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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Nontraditional Students, cont'd

The Narcoleptic Newspaperman
I can’t recall his name. Something like Bob. I’d guess he was about 50, and nearing 400 pounds. He was a knowledgeable sort when conscious, but he would literally fall asleep moments after arrival, and stay that way for quite some time. He often wore one of those classic reporter hats, as I think he had been some kind of reporter. I probably wouldn’t remember him at all, but for the insane class context: a small graduate seminar in a cramped room, maybe ten students sitting around a long table, taught by Debora Greger. On the street, Debora would pass for harmless if not insubstantial, but in a class setting, she could be deadly. Her cutting remarks happened mostly on paper, but even in workshop she could stab you in the neck with a look or an icy phrase. “I can’t believe you wasted my time with that,” was frequently her subtext. She wasn’t 100% venom, but she kept her fangs primed. Yet Bob seemed immune. Debora never gave him any grief that I know.
    The course itself could have been part of Bob’s problem. Debora was never a livewire as a teacher, and the subject was Literary Letters (correspondence written by poets, playwrights, etc). It turned out pretty okay, but I had the active ingredient of William Bowers nearby. Bowers tended toward being the opposite of Debora as a presence. It was no small task staving off his smirks and mirth-vibes, for which Debora was a perfect background: two parts librarian, one part dominatrix, one part storybook witch… sitting right next to, as Bowers put it, “a huge, liquid man” on the verge of snoring. Then we would all write fake letters to dead people, hand them to a woman who apparently couldn’t stand us, and discuss. Bob woke up semi-regularly, adding surprisingly relevant comments from the outskirts of Slumberland. 

Nirmal T.
Now back in Missouri, around 2006, I was teaching Poetry Writing 1. My wife knew this Asian hipster guy, from the library or computer lab? Nirmal was in his mid-to-late twenties. His parents were originally from India, I think, but more recently from Bahrain. He was a business student, but I guess he needed an elective, and ended up in my class after getting my permission to add.
    Heather had already warned me of Nirmal’s bad study habits. The semester previous, he would ask her to help him edit papers, then try to get her to do much of the writing while he goofed around. He might work on moonwalking or another dance move. He was obsessed with Michael Jackson, becoming even more so after Jacko died. He believed Jacko was killed by the government or some other powerful people. He also wanted to go shopping a lot. Heather went to some downtown stores with him once, to help him pick out hipster clothes. He was so into dressing up, going out, and discussing Michael Jackson, that Heather decided Nirmal was probably gay, but since he would soon return to the middle east, had to remain in the closet. Or maybe he was just half half mad with American brain worms.
    Nirmal had good conversational English, but little of the English language depth one might need for great writing. But as I told him, that can be faked/edited out in Poetry 1. Most semesters I had one person who didn’t get what syllables were; that semester, it was Nirmal. Still, after some false starts, he wrote one really interesting poem—right before dropping the course.

Brian B.
Brian was only around 30, but he had a son around 4 or 5 at the time. His dad-ness came through in some of his work, which accentuated his non-traditional nature. But he was an English/journalism guy, and had no troubles with any of the coursework. In fact, he nailed most of the assignments with clairvoyant ease, which may only go to show that we were on the same wavelength regarding humor or literary agenda. He was even emotionally stable, socially levelheaded, and blessed with the constitution of someone capable of attending class without moaning about it. He didn’t freak out even once, and turned in a superior stack of final poems. It comes as no surprise that Brian just won a couple of Missouri Press Awards. He may have even had my back in a moral-support way, when it came to enduring Charles, the vaguely passive-aggressive dude in the same room. It’s also possible that Charles was just much less funny than he believed himself to be, which, when accentuated by questionable physiognomy, produced the effect of passive aggression. In any case, Brian was a soothing antidote for Charles.

Ben J. and John M., Army dudes
Ex-military guys always carry a certain gravitas, especially in creative writing classes. Not only are they a few years older, but workshops are traditionally inhabited by mostly wussies who suckle at the teat of expressing life experience, and the grimmer the better. Having been in the shit can really lend credibility. It helps if a soldier can write a decent sentence. The two guys that come to mind were actually pretty good writers. Ben lent a beer-and-Metallica edge to a poetry class, while John showed up in the one fiction workshop I taught, providing a mixed vibe of survivalist/deer hunter/prison guard. I seemed to recall him writing a first-person shooter account of a guy watching his ex through a rifle scope. I think they were both pretty upright guys, although I suspected burgeoning Republicanism.

