This is not my first year of teaching high school English, but it is my first year teaching at one of Portland, Oregon’s lowest-achieving high schools. There is much to say about my students’ backgrounds that might explain their sub-standard reading and writing: they come from a variety of places, including the mountains of Southeast Asia, refugee camps in Africa, former Soviet republics, Pacific Islands, etc; the neighborhood culture is, in general, one of generational poverty, which means that many students lack good role models and education-minded guardians at home (or they transfer to other schools in the district, as more than half of the neighborhood’s students have done based on their No Child Left Behind right to attend successful schools); a lack of steady educational funding and organizational constitution has created tremendous instability in this particular school in recent years; and this list of could go on forever.
But I’m not writing to regale you about the challenges of public education in North Portland. What I’m interested in today is how writers think about and cash in on unintended slips in language. For example, my ninth grade students recently wrote essays about a novel in which a character wakes up from a coma. In every third paper, however, I found this character waking up from a “comma,” and immediately wondered if I myself could capitalize on their typo by using it in a poem. This reminded me of hearing Matthew Zapruder talk to a gathering of graduate poetry students last year (myself among them) about his process in writing one of his books.
First, Zapruder told us, he had the romantic notion to write the whole thing on a typewriter. Second, he told us that when he made an error, he let the typo remain in place of the consciously intended word, with the rationale that typos plumb the depths of our consciousness and contemporary word processing suppresses or erases evidence of our subconscious language about the world. Zapruder seemed to feel that his typos weren’t missteps, but expressed what he perhaps truly, if only deep within, was trying to say.
Clearly, this is not what was happening in my students’ papers. The fact is, bless their hearts, some of them do not appear to know that “coma” and “comma” are different words. This suggests that Zapruder’s approach could, in the wrong hands, lead to automatic writing—which of course points to the experiments of Gertrude Stein and a whole host of early 20th Century ideas about the structures of our minds, identities, the occult, and language. I’m dubious about this as a process for writing good poetry, despite the scant mathematical possibility of a hypothetical monkey, given enough time and a typewriter, randomly recreating the works of William Shakespeare, and/or all of the “Chicken Soup for the [insert your typo here] Soul” books, and/or Matthew Zapruder’s poems (which I admire), and so on.
Yet this approach to writing also reminds me of the classical notion of divine-inspired artistry. In a more positive light, Zapruder’s method invites a muse, disguised as Accident, to write his poems. Per my own romantic leanings, I’m far more willing to accept this as an approach to making poetry. The poet, in this schema, is conscious of his or her agency as a conduit for divine creation. Mebdh McGuckian’s wonderful poetry springs to my mind here, as I long ago heard her use the word “vatic” to describe her process. Yet in this same discussion McGuckian was quick to mention that she remains highly conscious about words and their apt usage—she asserted that you only get to use some words once, and then never again. The word “fontanelle” was the example she gave as one that she never will be able to use twice, even if her subconscious or muse might will it. One’s ability thus to revise, to assert his or her consciousness on the muse’s inspiration, is required. The Ancient Greeks themselves were well aware that some people were better “conduits” for poetry than others.
Lastly, as a final thought on accident and inspiration, my students’ coma/comma confusion also reminded me of a poem by Stephen Dunn. “His Town,” which appears in Different Hours (which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), bears the epigraph: “The town was in the mists of chaos. –A student’s typo,” and the first stanza reads:
He wasn’t surprised. What town wasn’t?
Everywhere the mists of property, the mists
of language. Every Main Street he’d known
shrouded in itself. The mist-filled churches
and the mist-filled stores in strange collusion.
For Dunn, accident is supple—a point of possible redirection from we expected or intended to go. In his student’s error he finds not a rueful mistake but a useful “mist.” And perhaps this is a clue about how to think about accident and inspiration. When lucky, our mistakes may become mists. We may credit the divine or the murky depths of ourselves for such slips, or we can acknowledge the great mistiness of where everything comes from, including our mistakes. For in the end, concern for from whence the products of our lives spring might amount to a bit of pedantic frippery—psychology, spirituality, whatever. Yet somewhere, someone will always be waking from or slipping into a “comma,” including the best educated, the most grammatically and syntactically refined of us. We should remember to thank our proverbial gods for this.