Thursday, May 10, 2012

Paying the Piper

In my professional life lately I find myself wearing different hats. My training, education, and experience do not exactly form an ordinary, linear path to success. To use an allegory, if I were to compare my professional life to a literary form, I would say I was a poem or a postmodern novel: my life does not follow some traditional plot line. This ain't Jane Austen, people! It's Ezra Pound, José Eduardo Agualusa! It's a series of simultaneous twinkles and sparkles that vibrate to create an illusion of a whole, but not in its logical movement towards a particular end goal.

I've always been under the conviction that life is too short to do crappy things: no matter how much money you get paid, no matter how proud it makes your mother, no matter how impressive the enterprise is to a common observer, no matter how good it looks on your resume, it's not worth it unless you love every minute of it. Hence, my professional life comprises of various experiences spanning widely different disciplines: I am a student, a college instructor, an art director, a web designer, a copywriter, UI specialist, and a web developer. And for the past couple of years, I've been changing these hats daily--sometimes a couple of times a day, in fact. I find it fascinating how these different disciplines intertwine, work together, and--more importantly--how they create resistance and tension.

For example, I have been recently contracting for a small design firm as a web designer. In other words, it's my job to make things look pretty. This position, as I see it, is quite different from creating a web site for your own client when freelancing. When I agree to create a website, I become the five piece orchestra: I do everything from developing a marketing strategy to producing the product. I am the conductor and the piper, the visionary and the artisan. But when I am contracting as a web designer, I need to put down all those extra instruments. Today I play the pipe. That's it! Sometimes I want to get up and pick up the violin or the drum. I know how to play them. I hear them playing off key, so naturally I'd like to fix this dissonance, but I can't. I'm not in a position to fix it. I'd be out of line. Besides, they don't pay me enough to fix it.

On one hand it's rather liberating to focus only on one job: sometimes "looking pretty" does not mean "selling well" or "feeling good." So I turn off that part of my brain that would like to consider my work from the other perspectives and let others figure it out. It is fascinating watching myself shut up, listen, withhold my judgment, and continue focusing on things looking pretty. Having been an art director, I thought it would be difficult to be the designer: after all, I have reasons for things being pretty, balanced or unbalanced, colorful or bland, for using Helvetica rather than Gill Sans or Futura, for using curves rather not sharp angles, and I can articulate them. As a designer, I can put those considerations aside. I enjoy and play with the visuals and watch them create myriads of different moods. But it's not my place to choose one over the other or to worry about its selling power or risqué factor or target audience.

So today, I happily play the pipe. I follow directions. I don't need to explain anything. I don't need to provide reasons. I don't have to even contrast aesthetic theories or analyze the language. I just blow into my pipe.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Poetry is a Foreign Language

I am a big fan of poetry. Poetry inspires me. It makes me think. It's a hermeneutic orgasm! I also enjoy teaching poetry--not because I know how to do it well, but because I have no idea how to do it. Poetry is personal: it's not a science. Everyone has a different interpretive approach and--for the most part--everyone's approach is correct, as long as he/she employs critical thinking skills. So how do you teach a poem to a class of fresh but different minds with different backgrounds, different philosophies?

Every time I teach poetry, I ask myself "Why do I attempt this impossible feat again?" To teach a poem, as I see it, is not to teach it at all. It's not to talk about the poem but to talk around the poem. It's not to tell the class what it means, but how to read it so it has some kind of a meaning to you--sometimes arbitrary, sometimes illusive, sometimes non-semantic... I walk into the classroom and tremble. I don't want to tell my students what the poem means--if anything at all: I want them to discover for themselves the pleasure of trying to figure it out, the pleasure of the sounds of words, the pleasure of rhythm, of rhyme.

But last night I had a completely different experience. I was teaching my 10-year-old how to read in Polish. She picked out a book of children's poetry and chose a poem of eight lines. She read the poem out loud, and I asked her a series of simple questions pertaining to nothing other than the basic meaning of the words she just read. I needed to know that she understood the language. The simple inquiry about the obvious brought about ideas latent in the text, ideas of deeper import that were possibly too complex for a 10-year-old yet so suggestive.

Perhaps the key to teaching poetry is to teach it as if it were written in a foreign language. Most often, in ordinary speech, we do not pay as much attention to the meaning of words, to word choice: we have neither the time nor the patience to psychologize (although, at the risk of stereotyping, I believe that women are more attuned to nuances than men, especially in emotionally-charged situations). But in a poem every word is on steroids: every word is there for  a reason, and its meaning is placed under a magnifying glass. If we read poetry as if it were written in a foreign language, where every term needs to be defined, we develop hyper-sensitivity to language and perhaps even to our own thinking processes.