The Blockhead
The one time I taught an evening class at MSU, there were a few 30+ women enrolled. Two of them were just fine, if not commendable. But one was the second part of a duo I called “The Genius & the Blockhead.” Boy, were they a pain. I guess they were roommates, and after a few weeks, they began tag-teaming my class—one would come so the other wouldn’t have to. This became especially insulting the time I saw them both in the hall before class, but then The Genius, wearing a giant Cat-in-the-Hat hat, skipped class. When I tried to tell them they were missing too many meetings to avoid some kind of penalty, The Genius (apparently well versed in the technicalities of attendance) informed me that I had to have DATED documentation of each absence to make it stick. I had only been making little tally marks beside someone’s name in the roster, not creating a signed & dated log. Lesson learned.

The Blockhead was older than the Genius, but seemed to worship her. When I gave the Genius’s first poem a B+, they both waited after class, until everyone else left, and informed me that I must have miscalculated, because The Genius was, after all, a published writer already. They didn’t say where she was published, but their tone implied that I really wasn’t qualified to judge such a brilliant young superstar.* I kind of wish I would have said, “Tough shit, titty baby. Why don’t you quit grade grubbing, go back to your weird domicile and commence with the creepy co-dependency in private?” Instead, I said they should just look at it like my only way to apply pressure for final portfolio revisions, as revision is an important part of the writing process. They kept hanging around. They just couldn’t get on board with my inappropriately harsh grade. I think The Genius was one breath away from saying that THE POEM IN QUESTION had been published somewhere already, which would have been awesome, because submitting recycled work violates the Academic Honor Code. That’s a “multiple submission.” Anyway, I had to put up with their buttered horseshit all semester. Neither of them was much good, but at least The Blockhead was lesser in a way that I could deduct for. The Genius, on the other hand, was technically proficient—just brimming over with bogus assertions, clich├ęs, archaic noodling, painful thesaurus language, etc. “Lost in purloined sadness accrued…” began one of her leaden lumps of meteoric language. Reading her poems became almost pure misery for me. To spare myself further encounters, I became passive aggressive. I gave the Blockhead the ‘B’s she barely deserved; I gave The Genius ‘A’s, but loaded her poems with divisive comments that could have come from William Logan or Debora Greger. “Chicken Soup for the Vampire’s Soul” is the only thing I can remember writing in one of my various critiques. At least The Blockhead had the decency to sign her own name to her work; The Genius already had a nom de plume. Mercifully, I have forgotten it.

*Genius/Blockhead bonus round: I knew I was in for it when, from the first week’s warm-up assignment, I picked a few student haikus (anonymously) to write on the board and discuss. One happened to be from The Genius, and included the phrase “the white snow.” Circling the adjective “white,” I advised that poems, especially very short poems with only 17 syllables, should really conserve words. Since “white” is something we normally assume snow to be, I said one could probably find a better modifier—a more surprising word that would transform or add metaphorical dimension to the idea of snow. For the next couple of minutes, the Blockhead (knowing that was her friend’s poem) led a charge to defend the word “white” as THE PERFECT word choice. No, there could be no better word, ever. Groan. 

Paul J.
Paul was a cool old Santa Claus guy, probably 60, physically sturdy and with a solid presence. He was a veteran of English classes, so he had all his shit together and tended to slam-dunk the assignments. Plus, he was a go-to guy for workshop critiques—not a workshop hog at all, but always prepared to give a good, honest response. He listened to critiques of his own work with good grace rather than defensiveness, and accepted some little gag prize for an off-the-cuff workshop award with humor, saying his grandson would like it. At the end of the semester, he told me it was the best writing class he’d ever had. That obviously rang sweet to me, but credit goes to that unfathomable mystery of “workshop chemistry,” over which Paul had almost as much control as I had. Paul had lucked into and helped build one of the best groups I ever ran—several strong writers, no insurmountable egos or super-sensitive basket-cases, good humor as well as smarts and good attendance, plus some interesting, good-natured personalities. I knew, because the other group I had that same semester was brought to a crashing halt when a super-sensitive basket-case had a crying meltdown and almost came to blows with another student. Had he been sitting next to Paul instead, perhaps his loony rat’s nest of a brain could have been detangled.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nontraditional Students

