“There’s this you, here, you know.  Talking to me.  And there’s the you watching you talk to me.  And in the book, there’s the you in the book and the you reading the book and the you watching you reading the book about you.”

“Sure.  Okay.”

His eyes got big.  He extended his arms out, palms up, and thrust them at me a couple of times like he was trying to give me something large and heavy that he was about to drop.


I held my hands up, palms forward, in self-defense.  “YEAH.  I KNOW.  You’re insane.”

The invisible thing fell on the floor, and his arms fell to his sides.

“Well, you’d like it.  You WILL like it.”

This was the sort of conversation I had with him—Gemini Joe, we’ll call him—without fail.  This was his way of telling me to read a book.  The truth was I didn’t know.  I almost never knew what he was talking about.  I told myself it was because he was a Gemini and thus made no sense to begin with, but the truth was, he was a seeing person leading me, blind and stupid, into a new way of thinking.

In this case he was talking about Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

Sometime earlier, after I sent Joe an indignant (later revealed to be “frustrated”) email about how I didn’t get poetry and what was the point and I’d rather read or write a novel, he recommended the notion of “hanging out with” poetry.

At the time, I was an anthropology major.  A scientist.

“It’s not me,” I’d say, “I’m too logical for that crap.”

Take one poem.  Just one poem, Becky.  One that interests you, even if just barely, and put it in your pocket and carry it around for a week at least.  And take it out and read it once in a while.  The same poem.  At least a week.  Promise me. Do it once.  If you don’t like it, I’ll never bother you about it again.

So I did it.  And it worked.  I was not an anthropology major for long.

Gemini Joe was one of many English instructors I’d had in my already protracted undergraduate career.  He was not a full professor but an MFA holding an adjunct position at a community college.  It was 2004 or 2005.  I was 26 or 27.  He was only 6 or so years older than me.  We were peers in age, for all intents and purposes, and by this point, friends.

After class, we went out for beers and played half-sober games of “Top Five” with a handful of my other classmates.  He got buzzed, read drafts of poems we’d written unrelated to class, and wrote things like “Hamburgers!” in the margin after furiously circling a whole stanza.  He held an open house at a local bar and grill at the end of the semester, inviting us all to drop by and keep him company while he graded (our) papers.

I suspect these experiences are not what employers are hoping to draw into their human resources arsenal when they put “4-year degree” in the minimum qualifications of job descriptions.

I learned more about myself, relationships, reading, and writing in those two years than I did in the other 12 years of my on-again, off-again higher education combined. Community college was inexpensive, weird, potentially unprofessional, and, in almost every way, nothing like college is supposed to be.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.

In the roughly year and a half during and shortly after Gemini Joe’s creative writing class, I wrote nearly 300 poems, published a handful of them before I even had an associate’s degree, began blogging furiously, and was even picked up by some fancy-pants fellow in L.A. who was going to start a brand new kind of online publication in a bid to change the literary world.  In short, I became a writer.

Just like that.  A writer.  I could call myself that.  No MFA, no internship, nothing.

Still, the stigma attached to community college is at once obvious and insidious.  What’s more, no one will admit to its existence.  It’s a dirty pair of panties in the middle of the dining table at a dinner party. I remember, when talking to people about where I was going to school, all but apologizing for being a poor, attention-seeking ne’er-do-well.

They’d say, “Ooh…that’s a good way to go.  I have a friend whose (subtext: unemployed, imbecilic, criminally insane, and terribly ugly) son is doing that.”

“You know, it’s cheap and I was a bit of a rebel in high school, so it was a good way to get my GPA up.  And it’s much more personal than a big school,” I’d say.

“Oh absoluuuutely…”

Everything I said was true, but feeling the need to say it was suspect.  I felt dirty even humoring it.  I knew that wasn’t me.  I knew—at the risk of tooting my own horn—that I was smart.  Smarter than most, and even if not, certainly smarter than the condescending asshole who was grilling me about where I was going to school.  But there I was, feeling like a poverty-stricken, imbecilic, criminally insane person.  I vowed—however subconsciously—to make people, maybe everybody, but especially people like that, eat my dust.


When I did transfer to a 4-year school, it was Tally ho, motherfuckers.

I got straight A’s.  I landed on every class like a sucker punch, interrogating instructors and giving impassioned treatises in class.  I mocked their predictable academic and personal politics; I chastised them for their lack of interdisciplinary awareness and for misleading people who were too young to know any better.  I was Don Quixote with ‘roid rage—a monstrous pain in the ass.  When I did graduate, finally, I huffed and panted and steamed like a Pamplona bull in the Plaza de Toros.  And like the bulls, just like that, I had run all that way to find nowhere to go.

In the meantime, or somewhere along the way, unfortunate realities stuffed me with fear and loathing and bureaucratic anonymity and a titanic sense of resentment, making writing impossible.

Gemini Joe couldn’t get a better teaching gig.  His wife was pregnant with their second child; he went into house flipping towards the end of the housing bubble and nearly lost his ass.  I’m not sure, but I think after writing training manuals for a notable health insurance company for a while, he began creating some kind of digital networking and web-networking strategy to sell to businesses.  He started some kind of consulting firm.  Really, I don’t understand what he’s doing.  He’s not teaching.  He’s not writing.  Not like he used to.

Good teachers (not to be confused with good scholars) go begging.  Good students get a special name on a piece of paper.

Having lived the dream, finishing both high school and college before the age of 50 (unlike either of my parents), I find myself here. Home, as far as I’m concerned.

I paid tens of thousands of dollars and read dozens of books, hundreds of poems, sacrificed hundreds of hours—to earn the relief of coming back to what I was doing before I signed on for the whole mad affair in the first place.

In case you were wondering, I did read it.  Joe’s recommendation, that is.  If on a winter’s night a traveler is still my favorite book.

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BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

187 responses to “Everything I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Community College”

  1. Becky!

    Nice piece. I kind of love the idea of hanging out with a poem for a little while. It seems like that hippy-dippy horse manure kind of thing you hear from artsy-fartsy types, but it also seems like that way of reading a poem, that way of choosing one that resonates and carrying it with you and reading it once in a while . . . I mean, a good poem really does live with/in you, in a way, for a while. A good poem can affect the way you see and feel things for a little bit, and it can inspire a mood just as well as a change of scenery.

    On community colleges: I’ve taught at one, and would do so again in a heartbeat. Whenever people ask where I’ve taught, I make it a point to note I’ve done so at USC, Saint Peter’s, and a smaller community college in Colorado. Because the curricula I’ve taught at each one has been pretty much exactly the same, with no deviation among courses. I literally went from teaching at USC to teaching at that CC in Colorado, and while there were differences, they were superficial differences, as the community college environment is still one of higher learning.

    So I get what you mean about there being a stigma, but I’ve sadly seen that at a couple levels. I’ve never understood it, like the people who kind of profess with both bluster and blush they went to “State.”

    Interesting your note about going so far to come back to where you’d been. Have you read Coelho’s The Alchemist? It’s sort of about that.

    And finally: congratulations!

    • Becky says:

      Thanks, Will.

      I guess, at the time, the “hanging out” seemed the opposite of hippy-dippy. Maybe it was his way of saying it. The implication was that it was like getting to know a person. Not everyone is likable at first.

      He might have also said something like “take it out for coffee.”

      Though now that you mention it, even that sounds slightly ridiculous.

      What can I say? He was convincing. I may have been brainwashed.

    • Gloria says:

      It’s been suggested to me to read The Alchemist many, many times. There’s another book to put by my bed.

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    This is your first full posting, right?

    Ah, community college. When I arrived in the US, I had 3 years under my belt in Electronics Engineering at the University of Nigeria (UNN), a top-notch institution and the third-world equivalent of Ivy League. But my grades were ass (I’d spent too much time hanging out with humanities students, and partying 5 days a week). The Engineering colleges weren’t willing to admit me to transfer. I got the recommendation to go to a CC, and transfer from there instead. I enrolled in Middlesex County College in New Jersey.

    I can’t say all I learned I learned there, because really all I learned I learned at UNN, but certainly all I learned about being an American (which I now am) I learned there. And I had some excellent instructors, too. They seemed to be ready to get down and dirty with a student that’s all too willing to challenge assumptions, and considering I was going through curriculum a second time over, racking up easy As, bored with Engineering and drawing my energy from literature, I was full of challenges. I’ve always been a teacher’s terror (we seem to have that in common), but my repeated University years really brought out the bitch in me.

    When, proof from my year of top grades in hand, I later transferred to a highly-ranked Engineering school (MSOE) I still had to take some curriculum over again, and I quickly learned that instructors at more prestigious schools aren’t always as interested in the rough and tumble. I’m definitely grateful to all my Universities: UNN for teaching me the merciless rigors of learning at all costs (I never again had to work hard to make good grades after what UNN put me though), MCC for perhaps the most low-stress and fun, yet engaging period which allowed me to enjoy learning, and MSOE, which provided the polish needed for the career. That friggin’ Baccalaureate took forever!

    Big respect to community colleges for sure, and no one should ever presume to believe they know where top find the best teachers.

    • Becky says:

      My first full posting in this life, anyway.

      Yeah. And what is it to be a good teacher, anyway? I assume, like most types of “good” things, there are different kinds, and I’ve had a few different kinds of good teachers, some of them very traditional and nothing like this one.

      They may be other posts.

      But I think it’s a shame if, in the entire course of their undergraduate career, students never have at least one teacher who takes a personal interest in them, their education, interests, abilities, gets to know them. I mean, I suppose it’s a mentorship situation. It made all the difference for me.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      “This is your first full posting, right?”

      Never mind, I see it’s a triumphant return for you. Well, glad to see you at the top of the bill.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    “They’d say, ‘Ooh…that’s a good way to go. I have a friend whose (subtext: unemployed, imbecilic, criminally insane, and terribly ugly) son is doing that.’ ”

    Funny and oh how true to the situation, Becky!

    Community colleges probably have as many good and bad teachers as 4-yr educational institutions, but we’ll never know, can only present anecdotal evidence. However, I do think that community colleges trump universities in an important way that doesn’t often get credited, and which doubtless gives students an advantage: Most of the classes are smaller than many of the university classes. Thus students can verbally arm-wrestle the teachers as well as get closer to them for help and inspiration (or pure hell).

    I valued my community college studenting highly, as you do. And I smart-assed with the teachers fairly often, loved the in-class give-and-take with the teachers. Once at uni, though, in huge lecture halls with 300 students focused on a small figure at the podium, I felt like a cipher, which I was, to the teacher. I usually loved their lectures and would’ve wanted to discuss salient points with them, but there seemed no way to do it.

    • Becky says:

      I think that’s part of it.

      Joe, for example, was actually in his office most of the day. If I wanted to go in there and challenge some point he’d made, or ask a question, or put on a wanton display of undergraduate know-it-all-ness, I didn’t have to do it in class.

      I never failed to get noticed, even in my bigger classes, but it was criminally exhausting and occasionally embarrassing for everyone involved.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Hey Becky—-the perfect scenario would be you teaching at a community college…..with Uche as your student. 😉 BLAST OFF!

        I taught for some 30 years at several campuses in the Chicago City
        Colleges, all levels (I mean ALL levels) of English from ground zero ESl to lit and film. Most fun were the average-aged students (27).

