There are few things I love more than reading Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” with a composition class. I choose to focus on this poem (both as the class’s first interaction with Stein and as the topic of this post) because I think the repetition is irresistible and always suspect that when meeting Stein’s “Picasso” students might finally see writing as “play” instead of required task. In “The Difficulties of Gertrude Stein,” Joan Retallack reminds us that “there’s an intense need for play when one is in a particularly untenable situation like adulthood” (159). And, what situation seems more untenable in the moment as being a burgeoning adult in a required class that makes you write?
Once absorbed in a text that circles in and out of itself, I think students see that even written language has the potential for change and to change. And, in thinking about Stein’s repetition alongside their own processes of writing and rewriting and revising, students realize that no text needs to be permanent. As Stein writes in “Composition and Explanation,” “the composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living” (Selections 218). Similarly, Sondra Perl links the writing process to time and movement in “Understanding Composing.” Perl writes, “writing is a recursive process, that throughout the process of writing, writers return to substrands of the overall process…In other words, recursiveness in writing implies that there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action.”
In Chapter One of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire writes, “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated” (47). For me, the key term in this passage is “reflective participation.” Students cannot simply be told that they must write; they must find their own composing process through “reflective participation.” Students need to ask themselves, “what are the words you do not yet have?” (Sister Outsider 41) and then write their way to an answer.
Most semesters, I offer the class a final paper where the assignment is to “find a poem that you LOVE and then create both a research paper and ‘digital essay’ that represent the questions and ideas the poem urges you to explore.” I offer the students a number of different links to sites where they can read a lot of different kinds of poetry (poets.org, The Poetry Foundation, PennSound, and others), along with a wide variety of discrete poems that we investigate in class. But, most students choose not to work with a poem that was “assigned,” which means that each semester I find myself wondering how they found the poems they chose to work with.
Lately I’ve been particularly interested in researching and reading about the history of CUNY and the role of poets and writers within that history. By this, I mean the history of Basic Writing and SEEK (at CCNY) and the poet-activists that taught in the early days of these programs. As Adrienne Rich writes in “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” “At that time [the late 1960’s] a number of writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, the late Paul Blackburn, Robert Cumming, David Henderson, June Jordan, were being hired to teach writing in the SEEK Program…” (55). The SEEK Program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) was chaired by Mina Shaughnessy in this time period, an administrator and teacher known for her work in Basic Writing and her support of Open Admissions at CUNY. Rich describes Shaughnessy as knowing "that education was not only a means of access to power, but a form of power in itself: the power of expression, of language."
This link between language and power is perhaps nothing new, but what really strikes me here is context — the context that this conversation is happening in a “remedial” class and the body at the front of the room is authoring texts that might not conform to the myriad of “rules” one assumes are part and parcel of this particular classroom.