I tell myself it always comes to this. The moment in research or writing when you feel like it can’t be done. That’s where I am. It’s that moment when the voice in my head says, What were you thinking? It happens every time. I’ve learned that the best thing to do is say hello to that voice, welcome it, invite it in for a few minutes. If I argue with it, Uncertainty gets louder. If I offer it a chair, it quiets and relaxes into nothingness.
This morning, after getting up so early for a rooftop yoga class, after a walk along the beach, I say hello to Uncertainty. Maybe you’re right, I say. Maybe this is impossible. Have a seat. I’ll take care of you as long as you need to stay. You’re welcome here. Now relax, I say, hoping Uncertainty makes no note of my impatience, my desire for it shut up.
When I applied for the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, I wanted to learn about contemporary Indian poetry, to gather new poems to share with my students, to travel in India, to meet poets, to spend time talking about poems and everything they bring up.
That all has happened.
In Pondicherry, teachers have opened their classrooms to me. The teacher’s college with whom I’m affiliated introduced me to aspiring teachers of literature, helped me make contacts, and allowed me observe their classes. Professors agreed to meet with me, introduced me to their friends, offered me stacks of books to support my research.
In Chennai, I felt inspired by discussions at the Hindu Lit for Life Conference. I heard powerful readings. Writers arranged email introductions to other writers, my reading list expanded.
In Bangalore, Minal Hajratwala and Ellen Kombiyil, two of the founding members the Great Indian Poetry Collective spent time talking about poetry publishing in India. I had the pleasure of visiting a workshop they led and hearing both of them read. My reading list expanded again.
In Jaipur, at the Fulbright Southeast Asia Conference, I met scholars from all over Southeast Asia. I found more poets to read (not contemporary) and learned about Indian history, art, and culture. I also met poets on Fulbrights who have traveled working on translations with other poets.
In New Delhi, Aditi Rao’s work with Tasawwur and Michael Creighton’s work with Deepalaya Community Library Project inspired me to think about what additional support teens in my Alaska community could use around writing, reading, and peace-building. Jeet Thayil, editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets and 60 Indian Poets spent a few hours in the afternoon talking about editing the anthology and how I might go about introducing the poems to teachers.
Online, Indian poets, doctoral students and journalists have reached out or replied to my questions. I’m still hoping to visit poets in Chennai and visit an NGO in Madurai. I’m still considering in cramming in a trip to Mumbai. I have six weeks left to do all that. And finish reading all the books of poetry I’ve collected (while my reading list continues to expand). And write lessons that will be useful to teachers in India and teachers outside India.
It’s a lot to do, and there are some fundamental differences between the Indian educational system and the US educational system that make it difficult to draft lessons that would work for both systems.
1. Indian curriculum is centralized, so Indian teachers don’t have flexibility. I knew that before I came, but I didn’t recognize the full impact it has on individual classrooms. For my lessons to be helpful to Indian teachers, I need to consider creating some lessons to supplement the textbooks. I wasn’t initially planning on that. Teachers in the US, have more freedom around teaching poems. Not because the US system values poems (don’t delude yourself–as of recent national mandates, 75% of a student’s assigned reading has to be nonfiction, much of it “career readiness” related), but because the US system does not value poetry. Poetry is a curricular afterthought, listed as “poems chosen at the teacher’s discretion” or “and poems.” Poetry in the US is not treated as part of the canon. Yes, all 9th graders will read To Kill a Mockingbird, but there is no poem considered important enough to be listed by title in the curriculum. If I offer poetry lessons to a US teacher, they might be willing to use them because no one cares too much which poems they teach. In India, the poems in the book are the ones teachers have to address in class.
2. The function of poetry in the Indian classroom is fundamentally different than the function of poetry in the US classroom. In India, poems and recitation go hand-in-hand. Poetry is a way for students learn and practice English and English pronunciation. In the US, the focus is analysis, close reading, and critical thinking. In foreign language classrooms (all too rare in the US), declamation competitions use poetry for public speaking and recitation, and during my career, the NEA and the Poetry Foundation started Poetry Out Loud to encourage a revival of poetry recitation. Both recitation and analysis are important, yes, but it’s a challenge to write lessons that encourage both at the same time. It’s especially difficult to write said lessons for overworked English teachers who may or may not have any say at all over which poems they have to teach in their classrooms.
3. Contemporary poets can be tricky. By tricky, I mean they write about the realities of everyday life in the present. That often involves sex, drugs, politics, and profanity. Not that poets are alone in this. We live complicated lives, but the high school canon likes to pretend life is less complicated. That’s one reason often stops at the “Fuck you” on the wall in The Catcher in the Rye. Judging from the books presented to teens in the United States, it seems as if novels stopped being written 1951. (ASIDE: Someone’s going to argue: but Shakespeare has all those things! The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet for example. Yes, but few ninth graders get it without tremendous efforts to explain vocabulary, culture, and staging.)
4. Teachers don’t always have the background knowledge to find appropriate poems or the freedom and confidence to try a lesson of their own design. First, a teacher has to have an extremely broad knowledge of poetry to choose contemporary poems that would work in their classroom. In countries where contemporary poetry lacks a readership, it’s hard to find a teacher with that kind of background knowledge. In fact in the US, many English teachers I’ve spoken to will say outright they “don’t get poetry.” In India, I’ve observed an enthusiasm for poetry among teachers that seems absent in the US. Indian teachers are more likely to tell me they love poems. They can even recite poems, but those poems often are Shakespearean sonnets or Robert Frost. Second, a teacher has to have the freedom (which curriculum doesn’t allow) and confidence (which can be affected by administrative support) to try a new poem and design a lesson. In American education, teachers are not treated as incubators of effective classroom practice. Curriculum gets handed over to edu-corp entrepreneurs at the expense of teachers’ ability to adjust meet the individual needs of the populations they serve. In In India, teachers have to follow the book at all costs, and test scores determine whether a student gets a seat, so there’s no time for experimenting with methodology.
5. What was I thinking anyway? Choosing poems to feature in lessons is a big job, bigger than I imagined. My project cannot be all-encompassing. I knew that going in, but India has so many languages, so many cultures, so many poets, that choosing a few feels too small. That’s not even considering translation. I’m working to trust my instincts, but it’s difficult when the first part involves learning about Indian culture as well as poetry.
So what do I do? I have tasked myself with writing (and making freely available) a series of lessons featuring Indian poets writing in English. I have to be finished by April 30th. I guess I’ll just do it. Like I do every day that I’m in the classroom with teenagers. When I told a friend my concerns this morning, she replied, “Sometimes we call that ‘the middle.’ It’s good actually, it means you understand the task in its complexity now.”
So Uncertainty, let me introduce you to The Task. Perhaps you two can talk amongst yourselves while I try to get something done.