        I’d get regular office visits from students, just a few, but they were dedicated to chatting. My feeling is that they wanted to be a friend, not “just” a student. It was wonderful. Some of those students were The Terror of my classes, and truly made my job in class Way Challenging, but I knew they needed and wanted recognition for their ideas and themselves. Why not?! Isn’t the point of teaching to develop students’ inner and outer resources?

        • Becky says:

          That was always my perception, but the formalized, structured professionalization of anything can detract from its organic purpose.

          It’s like anything. Including writing. The dichotomy isn’t absolute, but intersections are hard to find.

          There’s teaching for teaching’s sake and teaching in order to build a career and be “successful” by industry standards. I imagine finding that balance in most professions is remarkably difficult.

          My hat’s off to anyone who manages to do it, community college or not.

          Haha. Uche as my student. He’d never have it. I’d assign nothing but T.S. Eliot all day.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I just get the image of what happens when matter meets anti-matter. Should that scenario ever to come to pass, everyone else near the classroom had better be wearing gamma-ray-proof shades


        • Judy Prince says:

          You’re quite right on at least two points, Becky: the formal, super-structured environment that kills much creativity and individualism, and the seriously torturing route to making a career out of teaching.

          It’s fairly brutal to get onto the academic track which would yield a college or uni tenured position. Bad enuff in the days I taught, but much more challenging now.

          I, like you, also appreciate Elliot. We could team-teach TWE to Uche!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yeah, I just invented a poet, Becky!!!!! TWE!!!


        • Judy Prince says:

          Uche, it just doesn’t “matter”—–lame pun, but….

          You sooooo would love TSE when Becky and I got through brainwashing I mean teaching you!

          I further propose that dear Rodent join you.

          Wanna make any bets?

          Judy giving the Uche caterpillar salute :P;;;;;;

        • Becky says:

          This is all getting very Orwellian very quickly.


        • Judy Prince says:

          Becky, as several TNBers have said, Mary McMyne most recently, their taste in poems changed and they expect it will change again.

          Uche, bless him, is ever an eager student—-as well as a fine teacher.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Hey now, I, er, gulp, um, yeah, like Eliot too. Becky has seen, but perhaps not you Judy:


          So yeah, I’m not completely off Eliot. I do just *so* enjoy throwing pointy things at his memory.

          Anyway, does your comment about R mean that he’s more on my side of the Eliotophilic fence? If so, it sounds like a nice game of doubles tennis. Ladies versus the Gentlemen with a pile of books to serve as the net. I’m up for that.

  4. New Orleans Lady says:

    CONGRATS on your first TNB post!!

    When I first got out of high school, I went straight to UNO. Huge campus, great school, all the college experience you could chew and in my case, spit out. I lasted there for two whole semesters. I made ok grades, met some interesting people, blah, blah, blah. Nothing inspired me! I was bored. And poor.

    Welcome Delgado Community College! I LOVED IT! The best teachers on the planet teach at communtiy colleges. Smart teachers who aren’t afraid to be real, too. They were less concerned with the rules that can be associated with bigger schools so they were more free to be themselves. Obviously, they are not all this way but I was lucky enough to find some really great ones along my journey.

    In what turned out to be my last semester, I took an art class. DRAWING I of all things. One, I always loved art, two, I was REALLY pregnant and needed something on the first floor that wouldn’t cause any stress. BAM!! Now, after that class, with that teacher, I can’t get it out of my head! As soon as I can, I’m going back for art. Not because I NEED the degree but because I want to learn as much as I can about what I love. And I’ll be back in community college, with a smile on my face and paint on my hands.

    I loved this post, Becky.
    I can’t wait until you feel you can share more of your poetry with us.
    I’m looking forward to keeping one in MY pocket.

    • Becky says:

      Thanks, Ashley.

      I think there are brilliant people–who are also invested in undergraduates–teaching at universities, too, but in a huge sea like that, what are your odds of hooking a quality fish? I’ve managed a couple of times, but it was much more of a crapshoot than it ever was at community college.

      Community college was full of hidden talent of all types, which I think makes it worth investigating, especially for non-traditional students.

  5. Matt says:

    My only experience with community college was the summer sessions I took as part of the advanced education programs my parents dragooned me into during the later few years of my elementary school education, I’m afraid. I don’t honestly can’t say if it really contributed to my intellectual development or not. But I’ve always thought the stigma was really undeserved.

    To a certain degree, I think that may be one of the tiny silver linings in the big ominous recession cloud: as people are forced to pinch their pennies tighter and tighter, the enrollment at the local CCs is going up while enrollment in the major universities is going down. More and more undergrads are stopping there to knock off their GE requirements for cheap before moving on to a more “prestigious” (expensive) State or UC school. Good for them.

    And good for you, too, for finally finishing up! And now to the next challenge: THE REAL WORLD!

    (if on a winter’s night a traveler is f’ing brilliant.)

    • New Orleans Lady says:

      Ok, I’ve never read if on a winter’s night a traveler but I will now.

      • Gloria says:

        I haven’t either. But now I will too. At least, I’ll put it on my massive pile, stare at it, intend to get to it, and think about it and feel guilty about not reading it incessantly. It’s (potentially) that good.

        • New Orleans Lady says:

          I do the same thing. I have a pile here that’s been staring me down for quite some time.

      • Becky says:

        You can look at it one of two ways when you do tackle it. It’s either a sort of high-art, high-theory postmodern mindfuck


        It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure for grown-ups.

        I like it as both.

    • Becky says:

      Well, I don’t know about the real world.

      I’ve had one foot in undergrad world and one in the real world at least since I was 25; I certainly have more time and less stress now, though. If this is the real world, I like it.

  6. Gloria says:

    “I landed on every class like a sucker punch, interrogating instructors and giving impassioned treatises in class.”

    “I was Don Quixote with ‘roid rage—a monstrous pain in the ass.”

    bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha

    I fucking bet.

    I had a Gemini Joe in my life. Several, actually, at several different points. One of them smoked pot with me once he was no longer my teacher. We got high and sat around and talked about One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. It was divine.

    So was this – YOUR PREMIER PIECE. WOOO!

    I loved this and I love you.

    And this, this is for you:


    • New Orleans Lady says:

      One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my all-time favorite movies.

      When my grandpa was in the hospital, he would call out for “Dr. Scanlon” all the time. No one would get it and most thought he was crazy, but we laughed.

    • Becky says:

      Shucks. I love you too, Gloria. FEEL THE LOVE. FEEL IT!!!!

      Yeah. Me + something to prove = Dra-ma.

      Or entertainment, depending on one’s disposition.

  7. TammyAllen says:

    All I can say is after spending thousands at Pepperdine and Otis Parsons, Scottsdale Community College was Gods gift to the childish partier that wanted a degree and whoes parents were fed up. I got staraight A’s and went on to get straights A’s at ASU. I’ve got a BFA with honors and it cost less than a quarter of those other schools that I was still paying off in my thirties. Now debt free. I beg people to consider CC first. It’s fucking brilliant. Hi and Associates Degree for about $700 at the time? ASU $2,000 to finish. Pepperdine and Otis combined $30,000 to pay back. Sure the experience was invaluable but…

    Great piece Becky. You are an amazing writer. You already know that. Don’t ever hesititate to bush the button.

    • Becky says:

      I look happily forward to joining you among the ranks of the debt-free. I expect it happen shortly before I die. The final hurdle in the B.A. rite of passage.

      And thanks, Tammy. Bushing the button sounds like something much dirtier than what I did, but on either account…

  8. Greg Olear says:

    Yet another piece about writers talking about writing and writerly inspiration.

    Kidding, kidding.

    My brother went to community college. He got his associates degree in nursing, and now makes so much money as an RN that it isn’t cost effective for him to bother with his bachelor’s.

    And Joe the Gemini sounds great — he reminds me of the teacher in Evison’s book, actually — and you’re right, it’s always the ones like him who actually inspire people that wind up having to hustle far too much.

    A terrific 3.0 debut, Becky. It’s great to see you on this end of the comment board, and I look forward to reading more.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Greg, you self-referential nincompoop you! Don’t you have anything better to do than Escherize TNB?

      • Greg Olear says:

        Escherize? As in the artist? I seem to think his initials are MC, but maybe I’m wrong, and that’s the name of some underground DJ who specializes in raves.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Yeah, I meant the artist, but you’re right. When I ditch the day job to become a rap star, It’s settled. MC Escherize in the hiddoooooouuuuuuse!

        • Matt says:

          M.C. Escher. One of my personal favorites. He and I share a birthday.

          We also share it with Newt Gingrich, but don’t hold that against us.

    • Becky says:

      It wasn’t even just writerly inspiration. It was readerly inspiration and ego inspiration and all kinds of things. I heart attention and the blurring of boundaries.

      And you totally chickened out with the “kidding, kidding.”

      ‘ja think I’d get all butt hurt, or what?

      And thanks. I really can’t say how happy I am to be here.

      I really can’t.

      Because it would mean Brad was right, and I can’t allow it.

      • Greg Olear says:

        I knew you’d know I was kidding, but someone else might not.

        Brad is right most of the time, but he does err about certain things, most notably Howard Stern. (That’s bait to see if he’s paying attention).

  9. Joe Daly says:

    Thank you for writing this. It was a reminder to me that authors/writers/ranters/bloggers, etc., need not spring from English degrees, MFAs, or expansive creative writing programs. Some people just write because it’s in them.

    I still get intimidated by poetry. I shamefully have withheld commenting on some of the poems submitted here, just because I fear the only comments I can offer would be naive, unskilled, trite restatements of the obvious.

    What you passed on about reading a poem (several times) has caused me to rethink my reluctance to approach that art form. If I start wearing a beret and reading poems in smoky cafes, I will blame you.

    After I graduated from a 4 year liberal arts college, where I applied myself with the zeal of banana slug, I took classes at a local community college, basically to keep from going stir crazy. I found myself respecting the full time students there more than the classmates at my alma mater. The community college students seemed to be in it for the actual learning, rather than the jobs, graduation parties, and family businesses. I wish that had been my attitude in college.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Joe, whenever we meet I’m bringing my watch, for to heeepnotize you eento reveeeeealing your deeeeeeepest, duuurkest poetrical thoughts, ja? Yes, you are indeed very sleeeeeeeeeepeeeeeee!

    • Becky says:

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m not without regret about some of the things I missed out on as a non-traditional student.

      It has its own merits. For one thing, I had no cohort, no real camaraderie, no sense of community among classmates at university.

      This, in its own right, is a major learning opportunity. I did manage to make a couple of “college friends,” but they were all from CC.

      You don’t have to wear a beret to read poetry. In some cases, you only need to be drunk. Though true enough, smoking does help people to take you seriously.

    • Judy Prince says:

      “. . . where I applied myself with the zeal of banana slug, . . .”

      With such evidence of effective metaphoring in your prose, Joe, can the poetry in you be far behind?

    • Richard Cox says:

      Same here, Joe. I don’t comment on poems because I don’t feel like I have anything useful or insightful to say. It’s shameful, my lack of understanding of poetry.

      • Becky says:

        I don’t think you have to understand poetry to comment on it.

        I think that’s one of the damned shames about the poetic mystique.

        That it’s some kind of secret club and you have to learn the password or shake someone down for the cheat sheet.

        I mean, there are different levels of understanding and appreciating it, and a person with a working knowledge of meter will take note of different things than someone who doesn’t, but mastery of the form is no prerequisite for reading and enjoying.

