“I can’t be a pessimist,” James Baldwin said, “because I am alive.”
Whenever I’m told to go after “low-hanging fruit,” I think of drawing a cartoon with two characters standing over a tombstone.
“He picked the low-hanging fruit,” one says.
“Yeah,” says the other. “But he never climbed the tree.”
“Every time we have built new eyes to observe the universe, our understanding of ourselves and our place in it has been forever altered.”
—Lawrence M. Krauss
I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself… It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can… The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten… I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained…
This is the way I’ve always tried to approach writing, teaching, or speaking on stage: not as an expert, but as a fellow student. I’m trying to learn in the open. I’m letting others look over my shoulder while I figure things out.
And even when I do think I’ve figured some things out, I’m trying to find more things to figure out, because learning is the thing that keeps me alive, keeps me moving forward.
This, I think, is the great trick: To be a teacher and remain a student.
Where was this one when I needed it?
In some ways, I’m probably the worst person to teach blackout poetry. I’ve done it for so long, I don’t even really think about it any more. Making art and teaching art are two different skill sets, and a quick Google search for “blackout poetry lesson plans” shows that there’s a small army of English teachers already doing it better than me, anyways.
That’s not to say I don’t like teaching, it’s just that I’m never sure I’m any good at it.
I’ve done some workshops with a lot of instruction and timed activities, but those always seem just a little bit off. So, this weekend at the Texas Teen Book Festival, I found myself in an auditorium full of teens, and the festival folks had already set out newspaper and markers in front of them, so I just thought, “You know what? Forget it. I’m going to give them as little instruction as possible, and we’ll just see what happens.”
I told the story of how I started blacking out, showed a timelapse video of how I make one, read a few, then told them they should just go for it. I spoke for another 10 minutes, showed some more examples, then I asked if anybody wanted to read theirs.
This is always the moment where I kind of hold my breath and think, “Uh oh. This is gonna be bad if nobody reads.”
But these teens! They started lining up at the microphone. And they read their poems like it was nothing. And they were great. And they would’ve kept lining up and reading if we didn’t run out of time.
It’s easy for an old fart like me to get jaded about everything, especially my work. Doing that workshop was a jolt of energy. It reminded me of Patti Smith, quoted in the book Please Kill Me:
Through performance, I reach such states, in which my brain feels so open… if I can develop a communication with an audience, a bunch of people, when my brain is that big and receptive, imagine the energy and intelligence and all the things I can steal from them.
I stole a lot from everybody in that room. So thanks, y’all!