I Slept Better Last Night

I’ve struggled with the political climate lately—the inattention to critical issues, the active attempts to destroy civil rights, the systemic misalignment of wealth towards those in power, the appalling lack of empathy. Like many people, I find my focus lacking, my productivity down, and my nervous system overwhelmed. As someone who thrives on information, it’s hard not to be sucked into reading the news, but reading the news only shreds my nerves further. I find it difficult to sleep restfully through the night.

Dr. William Leuchtenburg

Last night I attended a Phi Beta Kappa dinner and lecture. Renowned historian and UNC-Chapel Hill professor emeritus Dr. William Leuchtenburg was the honoree and speaker for the evening. Dr. Leuchtenburg is a noted presidential scholar and expert on FDR. He’s done election-night political analysis for some of the major newscasters of our time; he’s consulted with Ken Burns on his documentaries; he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama.

Dr. Leuchtenburg gave the address, “The White House and the South.” It was fascinating and depressing all at once, in particular to hear the role race and the one-party system had played. The professor noted that at our country’s founding, Southerners held the White House for something like 32 of the first 36 years, lost control for over 100 years, and now are again winning presidential races more than half the time.

About two-thirds of the way through Dr. Leuchtenburg’s speech, he paused and said, “Excuse me, I’m not feeling well. I think if I can sit down for a few moments I’ll be able to finish.” While he rested, the evening’s host explained that the good professor’s wife was in the hospital ER and he’d been there all day; then on the way to this event, he’d had a flat tire on the interstate. “What amazing resilience,” she added. “How many of us would have made it here after a day like that?”

Dr. Leuchtenburg resumed his talk, then again paused. “I think I need to sit down again. I’ll just read sitting here if that’s OK.”

When he finished his remarkable and humorous lecture, the audience gave the professor a standing ovation. Then he agreed to take some questions. “But I turned 95 last week, so I might stay sitting.”

After a series of political questions and insightful responses, our host wrapped up by asking, “What gives you hope for the country?”

The resilient Bill Leuchtenburg

Dr. Leuchtenburg paused and said, “It’s not as much hope as the refusal to despair. I’ve been through the Great Depression, I knew people directly affected by the Holocaust, I lived through McCarthyism and Jim Crow laws, and the Iran Contra hearings and so many other things. And we always come through. We forget: ‘This too shall pass.’”

It’s not as much hope as the refusal to despair.

As he said that, I felt myself regain perspective—not minimizing our current frustrations, but recognizing what he said as true.

His words soothed me. When I got home, I didn’t want to let them go. I didn’t check the news, I didn’t look at email, I didn’t even open my beloved Jane Austen for fear of interrupting the calm that had wrapped me.

And I slept all night.

Kindle sale: 99 cents for Stories of the Brazilian Backlands

A Hero for the People, by Arthur Powers

A Hero for the People, by Arthur Powers

I’m in the midst of reading A Hero for the People: Stories of the Brazilian Backlands

Arthur spent much of his adult life in Brazil, where he and his wife worked with the Franciscan Friars in the Amazon, doing pastoral work and organizing subsistence farmers and rural workers’ unions in a region of violent land conflicts. His short stories quickly ground you in the Brazilian landscape and culture. I am put in mind of Isak Dinesen’s stories in a way (though admittedly it has been many years since I read them). There’s a simplicity and clarity in Arthur’s writing that I find appealing.

A Hero for the People is published by Press 53, an indie press in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Check them out; they do nice work. (And if you’re a writer, it looks like they have a call for short fiction right now.)

It’s about time

Happy to report that gay marriage is now legal in North Carolina. Was appalled when Amendment One passed in 2012, making it unconstitutional for NC to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions. It’s a pity we had to count on judges rather than voters to make the right decision.

Congratulations to those who now have the same marriage rights I do. Use them well.

Vote AGAINST Amendment One

Vote AGAINST Amendment One

Henderson’s Haiku: Beyond 5-7-5

5-7-5. I learned the rule of haiku syllables in elementary school. Five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third. Likely you learned this lesson, too.

As I’ve been reading and writing haiku in the past few years, I’ve had an aversion to haiku that disobeys the 5-7-5 rule. Isn’t 5-7-5 the most important thing?

Well, I’ve overcome my aversion—with the help of Harold Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki.

