Compose a piece of creative writing in collaboration with one or more of your peers.

Okay! I am also looking for more contributors to the blog. Please send me an email if you're interested in writing something. I can give you a specific prompt if you'd like. Also, email me to set up an appointment. For anyone applying to the program, the application deadline for Fall 2014 is January 15th!

MR Sheffield is FAU's English Graduate Advisor. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Pank, Epiphany, Spring Gun and other publications. You can reach her at: