So I was revising my About page this evening and I realized how much this blog has evolved since I started it. At first it was a place to post my field notes from the Olmsted research I was doing for my thesis/manuscript, my publication news as poems started making it out into the world, and the great work my friends were doing through their own publications or events around the DC area. My job and my teaching inform my writerly identity as much as my work as a poet, though. So in the two years since I moved to the Eastern Shore I’ve felt torn with how I want to represent this identity virtually. Do I continue to represent only one angle of my life as a post-MFA poet trying to get her work out into the world and leave this occupation as a line on the bio? Or, do I let in the thinking that fuels my daily (salaried) work? In many ways this post is very overdue, but it truly took looking at my “About” page today to realize I should articulate (at least one) of the ways in which these roles in my life are not at all disparate; they are, in fact, informed by each other.
My new (as-yet unnamed) poetic project is a manipulated erasure of Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land. The interesting part about Hawkes’s book is that it was written before plate tectonics were the accepted scientific theory for mountain ranges and high landforms. In her time, it was thought that mountains were only formed by volcanoes and were, at one time, underwater. In erasing the book I am, in some senses, readdressing the inaccuracy of her text by shifting, eroding, and removing language. For Hawkes she’s referring to the previous idea that the world was flat. In the erasure, the idea of a “plate” has a different resonance. As with the procedure of collage I used in Here Now, Myriads (my manuscript still in search of a home… though I have received a couple finalist nods), the use of another author’s words heightens the poems’ own acknowledgement that language is a material.
As I’ve said previously, I’ve always read like a writer, from a craft perspective. What I didn’t articulate then is that, for me, reading like a writer depends on seeing language as a material thing. I’ve tried to teach my students and my tutors to do the same, to see language not as invisible or transparent, but as a thing an author builds in order to have the greatest effect on our mind and our feelings. When my tutors work with writers at the sentence level, they are helping the writer understand the ways in which each sentence builds on the momentum of the previous one, or shifts our attentions somewhere else, or how an individual word, and how that word is used, has implications for the other things around it. When the students in my composition and literature course read Hemingway they investigate how his omissions are felt as present because of the way he’s built up the rest of his language, and how the sentences he starts in medias res affect the way we imagine the scene he lays out for us. It’s always all about how an author makes use of language.
Not surprisingly, it turns out there is some scholarship in the English and composition world referring to the materiality of language, namely David Bleich, who writes in the Introduction to “Materiality, Genre, and Language Use,” a special feature in College English from 2003:
The materiality of language is an axiom, a postulate, a fundamental assumption, a Kuhnian paradigm that leads to new approaches to the study and teaching of language, but is still not a part of our ordinary sense of what language is and does. It suspends the preoccupation with the referential and communicative functions of language and tries to examine all functions of speech and writing relative to the social, intersubjective scenes of their use. Language is material in the sense that it has tangible effects and that it matters all the time (469).
While Bleich makes an excellent point that seeing language as material “suspends the preoccupation with the referential and communicative functions of language,” (yes, please, let’s quit it with our preoccupation with the referential!), he privileges “all functions of speech,” meaning oral as well as written language. On the one hand the language of the texts we encounter does make its way into other forms of life, into conversations and into our minds. We might not even remember where that language came from, but we make it our own when we use it in our own contexts. On the other, I feel like Bleich is missing something when he takes his concept of language-as-material off the page. Where else is language more material than in a space (physical or virtual) where you can cut words out and move them around? Where the texture of another’s language (what our students quote directly in essays) can be felt as so clearly different than our own?
So, in short, I’m seeing ways in which the composition theory (or, at least, my own pedagogy) is informed by, and can benefit from, the thinking I’ve done as a poet. I came initially to this feeling, practicing and looking at language as a material, intuitively–before I really knew that’s what I was doing. As an MFA student I found the language to describe what I’d sensed in the poets I came to love (George Oppen, Ronald Johnson, Beachy-Quick, among so many others) and through my teachers, especially Susan Tichy and Sally Keith. As a writing center and composition professional (and, I hope, emerging scholar), I am still making my way. I figure this blog can/should be a part of that.
I see now, though, that the work left to be done is not to bridge, but to bind. I used to see my work as a poet and my work as a composition and writing center academic as two parallel paths I cared about equally (thus, the real identity crisis in this blog, and in myself). I am beginning to see them more as the same path. To reflect more significantly on the title for this entry, the ideas and concept surrounding the materiality of language “shape [my] mind” and form the foundation for the work I have done, and will do. As always I thank the blog-o-sphere for being an early audience for these thoughts. While I know the language that comes out here is so often rough around the edges and in many ways just beginning to take a coherent shape, it helps to begin to construct the lexicon with which future work will be built. This is not, after all, a metaphor.