Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay

 

Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, Screenshot 2018-04-09 08.26.52and author of The Weight of Shadows visited us at the University of Missouri last September.

The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.

He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.” As I understand it, the wall provides the impetus for Orduña’s research, and likely also guides his aesthetics.

“The occasion to write” is a useful concept for writers and students of writing. It is also useful for readers. The concept thus helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one major goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another major goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.

Ekphrasis: Ancient to Contemporary

  1. What’s ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis, from the Greek, combines ek and phrásis (literally “out” and “speak”) into a verb for “proclaiming” or “calling an inanimate object by name.” At its simplest, any work of art that is “about” or enmeshed in another work of art (usually of another medium) can be understood as participating in the ekphrastic tradition.

I insist—in this post, as in life—that we be as expansive as possible in our thinking about what constitutes art. Example: ekphrastic writing may dialogue with a rock opera, a painting, a violin concerto, a capoeira performance, a piece of jewelry, a digital mashup… The real key is that ekphrastic writing is crucially more than description. It is also distinct from art history or criticism. Ekphrasis engages another artwork to enter into creative communion with it; ekphrastic writing is writing that thinks alongside art.

  1. Why teach ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay?

Ekphrastic approaches are flourishing in the contemporary essay. Off the top of my head, here is an incomplete list of 21st century books of ekphrastic nonfiction:

Visual artworks are central to the project:

  • Terry Tempest Williams, Leap (2000)
  • Michael White, Travels in Vermeer (2015)
  • Jericho Parms, Lost Wax (2016)
  • Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001)

Dialogues with visual artworks less centrally, but significantly and recurrently:

  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
  • José Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016)

Dialogues with nonvisual artworks (namely music):

  • Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire (2015)
  • Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (2016)
  • Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat (2012)
  • Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991—okay, not the 21st century, but a favorite)

On to the practical application portion of this post.

The Lesson Sequence, Part One: Reading Orduña

In celebration of Orduña’s contribution to my thinking vocabulary, I assigned “A Civilized Man,” the fifth essay in his 2016 book, The Weight of Shadows.

“A Civilized Man” takes place in a waiting room in the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa. Orduña observes a young couple whose attorney might be coaching them for the inhumanity of a Stokes interview, the interview that scrutinizes a couple’s request for immigration relief based on their marriage (thus coldly judging the legitimacy, moral standing, and substance of legal partnership itself). Because they “look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting,” Orduña studies the scene as he would a canvas. Ultimately, Orduña draws from the Venetian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” linking contemporary power dynamics to historic consciousness of 1500s Europe. We learn not only about U.S. immigration policy, but also about strange resonances with the Medici Bank, its financing of the Catholic Church, the resulting erosion of absolute monarchy, the rise of trade- and transaction-based power—discovering uneasy echoes with the Department of Homeland Security at every step.

In class, our analysis focused on disentangling one core question: what is the role of the artwork in this essay’s whole assemblage of meanings and effects?

To piece together an answer to this question, I had students track exactly what percent of the text describes “Adoration of the Magi,” what percent of the text teaches context about “Adoration of the Magi,” and what percent of the text explicitly connects “Adoration of the Magi” to the waiting room or to the “present-dayness” of the essay.

Students created a retrospective structure of the essay, and discovered that the bulk of the essay is not about artwork at all. Yet of course the closer they looked, the more tacit connections they discovered. Is it an essay that “just touches” on a Renaissance painting here and there, or is that painting actually woven in between the lines on every page? The latter, of course.

The Lesson Sequence, Part Two: Research and Writing

Second, we took a field trip to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, where students did a good deal of freewriting. They had a few days to expand this initial work and complete a five-hundred word ekphrastic essay responding to any artwork they encountered at the museum. Examples: I read two essays dialoguing with Rembrandt paintings, an essay about an ancient Indian carving of Ganesha, another one taking a work of American Impressionism as muse, and several essays rooted in sculptures and photographs from the museum’s curated exhibit of works by emerging young artists with disabilities.

In the next stage of research exploration, students turned to print and online sources to gather historic research. They found sources on their artists, on the medium (one student learned about the development of acrylic paints, for example; another researched the history of photography), and on the countries/social contexts in which their artworks were created (the student writing about Ganesha, for example, made a valiant effort to scrape the surface of Hindu literary/mythological tradition). Most students came away from this research less satisfied with their initial take on their chosen artwork (which is to say, more curious). Regardless, in a 500-word mini essay, students had to marshal new information and creatively convey the most intriguing things they learned.

Finally, part three of this research exercise required students to have a conversation. They identified a theme/topic in their ekphrastic writing assignment. And they had to think of a person with whom they’d be able to have a lively, 5-10-minute conversation about this theme/topic. Another 500-word mini-essay came out of this exercise.

Ultimately, students assembled their work into longform essays that—via ekphrasis, historic research, and the human voice—explored a range of convictions, questions, memories, and experiences. Students discovered that from the headwaters of their initial required research (mimicking Orduña’s methods of connecting art to life by freewriting in front of an artwork), their thinking had traveled unexpected distances.

Takehome Points

Takehome points from this exercise and discussions emphasized craft strategies and “how-tos” (how to write about art, how to connect art to something else you’re writing about, etc.).

But the literary studies component of this sequence is probably more significant. Students came away with new recognition of a notable trend in the contemporary essay: nonfiction writing about art is flourishing right now. Popular conceptions of nonfiction rarely see past the memoiristic “story of my life” intent on understanding one thing, the “I”—but with ekphrasis, my students experienced an occasion to write that exceeded their individuality. Ultimately, my hope is that they leave the semester seeing the essayist as part of a wider thinking community, someone in conversation with the world in which they’re embedded—and responsible to and for it.

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“Le Badaud” (meaning “the idler” or “the onlooker”). The sculpture is in Sarlat, France, birthplace of Montaigne’s dear friend, Étienne de la Boétie. I am persuaded this idling, onlooking badaud has centuries of essays on the mind as he gazes upon the passing people. The sculpture is by Gérard Auliac.
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“The Times They Are A Changin”: Teaching Bob Dylan, the Nobel Laureate Winner

PALS Note: We are pleased to welcome back Darcy Mullen for her second guest post. Please check out her first post here. This time Mullen is writing about teaching Bob Dylan after his win of the Nobel Prize in Literature. How do you teach Dylan as literature? And how do you and your students react? 

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Nobel Prize in Literature

I don’t know why, but one of the most effective first-year writing classes I’ve ever taught is one that is structured around readings from recent Nobel Laureates in Literature. I have a hunch as to why it works, but I’ll table that for another time. Anyway, in the class we read some research on the politics of the prize, acceptance speeches from the authors, and some of the authors’ works.

I’ve had students do a variety of writing around these materials. We’ve done regular close-reading essays, and research papers, but we’ve also done some pretty awesome stuff. Think alternate endings, building sets of cards for apples to apples, remixes (or “covers”), found poems, short films, maps, graphic novels, a mural, scavenger hunts, video games, and even a computer application (!)… the list goes on. But that’s the basics of the class.

Teaching the class in the fall semester is particularly exciting because I choose to deliberately build in a “To Be Announced” section for the unknown winner of that year. We wait together, and were rewarded this year with the exciting Kazuo Ishiguro! The tagline from the Nobel committee awarded it to him for “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. This was a thrill for me because most of my students had heard of him, or even read a book or two of his.

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image via Rolling Stone

But 2016 was a very different year. That was the year Bob Dylan won. To quote the Nobel Prize website, “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.

My feelings were and still are complicated. I know many of us have strong opinions on Bob Dylan’s win, from the strongly positive to the, well, opposite. First and foremost, my worries went to money. Funding for the humanities is already bleeding. I had visions of boardrooms where major donors say things like:

Well, even the Nobel Prize in Literature went to a hippy rock star. The Humanities are clearly crumbling. Tell University X that we’ll give them enough for a department that includes music, literature, art and all the other stuff. The world is clearly moving in that direction.

End scene with chomp chomp chomping on imaginary cigar. In 2016, when my students and I starting learning, together, about Bob Dylan I tried to bite my tongue about my fears of conserving the humanities. But I didn’t do a very good job of it. It didn’t matter.

Dylan in the Classroom

Many hadn’t ever really listened to Bob Dylan. The ones that did, generally, had happy childhood memories of driving around with a parent with a Bob Dylan tape playing. This tale of nostalgia seems quite widespread. They were surprised by how much his music permeated American film and tv culture.

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Bryan Wilson 7

In one reflective essay, a student wrote that learning about Bob Dylan taught them a lot about love. I couldn’t really hate that something in my course taught them about love.

When I taught this course this past fall, I spent a lot of prep time really thinking about the phrase “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I needed to figure out how Bob Dylan fit into American poetry, and what I would say to the imaginary boardroom about why Bob Dylan would justify funding for literature in the humanities (my own personal problem to imagine).

In addition to teaching the poetic expressions in his music, I had us focus at least half our Bob Dylan-time on his poetry, specifically from Tarantula. Most of the students seemed into the music part (as the assignment was to make me a digital “mix-tape” with a curator’s statement). Poetry—not so much.

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Internet Archive Book Images

Most of the students chose not to do the required reading on the first day of the poetry part of the unit. So, I picked one of the poems (“Unresponsible Black Nite Crash” p. 75) and voluntold a student to read it out loud to us. Then I asked for a volunteer to purposefully read it, out loud, as badly as they could imagine. Then another with the same instructions. Again, and again.

This was not an exercise to shame students into doing the reading for next time. This was because many had noted in their curators’ statements that they couldn’t stand his vocals—some of the worst sounds they ever heard! This was an exercise in the connection between meaning and aesthetics in what we hear.

After half a dozen or so deliberately “bad” readings, they got into it, and started with oral performances that were over the top, screechy, Shatner-esq, mocking the beat stereotype, robotic imitations, poor timing, mispronunciation, and other, well, terrible readings!

Here we hit ten or fifteen readings, and the emotional temperature of the room changed. This same poem, about how the majority of Americans will never have the American Dream, about censorship of the press, about fear fear fear, about operating as a young person under a government that doesn’t fit… Hearing it over and over, in so many voices that were trying to be deliberately funny, or off in some way, became terrifying.

A reader put down the photocopy and said, I think we get it. Someone else said, no, we can go further. Students continued reading, changing the rule. It was like watching a murder of crows take shape. One after another they fell in. They went on to read it louder, sounding choked, sad, alienated or outside of language.

They were coming together and reading angry. THE UNITED STATES IS NOT SOUNDPROOF. They were chewing on the parts that spoke to their lives. BRING IN THE TRUTH. The poem wasn’t a piece of paper, it was an artifact. THE BULLY COMES IN-KICKS THE NEWSBOY. The author wasn’t a poet or musician, he was a fly on the wall.

In discussion afterwards, they made the connection to how this was how they felt about the American Dream. BEND OVER BACKWARDS OR SHUT YOUR MOUTHS FOREVER. That this is why #BlackLivesMatter has to exist. EVERYONE HAS BALLOONS IN THEIR EYES. Why marches and protests were happening all around the country and even on their campus.

THE UNITED STATES IS NOT SOUNDPROOF. They explained that this is why Bob Dylan is relevant today. TRIPPING OVER THE SKULLS. I watched what it fired up in them. I had to agree with what they were feeling.

He is a part of the American Protest tradition. He’s not my favorite or, in my opinion, the most significant. But his music is big. And his poetry activated A Thing that day. I have to imagine that the imaginary board room plaguing my nightmares would have felt The Thing, too.

Protest Literature or Poetic Expressions or …

Many, like Kirby Ferguson in his Ted Talk, “Embrace The Remix,” have pointed out quite clearly that Bob Dylan didn’t do anything new. I don’t think I can embrace the awarding of the prize to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” (emphasis added).

Half of the internets’ literature department were positively tickled that he won, that the prize was pushing our idea of genre boundaries, that this meant doors were opening in how we read, teach, and approach writing. Dylan is rhetorical! This is another way into the oral tradition and Beowulf! The other half saw everything listed before, but as a negative. That the boundaries didn’t deserve to be transgressed. Song lyrics are not literature! And that the prize was going to a white male musician—as if we had run out of white male authors to acknowledge, so now we were onto music!

I fall into the reasoning into at least half of each camp. But neither of them really matter to me, because I am still fixated on what this award will mean to funding for the humanities. I don’t think the prize is going to result in higher donations or endowments for the humanities (Time, prove me wrong!). I don’t think it’s going to change the prize, or change the landscape of contemporary literature. There are amazing people that have been teaching lit/rock for longer than I’ve been driving. It’s not undiscovered country.

Bob Dylan has, like it or not, been canonized by arguably the most prestigious global, literary prize. I can see how now might be a time to include his poetry amongst some of the other American protest-poets. That should happen, only, after we cover Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Jericho Brown, Nathaniel Mackey, and about a hundred other poets.

I’ll inevitably teach this class again, but not this Fall (and for reasons I hope to blog about at a later date!). I am still not convinced of the importance, and ultimate efficacy of teaching Dylan as part of the American canon. I’m still not really sure about the role of these “poetic expressions” within the aesthetics and ethics of American traditions, either.

This poem did give students a learning opportunity that hadn’t come from the three previous Nobel Laureates we read. It gave them a different rhetoric for their frustrations. That counts for a lot.

I don’t think I’ll ever really enjoy Dylan’s work, and I’ll probably never think it was a smart (financial) choice for the prize. But it teaches well. I can appreciate that about it, and also rather be teaching Amiri Bakara. In other words, Dylan can totally get the job done for a lot of learning outcomes. But he isn’t the only (or best) way to get there.

Contributor Bio

nullDarcy Mullen is a Postdoctoral Marion L. Brittain Fellow, teaching about food and media literacy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a tool for mapping food movements, the politics of place in tourism, the Anthropocene, and pedagogy studies. She is currently teaching community engaged courses linking poetics and food systems in urban agriculture. She is currently working on a book project, The Food and Drink of Atlanta. For more about her, visit her website, www.storiesofsoil.com, where she blogs about dirt and its role in everyday life.