        And between me and you and everybody, half the time, a lot of poets don’t even understand their own poems. God as my witness.

        • Becky says:

          Sorry. The Guy as my witness.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I was gonna say…

        • Matt says:

          “That it’s some kind of secret club and you have to learn the password or shake someone down for the cheat sheet.”

          I would say the majority of poets I know personally–especially during my student days–went out of their way to behave like that.

          Hell, that might’ve even been the appeal for some of ’em in the first place.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Excellent, Becky, all of this:

          “I don’t think you have to understand poetry to comment on it.”

          “I think that’s one of the damned shames about the poetic mystique.”

          “That it’s some kind of secret club and you have to learn the password or shake someone down for the cheat sheet.”

          “I mean, there are different levels of understanding and appreciating it, and a person with a working knowledge of meter will take note of different things than someone who doesn’t, but mastery of the form is no prerequisite for reading and enjoying.”

          “And between me and you and everybody, half the time, a lot of poets don’t even understand their own poems. God as my witness.”

          Poetry’s a distilling of experience and truths; it’s getting at the essence, the core, of truths. And it’s doing that with micro-comparisons and images that “stand for” experiences and truths. So in 12 or 20 brief lines you’ve got the dynamite that’d be revealed in the thousands more words in a novel or a play.

          And that can power a poem-reader into ecstasy…..or confusion.

          Ask someone what a poem is saying, and you’re likely to be shocked at how opposite their “take” is to your own. An example. Recently, three poets reviewed my latest poetry pamphlet. One reviewer thought one of the poems possessed “disarming tenderness”. HUH?! A shock to me. I’d thought the poem light-heartedly humourous. Here it is:

          A Likely Story

          sometimes when I’m lying in bed
          I think all is lost
          the world is coming to an end
          then I look at you
          sitting at the desk
          eating cashews


          Poetry can be like emails—-understood in many different ways by many different people.

          Further, the distilled, heightened analogised language of poems will surprise the poet, as well as the poem readers, with its meanings. Poets often refer to their “muse” as having brought the surprising words to them, like automatic writing. Often, I’ll compose an entire poem, edit it repeatedly, and declare it finished. And then I realise I don’t entirely understand what it’s saying. So I analyse it like I would one of my dreams or the symbolism in a short story, and I think “OMG, YES! I “knew” it was a cool image!” or “Oh, so *that’s* what I meant!” As so many writers have said, they feel like they’re “channeling” the words they write down that often come out in a tumbling rush as if the channel is impatient at the writer’s stumbling slowness.

        • Becky says:

          Matt, writers–especially young writers–of all types, in my experience, tend to want to feel like they’re part of an exclusive club.

          Especially at the undergrad/grad level when insecurity and inferiority complexes are in full effect.

          But most poets have, at some point or another, gotten over the intimidation poetry caused them, which is one thing I think they can legitimately hold over other people’s heads, as opposed to believing they hold some secret key to the universe.

          Of course they don’t.

          But going “meh. I don’t get it *shrug*” to an entire writing discipline is nothing to be proud of, either, especially for anyone who considers him/herself a student or lover of language.

        • Irwin says:

          Right towards the end of my Poetry module I found myself getting quite into it. I was even a little sad when it was over. I won’t be studying it again next year, and it’s something I think I’d rather explore on my own than within a set course. Also: not going to miss a lot of the very stereotypical poem-y poetry people were coming out with. Sensitive souls daring to turn their petals to the sunlight and all that shit.

          Young writers are bastards. Yes, yes, I know I’m one of them. But you’re right, everyone is looking to be part of some sort of club… and yet everyone is very insecure and obviously in the deep grip of inferiority complexes or some kind of neurosis. The number of people who aren’t writing ‘their novel’ because they ‘don’t think they’re very good at writing.’

        • Becky says:

          Stereotypes of poetry and what it looks like and what it has to sound like die hard.

          Personal stereotypical favorites that tend to surface in the nascent poet’s toolbox are: Randomly inverted sentence structure (think Yoda), uniform, purposeless first-letter-of-line capitalization, the ejaculatory “O!” (not to be confused with an “Oh face”), and…this is a big one (and a pet peeve of mine)…center-justification for no reason whatsoever. I mean, those are just formal characteristics; there are habits of content, too, but the formal stuff is immediately recognizable.

          When I used to workshop, those four tendencies, above all others, were the hallmarks of a brand-spanking-new poet.

          You see any of them in that kind of context and you have to soften at once because there’s a good chance that even the slightest criticism will absolutely crush them.

        • Becky says:

          @Judy: I’ve tried to describe poetry as the “zip file” of literature before, the idea being that it has to be unpacked.

          I don’t know if that’s helpful to anyone but me, and there’s certainly more to poetry than that, but I think it’s a start.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Why not the “luggage” of lit, Becky? Zippers are a bit risk-hazardy, if ya know what I mean.

          Definitely there’s a big Bag of Tricks that many poets come to know and use. Equally, some poets can make a bunch of goofs—–but they make the goofs work and put the lie to all the Proper Forms or Current Modes of poetry. Dylan Thomas, in some ways, was weirdly “wrong” with the Bag of Tricks. And every “wrong” built the beauty and feeling of some of his poems, like “Fern Hill”, for example.

          When you read a writer who plays crazy with Properness, you just want to yell “YESSSSS!!!!” It’s awesome to read words that just dance on the page. Like meeting someone totally cool, you know in a millisecond that the writing has “IT”. Theatre critic Frank Rich said about finding such a writer of plays, “I would follow that playwright to the end of the world.”

        • Becky Palapala says:

          “Luggage” sounds too much like “baggage,” to me; poets may have plenty of it, but I’m not sure we want to advertise.

          I was thinking more in terms of actual DOT zip, “compressed” data files on a computer. Where the data is mushed down to a smaller file size.

        • Judy Prince says:

          I like that, Becky.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I missed all this until now, but I’d like to say that I got a nice chuckle out of that poem you posted, “A Likely Story.” I can see it as both tender and humorous. I’d be interested to read more pieces like that.

          The issue I still have is I don’t know where that piece fits in the broader context of poetry. When I read a novel or listen to music or watch a film, whether it’s popcorn entertainment or a serious, insightful piece, I know more or less where it fits. I can say, “Well, I really liked that film by Famous Sellout Man even if it has nothing to say.” Etc. But I might like a piece of poetry and say it’s brilliant, and the next person will come along and go, “What are you talking about? That’s trash. You’re obviously an utter Philistine.”

          And yeah, I know it shouldn’t matter what someone else thinks. But every one of us here will Google a subject for details before we write about it so we don’t come off looking uneducated, right? So we all care to some extent. When I have little knowledge about a certain subject I’ll usually stay out of the debate and listen, so I can learn. I suppose with poetry I feel so far behind the curve that it seems like too much effort to catch up. But I do often read the poetry posted here anyway.

        • Greg Olear says:

          O Muse! Speak! Make my
          Chapbook sing
          With thy
          Song. Spring
          Is upon us,
          Fertile is the air,
          Wet is the dust,
          Happy be the pair.

          (Is that all of the pet peeves in one crappy verse? I don’t think I can center a comment, alas)

        • Judy Prince says:

          Thanks, Richard. It’s great to know that you read TNB-posted poetry. I’ve learned, as well, from Uche’s and Becky’s conversations.

          Though the experience(s) that led me to write “A Likely Story” were tough, I wrote the poem later while giggling at the contrast between dear Rodent’s casual cashew-eating and my angst about my problems. 😉

          You say you don’t know where the poem fits “in the broader context of poetry”, and I can’t say that I know either. Maybe Uche or Becky or dear Rodent will help us out.

          Re your wanting to understand poems, many poetry folks disagree about what a poem means and whether it is “good” and “bad”, so we can just read poems and make up our own minds about what they mean, while staying tuned to others’ opinions. Checking out anthologies and googling for more poems by some of the anthologised writers can be really fun. It almost doesn’t matter what kind of anthology you get hold of; they’re usually rich with different styles, eras and topics.

          For my own part, I love very few poems, but when I do, I react to them the way I react to any kind of writing I love: It blows the top of my head off.

        • Becky says:

          Okay. Let’s not get carried away. There is such a thing as a patently bad poem. I’m not a rampant relativist.

        • Becky says:

          Greg, the voice is too consistent. Throw in a cuss word, a line of IP, and a reference to Jim Morrison, and you’ve got it.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Aha, Becky’s tuned in. E x c e l l e n t…….

          I’d love us to hack apart a poem and invite others to join us.

          Maybe two poems. One that you love and one that I love.

          R U game? But let’s leave TSE alone bcuz we both like his stuff (well, I like *some* of his stuff, not all).

          Here’s my offering:

          First love by Liz Bassett

          You feel it now – in the after school light
          that is leaf mush and wooden birds clicking
          in trees, and the pale bellies of planes spilling

          shooting stars more bright; more instant than love
          – and your twelve slow years folded behind you
          waiting; knowing this love, already.

          You hold it close – brittle as the limbs of
          old dolls you found buried like mandrake roots;
          like bones of birds in slow, insistent flight

          through earth – and below the breathing clouds
          tomatoes hold out their stubborn globes of light.

        • Becky says:

          How do you mean pick-apart? Like say how we read it?

          I went like this:

          Read it. Appreciated.

          Went back and looked at it. Thought, “First thing, it’s a not-a-sonnet…”

          That’s not too helpful at this point; set that aside.

          What does the title say? First love. Obvious question: Does it have to be a person? Does it have to be another person? Could it be another person? Answers: No and no and yes. What’s the imagery? Light, leaves, birds, plane, stars, roots, bones, birds again, earth, clouds, tomatoes, light again. A lot of flight/sky things happening, but ends on the ground…

          Verdict: There is no other person in this poem but “you.” This poem is probably not about two people in love, or if it is, it is not only or even mostly about two people in love.

          Remaining candidates for being in “first love” with: “You” (a.k.a. self) & nature. (Wait. Why doesn’t the poet use “I?” Set that aside among formal properties for now.)

          Self and nature. Which is it? Both? WTF?

          What are the most conspicuous images/words in the poem? For me: The planes (not natural like all the others, rather man-made), “mandrake roots” (any mention of a *specific* type of plant or animal is suspect and should be examined for its traditional or potential symbolic value) and “globes.”

          So what about mandrakes? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrake_(plant)

          That’s as far as I’ve gotten this morning; now I have to go get ready for work.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Becky, I’m delited you’re having a long look at Liz Bassett’s poem. Let me substitute my “pick apart” phrase with a brief checklist for our analysing. I’ll get to work on it now. I’m eager to read the poem you’ll choose.

          A checklist guide for analysing the poem:

          1) Rate the poem on a scale from 0-10 (10 is Shakespeare).

          2) Briefly, paraphrase the poem (tell what it means).

          3) What parts did you like, and why?

          4) What parts did you not understand or dislike, and why?

          Here’s the poem again:

          First love by Liz Bassett

          You feel it now – in the after school light
          that is leaf mush and wooden birds clicking
          in trees, and the pale bellies of planes spilling

          shooting stars more bright; more instant than love
          – and your twelve slow years folded behind you
          waiting; knowing this love, already.

          You hold it close – brittle as the limbs of
          old dolls you found buried like mandrake roots;
          like bones of birds in slow, insistent flight

          through earth – and below the breathing clouds
          tomatoes hold out their stubborn globes of light.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Becky, my checklist for Liz Bassett’s poem:

          1) Rating: 7

          2) Poem’s meaning: On a school afternoon, a 12 year old becomes aware of and treasures her intense feelings about her first love; she thinks that somehow she’s been expecting it her whole life.

          3) Liked:

          “leaf mush” and “wooden birds clicking in trees” —-Fresh, unique and unusual comparisons fit my memories, taking me back to my own scenes.

          “your twelve slow years folded behind you, waiting; knowing this love, already” —–I can see an action that explains the incredible feeling of somehow already having known that the first love would happen and how it would feel, and enjoying the patience that it represents.

          “You hold it close – brittle as the limbs of/ old dolls you found buried like mandrake roots;/ like bones of birds in slow, insistent flight”—–Unique, startling comparisons evoking woodsy, secret, private feelings about the exquisite, fragile, always-waiting first love.

          “tomatoes hold out their stubborn globes of light”—–Tomatoes! I can see them, robust, tenacious, shining, reflecting sun, and I realise, then, that the first love, and I, are as “stubborn” as the beautiful tomatoes.

          4) Didn’t understand or disliked: “pale bellies of planes spilling/

          shooting stars more bright”—–I don’t get if or how planes spill shooting stars.


          Once again, the poem:

          First Love by Liz Bassett

          You feel it now – in the after school light
          that is leaf mush and wooden birds clicking
          in trees, and the pale bellies of planes spilling

          shooting stars more bright; more instant than love
          – and your twelve slow years folded behind you
          waiting; knowing this love, already.

          You hold it close – brittle as the limbs of
          old dolls you found buried like mandrake roots;
          like bones of birds in slow, insistent flight

          through earth – and below the breathing clouds
          tomatoes hold out their stubborn globes of light.

        • Becky says:

          I don’t know about long…this is how I read poems the first time. Or the second half of the first time.

          A scale of 1-10? Really? And I see you misspelled “Eliot.” It appears to say “Shakespeare.”

          Here is where I out myself for laboring under heavy (though certainly not total) new critic influence. I don’t think of whether I like or dislike something as pertinent to a reading (or at least analysis/dissection) of a poem. Like/dislike is usually a decision I don’t make until AFTER I have some idea of what’s going on.

          So your checklist gives me fits.

          But okay.

          1) 5.5

          2) Let the beginning of my close reading above stand in here for the time being. I can finish it later (without showing my work), but I’m in a time crunch.

          3) Lovely language, imagery, for the most part. I liked the “bones of birds,” image, but for some reason kept turning “slow” into “snow,” which I prefer. Alas.

          4) I’m not feeling it. Words/things to put in a poem that will make me immediately skeptical and impatient, especially if you’re a woman poet (sad but true): Stars, love, birds, clouds, earth, dolls. I mean, none are no-nos necessarily, and they can be done in a way that I like, but they’re so so SO stereotypically feminine. Even without knowing the poet’s name, I could have told you a woman wrote this. Uterus-contemplation stuff. It makes me wrinkle my nose.

          W/r/t your list. I find this interesting. The arguably obvious nature of the poem is part of what I don’t like about it. I tend to resist reading poems for their plot/text, even when it’s called for. While it’s true that painting a lovely picture is a valid component of poetry, and in some cases the entire point of a poem, if there’s not too much more complicated going on…in those kinds of poems…I feel…I feel like the unwitting victim of a two-minute man, if you know what I mean…hence my low rating. I’m sqqueeezing something more intellectual out of this thing in an attempt to get satisfaction from it.

          I got tomato juice. No tomatoes.

        • Becky says:

          And I’m struggling here…I know which poem I really want to post, but I can’t find its text online and it’s a bit longer than what you offered.

          Has some examples of doing some of these more feminine images “right” (that is, to my liking), but I don’t know that I can or should post the whole thing here…

        • Becky says:

          Found it! Phew.

          I’ll just link to it for sake of space. I hope that’s not too inconvenient. Please ignore the commentary that follows the poem. If you’d prefer I pick someone more contemporary, I can do that, too.


        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Jaysus! So Judy mentioned this thread in another thread and I come back to see the house on fire.

          Where to start? I agree with Becky that I can’t see Shakespeare as a 10, at least not poetry-wise. I’d have to give that to Sappho, Chaucer or Dante (Commedia Divina Dante, not Vita Nuova Dante). And I really have no idea how to rate a poem on a linear scale.

          I promised an unstructured comment on “First Love”, and here it is: there are a couple of neat figures in the poem, but the whole doesn’t really coalesce and compel me. Note: making the poem cohere is one of the trickiest things to manage after the loud report of Imagism across the past century, and I fall victim to that problem as well.

          One major point where I think it founders:

          “brittle as the limbs of
          old dolls you found buried like mandrake roots;
          like bones of birds in slow, insistent flight”

          That’s 3 similes in various states of apposition. I think the intended effect is something I’d call a collage conceit: multiple tropes of exaggerated expression in abrupt succession. It’s a dangerous game whose best player might have been the pre-modern G.M. Hopkins. It’s a game I try to play, too, and who knows if I succeed, but in my opinion it needs a good deal more compression to work.

          Of course Becky’s pal Tommy was the prince of the more fully-developed conceit. If he did occasionally dabble in collage, it was in fuller chunks, which is a safer gambit.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          My stars! I can’t believe I missed Villon from a list of poetic 10s.

        • Becky says:

          This is enlightening, really.

          The three of us, none of us declaring it a bad poem, but each with obvious degrees of preference for it.

          Way more interesting than the poem itself are the different ways in which we approach it (I think this was the point of the exercise, right Judy? To flush those out?).

          Judy with the personal, empathetic/sympathetic take, me at the content with a crowbar, digging around for underlying ideas, and Uche with the sort of formal academic thing going.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Didn’t want to tip my hand, Becky and Uche, but I offered the same poem (Liz Bassett’s “First Love”) to a couple poetry lists for evaluation—-and I was the only one who liked it.

          On one of the lists, later, we tackled several very different poems, analysing them with something a bit like my “guidelines”, but more detailed.

          Responses were heated, debatey, argumentative—-and all over the road. But what shocked me was that the single most disagreed-upon point was what the poem was “about”. The arguing began to get laffable. I figured that if poem readers can’t even agree on what the poem’s about, and I do not mean tricky “about”, I mean simple, straightforward “about”, then it’s no wonder that most poems are evaluated so differently.

          The whole debate about what’s “good” or “bad” poetry hinges largely on the readers’ tastes and subject/style/historical preferences.

          And, yes Shaksper’s the best poet. She’s light years ahead of all those you propose, Uche.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Good point re: the different approaches. In my defense, though, I tried to include some specifics because I knew Judy would have hounded me until I did so, anyway 😉

          Becky, I’m working on the second poetry for the Nervous installment, but if you’d like to write one later on, picking and discussing a theme + 2-3 poems you think would be good to share with n00bs, I think that would be valuable. Diverse perspective matters.

          Judy, you too. And safe flight, BTW. You should be there to witness the utter hysteria when they crash out of the Cup, despite the fact that it’s perfectly predictable

        • Becky says:

          Judy, the problem is that you’re talking about evaluating for “good” and “bad” poetry between established–or at least experienced–poets.

          Most poets and experienced readers of poetry would not look at a polished poem by an experienced poet and go, “that’s total shit.”

          There is a point…a level at which the worth of a poem becomes largely about preference, but there is also a point at which a poem–ones I’ve written, ones Uche has written, ones you’ve written–are simply not worth the space they take up on the hard drive. Some poems are shit.

          I am unrepentant on this point. Relativity has its limits, even in poetry. I am putting my foot down.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Oh, you slip a few by me from time to time, Uche. 😉

          I don’t agree with you and Becky about the fundamental difference in our evaluations being our different approaches. None of us gave a thorough review and judgement about the poem; we just hit the list with a few deft kicks—–which is all I’d wanted at this point.

          Great idea to get Becky into the Poetry Chair for a bit, Uche!

          But, seriously and honestly, I’d have to put dear Rodent in my place. Like you, he’s a walking poetry encyclopaedia, though he’d deny it. Only prob is that he gets all into metrics. Downer!

          “crash out of the cup”, Uche? Is this that whole boring thing called a World Cup, where adult male athletes are competing for whose genital-protecting gear is the best? BORING.

        • Becky says:

          Well, sure. We’re all interested enough and knowledgeable enough about poetry that we’d probably get around to each other’s approaches/vantages in any protracted, close reading, but we each have what appear to be obvious default reactions–default approaches–to poetry, and since the questions are different, so are the answers.

          My first reaction was to throw the formal stuff off to the side for later and ignore the actual little girl in the poem completely.

          Uche picked up the formal stuff right away.

          You picked up the little girl right away.

          I don’t think it’s crazy to find that significant.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Ah, Becky, you’ve got a light foot. Put it down, if you will, and with great force. But you needn’t spend your energy bcuz I think that plenty of poems are really truly horrible.

          I do, though, disagree with your thinking that professional poets would not “dump” on a poem or a poet. If you spent a few years on poetry lists or heard the private mutterings of poets day in and day out, you’d find it unsurprising that they’d say “That’s total shit” about a professional piece.

          Most poems, 99% of them I’ve read—-by anyone, anywhere—-I don’t like. And there’re several reasons for my not liking them. Uche and Rodent are far more generous in their appraisals of poems.

          Now to read the poem you’ve chosen, and see what I think about it.

        • Becky says:

          Well, writers dumping on each other is nothing new. You underestimate my experience with poets.

          But it’s one thing to hate a writer’s habits or style or philosophy and hyperbolize (red line says this is not a word) your disapproval, and another thing entirely to look at something truly awful and say, “That’s truly awful.”

          It’s like the Robert Frost discussion. People dump on him for being Robert Frost; for being iconic, for being folksy, for being sentimental, for whatever reason.

          But hold “Stopping by the woods…” up in the faces of those people, look them straight in the eye and say, “IS THIS A BAD POEM?”

          And 99% of the time, they’ll come off their ego trip and say something to the effect of, “Well, not BAD bad. I just don’t like it. It’s too familiar/folksy/sentimental/whatever. Blah blah blah.” Hyperbolizer’s remorse.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Becky, I think it’s, in major part, an issue of “girl” poems and “guy” poems, which is our default mechanism. Same with all of lit, film vids, recreation, avocations. Those art forms that can gain an impressive stampede of both genders are probably the ones we’d declare #10s.

          I also think that people make fairly quick—-seconds, not minutes or hours—-judgements about art forms, just like we do about human beings. We may not have the poetry arsenal to defend our positions like some professionals, but I think that all of us, if we find ourselves needing to explain to others why we have judged a poem good or bad, will come up with reasons that sound believable.

          It’s like a quick emotional reaction to someone’s argument about anything, after which we’ll give “reasons” for our reaction. Fact is, though, we’re defending our emotional reaction, but our emotional reaction may have little to do with “objective” factors and universally understood logic.

        • Becky says:

          I mean, anyone who pretends to know anything about poetry can’t say “yes,” to that question. If s/he does, s/he’s an ass, and s/he knows it.

        • Becky says:

          Whoops. My little ditty there was meant to go below my other comment. I’m too lazy to move it.

          I don’t know about this girl/boy stuff. I think that a 10 would appeal to a lot of people, period, which only has an even-ish gender distribution as a secondary factor.

          Plath writes about incredibly gendered things, but has a relatively large male following as well.

          Not because she’s gender neutral but because she’s just that good.

          The gendered stuff I talked about with the Bassett poem isn’t just about gender in the sense that “I don’t like this because it’s girly.” Some of those images are cliches, plainly. Gender cliches. It’s wearisome to me. It gives me gender trope fatigue.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Becky, I think pronouncing a poem “horrible” and then pulling back to a more moderate stance when questioned later, is pretty typical and understandable. Most of us are quick to judge—-and why should we not be, unless we’re called to account for our silly negative over-emphases. But in private……a whole nother story, as you’ve experienced.

          Basically, though, the issue of quick harsh judgements later relented is a non-issue, I think, for this discussion.

          My guess—-and it’s only a guess—-is that you and Uche and I and most others will often disagree on the effectiveness of most poems we’re asked to evaluate. We may well find out, as we keep going.

          But first a nap.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Becky, none of the images in “First Love” is a cliche, gender or otherwise. Which is a reason I like the poem so much—-fresh, original, striking comparisons throughout.

          You’ll have to explain what you mean by using specific lines from the poem. Otherwise, it’s like you said about people saying “this is crap”—-it’s OTT and meaningless.

        • Becky says:

          I can’t imagine why we would agree.

          I guess I’m confused.

          I don’t equate my personal preferences with goodness/badness. I’m sure somewhere there’s a gray area in that regard, but just because people disagree on a poem’s effectiveness doesn’t mean that all instances or declarations of good/bad poetry are relative.

          I won’t go that far.

          I like Eliot more than Pound. Does that mean I’ve just called Pound shit? No.

          I like the Elizabeth Bishop poem better than the Bassett one. Does that mean I’m calling the Bassett one shit? No.

          The land of “good” poetry no doubt contains many poems I simply don’t care for. But the land of bad poetry exists. And it is a foul place. Full of “O!” and “Alas!” and “empty souls lost in the abyss of dreams” Or some shit like that.

          It’s not like saying “it’s crap,” Judy. It’s like saying these aspects, the players–the bird in flight, the stars, the brittle doll…these are recurring characters in poems where women writers are writing about being women (or in this case, a girl). Do you dispute that? Things growing, the earth, etc. I mean, are these not familiar characterizations of femininity? Am I on crazy pills?

          The individual images have a great deal of freshness to them and I said as much. I said I liked the poem. But it is of a type that does not appeal to me. Isn’t that what I said? Where did I say it was crap?

          WTF is going on. Did you write this?

        • Becky says:

          *sigh* Let’s not fight. That last line sounds more accusatory than it was intended. Who knew such an unassuming poem could be so divisive?

          Anyway, we agree on a number of accounts, even if we don’t agree on the appeal of gendered imagery.

          Or even if we don’t agree that it’s gendered at all.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Let’s go back to where we started, Becky. I proposed that you and I (and I hoped Uche and others) evaluate a poem that each of us had selected and “liked”.

          (I think that folks calling a poem “crap” is a non-issue for this discussion.)

          What is an issue is whether we and others agree on how much we “like” or “dislike” a poem. Using the words “good” or “bad” is often how people label what they like or don’t like.

          Going into the discussion, I figured we’d disagree on liking or not liking one another’s selected poems, bcuz of my experience with lengthy, heated discussions on two poetry lists in evaluating poems.

          They were heated debates, and no one convinced anyone else. After awhile it no longer surprised me that there were so many disagreements or that there’d be a staunch group on either side of an issue.

          What surprised and fascinated me is that few agreed on what the poem was saying. A line or two would be parsed over and over and over again with people maintaining diametrically opposite opinions about what those lines meant. Hence, naturally, their judgements about the poem were different.

          Fundamentally, what I think is useful is to demonstrate with our individual opinions about poems that there may not be one Correct Judgement about any poem. There may be more folks saying a particular poem is “bad” (i.e., ineffective or not likeable), but for the most part there may be quite varied reactions to poems. If poetry readers who want to “know more” about poetry and how to evaluate it are able to see that opinions vary widely, they may relax and find poems that they like, as well as write their own poems. I hope that’ll be an outcome of our discussion. But if not, I’m enjoying it and learning from it!

          We’re discussing and debating and arguing (in the classical sense of the word “argument”)—-but we’re not attacking or getting personal. We’re likely to come up with some cool ideas from this. If we want to AGREE, then this isn’t the topic to discuss! 😉

          Since I proposed the discussion, and you were wonderfully game for it, it’s fine if you want to stop. I won’t get angry or upset. It’s reasonable for you to want to give it up—–hey, this is YOUR comment list for YOUR post, not a poetry discussion post/list!

          I gave Elizabeth Bishop’s poem a first read and don’t understand what it means, but I’ll come back to it for several more reads like I do with lots of TNB posts that at first I can’t appreciate, but later, with my mind more alert, I find so meaningful.

          I’m pretty distracted now, preparing for tomorrow’s flight to the UK.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I prefer the Bishop poem to the Bassett. There’s more to explore, the themes — time, snow, sand, pigeons, Parisian architecture — all intertwine neatly.

          “First love” suggests first kiss, a clumsy twelve-year-old kiss. I like the line about the years “folding,” like chairs, but I really don’t like when poets feel the need to compare things to natural stuff like mandrakes. I know there’s a long tradition of that, but still. And the word “tomatoes” is ugly.

          Shakespeare is a 7 as a dramatist, but he’s absolutely a 10 as a poet. He gets a 10 just for inventing the word “countless.”

          This is cool…and maybe we should start this up in the FORUM section?

        • Judy Prince says:

          Thanks, Greg—-how cool that you’re joining in! I’ll properly respond to your evaluations later, but for now wanna ask what the FORUM section is.

        • Becky says:

          Greg, that’s all I need…another way to procrastinate on this site.

          Judy, I found that particular Bishop poem extraordinarily difficult. I mean, I didn’t post it just to stump people, but as an example of the kind of poem that engages me.

          It requires a fair amount of gutting and digging around, so it accommodates my tendencies.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          This is definitely the 100 meters comment thread. I really enjoyed the Bishop poem, though there is a lot of Bishop that puts me off. I think I remember reading it before. If I were examining it closely I would say that there are passages where she goes rather slack. But that’s the thing about poetry: often those visceral reactions are every bit as important as the full analysis, and you can enjoy a fine poem even after fuller analysis suggests flaws. In the case of the Basset poem, my visceral reaction was negative. Normally I don’t bother probing much, unless I have reason, in this case furnished by Judy’s request. What the probing revealed didn’t really change the basic equation that it isn’t a poem for me. With the Bishop poem, my immediate reaction was positive (again not always the case with Bishop). Since this was intended for comparison, I also probed it a bit, and found what I suppose one could consider flaws, but none of that changed the basic equation that it’s a poem I rate well. In the end, that’s what really matters in poetry.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Uche, post a poem you like, so we can evaluate it.

          I’m too psyched to sleep.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Jeez, Becky, I’ve read the Bishop poem 4 times, and after her first several lines, I’m lost. Haven’t a clue how to connect the dots. Maybe meanings will click in when I’ve read your interpretation of it.

          I have liked other Bishop poems, but have to pass on this one.

        • Becky says:

          Well, it’s kind of an asshole move on my part because I’m not totally sure what’s going on, either. But that’s the way it tends to be with a lot of my favorite poems. I’ve arrived at a vague sense of theme and theory, but I keep finding new things.

          But to the list:

          1) 7.5 (the .5 is, in part, just for managing to interest me for so long)

          2) Super briefly, a scaffolding: She’s in her (an) apartment, she’s walking around, looking at the clocks (sounds like anxious behavior to me), looking out the window. There’s the notion of time and various things around her are decaying or about to decay. Nothing is how one would expect–there are birds, but they’re dead or walking, none flying. Sure isn’t the glamorous Paris we usually hear about. There are two types of structures: The buildings with their square windows and the snow forts melting or about to melt. The latter can’t aspire to the former anymore. No ammunition…”ammunition” socks me in the eye. You’re in Paris, you’re Elizabeth Bishop, ammunition…WWII. She was there before the war broke out, but this was published, I think, the year after it ended. She was potentially writing this poem when she wasn’t even in Paris, in which case it would be a relived memory, calling up that time thing, again.

          “This sky is no carrier-warrior-pigeon/escaping endless intersecting circles.” I am curious if this is a reference to Yeats. Someone get Bishop on the phone.

          My tendency is to see it, vaguely and in part, as a note about the rise and fall of cities, civilizations…the effect of time on man’s best-laid plans and so on. That’s my preferred (albeit general) framework. There’s plenty to account for beyond that, but it’s a start.

          3) “Time is an etoile.” When I was trying to figure out what the hell that meant (beyond “time is a star”), I actually had to draw her description on a piece of paper. I’m still not positive how to get it together. But I love it. “Star-splintered hearts of ice,” is a conspicuous flourish in a dreary poem and is likewise tantalizing.

          4) The first part of the poem could stand accused of being chopped-up prose. Though one could find an excuse for this–and the jarring, halting transitions throughout–in the nothing-as-it-seems theme, it’s a little distracting.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Becky, maybe it was an asshole move on Bishop’s part and she wasn’t sure what was going on in the poem, either. 😉

          I liked this: “Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp feathers” bcuz it was mind-flippingly unique to imagine winter being under a bird wing, and Bishop’s dark mood developed in a view and season clinging somehow under dead, damp-feathered birdwing.

          Sometime I’d like to have people try ONLY to summarise the meaning of a poem, to put in their own words in a simple brief summary of what’s going on in the poem.

          The first couple lines of this Bishop poem slapped me with the memory of a recent poem by D.A. Prince (no relation to me) who I think lives in Scotland. I really like its original stance and figures. However, in the first several readings I nearly dismissed it out of frustration in not getting its meaning. Turns out I had assumed the “you” she uses is referring to someone who’d been gone from her home, a lover or child, but that didn’t fit as an interp for the entire piece. Then I thought: “Oh, she’s referring to HERSELF as “you”!” and the entire poem fell into a coherent piece. I wonder if she had Bishop’s poem in mind starting her off. Locks, clocks and hours are the main characters, and “you”, the poet, compares herself, unfavourably, to them. That’s what I think, anyway.

          See what you think:

          All the time in the world by D A Prince

          And while you’re away
          the oiled locks sit tight, holding back
          clocks ticking to an audience
          of empty rooms, the gruff cough
          when the hour’s almost due, before
          the pulling-together of weights and cogs
          gearing up for the chime.
          The hours are measuring themselves.
          They don’t need you to tell them
          how to fill the unforgiving minute,
          to lecture them on history, to slice
          them, trim them, take their ragged edges off.
          They are. Just that. There’s something enviable
          in their completeness, their austere reserve,
          diminishing you. They’ve spent their time
          in contemplating stillness, like clean space
          between the seconds. Now you’re home
          they feign indifference, whisper to the clocks
          to spread their hands, cover their faces, track
          the paths until its time for you to leave.

          (p 28, “First Annual James Kirkup Memorial Competition Anthology”, Red Squirrel Press, UK, 2010) My poem, “Tethered in Tall Grass”, is on the opposite page.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:


          I did post 2 poems I liked in my “Poetry for the Nervous” piece 🙂

          Anything more specific you want?

