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Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Sitting in the Choir

The preacher's back is a shifting blue coat
behind a clear plastic podium.
The choir sits behind him. We stand
for his words, to sing, sometimes to pray
on display for those who break rules,
who refuse to bow, who keep eyes open
looking for God around the room
and settling on stained glass Jesus
or the stranger next to them.
He preaches with his hands,
laying on accents and punctuating his gospel
with exclamation points shaped like a pointed finger
and question marks that disappear into his pocket
to jingle keys. I can hardly believe
the words amplified to fill this room
have come from the other side of this man
not looking at me.
And I wonder. Does he feel the weight
of the choir? Are we fierce reminders of James,
Do not presume to teach, brothers?
Or do we strengthen him—a hundred eyes
hurrying his words to the hearts in those pews?

HillCountryWriter Category: Poetry
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A Little Celebration

I heard a writer on CSPAN 2 the other day talking about other writers. "They say they write for themselves," he said. "But they always happen to write books for themselves that are 100,000 words with a specific marketable audience."

On the one hand, I understand what this author meant. On the other hand, I have no audience. My novel remains unpublished. My other projects are still in the fledgling stage--maybe even just the eggs stage. Agents and publishers continue to prefer communicating with me through form letters.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to whine. But with so much rejection flying at a writer--if I'm writing for publication, I ought to stop. It takes too much time, too much energy, and too much from my family.

Even if I am writing for publication, I ought to stop. A friend of mine in the industry said first novels traditionally sell 1,500-5,000 copies. (5,000 would be better than average, he said.) Obviously the presses hope for more than that, but these numbers are pretty typical. For a first novelist.

With those numbers, writing for publication will earn me a whopping 5000 dollars at the most. That's a pretty pathetic annual income for a parttime job that takes this much time.

But writing only for myself seems so egotistical. So arrogant and self-reliant and all the worst sides of Emerson.

Can I really believe I am doing this for God? I would like to think so, but that thought seems pompous and deluded. Shouldn't I be thinking of God more as I write if I am doing it for him? Then again, why would he want me to write if no one will read it. How do I know if I am following his will or chasing my own pride? How many readers does a book need to justify its own existence? One? Two? My family? My friends? Is God alone enough reason to write? I know what the answer should be, yet being a practical American, I want to serve in a way that produces quantifiable results. My writing isn't even qualifiable yet.

Nevertheless, today a little celebration. I found a new market that gives me hope. Faith@Work Magazine.

So I will post a poem in celebration. (I really do write poetry for myself--or at least for my wife and kids.) The poem is for my pastor and worship minister, though I haven't given it to them because I think they might take it wrong.

Update 8/25/2006: Faith@Work magazine never even responded to my query. The pastor who inspired the poem resigned two months later.

HillCountryWriter Category: Publishing
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Monday, November 28, 2005



Her name means "Spring." It's a Farsi word, coming from the deserts of Afghanistan, a barefoot word that covers its head before entering the Mosque. It has hope, just like the young men who fought with warlords against the Taliban for years.

Sure their hope may have been twisted by greed and ambition, but all inspiration and passion has some truth at its core.

Five years after 9-11, and not much has changed in the world. After a brief year or two of political unity, the country polarized again. The intense emotions of that time have faded. The Taliban fell with relative ease. The cave searches for Osama bin Laden seem a distant memory. Osama bin Laden himself an even more distant memory.

Like any national tragedy, the fall of the twin towers has become an icon. The image of clouds pluming from the two buildings have joined our national memory alongside exploding space shuttles, a naked Vietnamese girl on a dirt road, and John F. Kennedy riding through Dallas in a convertible.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Happy Thanksgiving

I know some people who think it wrong to ask, "God Bless America." Don't we have enough blessings already? they say.

But I think we sometimes forget what it means to be blessed. We confuse God's goodness with comfort, his blessing with material wealth or convenience or ease of life style or even happiness.

God's blessing doesn't necessarily lead to my immediate happiness. It always leads to what is good for my life, though. All things work to the good of those who believe in God.

As an American, my life is easy. But the comfort of my life isn't what makes it good. Even the joys of family are just a small taste of the blessings which God is building up for us.