I’ve mentioned this book before. When I finished reading it, I immediately began rereading it. It’s a short book, under 200 pages, with lots of white space (haiku don’t take up too much room)—a quick read.


In this book, Henderson describes the characteristics of haiku and offers history and translations from the earliest haiku to Bashō to Buson to Issa and Shiki, along with their contemporaries. Included with his translations are the original Japanese verses with a literal translation to English and any contextual notes needed to understand the poem.

The author is humble in his descriptions and translations. He begins by reminding us of the Italian “traduttore, traditore” and its implication that any translator is probably a traitor. He emphasizes the need to create the effect of the original haiku, but that one can only recreate the effect on oneself, thus there are multiple ways to create an effect (and sometimes it is impossible), so multiple translations may be “correct.”

Henderson chooses to translate haiku from which he feels he can capture the effect of the original without too much explanation. As he says “I have a very strong belief that too much explanation can take the pleasure out of any poetry.” He attempts to be as literal in his translation as possible, while recognizing the necessary adjustments for such dissimilar languages as Japanese and English.

Characteristics of haiku

Henderson describes a haiku as a very short poem, with special characteristics, but primarily meant to evoke emotion. Yes, in Japanese haiku have 17 syllables, but there’s a little more to it than that.

  • High moments – Haiku can be happy, sad, deep, shallow, religious or whatever, but haiku are records of “high moments.” Haiku should capture the peaks that are higher than the surrounding plains of life.
  • Condensed language – Haiku often omit words that are not needed to understand the poem, but that would be used in a grammatically correct sentence. (He cautions care here: condensing to excess can result in an unintelligible puzzle.) Season words and cut words are two conventions used to eliminate unnecessary words.
  • Season wordsKigo, or season words, are used as a common reference. They put the poem in a setting immediately. The reference may be the actual word (spring, fall, etc.) or may be a reference that is attached to a particular season, for example, cherry blossoms, which occur in spring.

Henderson adds, “It may be noted in passing that the use of ki is probably at the base of a charge that has been advanced that haiku are more concerned with nature than with human affairs. Such a statement is ridiculous. Haiku are more concerned with human emotions than human acts, and natural phenomena are used to reflect human emotions, but that is all.”

  • Cut wordsKireji, or “cut words,” are specific Japanese words that divide the poem in two parts that are to be equated or compared. There is no real equivalent in English, so Henderson uses punctuation to indicate kireji in his translations.
  • Power of suggestion – Due to their length, haiku depend on the power of suggestion. They often give a clear picture of something that is the starting place for an emotion or train of thought. The outline is drawn, but the reader fills it in.

Henderson says, “…in order to really understand a good haiku, one has to read it over many times. It is not that the picture is hazy in any way, for if the author has done his work properly, the picture is quite clear. The point is that good haiku are full of overtones.”

In particular, it may be difficult to find the connection from the natural image to the human emotion—thus the need for multiple readings.

A sampling of Henderson’s translations

Henderson takes us on an historical field trip from Bashō to Shiki. I’ve included a few examples here that I either like or that illustrate some of his points.

I should note first that Henderson rhymes many of his translations in the first and third lines. Haiku in Japanese do not typically rhyme, but he justifies this choice as a structural framework and a way to make sure the short lines are not mistaken for prose.

I found the rhyming a bit irritating at first, but then it grew on me, and I’ve been experimenting with similar rhyme in my haiku since I read the book. There is something quaint about it when done well. The more I try rhyming my haiku, the more I admire Henderson’s translations.


Henderson starts with the earliest haiku or precursors to haiku. He makes it very clear that a haiku must evoke human emotion. A 17-syllable poem that is primarily a joke or a trick or is just clever is not of the highest form and may not even be haiku.

This seems to be found early on (15th-16th century) especially. For example, Sōkan’s verse:

If to the moon
one puts a handle—what
a splendid fan!

It may be a clever image, but there is no depth of emotion.

Another example Henderson offers of not-haiku or bad haiku is Teitoku’s verse (which takes place on new year’s day):

This morning, how
icicles drip!—slobbering
year of the cow!

Bashō (one of the greats) referred to this type of verse—clever more than poetic—as “Teitoku’s slobber.”

