Being Present

For most beginning poets, one thing that comes easily or not is the idea of showing big things through small things. Sometimes a group is innately imagistic and using sensory details is already part of their repertoire. That doesn’t make them better than the ones who may naturally turn more to narrative structures–just different. Both approaches have strengths and few poets stick to all one or the other anyway. However, teaching the details can be hard, especially when showing detail use through existing poems doesn’t work. I had to do some serious thinking about this, and decided to try showing them a professed non-poet who gives daily close attention to the details around him and does it in text. Yes, I’m talking about Twitter. Specifically, I showed them Clay Spinuzzi’s twitterstream and highlighted his bus tweets.

Spinuzzi rides the bus to the University of Texas campus several times a week, but each trip gives new close-up details about the people and sights. It never gets old. There are some continuing characters–hanger guy, pajama pants guy, but that isn’t the point so much as the close detail used in these 140-character moments. When I was a dewy-eyed young lass, there was a very popular book by Baba Ram Dass called Be Here Now. That idea of living solely in the present and the heightened awareness it brings is what’s happening here, only without the struggle to fend off thoughts about the past or present. Perhaps the 140-character limit helps by forcing the writer to cut the heart of things, but Spinuzzi’s bus tweets are very much in the present.

After showing the class the twitterstream, they were very open to the idea of trying something similar. We discussed several ways it could be done. The point is to somehow carry something small (notebook, phone) where these observations can be written down daily. Twitter works beautifully with a Twitter client (I use the free version of Twitterriffic for iPhone), but only when it is invisible: if the student has to struggle to get past the idea of the tech or the built-in audience, then it is a poor choice. I think that for many poets, carrying a pocket-size moleskine or reporter’s flip notebook is a perfect choice. Several in the class already had their small notebooks (Gosh! They listened the first day!) and held them up. Others are text-oriented. They have the unlimited text plan and will use text messages to self as their notebook. Once the method was selected, they each chose a part of their day to “annotate,” purposely choosing a repeated, familiar time or place. Most will annotate either a meal at their dining hall or their most frequent walk across campus to class; sitting in the hall waiting for class would also be good. I did mention though, that any observations made while driving (a daily drive works well for me) need to be stored up until they reach the parking lot. No texting and driving. I’m not too sure about texting/writing while walking either, but I see students doing that daily without harm, so we’ll see how it went when they report back on Tuesday.

On Tuesday they will bring either their notebook or a printout. I’m looking forward to it. Having the entire class use Twitter would have created a very interesting twitterstream, one that would have worked beautifully on the big screen, but this is a class of beginning poets and getting used to the public nature of poetry takes time. First they have to get used seeing and writing down the short, sharp images of daily life. One new thing at a time.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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