Whether I was student or teacher, odds were that any given class would be blessed or afflicted with roughly one nontraditional student. Once I was teaching, the first day of class always came with that breath-holding moment when an older student appeared, and I had to wait for him or her to reveal the character attributes I would have to enjoy/endure. Because nontraditional students are there for a reason. And they will likely let you in on it. Rather than drift anonymously through a course as many an undergrad may, the nontraditional will get their money’s worth. Personalize the course. Become an unofficial teaching assistant. Hijack the vibe of the room. Spin off into a flurry of divorce-induced absences and legal documentation. Or disappear entirely.

Of course, traditional students have their ups and downs, quirks and failings, but the nontraditionals tend toward personality-to-burn assertive histrionics that cement their places in the room and the mind. Sometimes you know what’s coming by way of a shot-across-the-bow email on the eve of class: “Dear Professor (sic) Woody, I am enrolled in your class and want you to know in advance that I have two children and (insert special problem here)…” Once or twice, I responded with preemptive sternness to such emails and deflected the person away entirely. Maybe that’s mean, but when someone is predicting putting a drag on your whole operation before day 1, you want to send the message: Buck up, or jump ship. Especially if you’re like me—a total wash-up at being authoritarian in person.

Jon G.
This guy was a grinning, friendly, very tan, short-but-mighty dude of about 45, who used to sit in the back of poetry workshop with his leg(s) up on the radiator or next desk. He always joined discussions, but not to toxic levels. He liked to say something was “pretty good” when he liked it. Projecting a very outgoing and happy-go-lucky nature, he talked about taking his son to Little League games, etc. Jon blew my mind ten years after poetry workshop when I found him working at Kinko’s, telling me that he had divorced, and, now in his fifties, was living with a 19-year-old girlfriend. I suppose that is a form of “winning,” but somehow it contaminated my feelings about this old champ.

Lori S.
She became an MSU teacher later, but all I can remember is how she was kind of a socially dominant, hot, mature adult woman in a room full of barely-more-than-kids. This made her the apple of the teacher’s eye, and it seemed like she frequently talked to him before and after class. On occasion, she wore tight black pleather pants that, you know, made you look. I find it fitting that she is teaching now and I am not. It’s all about the networking.

Joe R.— or, “Joe-Man,” was the all-time Godzilla of nontraditional students. A long-time fixture at (Southwest) Missouri State, Joe appeared in one of my poetry workshops circa 1994. I won’t bother trying to capture him in euphemistic language. The guy was— and still is— a tragic wreck of a man-child with just enough determination to keep inflicting himself on others. Driving his motorized wheelchair with his withered T-Rex arms, sometimes gasping for air, sometimes showing up with food in his beard and down his shirt, Joe arrived on his shockwave of resentful need. Naturally, he was astute enough to zero in on me from the start, intuiting, perhaps, that I would have perfect attendance and enough conscience that I would always help him get his drink out of its holder, set up his tape recorder, collect his assignments, etc.

Then the fun really hit the fan. Joe could barely talk for lack of breath, but he had a lot to say, often unintelligibly. His poems were also long, rambling, repetitive, obvious, and tiresomely loaded with abstractions and the undisguised pain of his life. I think after only a few classes it became clear: Joe was not there to learn; he was there to teach us about him, and about how shitty the world is when you are super fucked-up.

Mike Burns, the professor, had a pretty even hand with Joe, but it was no secret that Joe tested his patience. He frequently, with decreasing diplomacy, prompted Joe to tie off his comments, or finished reading Joe’s work for him. This was necessary, because Joe’s voice was painfully, haltingly slow. One day, Joe violated workshop protocol by seemingly defensive retort. Someone had asked something I can’t recall...

    “It’s why I WROTE… the DAMN… POEM!” Joe gasped. Burns rocked my world by sternly rebuking Joe.

    “Joe, you know you don’t get defensive in here! I’ll roll your ass right out of here if you can’t follow the rules!”

    Joe said he was sorry, and everything proceeded apace, except that I couldn’t stop thinking about Burns literally rolling Joe’s wheelchair out into the hall like a mad dad.

