My Little Film Education

The other day I pulled out a leather bound journal of about forty film ticket stubs from my time out in Seattle, in another life when I was working in marketing for a tech start-up.  One of the requirements was that I “had” to live in Seattle for the first four months or so–not a bad way to usher in the millennium, I must say, since I flew from NYC around November 1999 and left around February 2000.  The company put me up in a condo for that time and gave me a car, so most of my nights were spent around the city, watching films in art houses.  From the looks of my journal, with all the movie stubs taped in it, I averaged about a film every two days.  At the time there were still a lot of small cinemas, houses almost, and I was usually by myself in them watching French movies.

I have been lucky in that I have lived in four of the bigger major cities for extended periods:

NYC–1998-2013 (lived in the tony suburb of Greenwich, CT, and worked in Manhattan)

Seattle–1999-2000 (still resided in CT but worked remotely)

Los Angeles–1994-97 (worked for E!, Back Stage West and garnered my first literary agent at ICM)

Houston–1992-94 (did my MFA in Fiction/Playwriting here)

In all of these places, film has been a big part of my life.  I was the Director of Programming of the Greenwich Film Festival from 2003-05 and directed “The Development,” which I also wrote.  But I attribute my film education to something more than running the festival or even going to movies in big cities:  libraries.  At the Greenwich Library I caught up on hundreds of French, spy and Western films, and now that I’m in Asheville, I find gems at the college library where I teach.  I’ve never been a subscriber to any DVD company.  I don’t need to have anything like this because I find so many movies without them.  Lately, I will go to Orbit in West Asheville for an occasional month-long subscription, and I love the Fine Arts Theatre in town where I just saw Miles Ahead.

At one point I think I saw 500 plus films a year, then I stopped going for about a year.  Not sure why but I remember going on a reading binge–or being fed up with the lack of quality cinema.  I had even taught screenwriting/film production at SUNY-Purchase where I was a creative writing professor for three years.  This past summer I studied Calvino and in The Road to San Giovanni, he talks about the miracle of film and how it was such a part of his life.

Film is a bit of a disappearing act for a reclusive like me.  If I catch an indie at Fine Arts for a Friday matinee before all the rude, tourist talkers populate the audience, I can sit in the very front row, not see any texting and vanish.  Sometimes when I leave, it’s raining.  I’m lucky to live in a city where I can walk home from the movies.  All these movies and cities in my mind.  I wonder how big the mental reel could ever become.


Running Up a Dream

I have been running off and on since college at Davidson where I would wake up early and run with my friend Dave around the nature trails.  Given that I’m 180 pounds and chest-heavy, I don’t really have a runner’s body, per se, and as I get older I’ve made running only a spring and summer pursuit.  I love Murakami’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Running, and even reviewed for my book column, “Page Turners,” in Act Two Magazine.  I am more of a trail runner and also did a piece on the Smith Mountain Lake nature trails for Laker Magazine in Moneta, VA, back in 2011.  Today, I had my first run of the pre-summer with my new Mizuno shoes, and now that I live in the downtown area of Asheville, North Carolina, I am able to circle around the city and explore the various purlieus, something I truly love.  I was out on a horse farm in Swannanoa for a couple of years and found the running there to be perfect, once seeing a turkeys cross the road followed by a peacock, and one time meeting a bear face to face on a morning run.  In summer 2014 I was back in Santa Fe where I did a triathlon at Lake Cochiti in 1993 and I ran a lot of the rail trails.  Then I put my running shoes away as the weather chills and the asphalt hardens.  But being in town I decided to try some city running for a change.  This morning, I did a loop down Biltmore Avenue, left at Orange Peel on Hilliard then left on French Broad weaving back to McDowell.  One of my favorite college students happened to drive by and gave me a shout-out.  The city is surrounded by blue mountains and I finished it well, this inaugural run.  I’ll probably go to early September, hitting the trails at Bent Creek as much as possible.  I’ll be up on the Smith Mountain Lake state park trails next week for about ten days as well.  Running is painful at times, my approaching-50 body often saying no, but once the body adapts (and the balls of the feet), suddenly the city opens an turns into a running dream.