(Now, at this point in the book I was getting the uncomfortable feeling of having written a lot of not-haiku. Hmmm.)

Things started to improve with Sōin of the Danrin School (17th century). For example:

Dewdrops, limpid, small—
and such a lack of judgment shown
in where they fall!

Still clever and somewhat thin, but moving more towards layered meanings.


Bashō is the most famous poet of the Edo period (1603-1867) and a well known teacher. There is a tale of Bashō and a young student. The student made the following haiku:

Red dragonflies!
Take off their wings,
and they are pepper pods!

Bashō corrected him, saying that was not a haiku, this was a haiku:

Red pepper pods!
Add wings to them,
and they are dragonflies!

His most famous haiku:

Old pond—
and a frog jump-in

A couple more of Bashō’s work.

Spring too, very soon!
They are setting the scene for it—
plum tree and moon.

This road:
with no man traveling on it,
autumn darkness falls.


I appreciated Henderson’s offering of several possible versions of Ransetsu’s famous haiku.

On the plum tree
one blossom, one blossomworth
of warmth.

As on the plums
blossom by blossom, so too
spring warmness comes.

On the plum is glowing
one blossom; now one blossom strong,
warmth too is growing.

On the plum, forlorn,
one blossom; one frail blossomworth
of warmth has just been born.

As Henderson says, all versions are “right,” and all are probably “wrong,” since they give only one point of view.


With Onitsura, Henderson offers a good example of a haiku with many overtones and possible interpretations.

On top of skeletons
they put a gala dress, and then—
the flower viewing!

One could read this as a cynical look at the revelers who put on their best clothes for the cherry-viewing festival. Perhaps Onitsura is suggesting a comparison of the shortness of human life to that of the cherry blossom. Another interpretation is that the naked trees are getting dressed with spring blossoms. (Also, a reinforcement that haiku need to be read multiple times—I did not get both interpretations without explanation.)


Chiyo is one of the best known female haiku writers. Here are two translations of a haiku she wrote after the death of her little son.

Henderson’s translation:

The dragonfly hunter—
today, what place has he
got to, I wonder…

Curtis Hidden Page’s translation:

I wonder in what fields today
He chases dragonflies in play.
My little boy—who ran away.

Interesting to see how both translators chose to rhyme the haiku. I found the Henderson translation more poignant, perhaps partially due to the triple rhyme and more literal feel of Page’s.


Buson is considered the next great haiku writer to come after Bashō.

A mountain pheasant,
treading on its tail, the springtime’s
setting sun.

There apparently is no agreement on the correct reading of this haiku. Who/what is stepping on the tail—the pheasant or the sun? But it does offer a comparison of the colorful tail to the sunset, and Henderson suspects Buson accomplished what he wanted.

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel…

That one gives me shivers.


Henderson posits Issa as one of the most beloved haiku writers.

What a red moon!
And whose is it,

This simple haiku makes a comparison of the moon to a toy, but also has overtones of economic theory, Henderson points out.

Snow melts,
and the village is overflowing—
with children.

And some of his haiku have little surprises in the last lines. If you read just the first two lines of the haiku above, an image begins to form, but the third line creates an entirely different image. And another in the same vein…

Thanks to cherry bloom,
in its shadow utter strangers—
there are none!


Henderson ends with Shiki (who apparently was a precocious upstart) and his contemporaries.

Evening moon:
plum blossoms start to fall
upon the lute.

In the winter river,
thrown away, a dog’s
dead body.

Quite a range Shiki had.

Recommendation: Read

If you have any interest in haiku, I’d recommend this book. I have not read too many other books that explain and/or translate haiku, but this one seemed to clarify some of the conceptions and misconceptions I had.

In stark contrast to John Gardner (the last review I wrote was of Gardner’s The Art of Fiction), Harold Henderson is a humble writer and translator, offering his own educated opinions and translations, while remaining entirely open to the possibility that there is another and possibly a better way.

Harold Henderson was an encouraging teacher and enhanced my understanding of haiku. By reading his translations, I grew to understand that precise syllable count was perhaps the least important aspect of haiku. I now know haiku goes well beyond 5-7-5. And, strangely, I felt better after reading this book.

