Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Second Lives of Poems

I generate a lot of paper in my work as a writer, although I don't keep as much in terms of paper copies as I once did.  Once, I would have kept a paper copy of everything I wrote, draft after draft, file cabinet after file cabinet.  Now, I don't.  If all computer systems crashed, meaning that I could not access my files that I've backed up on USB drives and the computer system at work, and I had to reconstruct my files of creative writing, I'd be hard-pressed to do it. 

Even though I don't generate the kind of paper that I once did, I still fill our recycling bin--unless my spouse uses it for scratch paper or as paper for the printer.  Lately he's been using poems that were part of an older version of a manuscript, which I found when cleaning out a shelf.

He came home from teaching Philosophy class one day and told me that he'd been teaching from notes that he wrote on the back of old poems.  He told me that some of his students were interested in what was on the back of the paper, and so he read them a poem.  It mixed up the class in an interesting way, and the students were more attentive for the rest of the class.  He thought about reading a poem each day.

I said, "Or you could have the students write a poem about what they're learning, what you're teaching.  It might be fun for them, and you'd have a way to find out what sticks in students' brains."

I'm always looking for ways to keep students interested.  I've heard all about "flipped" classes, and that's a great technique.  But it's not the only technique.  I think a variety of techniques works best.

His story about recycled poems also reminded me of a time, years ago, when I put a stack of handouts of poems in the recycling container in the classroom after my evening class.   I went to my office to collect my belongings before leaving campus.  When I walked back by the classroom, one of the custodians was reading the handouts. 

His English had seemed rudimentary to me, and I wondered how much of the poetry he understood.  I had a vision of him, learning English by reading the castaway handouts from a variety of classes. 

When I was younger, I wrote with a vision of making something immortal, capturing a moment or a character or an idea forever, so that future generations would have it.  And there's still some aspect of that when I write. 

But I know from studying literary history that most of what humanity writes will crumble away and not be found by future generations.  So that's not really what motivates me.  I'm really capturing it for me, since so much slides right out of human brains too, in the same way it disappears from history.

I've thought of some future grad student, finding our poems that were published in small journals or our collections published by small presses, and rescuing us from obscurity.  But I hadn't thought more immediately, the Philosophy teacher giving a poem a new audience or the janitor rescuing a poem from a dustbin.

Perhaps there are other ways we could give our poems another chance at a second life.

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