Meet Sheryl

No, Sheryl isn’t Tertia’s real name. Sheryl is my sourdough starter. That’s right; I’m becoming one of those people.

A few months ago, my bread machine committed suicide by dramatically leaping off the kitchen counter in the middle of a knead cycle, thereby shattering itself into about seven pieces. It was pretty spectacular. Anyway, since then I have been baking our sandwich loaves most weeks, and I’ve really enjoyed doing it. Baking bread is something that always seems like a larger job in my head than it is in reality; it takes a long time, but very little of that time is active. And kneading dough is very satisfying! I love the way you can feel it transform under your hands.

Anyway, the sandwich bread is just a regular wheat bread made with commercial yeast. But yeast can be kind of pricey (and, apparently, subject to quarantine-related panic buying) and keeping track of how much I have is annoying, especially when the jar is almost gone and there’s not quite enough for another full batch of something. Which made me think, well, why not give sourdough a shot?

I followed this method from The Kitchn to make my starter, which took about five days. At first nothing dramatic was happening — I had little bubbles but not much of that good yeasty smell — but then on day four I could smell the sour yeastiness I was hoping for, as well as the alcohol created by the bacterial action. (I wonder: is sourdough moonshine a thing?) And then on day five — pow! Sheryl had doubled in size overnight and was ready to rock.I knew I wanted to do an overnight rise and bake in the morning, so I followed this recipe, which is literally just the first result I got when I searched for “overnight sourdough bread”. The active time is even shorter than it is with a commercial yeast bread. I measured out some starter, water, flour, and salt, and mixed it with my hands for about a minute. This is what it looked like at that point, as it rested for thirty minutes:

After the dough rests, you gently stretch it and fold it over on itself for about a minute. You can immediately see the difference in the texture between the last picture and this next one: from dry and crumbly we have moved on to stretchy and hydrated.

After that… not much happens for quite a while. The recipe says to let it rest for eight hours; my dough rested for closer to sixteen, which didn’t appear to do it any harm. (The longer rise probably helped, in fact, since we keep our house on the cool side.) But in the morning, it had smoothed out and bulked up, as promised:

When I was ready to bake, I took the loaf out and quickly shaped it. Now, next time I will transfer the dough into an oiled clean bowl before leaving it overnight, because it was really hard to get the dough out of its bowl without squishing it and popping the interior bubbles. It was very and I ended up leaving some behind in the bowl. But what was left had a nice rest before I popped it into the oven. I don’t have a proper Dutch oven for baking; fortunately, my casserole dish also does the trick.

And here is the result!

You may be able to see right by the bottom crust that it’s a little underdone there and could probably have used a few more minutes in the oven. But I am supremely happy with this first attempt! The bread is chewy and tangy, and tastes amazing toasted with some butter and cinnamon sugar. Sheryl and I? I think we’re going to get along.

How to start reading poetry

I like poetry. I read it; I write it. Occasionally I end up talking about poetry with someone of my acquaintance, and what I often hear about it is some variation of “Oh, that’s great. I just don’t get poetry. But good for you, though.” And I think that’s sad; most of the time the impression I get is not that people don’t think poetry is worth their time, but that they think they’re not good enough, smart enough, insightful enough to engage with it. Probably their experience with poetry has been predominantly, or entirely, within the confines of a classroom. And so they conclude: I just don’t get poetry.

But really, that statement should sound as strange to us as saying “I just don’t get novels” or “I just don’t get magazine-length personal essays” or “I just don’t get television shows” — because the content, meaning, message, plot, etc. of each of these varies so widely from one to the next. We don’t watch one or two TV shows and then decide TV just isn’t for us; we recognise how broadly we need to sample before drawing that kind of conclusion. I don’t think I’m not good enough to read novels because I hated The Name of the Rose. All of these genre forms — screenplay, novel, essay, poetry, etc. — are vehicles for meaning, not the meaning itself. Poetry as a form is just one way of conveying meaning, often a highly structured way — but within the bounds of that structure, the poet has the freedom to say anything at all. Really anything: deep or shallow or profound or silly or fantastical or realistic or highly allusive or completely straightforward. I once read a lovely sonnet about mowing the lawn. (What’s more, I managed to find it again, and now you can read it too.)

