The Writing Impulse

As a high school teacher and aspiring poet, I’m privy to a phenomenon I should find encouraging: in every class I teach, there are young writers and poets.  Over these five years, I could reliably expect that if I were to ask a class of, say, twenty-five if there were any poets or writers, at least one or two students would raise their hand as if they’d been waiting for the question.

More hands go up when I ask how many students have ever written for personal or creative reasons outside of class.  When I survey anonymously, it becomes obvious that a clear majority of students actively write, or have at one point.  Many of my colleagues’ experiences corroborate this pattern, and while our observations are largely anecdotal, they do beg an interesting question: how intrinsic to childhood and adolescence is written expression?

If we broaden our definition of “writing” beyond the literary, virtually all my students are writers.  Many blogging sites and social media platforms offer young people the opportunity, for better or worse, to chronicle their lives digitally.  The thoughts and images of their experience become fodder for social consumption and further expression.  If we include this type of expression in our understanding of writing, then writing becomes an act at once public, collaborative, and prolific.

While Facebook and Instagram are a far cry from The New Yorker, the idea that social media and literary creation share some of the same basic rules is not a new one.  Compare the composition of a poem to that of Tweet.  Both involve compactness, flexibility of syntax, distillation of language, and precision of diction.  Both draw heavily on the vernaculars, idioms, and speech patterns of their composers.  It makes sense, then, that many contemporary poets and writers are looking to these modes of expression for inspiration, even drawing on them for source material or adopting them as literary forms.

One of my professors claimed that people living in the digital age can expect to leave behind at least one or two books’ worth of combined electronic and written records of their existence by the end of their lives (assuming, of course, a certain level of privilege and access).  When I repeat this to my students it clicks: they are writers whether or not they intend to be.

So, yeah.  People, especially young people, are natural writers.  The next questions, then, are when and why do young people stop writing (at least creatively).  If we assume that writing is, at least to a degree, necessary as part of the expression of the formative crises of adolescence, it makes sense that it would be less useful to a person as he or she passes into and through adulthood.  Practicality wins in the end, no doubt.  Ultimately, most of us outgrow writing.

But is this inevitable?  Over the past few years, I’ve been wondering to what extent does the writing impulse die, and to what extent is it killed?  It’s easy to blame policy makers for educational reform initiatives like Common Core, which stipulates that seventy percent of required texts at the secondary level be nonfiction (literary and nonliterary).  Regarding poetry, we might also look at the schools of poetry which plunge without trepidation even further into the esoteric or the meta, the self-aggrandizing or the self-flagellating.

As an educator, though, I feel like we must take some responsibility.  Why do we let the teenagers who write poetry grow into the adults who won’t even read it?  It is ultimately incumbent upon us to help young people nurture and preserve the writing impulse.  Poetry can’t cure cancer.  It can, though, show us how to live through (or with) it, or remind us why we do.  It can articulate for us the most harrowing and sublime moments of our lives—moments we often believe, until we read, we experience alone.

A teacher told me when I was younger that writing “is the ‘we were here’ carved onto history.”  With pages that vast to scrawl across, I never wrote on a bathroom stall again.  Now, teachers, remember we have this power.  Let’s get our students to take the tips of their sharpies off the desk and write something more enduring.

New Year

As I begin my first round of poetry submissions in 2014 (a little behind schedule), I’m feeling those doubts I haven’t yet been able to outgrow: will I fail? do I have anything worth saying?   Is this the year it all dries up?  I started submitting in January two years ago with the same questions.  While my impulse to write continues to overpower my fears I will ultimately fail at it, I’m still left hoping to grow enough as a writer to move beyond the vanity and insecurity I feel now.  Someday, maybe.  Maybe I won’t ever.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing.  In any case, I found myself looking back at the bio portions I included in my cover letters over the past two years.  The exercise helped remind me that while two years pass quickly, they can encompass a lot of hard work, patience, frustration, and persistence.  Even a year can hold a lot of successes, no matter how small they seem, or how unexpected they are in the forms they take.  So here they are, two years’ worth of cover letter bios.  And here’s hoping that as the new year takes shape, we can be encouraged by what we manage to accomplish.