This holiday season, I pray God bless America. All blessings come from him. And if I give my life to him, every moment is a blessing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Guest Poets

When I taught, I began bringing guest poets to the class on accident. I had tried to hire poets to lead a long workshop with my students over the course of several weeks, but they were only interested in working with inner city schools. Our suburban school was--well--too affluent, too successful already.

But when they needed money to buy a plane ticket for Regie Gibson, they called me. Thankfully we had three hundred dollars left over from selling cookie dough. It was earmarked for our publication costs, but I figured we would get more later.

Regie was motivational, aggressive, talented, and riveting. He made the students respect words. And he awed us with his slam performance of "Jimmy Christ," an elegy for Jimmi Hendrix.

Later we brought Amy England and John Poch and Cary Clack.

We tried to pay the writers for their time, but the three hundred dollar honorarium was difficult. On the one hand, my students valued the poets and writers more because they had raised the money themselves in bake sales and door to door peddling of the most humiliating kind. On the other hand, fund-raising was just one more thing. As a teacher, my first priority was teaching and assessing my students. Enrichment opportunities like these workshops brought my students to life, but they took a tremendous amount of effort. I was left empty and drained and questioning so much work for so few students for so little pay.

In the end, though, I just had to do it. I couldn't not collaborate, and I genuinely loved working with professional writers.

What I didn't know then was that I had independently discovered the advantages of working with consultants. These writers didn't say anything I hadn't already said. They talked about metaphor and imagery. Many of them were pretty dry teachers, even. But they were the real deal. They were the ones published in Best of American Poetry. They were the editors of magazines. They were the hosts of HBO's Def Poetry Jam. I was just the teacher, but they were writers. They were poets. They were published.

Read one of my favorite John Poch poems. Consider subscribing to his magazine 32 Poems.

While you're at it. Check out these other poets and writers, too: Amy England, Cary Clack, Regie Gibson.

HillCountryWriter Category: Poetry Teaching
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Monday, November 21, 2005


Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Cakes

The week before open house, I noticed that other teachers had decorated their classroom with student work. Poems, essays, little illustrations. Lots of creativity and, well, colorful learning. My walls were white. The posters I hung up during the summer now looked a little bit self-obsessed and egotistical. My walls displayed my personality rather than my students.

The we read Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." One of my mentors had her students respond to the imagery of the poem in art. It wasn't something I liked to assign. Art was so hard to grade. And it had so little to do with learning textual analysis. But my walls were empty. (Except for the 1990 original Wall Concert poster from Berlin. And a Lyle Lovett poster signed "to Marcus and Amy good luck on getting married.") I was desperate to hang up some student personality.

I don't remember the handout or the specific assignment, but I do remember its openness. Don't limit yourself to drawings, I told them. Make a T-Shirt. Design a CD cover. Bake a cake and decorate it like Hell. Bring those images to life. God holding us like an insect over the fires of Hell. God holding back his wrath like a dam. God ready to shoot us through the heart with an arrow. These were great, violent, powerful images. They sent the puritanical New England churches into hysterics when he read it.

On the day of the assignment, I received thirty-two cakes.

It worked out well, because the due date happened to be my birthday. Sheer coincidence, I promise. But relatively convenient.

We stepped over cakes all day long. Chocolate cakes with spider icing, red velvet cakes "burning inside" as the student explained, but the best cake of all is the one nobody touched. A spider dangling by a thin line of icing over the flames of Hell. Hell's flames were fiery hot Fritos poking up from the icing like barbed wire.

I don't know how much critical analysis the students learned, but I still remember that day over ten years later. I still have one creative response catching the light in my office window. Andy Willome's cardboard statue of God's hand floating out of billowy clouds and pinching a spider by the thread. The base of the statue, Hell's flames in burnt orange, and red, with yellow peaks licking at the arachnid.

Part of me still feels like the assignment lampooned education. Stepping over cakes and spending a day sharing mostly ridiculous, pathetic creative responses scribbled on scratch paper that morning when students remembered what was due.
Can Andy's one spectacular success redeem so much fluff?

It sure looks good in my window this morning. Thanks Andy. Whereever you are.

HillCountryWriter Category: Teaching
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