    Another problem with Joe was that he was grandiose, a perfect counterpoint to his omnidirectional misery. He might praise a classmate’s work by comparing it to Wordsworth, or calling it a masterpiece, etc. Even if my own ego got the boost, it wasn’t long before the exaggerated praise proved tiresome.

    I soon learned that Joe had completed at least one previous degree, in something like sociology or political science. My friend Aaron told me that his older brother Clay had once had a class with Joe. Aaron and Clay passed Joe in the dining hall one day, and immediately after Joe greeted Clay in passing, Clay turned to Aaron and said, “I hate that son of a bitch!” So, Joe apparently wore out his welcome all over. Another friend who worked at the campus library said Joe would ram his chair into the counter to protest slow service, even if it had nothing to do with ignoring the handicapped, as Joe assumed. Yet another buddy’s girlfriend reported a similar incidence from the financial aid desk, etc.

    If there exists a milk of human kindness, Joe had a gift for souring it.

(Many years later, I would reunite with Joe, in his element: at a comic/gaming/sci-fi convention. Vonnegut-like, I have always been a reluctant member of the same karass. Review the further adventures of Joe-Man and Chad-Man here.)

Barb Gunderson
    Barb was a middle-aged woman who took the first poetry workshop I ever taught. I believe she looked like her name. After one of the first few class meetings, she took me aside for a long sit-down talk at the Student Union. She was fired up, which was cool, but she was obviously looking for too much from the course. She raved about being inspired by Andre Codrescu, among others. She wanted a life-changing experience, and I tried to agree, but I also tried to defuse the bomb of her hopes. She wanted an experience between “Dead Poets Society” and an affair with me. I was like, “I have to follow the course outline, and it’s a “Gordon Rule” course (6000-word minimum of critical writing), but we’ll have some fun.” It turned out to be a relatively lackluster workshop group, which happens about 50% of the time. She reported to me about once per month how disappointed she was. I’m sure at the time I wished she was pretty and nearer to my age, maybe I could have struck up an unethically sexual relationship with her, or at least walked with her in moonlight while reading Rimbaud and Rumi to one another and then licking absinthe off one another’s wrists… but no, she hadn’t the power to break my 26-year drought with the opposite sex, and I was powerless to give her the poetry mind-blow she so desired.

Stay tuned for part 2, when we meet some nontraditional students who are actually excellent, as well as more who are nuts.

Monday, September 1, 2014


Pretty sure I'd rather have this guy in my house, over his namesake.
Around 1979, my mom started raising dogs. Not long after that, cats. Somewhere in there, I’m sure she began raising fleas. I don’t know how many times I went to the sink as a kid to see the post-catwash dish of soaped-and-tweezed fleas. And one time when I slept over at Chris DeLozier’s mom’s house in Branson, she had some cat-fed fleas… that was, I think, when I discovered that you can kill them not by squeezing them, but by pinching AND grinding them between the fingers, with concentrated hot friction that just about makes your fingertips raw.

Just twice in my life, I’ve encountered fleas of a different magnitude. Vengeful fleas, with demonic, leg-prickling zest and horror-movie impact (although they are still too small to be filmed, unless you count the impressive flea POV shot in City of Lost Children). Fleas in such obscene numbers that they go from being the least significant things in the room to being the only thing that matters.

The first time, I was probably around 14. My mom and sister dabbled briefly in the world of ferrets. Having hitched my wagon to one of my mom’s trips into town (likely hoping to set foot in a Wal-Mart or some other sampler of civilization), I ended up at the home of some old lady in Springfield. She may have had cats as well, but what she really had, to the dismay of whatever gods hold sway over decency, was a concrete basement full of caged ferrets. It must have been hot out, because I was wearing shorts, which I did not wear often. As we reached the basement floor, my pale legs took on a tickling, pepper-like sandstorm of fleas. I think for 30 seconds or so, I tried to keep my cool, but it was not to be endured. We got the hell out of there, but we never forgot.