But poetry has a popular reputation of being obscure, difficult, elitist, and arcane. I think a lot of it must have to do with the way that poetry is taught in schools — at least it was taught this way to me — where the emphasis is very heavily slanted towards academic analysis rather than experience or enjoyment. Now, don’t get me wrong; understanding what a poet is doing in a poem, and how they are doing it, can greatly enhance our appreciation of their work. But it still needs to be a secondary consideration. Before understanding we should be looking simply to experience a poem, to feel it out, to let it shape a response in us. Poetry is art; art is an invitation, not a treatise.

What’s the difference between understanding and experiencing? Consider this excerpt from John Ciardi’s wonderful essay, “How Does A Poem Mean?” (which I highly recommend reading in full):

The point is that the language of experience is not the language of classification. A boy burning with ambition to become a jockey does not study a text on zoology. He watches horses, he listens to what is said by those who have spent their lives around horses, he rides them, trains them, feeds them, curries them, pets them. He lives with intense feelings towards them. He may never learn how many incisors a horse has, nor how many yards of intestines. What does it matter? He is concerned with a feel, a response-to, a sense of the character and reaction of the living animal. And zoology cannot give him that. Not all the anatomizing of all the world’s horses could teach a man horse-sense.

So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized. It still remains true that the reader who has experienced most fully will finally be the best judge.

When we start in by working to analyze and judge rather than allowing ourselves to simply experience, we get so wrapped up in trying to “figure it out” that we completely miss the point. We forget that it was written to be enjoyed, not dissected. We end up like the students in Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”:

Introduction to Poetry (by Billy Collins)

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Do you think you’re not good enough to read poetry? Would you like to start experiencing it instead of beating it to death? Put down your hose. Relax a little. If you’ve found poetry inaccessible in the past — or if you’ve been inadvertently taught to find it inaccessible — let go of the idea that you have to understand everything that’s going on. Don’t worry about identifying or labeling each discrete element or its function within the poem. Don’t label at all. Just read — broadly, widely, with no expectation other than to receive and respond. Here are a few more tips, in no particular order, about how to get started.

1. Read around. There are hundreds of styles of poems on a million different themes out there, and the best way to find what you like is to sample widely. Go to your local library and look in sections 811 or 821 for anthologies. Try something like The Norton Anthology of Poetry or The Best American Poetry or Good Poems (ed. Garrison Keillor) for a nice broad sampling. If you prefer to read online, head over to poetryfoundation.org or rattle.com or poets.org and click on anything that looks interesting. If you find an author you like, try looking for their “Collected Works” or “Collected Poems” to sample their best.

2. Start with contemporary poets. Poetry loses some of its natural oompf when we are removed from it in time, because we don’t intuitively understand the cultural/political backdrop against which it is being written. But lots of poets are writing about things that are happening right now. A great resource for brand-new poetry is Rattle’s “Poets Respond” section, which collates poetry written in response to events in the past week, every week. As an example, here is Devon Balwit’s poem, “Jew”, responding to the recent shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

3. Start with poetry written for children. Poetry written for children is less concerned with Imparting Great Meaning and more concerned with the joy of language, rhythm, word, and sound. Try Shel Silverstein or Edward Lear or a nice big collection of nursery rhymes.

4. If you find a poem you like, read it two or three times. Repetition often clarifies meaning (like when a shift or twist at the end changes our impression of what’s come before). Read slowly. Doing this often will help you read more attentively, to start to see what a poem is doing and how it is doing it, without the burden of formal analysis. You will understand more than you thought you could.

5. If you find a poem you don’t like, move on. Read something else. Don’t dismiss the entire genre because of a few bad reading experiences.

6. Start with more “plainspoken” poets. If you’re just venturing into poetry, jumping straight into something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is probably not going to be all that helpful. This past year I have discovered some wonderful poets who write with breathtaking clarity. Try Mary Jo Salter or Billy Collins or Mary Oliver or Ted Kooser or Gwendolyn Brooks.

7. Remember that taste is subjective. You’re not obliged to like any of the poetry “greats”. You’re not even obliged to read them at all. What I like you might think is complete bosh, and vice-versa. All of this is fine. Just as liking novels (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular author, liking poetry (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular poet or poem.