Notes on Gardner from a “Young” Writer

The Book

Recently a workshop instructor recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. As fiction writing is still fairly new to me (though I would hardly call myself “young”), I eagerly ordered it. Whereas Stephen King’s On Writing took me a mere few hours over the course of two days to read, this book took me the entire month of February. It felt like a huge accomplishment just to finish it.

The book is structured into two parts: the first with four essay-like chapters on “theory” and the second with three practical chapters: Common Errors, Technique and Plotting.

The Good

First, let’s stipulate that Gardner knows what he’s talking about. He is able to describe particular fiction-writing approaches and clearly articulate why they work or don’t work, while acknowledging that rules don’t always hold: “Whatever works is good.” I learned what I need to consider in writing fiction—some new concepts, some things I might be doing poorly, some opportunities to enhance the impact of my writing. Good stuff.

Without rehashing the whole book, here are a few things that struck me:

  • Gardner laments that works of literature taught in many writing classes are “lesser” works of fiction, often chosen because they demonstrate a certain element of writing (“theme” for example), but frequently are missing good storytelling. This surprised me coming from an academic and, in all honesty, probably made me more open to listening to what he had to say.
  • Gardner emphasizes working on one aspect of writing at a time (e.g., in exercises). He tries to get “young” writers to surprise themselves how well they can do a particular thing, in order to build confidence. While this is certainly isn’t a new concept (practice improves performance—go figure), there was something comforting in the way Gardner allowed the chunking of Writing into manageable pieces.
  • The concept of “psychic distance” was new to me (actually it was mentioned in the class that led me to the book, but still new). Think of a movie camera panning a landscape vs. zooming in for a close-up on the main character. Same idea in writing. Stay further back on less important things, and get closer (inside the character’s head) on more important things. Notice how it changes the pace. I think I understood this intuitively, but Gardner’s description of it helped me realize what’s happening when I get stuck in the slog of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” Pull back and speed things up.
  • Gardner provides several technique exercises at the end of the book. While I have not done them (yet), I did do one exercise found in the middle of the book. In a nutshell, the idea was to describe a barn from the perspective of a father who had just lost a son in war, but not mention the son or the loss. I was surprised how vivid the description became for me and where my mind took the exercise. Aha!—a new technique to improve my writing (probably in poetry as well as fiction).

The Bad

The biggest complaint I read in reviews of this book is that Gardner is condescending and elitist. Now, I can understand that perception. He is erudite and pedantic. He makes many references that, to me, felt obscure. I like to consider myself fairly well read and well educated, but I would have to do a lot of catch-up reading to follow all his allusions. His prose is dense—a great example of academic writing, but not a style that itself demonstrates how to write fiction. (By contrast, King’s book helped me learn by example, even though he, too, was writing non-fiction.)

But I did not really interpret Gardner’s academic philosophizing as condescending or elitist (at least not in the negative use of the word). My two biggest issues were structure and sexism.


Structure might seem like an odd complaint. Here’s the thing: This book would be a useful reference book—but it is not designed to be easily referenced! The format of the writing, chapters, and pages does not allow for easy scanning and location of key points.

Perhaps my preference for easily scannable writing is due to my many years of writing in the business world. In that realm, headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists are your friends. I want my eyes to be able to quickly locate the section on “psychic distance.” One might think it is in the “Technique” chapter. Nope. It’s in “Common Errors.” Huh?

The book is also inconsistent in the bare formatting that does exist. The “Technique” chapter does have some subheadings (Vocabulary, The Sentence, etc.), but the “Common Errors” chapter does not.

Poor formatting plus long, academic writing equals a text that demands a lot of work on the reader’s part to find key information.


Another common complaint about Gardner’s book, with which I agree, is his sexist language (some say misogynistic—I’m not sure I would go that far). Gardner bemoans the patriarchal nature of English,

Again and again this book speaks of the writer as “he,” though many of the best writers I have read or have taught in writing classes are female.

But then he goes ahead and reinforces the patriarchy by using the masculine pronoun entirely, and using female examples that are cliché bordering on sexist, e.g., strippers, unhappy housewives (really??).

The book was written in 1983, so perhaps a bit of allowance is made for academics who follow “proper” rules of English. But, good grief, even at that point in time language was evolving (using the plural instead of singular to avoid the pronoun gender problem altogether; alternating masculine and feminine pronouns; or, more controversially, using “they” as singular), and clichés were still clichés.