Teaching College and Graduate Poetry

I have had the luxury of teaching poetry at many levels from a ritzy prep school in Connecticut to community colleges to state universities to graduate school, and each time I grapple with this balance between feeling and form.  On the one hand you want your students to appreciate the sonnet, which means “little song,” or the troubadour-acme sestina, but if you focus too much on form, they never understand the feeling aspect of poetry.  “Feeling is first,” says cummings, although how do you teach this?  It’s close to impossible, but you can start by locating in the personal.  During my discussions of iambic pentameter or, for that matter, trochaic trimeter, I look out to see the glazed looks of boredom.  Meter simply means “measure” in Greek, but this has too much of a mathematical connotation, counting syllables and so on.  The other day, when teaching poetry in a couple of my college classes, I reflected on whether or not it was good to teach forms at all.  I asked my students to think of a moment in a city.  In another prompt they had to focus on one attribute of a person, some detail that connected them to the body.  Some also wrote of a private place, a sanctuary.  What emerged was a collection of poems that reflected a personal sincerity.  The word poetry has simple origins in that it just making something, building something with words.  Feeling, in other words, can’t be taught, but it can be educed.  Forcing forms on students is probably not the best way to get there.  To elicit the best feeling, the teacher simply has to be reminder that the feeling is there.  And the simplest language can often convey it better than abstruse wording.  I just finished up a master’s in poetry, my fourth graduate degree.  I had written a bit of poetry during my MFA at the University of Houston after studying with Pulitzer-winner Richard Howard and the wonderful Adam Zagajewski.  That was 1992-94 when poetry was something I had to do for my degree.  From 2011-2016, though, as I worked on this MLitt at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf, I think what I found in poetry was a final locus of poetry, set aside from the ego of form.  Everything has a form; however, using form to obfuscate feeling makes for some very dry poetry indeed.

My Jazz Education

Back in January of 2002 I started taking trumpet lessons from trombonist David Gibson.  At the time I was living in Greenwich, Connecticut, and could walk up the street to Greenwich Music.   It was shortly after the 9/11 attacks and I felt that I had always wanted to play the trumpet, the instrument for me.  Gibson would take the train up from the city and give lessons.  I had been thrown into music playing harmonicas at Sundown Saloon with Artie Tobia and Mark Barden, something I ended up doing for about fourteen years with them.  I performed often with bands in New York City and Connecticut, singing and bending notes, but it was in those thirty minute sessions with Gibson that I moved ahead musically, developing what my teacher called “the confidence in consistency.”  I went on to play second trumpet in my church, then I retreated from it for a while, only to pick it back up again on my own terms, playing privately with an occasional guest appearance at a speakeasy bar in Asheville.

Over the years I saw most of the famous jazz musicians in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as out in Seattle.  I even met a number of them personally, Wynton playing trumpet in a book store, Ron Carter buying me and my friend a drink at Jazz Standard, Henry Threadgill who just won the Pulitzer.  Jazz has shaped the background of my writing life, filling it with a metallic ambiance for three decades.  I play a little trumpet every day, sometimes hymns, sometimes “Stormy Weather.”  I’m obsessed with “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and Clifford Brown’s heartrending version of it that gives my body chills every time I hear it.

I think when you commit to anything, be it a sports team or an instrument, you find that it becomes a staircased part of you wherein you walk up a step only to stay on that step for a long time, especially with musical growth.  But you are always walking upward with music, even if you move slowly as you learn.  The trumpet really is a symbol of my love of jazz.  Rarely do I perform anymore.  I don’t need to.  Learning the instrument exactly right is the only thing that matters.

Teaching College Writing in a Zero-Attention-Span World

Over the past twenty-four years or so, I have taught at two community colleges, two state universities and one graduate school in Texas, New York and North Carolina.  When I started out, the act of researching was a simple one with MLA formatting being limited to print sources.  Nowadays, I am amazed by the multiplicity of sources, print and online, that my students have to navigate.

The classroom itself started to change, for me at least, around 2006 when the ubiquity of cell phones began to create new noises.  Along with nervous pen-clicking, I now had to contend with text beeps, ringing phones and the concomitant lack of attention and manners.  However, I wonder if my students nowadays aren’t doing a lot more work than I ever did.

Getting students to simply come to class and sit in their seats, prepared with the weekly reading, is close to impossible these days.  It is an irony that the more availability we have to literature, more than ever, the less reading is actually done.

Another issue I see when I push freshman writing on my students is that while I hammer home the avoidance of the run-on sentence, fragment and dangling modifier in essays, there are countless creative books of fiction that use the comma splice and fused sentence ad nauseum.  On the one hand, there is the college essay designed around rhetoric.  But meanwhile, on the other hand, award-winning books of fiction break grammar rules all the time, as if morphology didn’t exist for them at all.

Even in my own writing and this new novel I’m struggling with, Too Late to The City, I find myself using the very “wrong” types of writing I preach about in four courses a semester.  It makes a teacher feel fraudulent, n’est-ce pas?  I say, Rise up against grammar!  We need more battlers against the run-on sentence.  Use the fragment.  There, I just used one!  What the hell’s a dangling modifier anyway?!