Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shane Neilson Presents

Dan is away for a short while, and he asked me to fill in for Biblioasis goodness with a little post. Here's what happens when one's offspring tells their teacher that one is a poet. The book in question is called Exterminate My Heart, and was published with Frog Hollow Press in 2008.

Yesterday was my first classroom visit, although in absentia. My daughter confessed the most compromising thing possible to her teacher: that her father was a poet, and that he had published books. In reaction to the ubiquitous tyranny of the screen, the elementary schools are doing their best to encourage the reading of actual books, and the tykes have their own book clubs where they discuss the merits of each tome and, if the book has been judged the bestest ever, the kiddies compose letters to their favourite author explaining their delectable joys and favourite scenes. So it was natural, then, that my daughter would bring me up.

The teacher initially tried to use my daughter as her agent, getting her to mention that “the class” would like to see my book. I resisted. It is a very strange but frequent reaction: I am vulnerable to the charge that my poems are confessional, and bristle at that charge at the same time, for all poems are in some way a revelation of private thought and emotion. But it is true there is the dramatization of private quandary, and I have that feeling of being caught naked at the prospect of someone reading or hearing a poem of mine. Then there is the more practical part of the reaction: the book in question is unsuitable for children in terms of content, there is sex and suicide and I can imagine if the book were ever found in the classroom by the wrong kind of parent I would be labelled a pervert and face local ignominy. So I left my daughter to be crestfallen, and I failed her yet again by failing to redeem her interest.

Luckily, my wife volunteers at the school, she helps the teacher out –ironically- during the class’s computer sessions, and the teacher raised the point again, finishing her pitch with “It would be great if the kids saw that it is possible to write a book, that someone they know has done it, and that they could do it too.” My wife came home to me and recounted this conversation, and the old reaction welled up: No, I don’t want to be seen, I don’t want to be known. I suppose if I weren’t so compromising in these poems, some of which capture me truly in moments of abject failure, I wouldn’t be so perversely and fiercely proud of them. It’s not that I think of them as inadequate as poems; it’s that I fear the inadequacy of their maker. But I thought about the teacher’s objective, to get these kids thinking about writing as something they could do, and I looked through my book, the first section of which is all about my daughter, and I marked off ten poems that would be appropriate for reading to the class, poems essentially about joy and mystery. Thus there was an additional hook: the poems were written not only by someone the children knew, their classmate’s father, the poems were about someone they knew.

I was asked to come in, I was asked to read to the kids, I was asked to take their questions. I declined because the poems are, in terms of the language, far beyond their comprehension. I didn’t want to represent poetry to them as opaque, as ungraspable. What I wanted was the opportunity for my daughter to read the poem about her second birthday, a poem that rejoices in her mobility, her energy, her seekingness, and though it might not be fully understood, the main message is impossible not to apprehend: that she is loved.

My daughter got to read that poem, and a few others, and I imagine the classroom eyes, glazed over, and my daughter at the front of the class, enumerating my love, and the poems doing what the poems should do, representing poetry itself. I suppose I missed out. I asked her later how she felt reading the poems. She told me that “the words were hard” but that the teacher really seemed to like them. Apparently her classmates were silent. This was a marked difference from the last thing she brought to school, her kitten, who was petted by everyone in the room.

In moments like these it is natural to forecast the future, to wonder what our children will be. There are a few moments in my own history that sealed my destiny as a writer, and I wonder if this will be one of them for her, if she will look back thirty years from now and remember reading a poem about her to her schoolmates and feeling not chosen but somehow that inevitability to inform on herself, to offer up all she has. I am a physician, and the training was gruelling, and though I would be proud if she grew up to choose medicine, I would not wish it on her. But if writing chooses her, I will feel that my own gruelling mortifications thus far have paid a dividend far greater than my own poetry.


Michael Bryson said...

Shane - This was lovely. Through and through.

Marinela said...

Great article Shane :)
Thanks for sharing :)

Nyla said...

Enjoyed reading this, as I just had a conversation with another writer tonight and we both wondered about sharing our work with family members. We agreed it was "riskier" with poetry than with fiction--more private thoughts revealed, e.g., my mother doesn't know I think this way....and the poem says it all!
You can hide more comfortably behind fiction...
Thanks for this illuminating parents' point of view!

Michael Bryson said...

Hide more comfortably behind fiction? Hmmm. Interesting thought. Surely literature isn't for hiding behind. Does it imply that fiction is for the more timid amongst us? Not sure what this means....