Gardner knows that the writer needs to control the language, learning but disregarding the “rules” when needed (“Whatever works is good.”), but somehow ignores his own advice on this terribly obvious point. Pronouns and clichés are within your control!!

The Recommendation: Read (in small doses, with your tolerance hat on)

I think the next time I read this book—and despite its flaws, I’m pretty sure I will—I will outline the key points, print them out, and tuck them inside the book as a reference tool. But what I would really like to see is a new edition, formatted for easy scanning and updated for contemporary usage.

That will probably happen only in my fictive dreams…

What I Learned from Stephen King

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’ve never read Stephen King. I don’t like scary stories—books, movies, campfire tales. But I’d heard so many good things about King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that, as a writer, I had to pick it up. And…

Wow. I liked his writing. I may have even learned a bit of craft simply by reading his prose. But more than craft, what hit me hard was his advice on process (which, let’s face it, you kind of have to have before craft really matters—I mean, if you don’t write, craft is kind of meaningless, yes?).

Here’s what resonated most for me, at this point in writing space and time:

  • Set a daily writing goal – King writes 2000 words per day and completes it regardless of the time it takes. Alternatively, you could set a time-based goal regardless of word count. Setting goals is nothing new, but it’s nice to get affirmation that the pros do it too. (Or, wait—maybe that’s what makes them pros??)
  • Write first – “Mornings belong to whatever is new—the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait.” Again, prioritizing is nothing new, but how many of us do it well?
  • Write every day – Another piece of well-worn advice, but the rationale was enlightening. “Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.” Aha!
  • Get your novel done in three months – At 2000 words/day for 90 days, King’s right—three months yields quite a decent length novel. But again the rationale is key: If you take longer than three months, you get tired of it yourself. See “Write every day” above. Aha!
  • Eliminate distractions – Close the door, close the blinds, and (I’m sure he’d add) turn off email/social media. We’ve all heard this advice, but have you heard a rationale other than “in order to focus”? How about this one: Get rid of the mundane world so that you can create your own. Aha!
  • Rest between drafts – Let your first draft rest (King suggests a minimum of 6 weeks, at least in the context of novels—your boss probably won’t wait for that report past Friday) before looking at it fresh; it should appear alien to you upon rereading. Have you ever thought “Did I really write that? I don’t remember writing that.” No, the writing brownies did not sneak in overnight to write for you. The mind can play wonderful tricks to help you see things anew, allowing you to become a more effective editor.
  • Write the first draft with the door closed and the second (or maybe third) with the door open – Close the figurative door as well as the literal. Listen to yourself and your characters to get the story on the page. Don’t get distracted by others’ opinions or questions about what you’ve written. Responding to someone asking about the symbolism of the apple or to someone telling you how wonderful you are is likely to send you off on the wrong path (focusing on explaining symbols or being wonderful) rather than getting the story on the page. When you’ve revised enough to be comfortable that the story is “done” (i.e., not chock full of holes), go ahead and get the feedback—see what a few select audience members think. I used to have an affirmation “I listen to my own voice.” That’s why!

Thank you, Professor King, for the lessons on process. I will be back when I am ready to learn more about craft. And before then I may even pick up one of your novels.

I have a crush on Dr. Bailly (Shhh, don’t tell my husband!)

Last night ESPN carried the Championships of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee. (It’s been on my calendar for a week!)

I can’t think of a “sports” competition that gives me as much joy and laughter as this one. The kids are typically middle-school age (though there’s no lower age limit, and this year a 10-year-old from my home town of Ankeny, Iowa, made it to the preliminaries–woo-hoo!). These kids show uncommon poise and intelligence. They goof off. They cheer each other on. They give each other standing ovations. They are funny. They laugh at the words and at themselves. They are un-self-conscious. They. are. cute.

Dr. Jacques Bailly is the official “pronouncer” of the Bee. He states each word for the competitors, and, as asked, answers questions about the definition, language of origin, and part of speech. He also provides a (frequently funny) sentence that uses the word, so the speller can hear it in context.

But I think most importantly, he is the one who puts the spellers at ease.

