Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Unexpected Challenge

Two language conversation classes today-- in the French group, I am a participant; in the English one, I function as une animatrice. So there are six of us in the French group and four in the English group, all coming together to practice speaking what is for us a second language. Except that all the people in the French group speak French at approximately the same level and we have little difficulty, despite our various accents, in understanding one another. (The facilitators surmised that we had all attained at least the Intermediate level.)

The English group was another matter entirely. This was the very first session--an experimental class scheduled from now until Christmas. One of the other animators was not able to make it in today and the second "teacher" was 15 minutes late. That left me "in charge". I don't know what I was expecting, but it was certainly not this. The course was set up (and advertised) as a "Conversation" Course, the assumption being that participants could already speak English, however haltingly, and had signed up to "practice" and/or expand on an already established level of proficiency. What I found, to my great surprise, was that three of the four particiants spoke no English at all.

I was, of course, totally unprepared for this. I started by attempting to get them to associate words with actions, speaking slowly and pointing to objects so that they could identify the word with the object. ("Give me the cup" ... "What color is the cup?" ... "Give me the glove" ... What color is the glove?", etc.) Two of them knew the names for colors in English but the other two stared, uncomprending, with a blank expression, one of them reverting back to French when responding to a question. I ended up sometimes prefacing a remark with its French equivalent, which if this were a total language emersion course, would defeat the purpose.

Afterwards, one of the participants suggested that for next time we should get everyone to read a paragraph out loud in English so they could learn better pronounciation. Another suggested maybe we could do a role-play for everyday situations (like going to the supermarket or making an appointment by telephone). But you need some basic vocabulary to do this and at least a rudimentary knowledge of a few verbs.

Oh boy, what a challenge! The task of "facilitating in a conversation group" has suddenly evolved into now trying to teach a small group of adults a completely new language, starting from scratch.

Where do I begin?!!!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Destroying the Buddhas

"The world watched in horror when Taliban forces destroyed the monumental Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001. "
[Click on picture to the right for animation] -->

It's happened again ... more ancient Buddhas destroyed, this time in northwest Pakistan’s Swat valley, where "armed Islamist militants attacked one of the oldest and most important sculptures of Buddhist art. Dating from around the beginning of the Christian era, and carved into a 130-foot-high rock, the seated image of the Buddha was second in importance in South Asia only to the Bamiyan Buddhas." Pakistan: Daily Times, Nov. 5, 2007

The world watches in horror as the carnage continues in the ravages of today's many wars. Which is the more difficult to know: That a beloved, centuries-old icon has been viciously, intentionally obliterated ... or that innocent children continue to be slaughtered in the battles for turf or oil or revenge? We cry for the destroyed Buddhas, we mourn the dead civilians ... but maybe our grief is also because of the truly unconscious, those who continue to shatter the peace, who "flail in rage", and "make holes in the light".

Lament for the Bamiyan Buddhas -- Stephen Sartarelli

Cry not for me, love,
my nothingness
knows nothing
feels nothing
but the breath of earth
unchanging on my changing form

Cry not for the grace
so rare, the visage
almost faceless in the air
of ages rapt in the beauty
of my house of sky

Cry not for that, no,
not for any loving thing
whose placid gaze
would love you only
as you love yourself,

nor for any thing beloved,
no thing to which
you speak your heart,
no holy conduit
of your deepest own serenity,

cry not for that--

our waters rush
as we would lose ourselves
in our own losing
all the same.

Cry only for the man
who would shatter the mirror
of what he might have been,
that dream of manhood
so much more godly
than my memory
of eyes and bones

Cry for the man
who would think he could be
as the tremor that brought down
the stone and lapis skies
of the house of Saint Francis

Cry for him
who would try to breach
the wall of your peace,
make holes in the light

Cry for him
who like a fool
would flail in rage
to make a nothing
of our precious nothing

But cry not for me

(March 2001)
From: Poetry and New Materialities: Volume II (Dickinson Electronic Archives)

Stephen Sartarelli is a poet and also a translator.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Fine Art of Reaching Readers

The mail just arrived and with it the Nov/Dec issue of Poets & Writers, which reminds me I've missed yet another deadline for submissions. I open the magazine and these words jump out at me: "I get discouraged by the near invisibility of poetry in mainstream culture."[1]

Various projects have been attempted periodically to bring poetry to the masses but I think it's kind of like with music--not everyone's "into" opera, for example. "I don't understand it" (re: poetry); "It just doesn't DO anything for me" (re: opera). Maybe it gets flat out rejected based on a gut reaction to something that seems too radically different from one's usual tastes in sound or reading.