8. Be open to delight. Let poems surprise you. Read with a sense of expectancy. And enjoy!

The pleasures of competence

I read an article recently about social media and its effect on the growing brains of children and teenagers (look for it first on the list of Weekend Reading tomorrow). One of the minor points that stuck out to me was a line about the brain — particularly the adolescent male brain, but of course it applies more broadly — being naturally driven to accumulate competencies, and the danger of video games and their ever-more-rewarding levels replacing the real-world competencies necessary to living as a functional adult.

Now, I’m not anti-video game. I played a lot of computer games growing up, and there are a couple that I still play from time to time when the mood strikes (Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 and West of Loathing) and one that I play daily (Kingdom of Loathing). I enjoy playing them; it’s pleasant and rewarding to beat a level or solve a puzzle I’ve never been able to before, or to get faster at my runs through the game. I’ve been playing KoL on and off for more than twelve years now — longer than some of its player base has been alive — and it still provides enough interest for me to keep coming back. Video games are not inherently the problem; as with most (or perhaps all) tools and technology, it’s not the thing in itself, but how we use it.

This is equally true in the analog world, as we know. A hammer can be used to build a table or to knock down a wall. A water hose can be used to irrigate a garden or to flood a basement. A knife can be used to take a life, or in a surgeon’s hands, to save it. Like they used to say about fire, all of our tools and technologies — whether analog, digital, or some combination of both — are good servants, but bad masters.

Video games are no exception. They are amusing servants but bad masters, and the trouble with virtual achievements is threefold. First, they are too easy, which is a big part of what makes them so seductive. It doesn’t take much mental effort to progress in a video game — not zero effort, certainly, but not much compared to, I don’t know, learning to knit, or moving from algebra to calculus, or writing a technically correct sonnet, or becoming fluent in a second language. And humans are lazy. Calculus is hard; why work to master it when I can just build another virtual roller coaster or finally beat my Tetris high score? Video games offer us constant ways to measure our progress and to master our skills, hitting those dopamine centres in the brain and keeping us engaged with the game for as long as possible. The brain naturally wants to achieve competence in what it’s doing; video games provide a way to do just that, but one that I can only describe as counterfeit.

The second problem is that video game competencies are ephemeral. As I grow older I have come to value more and more the tangible labours of my mind and of my hands: real writing on a page, real dinners on the table, real yarn transformed into real blankets. I spent around two years writing a 130-page thesis for my master’s degree, and outside of parenting my children it may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It involved countless hours of research, writing, revisions, and brainstorming; as I worked I swung wildly between elation and tears depending on how the work was going and how exhausted I was (for the record, I recommend writing theses and having babies consecutively, instead of concurrently like I did). But I wrote it, and defended it, and now I can hold a library-bound copy in my hands. It was a tangible achievement, and I learned and I grew a lot in that process in ways that translate fairly directly to other areas of my life. I can’t say the same for getting more efficient at farming KoL’s in-game currency.

Finally, video game competencies are designed to encourage total mastery rather than just “good-enough-ness”. I will admit that this doesn’t sound like much of a problem — but hear me out and I will try to explain my thinking here. In my life I have achieved what I would call a basic or partial competence in a lot of different areas. I can sight-read music quite well if I’m singing, and with difficulty (but eventually) if I’m on the piano. I can put a dinner on the table that is reasonably healthy and basically tasty without too much stress. I’m not a brilliant housekeeper but I can keep things around here more or less clean. I’m competent. I’m not a master, but I’m good enough. That’s actually a surprisingly comfortable place to be.

With video games, however, competence isn’t good enough. They work more on an all-or-nothing model: if you’re not the best, then you’re not good enough, end of story. Think about a high score table: it tabulates not only the highest scores, but by implication, whether or not we are measuring up to the standard that the best players set. The goal isn’t even to have fun; the goal is to get to the top of the board, and then to defend your slot there. Competence doesn’t matter. Winning matters.