The second time was last month. This August, I became the owner of pestilential fleas. I would like to say Biblical fleas, but the Bible foolishly overlooks fleas as a plagueworthy nuisance*, opting instead for frogs, lice, and child mortality. My old house, now my rental property, was vacated at July’s end. As I helped the renters move their last stuff out, I realized there were fleas. No big surprise—we had had fleas there several times over the decade we lived there with two cats—but I figured, now that the house was empty, I’d set off a fogger or two and be done with it. Two weeks and six foggers later (including two of the highly touted “Knockout” brand), along with powder, some other spray, and a bag of outdoor granules, I’d spent about 80 bucks and the fleas were only getting worse. I had what one seller of insecticide referred to as a “flea nest.”

Aside from having no carpet in the house, the scenario couldn’t have been engineered any better for fleas. Their cat had been allowed in and out of the house, providing the fleas a convenient shuttle service. Their dog had been mainly kept inside, so became flea HQ. Humans were non-essential bonus meals.
Going the extra mile for the blogosphere.
Every time I went back to do some work, all I would do was fight fleas and cuss the renters, calling for the death of their dog, their cat, etc. I wondered how they could stand to live there at all, but of course, they couldn’t—they left. Plus, it was better when their pets were there—the dog and cat had been the fleas’ main chuckwagon. Now, I was their only dining experience, and the buffet opened wide when I stepped in.

At the apex of fleas, before I finally called an exterminator, I walked over to a sunbeam from a window, knowing fleas love warmth. In that 20-inch square, I saw a couple of fleas per square inch of hardwood floor. I sprayed it all with windex and wiped about 500 into a paper towel. By that point, I already had richly peppered socks, and a ring of 15 or so already biting me around the top of each sock. I retreated to the porch, where I used strips of blue masking tape to trap them. The tape is only sticky enough to hold a flea for about 3 seconds tops, so you just have to pick a good spot, slap fresh tape over it, then fold it over for solid entombment. My better runs with the tape would grab at least a dozen in each 2-3 inch strip. Then I’d spend 10 minutes on the front step, letting the last ones climb my socks so I could take them out individually. The bonus comes when every part of your body starts sending false itch-sensations, but you must look, because every once in a while, a hot-shot flea manages to get above the knee level. Inevitably one or two would make it into the car with me—probably in the seams of my shoes, which were always good cover—and I’d catch those on the drive.

After several days of my own attempts, the situation was not only not better, it was increasingly foul, dismal and desperate. I was beginning to think I was at ground zero for the rise of a new strain of superflea. Their skeezy leaping already puts them on the verge of being nature’s teleporters; what the fudge do you do if they grow resistant to all chemicals? I called an exterminator, who came the following Monday morning. I actually left the front door unlocked for him all weekend, thinking there was nothing in there to steal, and if anyone went in to do any mischief, the fleas would make them sorry.

After the exterminator, the flea population took a big dive, and it became possible to work in the house again. I’d still catch and kill a dozen or more on arrival, followed by a few per hour. One week later, they were gradually declining but still worrisome. I called the exterminator to see if they ought to come again. Their phone lady said I could expect to see lingering fleas for at least another week, because the eggs would still be hatching, and only after they hatch will the chemical residue work on them. I guess I knew that from internet fleasearch… I would just have to wait, and refrain from mopping the poison off the floors. For the same reason of retaining chemicals, I also decided to leave the house closed up, despite my strong desire to air out the crappy stale mix of dog, pee, cigarettes and flea death.

One month into the challenge, the fleas are finally on the ropes. I killed fewer than 20 during a 3-hour tour today. According to the chemical literature, “no new populations will develop.” Pray on that shit, friend, for I say the flea is the worst of nature’s common parasites. No, I’ve never had bedbugs, intestinal worms, or any of that African horror-show crap like eyeball-drillers or waterborne butt noodles, catfish-heads-for-tits, etc. Let’s keep it that way, future renters. Quit scuzzing up the place, ya gross-asses!

*Just one more reason the Bible is a poor guide to living: One of the great plagues visited on Egypt is… FROGS? Who cares? Frogs never hurt anyone. Bring on the frogs, man. Frogs are cool, soft, clawless… I mean, wading through a roomful of poison dart frogs sounds pretty daunting, but I don’t think Egypt had those. What a lame threat. Here’s a plague for you: FLEAS. Fleas are the worst of creatures. Chiggers come close, mosquitoes suck but at least you can net them out, ticks are gross… but fleas, man, fucking FLEAS. Worst thing about the frog plague is that I’d feel bad killing them accidentally while walking.