Now Dr. Bailly is a serious guy in his serious glasses, serious suit jacket and serious tie. (He’s a Classics professor—would you expect any less?) He has a low, calm voice with which he clearly enunciates each word—without over-enunciating or offering too much inflection as a clue to the spelling. He was the 1980 national champion, and has been the pronouncer since 2003, so Dr. Bailly knows The Bee.

But he also knows just when to give a small smile, just when to say “Hello” as the speller approaches the microphone, just when to call the speller by name. When he asked the first speller of the Finals “How are you?” she said “I’m nervous!”—but the question itself surely lessened her nervousness.

The kids obviously are the most important part of the spelling bee, but their charm is only enhanced by Dr. Bailly’s.

Sigh. Be still my heart.


And of course, congratulations to the Champion, Arvind Mahankali–he’s been a pleasure to watch the past few years!

Did the Catholic Church just do something right?

I am not Catholic—in fact I am not religious at all—and, frankly, I have a fair amount of contempt for many of the actions and inactions of the Catholic Church. But as I watched the ceremony announcing Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as the new Pope Francis, I had to grab a Kleenex (OK, I admit it—more than one).

Pope Francis first greeted the crowd as brothers and sisters and made a mild joke about the distance his brother cardinals had to travel to find someone for the job. Then, before he blessed the people, he asked them to bless him.

He set just the right tone—familiar and ordinary, gentle and humble. But he was not so gentle when last year he accused fellow church officials of hypocrisy. As a Jesuit, Francis is known for his simplicity in daily living, and he regularly ministers to the poor and downtrodden. At a time when many church leaders have forgotten Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized, Bergoglio’s choice of Francis as a name is highly significant.

While Pope Francis is very nearly as conservative as Pope Benedict on social issues such as contraception and gay marriage (far from my own positions), my reaction to him was decidedly different from my reaction to Benedict. I remember hearing the news of the “bulldog’s” election and rolling my eyes—quickly moving on to a more relevant topic of news. But even those of us who are not of the faith can appreciate the influence the Catholic Church has had on the world and recognize the pain the church leadership has caused for so many.

I gave Benedict credit for stepping down when he did. I took him at his word that his body and spirit were too tired to tackle the church’s problems any longer. I’m not so naïve as to think there couldn’t be anything else lurking in the shadows that might have caused him to step down, but I try not to be a cynic. Today I give Benedict even more respect for making the highly irregular decision to resign, to allow a fresh start, to demonstrate his own humility.

If “the Holy Spirit” has done its work well, if Pope Francis can live up to his name, if he can acknowledge and make restitution for the church’s sins, the world may be a more holy—or simply a more whole—place.

Poetry + Technology + Great Professor – Tuition = Amazing Global Learning Community

Imagine sitting in your Modern Poetry class at your Ivy League school. Your bearded professor in a tweed jacket leans forward, questioning each student in turn. What did Emily Dickinson mean by “this”? What did good ole Walt mean by the “blab of the pave”? Is William Carlos Williams’ note to his wife really poetry? What does it mean if the poet applies random chance to someone else’s words to “write” a new poem?

Your class has a spirited discussion, closely reading each poem, picking it apart, viewing it from many different angles. Agreeing and disagreeing, proposing new interpretations, discovering unintended significance.

The discussion goes 24 hours a day for 10 weeks. You pop in and out whenever you want. And it doesn’t cost a thing.

Welcome to MOOCs

Welcome to the world of MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses. I recently finished a Modern Poetry course offered by the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera. I had 34,000 classmates, and yet I felt like I “knew” the professor, I connected with other students, and I learned a tremendous amount.

The course structure was straightforward:

  • The poetry itself – Read a poem, listen to an audio recording and/or discussion of poem when available, watch a video of the professor and a half dozen teaching assistants (TAs) discussing the poem, participate in the discussion forums as you desire (I did not do much). We covered 5-10 poems per week.
  • Quizzes – Take one multiple-choice quiz per week. Required only if you want a certificate of completion. (I skipped.)
  • Essays – Complete four essays to be peer reviewed by 3-4 other students. Again required only for a certificate of completion. (I skipped.)
  • Live webcasts – “Attend” (live or on YouTube after the fact) a weekly discussion with the professor and TAs. Participate via the discussion forums, Twitter, Facebook and live phone calls (yes, that retro technology)—or show up in Philly if you’re close enough. You wouldn’t believe the number of students from around the world who made the effort to be online live at all hours of the day and night.