Last night I watched a segment on the life of my favorite cellist and how he tried to bridge the gap between cultures and musical tastes in an effort to share this magnificence with people who might otherwise never be exposed to it. That's what I think some writers aspire to do in their fiction and poetry, and it's harder than it looks. How can you make your writing more widely understood and universally appreciated, without losing its inner integrity?

Look at what contemporary TV news programs try to do to get more viewers: their female anchors look like polished mannikins and the focus seems more to be to Entertain than to inform; celebrity court trials and crime stories are the footage most offered and replayed ad infinitum, while significant world events sometimes barely rate a mention. God forbid that the viewer could get bored, lose interest. I think this says more about the audience than the news station. Fast forward to the publishing world. The bottom line is: "Will it sell?" And for the buyer: "What's a good read?" I think the question for writers, however, should not be "How can I reach you?" but "How can I get you to hear what I hear, see what I see?"

That sounds so egotistical, but why then do we write at all? To play the stories out like a film and hope readers stay for the finish, that they "get" something out of the experience, maybe even consider the book a "keeper." So this is the dilemma I'm experiencing in my writing lately ... any number of interesting "stories" are circling my brain crying to be told (the characters nag at me relentlessly!)--but why would anyone necessarily want to read these particular stories? How can I write words that will resonate immediately, in which a reader will recognize something that touches some deeper part of them, where they begin to understand, where the fragmentary blotches of the world begin to make sense.

That is not to say the focus has got to be mainly on "entertaining." I mean, that shouldn't be the only thing the reader comes away remembering, even if it's primarily a humorous book. At the moment, the 'darker' book is holding sway: Leave the funny children's story for the time being--you need to get the brothers' story out, one of the characters scolds. Ah, the two tortured souls of my greatest challenge in storywriting: the story of the brothers Karl and Peter. The characters, of course, are just the unborn fictional elements of my imagination and the voice is my own; regardless, the message is the same: Stay on focus. Do the more important one first. Leave the 'lighter' one till later.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Tales of the Origin of Things


A long time ago the loon was a land bird. He was a great nuisance to the Indians, for he was always around, in and out of their wigwams, tumbling over their baskets, upsetting their firewood. The Indians shouted at him and threw things at him. Still he came poking around their wigwams, until one day he upset an old Indian's pot of beans.

The Indian grabbed him. "Now I'm going to throw you in the fire, or I'm going to throw you in the water." Loon squirmed and tugged to get away. "Don't throw me in the water. Don't throw me in the water," he begged. "Throw me in the fire, but don't throw me in the water."

"If that's what you don't want, that's what I'll do. I'll throw you in the water."

The old Indian threw him in his canoe and paddled out into the deep water and tossed him over the canoe. Loon went off laughing, the wild laugh that he has laughed ever since at the Indians when he remembers the old Micmac that threw him in the water. "Just what I wanted, just what I wanted."

From: RED EARTH: Tales of the Micmacs. With an introduction to the customs and beliefs of the Micmac Indians, by Marion Robertson. The Nova Scotia Museum: Halifax, N.S., 1969, p. 42. (Reprinted 1977)

(I came across the above delightful little book in a local thrift shop, at the remarkably low price of 10 cents. These early inhabitants of our continent called the sun "Nicscaminou, the Very Great".)

Listen to the loon:

The wail is most frequently given in the evening or at night, and can be heard for many miles. This haunting call is not an alarm call but is used to keep in contact with other loons on the same lake and surrounding lakes.
Click to listen.

The yodel is only made by male loons. This call is used to advertise and defend their territory, especially during incubation and early chick-rearing. If you are watching loons and they make this call or a remolo, it usually means that you are too close and are disturbing the loons. If that happens, you should leave their territory and give them their space. Click to
listen. [1]