        • Judy Prince says:

          Ah yes, now I remember—and remember commenting favourably on this one:

          “Parachute men” by Lenrie Peters

          Parachute men say
          The first jump
          Takes the breath away
          Feet in the air disturb
          Till you get used to it.

          Solid ground
          Is not where you left it
          As you plunge down
          Perhaps head first

          As you listen to
          Your arteries talking
          You learn to sustain hope.

          Suddenly you are only
          Holding an umbrella
          In a windy place
          As the warm earth
          Reaches out to you
          Reassures you
          The vibrating interim is over

          You try to land
          Where green grass yields
          And carry your pack
          Across the fields

          The violent arrival
          Puts out the joint
          Earth has nowhere to go
          You are at the staring point

          Jumping across worlds
          In condensed time
          After the awkward fall
          We are always at the starting point


          I’ll comment further on it for our little “experiment”, prolly after I get to the UK. Hope to hear Becky’s “take” on it, as well.

        • Becky says:

          Judy, at least part of the problem with doing a sort of “plot” summary with the Bishop poem is that there isn’t much of a plot. She’s in the apartment, pacing around, looking at clocks, comparing time to a starburst shape, looking out the window, seeing the city, its birds, its structures. Thinking about time and greying snow and building up and the decay that follows.

          The thinking is the meat of the poem. There’s no real action after “look out the window;” just meditation. And a lot of assertions. It strikes me as an argument or debate of some kind. Probably with whoever told her the sky was a “carrier-warrior-pigeon.”

          But of course, when I say that, I do it from a perspective in which I’m pretty convinced of my own interpretation (above, in part) already.

        • Becky says:

          Oh, and:

          “It is like introspection/to stare inside, or retrospection,/a star inside a rectangle, a recollection”

          I suppose this could be considered a plot element, at least insofar as it leads me to believe that the speaker is looking back at these scenes. That is, it’s a memory. Would account for the dreamy quality of it. Also suggests there is an introspective parallel to the city’s past, present and future, but that’s a whole other thing.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Yeah, Becky, the way you’re describing what the poem says, is getting right to the heart of what I’d wanted you to do. “Plot” doesn’t really nail most poems, which’re often, as you suggest, more “thinkings” than “doings”.

          We’re more after something like *what is the poet trying to say*? And your summary’s trying to capture that: “She’s in the apartment, pacing around, looking at clocks, comparing time to a starburst shape, looking out the window, seeing the city, its birds, its structures. Thinking about time and greying snow and building up and the decay that follows.” And maybe adding “She’s thinking about the city’s past, present, and future”, as you suggest.

          I’d want you to say what you think she’s actually thinking when she compares these things. That is, what does she “conclude” about her comparisons. Sidestepping her “conclusions” may in fact be leaving the “meat” out of what she means in the poem. Poets free-associate, natch, and their images usually cohere, pointing to their opinions/views. So trying to “crack the code” of the symbols and how they connect is crucial.

          “Parachute Men” by Lenrie Peters, the poem that Uche presented, really tempts a person to crack his code, primarily bcuz it’s an extended metaphor in a short poem, and it’s an activity, so it quickly draws us in. But just bcuz it’s a short poem with an extended metaphor (i.e, analogy) doesn’t mean it’s an easily interpreted poem. Uche has given us his statements about what it might mean. I have other interpretations of it bcuz my experiences don’t parallel the poet’s experiences. Does that mean my interp would be “wrong” bcuz it does not say what the poem means from the poet’s own view? Nope.

          It’s like several people interpreting one person’s dream. They all can have different views of what the symbols mean and the main feelings or meanings they convey. And all of the interpretations can be “correct”. This is a wonderfully cool issue; i.e., do you have to know the poet’s circumstances in order to interpret the poem’s meaning? Hundreds of books on critical theory debate that point.

          I also think that the tone or mood is good to state, like “she thinks darkly about the………etc.”

          And, often, a pivotal image, bcuz its centrality informs all of the poem, is important to explain. I know, I know, the whole effort of telling the poem’s meaning seems pedestrian, plodding, dull, and stupid-sounding. However, like interpreting any symbols in literature or in dreams, it can bring meanings and associations to mind that enhance the poem’s strength.

          YAWK! Gotta get this computer packed up and get to the airport!

          I have loved our little experiment! Hope it continues in any permutations and any places on TNB.

          ‘Til soon, then.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Judy, we do agree on different meanings to each reader. I guess since you lot are all beating me about the head with Eliot, I’ll use him in riposte. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” he talks about how new poetry changes past poetry. I’d take it further to argue that personal experience modifies extant poetry. In other words, a poem is not complete until it’s experienced, and then in effect it becomes a different poem in each experience. And yes, the New Critics are all thrashing in their sepulchres right now, but sod ’em. That is not a flight to pure relativism. I agree with Becky that there are emphatically good and bad poems. If anything, it is the poems closer to the mythical 10 in the scale that take on the most completely realized, separate life in each experience. Lousy poems never get beyond the zero dimension.

          I suppose we’ll resume all this fun in my next PftN installment., You guys have certainly given me a magnum of energy for the project. Thanks.

        • Becky says:

          So you disagree with the notion of digging any deeper than that? I guess I don’t know what you’re saying.

          She’s thinking about the city’s past present and future, but what about it? I mean, good for her, but there’s evidence for what she’s thinking in the poem, too, and I’d count myself a lazy reader not to try to understand that.

          There are different potential takes on that, sure, more than one of which may be correct, but leave it at “She’s walking around thinking” strikes me as sort of remedial, and I’m not sure for what purpose. We’re all more advanced than that. That’s not a message or an idea, it’s just a statement of the obvious, and not really ripe for any kind interesting discussion at all.

          And while there may be more than one correct–or at least defensible–interpretation, there are certainly some that are not correct or defensible or convincing, based on the content of the poem itself, not a crystal ball or any kind of cross-temporal psychic power. I defy anyone to convince me or anyone else that this is a poem about baseball, for an extreme example. If it is, she is a horrible poet.

        • Becky says:

          And, I might add as an example, you don’t need to know anything about Bishop or her circumstances to draw war from the poem: “Ammunition,” “forts,” “warrior,” “captured,” carrier pigeons, the recurring images of death and dissolution…they’re all right there in the text.

          Knowing the historical context only helps give clues that clarify, bolster, and confirm. So is it necessary? No. Is it helpful? Yes.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Unfortunately, this conversation needs more threading than WordPress can give it 😉

        • Becky says:

          Pleh. I’m worn out, anyway. I graduated. I’m done with assignments.

          Really no reason to retread the waters of intro to lit theory at this point. I’ve done my time.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Perhaps it’s time to downshift to dirty limericks?

          There once was a man named Dave…

          Nabokov says you read a novel with your spine. If you don’t feel the tingle, it ain’t working. It doesn’t hit me in the spine, but I know what he means. I feel like poetry is the same thing, but even more so. A really great poem can be analyzed, of course, but in the end it’s the tingle that counts.

          “Poetry is what Milton saw when he went blind.”

        • Becky says:

          It’s the tingle that counts? Whose tingle? Where?

          Well, I mean, I suppose. If there’s nothing there to analyze, I don’t get a tingle, so I suppose 6 of one, 1/2 dozen of the other.

          All depends on your preferred tingle point, I guess.

          I like to tingle in my head.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          There once was a poet named Dave
          Who ran into his Muse at a rave.
          He begged for a tingle;
          She stalked off to mingle;
          He wound up a bishop’s sex slave.

        • Becky says:

          *wild applause*

  10. Nanea says:

    You know, I went to traditional four year college (and okay, it took six years to finish) but I feel like I didn’t do it right. This makes me want to go to community college and walk around with poems in my pocket. Also, this? “I landed on every class like a sucker punch” – made me want to give you a fuck-yeah-highfive.

    • Becky says:

      I was on a mission, that’s for sure. Slightly insane.

      But you know. I hope–I fantasize, at least–that I wasn’t ONLY a nightmare. If I was teaching a bunch of perpetually bored and annoyed 18 year-olds all the time, I like to think I’d be happy to know that someone was at least paying attention, even if they didn’t believe anything I said.

      Rather have someone standing up shouting “bullshit!” than yawning and going, “huh?” This is how I justify my belligerent tendencies.

  11. Sarah says:

    There have been some eerily timely TNB posts lately. This is one.

    I’ve been wanting so badly to get back to school and finally finish getting my BA. I went to a snooty, expensive 4-year school, Tufts. It was the type of school where many kids got a $1,000 monthly allowance from their parents while mine took out a second mortgage. I did pretty well but was more inspired to drink and smoke than by any teacher or subject matter. I eventually just stopped going.

    I’m only about a year away from a bachelor’s in Psychology and I’ve been trying to figure out the best, most convenient and most cost-effective way to do it. But I either want to switch to or add Communications. I’ve been seriously considering online classes but once I get settled back in Massachusetts late this summer, I’ll see what CC’s are within reach.

    I always hear people talk about that one teacher, that one person or piece of material that helped shape them, that in essence changed their lives. I’ve never had that. It is something I’d like to have.

    Off-topic rant: I contacted Tufts a few years back. I wanted a copy of my transcript so I could see what exactly I was facing trying to complete my degree. The bastards are holding my transcript hostage until I pay off $300 in library fees. Screw that. Chances are, whatever books I never returned ended up selling for 25 cents in one of my yard sales. Take $35,000 a year from me but demand $300 more before I can see what I actually did at that damn place?

    • Becky says:

      That feels like it must be somehow criminal. Withholding for a measly $300 bucks.

      I mean, it’s probably not, but it probably should be.

      One of the reasons I transferred was because my CC didn’t offer any 4-year degrees at the time. I think they’ve since started. I think a lot of CCs are that way.

      Tough to say if I would have left if they’d offered 4 year degrees at the time. Probably so. I didn’t figure out the value of being there until later. I was just obsessed with moving “up” in the world.

  12. Dana says:

    Ahhh Becky!! This is absolutely fantastic. Since I’ve been reading your comments for years, I’ve often wondered why you weren’t contributing here. The only college experience I had was via a CC and a scant few courses at that. It was strictly to gain a promotion at work, and because my boss reimbursed all costs with a 3.0 or better.

    When I was in high school my father (who has his M.A. in teaching no less) often told me that he would pay for my schooling if I went to the local CC for the first two years. But of course that meant living at home, and I just couldn’t fathom being under their thumbs for another 2 years. Almost all of my friends were going to Michigan State or U of M and the thought of toddling down to the local SC4 was mortifying to me. I recalled going there to take the SAT test and it felt like a big high school to me. Nothing collegial going on there…

    and then I met Bill and said fuck it. I wanted to start my adult life the second I graduated high school. And I did. And I’ve done really well for myself at work. Unless I’d gone on to be a CPA (HUGE YAWN) I doubt I’d have had a more lucrative career. And yet. Maybe when I retire I’ll go back to school, and you can bet the first place I’ll look is at one of the local community colleges.

    But back to YOU Becky. This is great and inspiring and it makes me want to read POETRY. So as soon as I finish Rich and Jessica’s books I’m putting “if on a winters night a traveler” up next.

    • Becky says:

      Just to be clear, If on a winter’s night a traveler is prose, not poetry.

      Or, it is certainly poetIC, and not technically fiction; at least not traditional fiction. It’s also, in part, non-fiction, since of course, it has the you who’s reading the thing about you, and you’re perfectly actual….