 

1/1/2012

I was born in 1984, and grew up outside Detroit, Michigan.  I currently live outside Washington, D.C., and work as a high school English teacher.  These poems, if selected, will be my first published.

5/18/2012

Benjamin Goldberg lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C.  He teaches high school English.  He earned a B.A. in English and a M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan.  His poems are forthcoming in Raleigh Review and The Southeast Review in which he was selected as a finalist in the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Contest by James Kimbrell.

10/7/2012

Benjamin Goldberg lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C.  His poems are forthcoming in Raleigh Review, MAYDAY Magazine, Terrain.org, and The Southeast Review in which he was a finalist for the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Prize.   He teaches high school English.

6/1/2013

Benjamin Goldberg lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C.  His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Southeast Review, South Dakota Review, Raleigh Review, Terrain.org, MAYDAY Magazine, and elsewhere.  He was a finalist for the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Prize and the 2013 Third Coast Poetry Prize.  He teaches high school English.

10/13/2013

Benjamin Goldberg lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C.  His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Southeast Review, Grist, South Dakota Review, New Delta Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Prize, the 2013 New Millennium Writings Award for Poetry, and the 2013 Third Coast Poetry Prize.  He teaches high school English.  Find him online at www.benrgold.com.

11/13/2013

Benjamin Goldberg lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C.  His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Salt Hill, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Greensboro Review, Grist, The Southeast Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Prize, the 2013 New Millennium Writings Award for Poetry, and the 2013 Third Coast Poetry Prize.  He teaches high school English.  Find him online at www.benrgold.com.

Oh, Billy Collins…

Stephen Colbert, you’re awesome for promoting poetry on your show by interviewing a former poet laureate. Billy Collins, you’re lame for stating during said interview that we don’t really need a poet laureate.  So to clarify, Billy Collins, you 1) twice had the privilege fill the most distinguished position to which a poet can aspire, 2) appeared on the shows of one of the only high-profile television personalities who even attempts to give poetry a platform, and 3) squandered this opportunity by declaring your obsolescence before I wider audience than you likely had during your time as poet laureate.

Billy Collins on The Colbert Report

 

Ten Questions I’d Like to Ask Lisa D’Amour:

1) Why did you title your play “Detroit,” then set it in the suburbs?

2) Why did you feel it was okay to do this when you clearly know little to nothing about Detroit or its suburbs?

3) Where in Detroit did you find the roads I-694 and I-295?

4)  Have you ever been to Detroit?

5) If you’re trying to explore ideas such as the American Dream vs. the American reality during the Recession, and you choose to do it through the lens of the city most iconic for post-industrial destitution, isn’t it incumbent upon you to do your work as a playwright and research that city?

6) Where in suburban Detroit have you ever met people who somehow manage to work so hard at keeping up with the Joneses while wearing their damages like designer brands for all their neighbors to see?

7)  Why do your characters speak their subtext and your message to the point they seem like caricatures?

8)  Why do you undercut your play’s most genuine moment of ruin  and abandonment—indeed, its entire climax—with an act so hollowly symbolic of such a moment?

9) Why are you committing dramaturgical faux pas that would get you pilloried even in your most basic undergraduate writing workshop?

10) Why was “Detroit” a finalist for the Pulitzer?

 

Open Call for Submissions: Chuck Norris

It occurs to me that I recently referenced Total Gym without crediting Chuck Norris.  I’d like to announce an open call for Chuck Norris jokes.  Send 3-5 original, unpublished Chuck Norris jokes to:

bgoldberg.chucknorris@gmail.com

Please send only your best Chuck Norris jokes.  We look forward to reading!

 
                    -We live or die according to the will of the gods.  The gods
                      live or die according to the will of Chuck Norris.
 
 

Sleep, please.

You know you need sleep when you overhear snippets of a Brazil Butt Lift infomercial and wonder how you can work them into a poem.  Leandro Carvalho may very well be the “Butt Master” insofar as he “knows everything about your butt,” but I’m not sure my poems are ready for him as a subject quite yet.   Total Gym is more in keeping with my aesthetic, I think.