Since ModPo was a free, non-credit class, people self-selected and already had an interest in the topic. Certainly we had the opportunity to pick and choose how much work to do, but this was not a lightweight class. It was estimated at 5-8 hours per week to complete all the work.

The Professor

The bearded, tweedy professor of Penn’s ModPo was Al Filreis. Al has a warm, engaging personality, and is a skilled facilitator. I liked Al from the beginning, but became a fan throughout the course.

I’ve been reading a bit about MOOCs as a result of this class. One of the criticisms is that the professor sometimes achieves “rock star” status rather than being a present, real teacher. I had to consider this criticism closely. Was I blinded by Al’s brilliance and his distant persona?

No, I don’t think so. I’m sure Al is brilliant when he lectures. But Al rarely lectured. (On the rare occasions he did “riff” on a topic, his deep expertise became apparent.) Al instead facilitated a group-learning process by carefully guiding the video conversations, asking probing questions, and disagreeing as appropriate. And this is quite honestly what I would expect of a professor at an Ivy League school.

But Al’s management of the webcasts took this course to another level. Al treated every course participant—whether TA, caller, discussion-forum participant—as a unique and special individual. He genuinely took pleasure in hearing from people, and he paid great attention to their ideas. He also did something remarkable in creating a connection with the entire group by calling out specific examples, messages and stories from individual participants. Nothing was about Al; everything was about the poetry and its impact on the class participants.

I had tears in my eyes at some point during nearly every webcast. And to me that’s what poetry is about—connecting with emotion and creating a stronger understanding of the human condition. Bravo, Al!

The Participants

The internet has already connected many previously marginalized populations by allowing them to find each other, connect and create communities. ModPo demonstrated that higher education can now achieve that as well.

Think of the people who might not otherwise have taken any poetry class, let alone one at Penn:

  • A woman with debilitating fibromyalgia.
  • A young man emerging from autism.
  • Elderly persons who could not physically travel to or sit in a classroom for any length of time.

These people can now work at their own pace around pain levels, energy levels, attention spans–and they can still interact with the professor and other students.

And of course there are the folks like me, who simply have an interest in the subject, don’t live anywhere near Philly, and need classes to fit around life’s other activities.

34,000 classmates and I didn’t feel like just one of the crowd. Amazing.


I’ve already signed up for Fantasy and Science Fiction as my next class…

On reading poetry in public

For the longest time, I resisted public speaking—out of fear, discomfort, whatever you want to call that particular variety of head trash. Back in June I finished the first level of Toastmasters (10 speeches). As I wrote then, something had finally clicked for me (I think part of it is called “rehearsal”!) and I started to appreciate the experience.

Recently I’ve had two chances to read some of my poetry in public, and I have a third event coming up this week. I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed not only the performance and the audience response, but the process of deciding what to read and what to say.

How do you give the audience a sense of you and your writing in 6 minutes? or 10? or 15?

Six minutes allowed more poetry than I expected—I was able to read five short poems with comments in between. I tried to choose a variety that ranged from amusing to bizarre to philosophical, but the comments helped connect them thematically (childhood, summer, etc.). And I ended on a warm, positive note.

I practiced with a timer to make sure I stayed within the limit, and was surprised how close the timing came out for each poem—usually within a couple seconds. Apparently my ear knows the pace at which it wants the poem to be read. Any variation in overall time tended to come from my comments—which I learned to keep brief.

I started to worry when I had to fill 15 minutes! Did I have enough reasonably good work to read?? I read the same five poems as the first reading, and added another five, including a longer poem (3 ½ minutes). It was interesting to consider how to order a lengthier set, and I ended up grouping them around self-image, childhood and, hmmm, let’s say, soulfulness.

I’ve heard enough poets read to recognize how flow and context can enhance the audience’s appreciation for their work. We’d all like to think our poems stand on their own, and often they do, but it sure helps to have a little insight from the poet. When I was rehearsing my first 6 minutes with my Toastmasters club, one of the nicest pieces of feedback I got was “I really felt like I got to know you through your poems and comments.”

For this week, I’m working on a 10-minute set. I’d love to hear from my poet friends–how do you think about choosing work for a public reading? Any advice or tips you’d like to share with us novices?