I will never completely master most of my skill areas, not by a long shot. Take cooking, for example: I do most of the cooking at home, but it’s not something I particularly relish — I cook because we need to eat, and that’s pretty much the end of the story. I don’t think “oh boy!” when the time to start dinner comes around every afternoon. I will never be a brilliant cook, having neither the passionate interest nor the culinary imagination necessary. But even though I won’t achieve mastery in cooking, or maybe even ever start looking forward to it every afternoon, I have discovered nonetheless that building my competencies in cooking is pleasant and rewarding. I like tinkering with an ingredient until I know exactly what to do with it. I like having go-to recipes under my belt, being able to make biscuits or meatballs or a basic roux from scratch without needing to look anything up. Being the best at cooking is not on the table, but that shouldn’t detract from what I am achieving in the kitchen. There are no levels or high scores here, but there is the pleasure of competent good-enough-ness.

Unlike in a video game, as well, a competency that I’ve achieved is mine forever, barring dementia or some sort of traumatic brain injury (and granting that practice may be needed to maintain it). If the fine folks at KoL pulled the plugs on all of their servers tomorrow morning, I’d be left with some memories of a game I used to play and not much more than that. But in the mean time, I know how to read a crochet pattern, test a cake for done-ness, translate French, drive a car, read a map, and remember five verses of Abide with Me. I may not be running up high scores, but nobody can take those things away from me either. I’ll take that over a virtual accomplishment any day.

Video game achievements can supplement our real-world competencies; let us just take care that they do not substitute for them instead.

Coursera Review: Sharpened Visions (Poetry Workshop) – CalArts

I mentioned quite a few posts ago that I’ve been taking a MOOC via Coursera entitled “Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop.”  It’s a six-week course that is mostly self-paced; I finished the course last week (after switching sections because I accidentally missed a deadline, meaning that wouldn’t be anyone around to complete my final peer-review assignment).  Overall, I found it a fairly useful and relatively enjoyable course.

I thought that Douglas Kearney, the course instructor, did a fine job of presenting the information in each module. While the videos themselves were fairly corny (I ended up just reading the transcriptions most weeks), the information was useful and well-organized, and the structure of the course made sense. The weekly topics were as follows:

  • Week one: Introduction / the Poetic Line
  • Week two: Abstraction and Image
  • Week three: Metaphor
  • Week four: Rhyme
  • Week five: Rhythm
  • Week six: Revision

Each weekly module offered instructional videos (plus transcripts), short quizzes based on the video content, and assignments which generally took the form of two poetry prompts that challenged you to apply the concepts from that week’s theme. I found some of those prompts more compelling than others, but they were stretching in a good way. The prompts were probably the most valuable part of the course for me. Weeks four and six also included a peer assessment assignment; we had to submit a drafted poem for review, and also review the work of two or more classmates.

My one great frustration with the course was the peer assessment model. It makes sense that the course would be structured this way — after all, it’s supposed to be a workshop, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect the instructor to personally review and grade some dozens or hundreds of poems per session. But the peer assessment also has some serious drawbacks. For one, since learners are accessing the course from all over the world, there can be real language barrier issues. The quality of peer reviews is also uneven; I got some very useful feedback from a few of my peer assessments, but others left me wondering if my peer had even read what I had written!

When doing a peer review, we were only supposed to grade on things like whether the poem had responded to the appropriate prompt, not whether you liked it. I tried to give as thoughtful feedback as I could, and several times when I really disliked a poem I chose another one to review instead, since I didn’t think I would be able to give fair feedback otherwise. But no matter how much care you put into your own peer assessments, you can still end up with comments like this:

That you can feel the poem, trying to get into the writer’s wishes to attempt to better the revised version, by applying learnt tools. Some just flow in others you can feel the struggle, but all is good as long as you try. He tried. That is definalely imperative to edit and revise your original version, which I call it draft.

Thanks, Lucia! So useful!

(I’m not bothered enough to resubmit my work to be graded by someone new, which is an option that is offered. But it’s worth noting that peer assessments need to be taken with a grain of salt, and that they may or may not be useful — which is a bit of an annoyance in a workshop when you are trying to get feedback you can use.)

Overall, I’m glad that I enrolled in Sharpened Visions. It didn’t take too much time, gave me some useful exercises and good feedback, and satisfied my itch to be learning something. I’ll be taking more Coursera classes in the future.