      *stare into space*

      ANYWAY. Yeah. I felt the shame of CC. And it was totally unfounded, in hindsight. But would I ever have known that if I hadn’t finished at a 4-year? Probably not.

  13. Richard Cox says:

    Jeez, they’ll let anyone in this place, won’t they?

    I love this piece because it demonstrates that what you get from any kind of education is what you put into it and what you want out of it. Community college can be awesome in the right context.

    I went for two years to Del Mar College in Corpus Christi because my mom was ill and my dad asked me to stay around to help out until my brother and sister were a little older. While I was there I met a teacher named Don Corley who taught Introduction to Data Processing. A worthless course except that he didn’t bother teaching it. Every day we came to class and he went around the room asking people to talk about current events. News events, whatever. You had to read the paper before you came to class because otherwise you looked like an idiot. He called on everyone. This was in 1988 and I was 17 years old and it was absolutely what I needed in a teacher. Fax machines were just becoming widely used and he told us how they were a transitional technology that would eventually be usurped by files attached to something called email. Email? WTF? He taught me about digital photography and how I’d be manipulating pictures at the pixel level a full 10 years before I ever owned Photoshop. Photoshop 1.0 wasn’t even released until 1990.

    I’ll always remember that guy as the best teacher ever, and it sounds like you had an identical experience. I’ve often thought of teaching at community college for just this reason, to give to someone else what he gave to me.

    Excellent first piece, Becky.

    • Becky says:

      Thanks, Richard. Let me in. And twice.

      Someone should probably have Mgmt committed.

    • Michael Corley says:

      Wow. Don is my grandfather. We have never been very close, and I was just googling this on the off chance I could find something about me being a third-generation geek, and found this really nice comment about him. Thanks 🙂


      • Tracy Lucas says:

        I don’t have anything to do with anything, but that’s very cool.
        Love how the internet connects people prior, even when we’re just shadows.

      • Richard says:

        I love it when the Internet serves up this kind of magic. Michael, it would be wonderful if you could pass this along to him and let him know the impact he made on a green freshman many moons ago.

  14. angela says:

    yay, becky! i enjoyed your piece.

    probably the best literature class i took was at the “second rate” undergrad program of where i was going to graduate school. it was modern british literature, and the professor just loved Joyce and Wolff and Beckett so much, and was so smart about it, it just rubbed off on the rest of us. i never would have been able to read Ulysses without him.

    i did my undergrad at an ivy league, but most of the english classes i took were completely snoresville. a good number of professors just sleep-walked through their classes.

    • Becky says:

      I think that has a lot to do with it.

      Theory and history and context and scholarship are dear to me, too, but it’s all sort of empty if you’ve got no personal reason–some kind of genuine enthusiasm–backing it up.

      Academia can pretty quickly become an entirely and rigidly self-contained thing, referring only to itself to explain itself, which is a distinct impediment to understanding for anyone without experience in academia–like undergrads.

  15. I’m so glad you’re writing here now – besides in comment form – this is truly a treat.

    What was the poem? Did someone else already ask this? Or did you already say what it was?
    I can’t re-read as there are only a few more minutes left of kid-free Kung-Fu Panda time left.

    I think if I could do it all over again, I’d study poetry. But as it is, I’ve done it all over again a few too many times. Poetry, I truly believe, is the most evolved art form – it alone makes me believe that humans are good. Or better than ants. Something like that.

    I’m glad you’re a writer and I’m glad you’re on the other side.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Poets coming outa the woodwork today!!!

      Stephanie: “kid-free Kung-Fu Panda time”

      She just slings around her alliterative, rhythmic phrases as if they’re nothing.

      Come on, Stephanie, go ahead and get out those old notebooks with your poems in them. Or the new ones that are hidden behind the ooops now nearly destroyed by your kids couch.

      Try out a poem or two on us. We’ll go easy on you—–NOT!

      • Well, I actually would like to study poetry as a reader, not really a writer.
        Though, sure, writing an amazing poem would be, well, amazing.
        I’ve written lyrics for many years for my songs – and really, I wouldn’t dare
        put those on this site, either. But, thanks Judy!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Stephanie, can’t you do both? If you’re writing poems you’ll get deeper understandings of those you’re studying. The writing and studying go hand in hand.

          You’re fascinated with poetry and think it’s the highest art form, so you’re a prime candidate to learn about it and to write it.

          You could write poems *for* your kids or with them. Or read a poem or two to them at bedtime, or having them read some.

        • Sure – we do that – read them poems – write poems with our kids.
          We actually have a couple of great poem books the kids love.

          But I mean, go back to school for it. I mean – like dedicate my life to it – how cool would that be? But I’m already in the middle of going back to school for something else. But maybe I’ll just start reading them more. I mean, “hang out” with it more, like Becky here.

          Thanks for the encouragement, Judy.

          Here’s one of Dominick’s poems: “I love you mommy, because you like me too.”
          and one of my favorite of his lines: “Does the wind have nipples?”
          And the other: “Are you my wife? Maybe one day I’ll have a wife, maybe a clam shell.”

        • wait, i got that wrong…

          it’s, “I like you mommy, because you love me too.”
          It came home on a drawing from pre-school one day.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Oh, Stephanie I ADORE Dominick’s lines!!!!

          He’s a genius!

          And he’s already figured out why most of us love. A genius, that one.

          What are you in the middle of going to school for?

          I learned much from dear Rodent about poetry, what a lovely way to learn. He may not have thought it so lovely, though, as I can never remember everything he says, so I ask him the same questions over and over again, even though I take notes. Pore patient Rodent.

    • Becky says:

      Here’s the embarrassment.

      I’m not sure if I remember.

      I remember it having something to do with Anne Sexton, but I’m not sure if that’s because the poem was BY her, or ABOUT her, or if it was a poem by her that prompted the frustrated email in the first place, or if it was some combination of two of those.

      But I can say that the first poem I understood–and enjoyed–on my own thereafter was James Wright’s “A Blessing.” That one was more important. That was the light bulb one.

  16. Jordan Ancel says:

    Great piece, Becky, and congrats on your first full posting.

    I think Community College gets a bad rap, but I’ve taken some classes at SMC, and they were amazing. I think any education one gets is beneficial.

    And you never know where inspiration will come from.

    • Becky says:

      Thanks, Jordan. I’m sure I learned things later; I know I did. But everything was through the lens of what I learned at CC. I think, in large part, the smaller school gave me the nuts to speak up at uni. I had it in my head that it was my job as a student to do so. And a stubborn disposition helped, too.

  17. Kip Tobin says:

    Ohhhh, right, that Becky, one of the original founding writers for TNB, right? You go on and on about If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and have since the moment I (virtually) met you. Good book. Fabulist, that Calvino. Have you gone on to read his arsenal, or at least Invisible Cities?

    I liked If on a Winter’s Night, but I can’t call it my favorite. That’d have to be Rayuela (Hopscotch), Infinite Jest or Crime and Punishment. I still haven’t read Ulysses, yet.

    As for your graduating, congrats. And welcome back…

  18. Becky says:

    I haven’t read much else by him. I flipped through Invisible Cities, and it appealed to me, but I started Mr. Palomar instead, just to get interrupted and never finish it. I think I harbor a subconscious fear I’ll be disappointed. I have more free time now, so maybe it’s time to revisit him.

  19. Marni Grossman says:

    My Mom went back to school to get a teaching degree when I was in elementary school. She’d gotten married at 22 and spent the next decade-and-a-half raising her kids and keeping house. She loved it. She always said that education is wasted on the young. And it’s true, I think. What is college, after all, for an 18-year-old? Sleeping til noon, getting drunk, squeaking out a C+?

    Congratulations on all your success, Becky!

    • Becky says:

      Heh. I wouldn’t know.

      I do get that impression, though. Having not experienced it, I can say it looks like an awful lot of fun. Though if I had been in college at that age, I can say there’s about an 80% chance I would have had the time of my life…and flunked out.

      Thanks, Marni.

    • Sarah says:

      That’s exactly what I did. I didn’t appreciate it at all, treated it just like high school – resenting being assigned things that interrupted social/drinking time. After ten years away from higher education, raising two kids and consistently being broke, I’m ready to give my education and the functioning of my brain the devoted time and effort it deserves.

  20. Irwin says:

    I read this last night just before the library closed. It feels a bit late to join in the chorus of ‘welcome to TNB/welcome back to TNB/it’s lovely to see you etc etc’ but I sensed it would be a matter of time anyway.

    I don’t fully understand the US education system, but I’ve long maintained you can learn more out of school than in it, so long as you have the desire to actually learn and know a few people who can help you along the way.

    There’s a good line in Good Will Hunting to that effect.

    • Becky says:

      Community colleges are smaller, local colleges (as opposed to big private & state universities with many colleges within them) that tend to specialize in two-year arts/sciences degrees (the 1st half or “generals” of most traditional 4-year degrees), technical degrees, vocational degrees.

      They are, as some have mentioned here, often viewed as “just big high schools,” at least in part because they don’t usually tend to have on-campus housing; like high school, a community college campus tends to consist primarily of a building or two, a couple of grassy areas, and a parking lot. You go there, go to class, and go home/elsewhere. You don’t really *hang around* on campus.

      They cater to non-traditional students (like me), continuing career education students (people who are employed but need to keep abreast of developments in their field), and sometimes, people who are just life-long learners and like to take classes with no particular end in mind.

      They tend to be inexpensive, relatively speaking, and class sizes are smaller. Many CCs have partnerships with bigger universities to keep curricula comparable and aid the ease of student transfer from the CC to the big University for 4-year degree completion. In my case for example, because my CC and uni had a partnership, my two-year degree transferred wholesale and without any kind of credit audit.

      That’s CC in a nutshell.

      And I think, yeah, in school or out of it, having the right people around you is key.

  21. Sarah Maizes says:

    Becky – I loved this article! I’ve never been a big poetry fan but I’m thinking of finding a poem and walking around with it…as if my kids don’t think I’m weird enough.

    Thanks for sharing,


    • Becky Palapala says:

      Thanks Sarah.

      It’s odd; the point was never really to sell people on poetry, but I’m pleasantly surprised to see so many people liked the poem-in-pocket thing.

      I’ll take it.

  22. Slade Ham says:

    I’m gone for a few days and THIS is what the world has come to? Hahaha. Welcome to this side of things, Becky. Giving you a gun may be the most dangerous thing Listi has ever done 🙂

    Makes me happy.

    And I didn’t even make it to community college. I vaguely remember taking a semester and a half at Lamar University before I threw in the towel. It’s a shame. I probably could have been something otherwise, hahaha.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      He made me promise only small arms.

      Derringers, rubber-band guns, wet towels, itch powder.

      But my hand-to-hand combat should not be underestimated. I give a mean Indian burn.

      I’m happy to make you happy Slade. Look how happy we all are!

  23. jmblaine says:

    I swear all this time I thought
    you were a real tiger.

    Like Tigger’s cousin maybe.

    Look at you. Look.
    There you are.

    Secret: I’ve taught in
    “real” & community colleges.
    I made just as much money at CC
    and had a lot more fun.
    Even if a lot of the students
    spelled College with a
    K and one L.

    I always played Chris Rock’s
    riff on CC first day of

    “High school kickin’ your ass
    & now you gone go to college!
    Slow down!”

    • Becky Palapala says:

      People seem disappointed at my actual face. I’m not sure what to make of this.

      Especially from you, who, theoretically, should already know what I look like.

      Though I see no reason why I should have to limit myself to one identity around here, right?

      The wonders of the intertubes never cease. I think the cat will still be around quite a bit.

      But how dare you reply to such a piece with that “spelled it with a K” garbage?

      I HAS A SMART.

      • jmblaine says:

        I actually had two


        I likes your faces.

        Bounce bounce bounce!

  24. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Thank you for this:

    “What’s more, no one will admit to its existence. It’s a dirty pair of panties in the middle of the dining table at a dinner party.”

    I can relate to owning, if not being, this particular pair of panties with a frequency to make the entire Ivy League blush. This piece is hilarious – good story arsenal. Totally enjoyed this.

    • Becky says:

      Thanks Lisa. They had their day laughing at my dirty panties.

      Now I’ll make them EAT THEM. Mwahahahaha…


      I mean, figuratively. Like, I’ll have the last laugh. You know…

  25. Don Mitchell says:

    Becky — very interesting, and the comments (including your responses) just as interesting. The CC concept is a good one, but I think the way it plays out depends a lot on context.

    I spent my teaching career at a 4 year state school (about 10,000 enrollment), in close proximity (less than 10 miles) to a CC with three campuses (I’m not sure of their enrollment), and a 4+grad+professional schools university (about 40,000 enrollment). And we were all in the same system.

    I would grumble about having only two or three good students each year (and 8 or 10 exceptional ones in my whole career) but I think that was a consequence of my college’s position in the ranking order. If you were a kid from our greater metropolitan area, and you were a committed and good student, why would you go anywhere but the university? If you were at least OK and didn’t want the big place, then you came to us. And if you weren’t exactly a high school standout, you went to the CC.

    All bets were off for the non-traditionals, though. Absolutely.

    Resources got parceled out differentially, as did salaries except, interestingly, at the CC. Across the board, the university people with the same training and abilities as we had, were paid 20-50% more and taught less. In our system, the CC faculty/staff and especially administrators were politicized — whatever party was in control of the county had a lot to say about what went on. I do remember being really pissed off upon hearing that somebody I knew, a decent local poet with, I believe, no graduate training at all, was to be offered an instructor line with a salary a bit higher than mine (25+ years, PhD, publications, tenure, etc.). This was a matter of knowing the right people in the CC system. That didn’t happen at my place and it didn’t happen at the university, but the CC system was notorious for it.

    My partner Ruth, who was a Dean at a CC in California, says that the Cal CC system isn’t politicized. I don’t doubt her. But the New York one definitely is.

    I do think that, because we’re talking literature here, that the CC you went to and perhaps many others offer high-quality creative/lit education. It’s obvious that you don’t need a PhD to be a hell of a writing teacher, and you don’t need one to get students hooked on literature. Two of my poet friends here (not the one I referred to above) are CC instructors, and as far as I can tell, they’re really good ones. I’m not so sure about other subjects, though — but I know that’s not what you were writing about and what we’re discussing.

    I’m glad you went on to a 4 year joint and kicked ass, absolutely.

    And even though I’ve learned you were on TNB long before I was, I’m glad to see you posting as well as commenting.

    • Becky says:

      Well, the politics of being a teacher at a CC is not something I can comment on, obviously.

      A number of CCs are private, which I suspect aids and abets the higher salaries. Less oversight from the state means less overhead, etc.

      But these are hunches. I can only speak from a student’s perspective.

      I should point out, I was a CC student my first year out of high school, as well.

      I was a different student from one class to the next. My grades for that year: A, D, A, F

      It depended on my interest in the subject, honestly. Half of those teachers thought they won the lottery, the other half thought they’d been dealt another shithead.

      Luckily I backed away and didn’t try again, really, until I was ready to commit, for better or worse, to all of my classes, but there are a lot of different reasons a person may not have been a “standout” in high school. At least part of my thing was that I was more curious about learning than being a “good student,” and I always resented (and resisted) the notion that being intelligent meant being well-behaved. Satisfying my curiosity was my priority; the good student stuff was largely a means to an end and a secondary symptom of revenge.

      What if I could be BOTH a pain in the ass and still get the grade? DING DING DING! Winner.

      • Becky says:

        Sorry. Not symptom, really. Outcome. Or maybe a symptom, too.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Oh yeah, ding ding ding, winner. I had PTA students who did very well. What I liked about them was that they kept me from being complacent. I never never thought that “good student” meant “well-behaved” (because I wasn’t all that well behaved when I was a student) but the hard part was being careful not to get turned off on a weird or PTA student before learning what he/she could do. Sometimes they didn’t do shit. Sometimes they were amazing.

        You made me ask myself about the students that I’ve kept in touch with, have become regular adult friends with. Now that I think about it, they were almost all pretty weird as undergrads — I mean, presented themselves as pretty weird — and were very smart and curious. That’s a great combination.

        • Becky says:

          I was definitely weird.

          No doubt frightened a few teachers.

          Frankly, having grown up a bit, looking back on it, I was a “tester” of my teachers. Joe, being considerably weirder than me, thought I was just delightful. He was totally unfazed. The tables were turned.

          I was unarmed.

          Nothing I did got a rise, but he never ignored me, either. All of my attempts to assert my unteachability were met with encouragement and enthusiastic advice. Goddamn him.

          So I gave it up and listened.

  26. TammyAllen says:

    I can’t believe I said bush. I suck so much. Anyway I hang my diploma over the toilet.

  27. Tom Hansen says:

    I was bumbling around in comm college when I discovered Jim Carroll’s book or poetry ‘Void of Course.’ And that was it, I started writing

    I found it kind of sad that Gemini Joe stopped writing. Seems to happen a lot.

    • Becky says:

      I find it sad, too.

      I think he’s got, like, 5 kids now. Just gave up the poem babies and started making real ones, I guess. I can’t imagine he’s got much time.

      I think a lot of people feel they have to choose between a “normal” life and a writing life. That might be true.

  28. Greg has written all of his best stuff after becoming a dad. But, I can certainly understand why
    that would happen to your Gemini Joe.
    I have found it really hard to write (songs) and be a parent – I had to take a break.
    But, lately, I’ve been getting back into it – I have to.

    But our life is anything but “normal”, I suppose.

    • Becky says:

      Well, and you know…shit. Some people just write themselves out. They say what they have to say and that’s the end of it. Their focus changes, their interest changes, their priorities rearrange.

      It’s presumptuous, almost, to be sad about it. Maybe he doesn’t even miss it. Some people are like that.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        To be fair, I think the sadness in such sentiments is for the readers, not the writer. Sort of like how so many people (not including me) went into mourning when Salinger shut up shop. They weren’t like “poor JD”, they were like “O woe is me that JD won’t do more to interpret my addled angst.”

        So maybe venal. But ultimately just human.

  29. This piece makes me miss teaching at a JC. I taught on and off for years. A JC, an art school, and now a short gig at a university and did teach a writer’s workshop. I was unorthodox too. I taught history. I’d get students to go watch musicals, or read novels, and talk literature instead of dead presidents.

    I’m still friends with a couple of students.

    I see them here or there. We talk about old times.

    And I miss it.

    • Becky says:

      It was a great experience for me.

      I suppose higher education can’t be all bullshitting and after-class happy hour…

      But maybe it should be. Maybe.

  30. Tawni says:

    I go to Alaska for a week, and I come home to our Becky writing for TNB? I am going to have to leave town more often. It seems to make great things happen. (:

    I agree with the above sentiments about how hard it is to continue with creative endeavors after becoming a parent. My son requires almost all of the excess energy I used to pour into writing songs. I am exhausted at the end of every day and I don’t feel creative when I’m exhausted. The words and music are still there; I feel them tickling my soul, trying to get out, like they always have. And then I pass out dog-tired by 8:30 p.m., because I know my hyperactive 4-year-old son will be up once again at 5:30 a.m., ready to go. For this reason, I am not one of those parents who gets wistful as my child gets older and loses his baby-ness. I don’t mourn his birthdays, I celebrate them. I can’t wait for this kid to age and become more independent. I’m a tired old lady.

    I loved reading about what inspired you to embrace poetry. I’m not surprised that one of those freaky, impossible-to-grasp Geminis gave you the nudge. And “dirty pair of panties in the middle of the dining table” made me giggle.

    I can’t wait to read more from you. Of course. xoxo.

  31. Erika Rae says:

    So great to see you on here. I’m a bit slow this month – sorry!

    I find myself chuckling at Gemini Joe. Trying so hard. I would like to apologize formally for my tribe.

    • Becky says:

      And I am slower still, apparently. There’s a whole world of comments here that I somehow missed.

      I was not ignoring you. I may have been ignoring Anon, but not you.

      Gemini Joe was earnest. He was nothing if not earnest. It was sort of like having someone chew me out in a foreign language, but he was speaking English the whole time.

      “CALM DOWN. I can’t understaaand you.”

  32. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    “I landed on every class like a sucker punch, interrogating instructors and giving impassioned treatises in class.”

    Wow, Becky. So hard to believe this given the shy, retiring nature you display here, you delicate little flower, you (:. Educational snobbery is pretty amusing, assuming you don’t actually suffer from it yourself. I often entertain myself by watching the range in some folks’ attitudes towards my opinions when I “confess” to having a Masters in Comparative Religion, having a business degree, having only completed trade school or having never gotten a GED. Unfortunately, I’ve bullshitted so much about it that I’ve forgotten myself which is true….

    • Becky says:

      If you have a Master’s in comparative religion, I love you.

      If you have a business degree, you and Richard should hang out.

      If you completed trade school, I’m curious about for what.

      If you never got a GED, I envy you for having the foresight to escape at the first available opportunity.

  33. Have you read Calvino’s Cosmicomics… it’s classic.

    • Becky says:

      I haven’t. As mentioned above, I only ever got started on Mr. Palomar but never finished. I think I’m worried nothing will be as good as Traveler, and I’ll be disappointed. Subconscious aversion.

  34. Zara Potts says:

    Tally ho Motherfuckers!
    I may just steal that.
    I said this to you in person -but I’ll say it again: It’s great to see you here!

  35. Simon Smithson says:

    1. I am so stealing Tally ho, motherfuckers!

    2. I want to go to Community College now. We don’t have them here. I will move back to America for this.

    3. I got compared to Calvino once. I don’t know if that’s a compliment, because I’ve never read his work. I’ve always wanted to, so I bought a Winter’s Night. Last week.

    4. zOMG YOU’RE WRITING FOR TNB! And I was on the road, and I didn’t get the chance to read and reply. But now I do! And I am! And zOMG!

    • Becky says:

      1. Enthusiasm and aggression all in one. What’s not to like?

      2. Any excuse is a good excuse as far as I’m concerned. You should see if your local higher education institution has a program. Some CCs in CA, I have to imagine, must be big enough to have international program connections.

      3. High praise for you! I really hope you like Winter’s Night. If not, though, I’ll just tell you you read it wrong, like I told Richard when he didn’t like Signs.


      Also, apparently, there are tons of replies to this post that I somehow missed and now I feel like an asshole.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        No, it’s OK. This was a reply I actually made yesterday. Unless you’re talking about other replies. Which you probably are.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          No Simon. I only talk about you. You are firmly at the center of my universe.

          You and Anon and Kristen and Erika and Zara.

          And, of course, me.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          This shows excellent taste on your behalf, I feel.

  36. […] words, America, Australia, birthdays, community college, celebrity penises, […]

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