Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

writing, reading, ruminating

Musings News and Comments

March 25, 2016

Upcoming Reading

WILDWOOD WRITERS’ FESTIVAL – 36th Annual
Friday, April 1, 2016
9:00 am – 3:00 pm
Rose Lehrman Arts Center
Auditorium Theater 106
(free and open to the public)
Please contact Geri Gutwein with questions at 780-2433 or at gcgutwei@hacc.edu

Schedule of Readings
9:00 Jeff Ihlenfeldt
10:00 Nadine Sabra Meyer
11:00 Neil Connelly
12:00 Monica Ferrell
1:00 Heather Katzoff
2:00 Open Reading

Festival Presenters

Neil Connelly‘s five novels have found homes at publishers including LSU Press and Simon & Schuster. His most recent book, THE POCKET GUIDE TO DIVORCE (a Self-Help Work of Fiction), won the Molly Ivors Prize. Before returning to his home state of Pennsylvania, where he teaches creative writing at Shippensburg University, he directed the MFA at McNeese State in Louisiana.

Monica Ferrell‘s second collection of poems, Oh You Absolute Darling, will be published by Four Way in 2018. She is the author of the novel The Answer Is Always Yes (The Dial Press/Random House), one of Booklist’s Top Ten Debut Novels of 2008, and of the collection of poems Beasts for the Chase (Sarabande Books), which was a 2009 finalist for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Prize. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, The New Republic, The Believer, and The New York Review of Books. She is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University, a Discovery/The Nation prize, and a fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation.

Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt lives, writes, and teaches in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His short stories have appeared in many publications including Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Columbia Review, Ascent, Quiddity, and Worcester Review. He was named finalist for the 2010 and 2012 Fulton Prize in Short Fiction and has been nominated for Best of the Net. Jeffrey has been a writer-in-residence at a number of writers’ colonies, including Writers Omi at Ledig House in New York and the Artcroft Center for Arts and Humanities in Kentucky. He has been a featured writer at the Lancaster Book Festival, the Greater Reading Literary Festival, and the Wildwood Writers’ Festival.

Heather Katzoff is a graduate of Rutgers University, holding a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and an MFA in creative writing. While at Rutgers, she taught contemporary literature and hosted a monthly reading at the KGB bar in New York City, providing graduate students the opportunity to share their work with the public in a casual setting. Her poetry has appeared in the Paterson Literary Review and Sixfold.

Nadine Sabra Meyer is the author of Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum, which won The Green Rose Prize and is forthcoming with New Issues Poetry and Prose in the spring of 2017. Her first book of poetry, The Anatomy Theater, won the National Poetry Series, and was published by HarperCollins. Her poems have won the New Letters Prize for Poetry, the Meridian Editor’s Prize, and a Pushcart Prize. Nadine holds a B.A. from Johns Hopkins University, an M.F.A. from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, Columbia. Poems from Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum, have appeared in The Southern Review, Southwest Review, Shenandoah, Literary Imagination, Boulevard, Nimrod, North American Review, storySouth, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Western Humanities Review and Ploughshares. Nadine is an Associate Professor at Gettysburg College.

Southwest border

March 15, 2016

The Usefulness of Poetry

Lately, in the environment of presidential primaries and political posturing, my students and I have been thinking about the usefulness of poetry. We’ve been thinking about wilderness, about Red Rock, about Terry Tempest Williams. We’ve been tracing the peaks and creeks and washes she identifies and assembles, the topography of the desert, for the sake of those who understand the desert only as a nameless stretch of rock and sand. Cottonwood Creek, Joshua Tree, Moquith Mountain, Black Ridge, Box Canyon. I can hear her lyrical and passionate voice as she recites her poem-like list constructed to defend the wilderness against human destruction and political encroachment.

One might see her statement before the Senate Subcommittee of Forest and Public Land Management in 1995, and reprinted in her book Red, to be an act of political courage. And I suppose if an act of courage is more appropriately defined by the observer than the the actor, it is a moment of courage. At the same time, I wonder if Williams sees it this way. What else could she do, a woman whose being is entangled in the wind and whispers of the wild, than to call for its salvation, and at the same time, call for our own?

Speaking before the Subcommittee, she imagines the wilderness for us and for the politicians who cannot bring themselves to see it. She writes “…the desert is holy…because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred.” The wilderness “courts our souls” she tells the statesmen assembled before her. Poetry, not pragmatism. Why is preservation of the wilderness important? Because it “turns us into believers.” Why is the desert important? Because “every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide and so we are found.”

If the practical in our lives is defined as that which enhances economic security, expands the work force, enriches the portfolios of the politically connected, all of the things that our presidential candidates speak about, there is not a practical breath in Williams’ body. And so, before a Senate Subcommittee, she presents poetry and helps policymakers to envision “a landscape of mirages” and the “gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on.”

So, in the midst of the political season, my students and I think about the usefulness of poetry.

Southwest border

October 20, 2015

“Much of what happens to us in life is nameless because our vocabulary is too poor. Most stories get told out loud because the storyteller hopes that the telling of the story can transform a nameless event into a familiar or intimate one.”

John Berger

Southwest border

June 16, 2015

from The Sympathetic Vision by Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

In 2005, I screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for a blind student—not exclusively for her, but she was one of a group of students studying drama as part of a World Literature course. I was interested in exploring German Expressionism, not embarrassing this particular student, but since I had little understanding of her experiences with films, I wondered what insights she might gain from sitting through a silent horror film from 1920. This led me to consider vision, and lack of vision, in a broader context.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard talks about vision as a “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair,” a state, not of conscious and careful observation as much as a release of consciousness that enables her to see, only rarely, “the tree with the lights in it” and “the grass that [is] wholly fire.” Personal. Internal. Intimate. And perhaps it was the unexpected elements of viewing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a blind student that enhanced my appreciation for Wiene’s film. And perhaps, as happened with Dillard, I have tried unsuccessfully over the years to consciously recapture a viewing that is really only a “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair.”

But there was also a heightened level of consciousness to my experience that could not be avoided, an intimacy and understanding in my viewing of a silent film with my blind student, as I revealed in hushed whispers the secrets that could only be understood in its conscious retelling. Although the details were intimate, they were less personal than sympathetic. Sympathetic as in the commonality of our shared experience, our shared affinity for the story, for the images, for the secrets, for the darkness. At the same time, I experienced something that I sensed my student did not—empathy. Perhaps, I imagined, empathy relating to her blindness, but I wasn’t sure.

The question comes to mind then, as to whether we, as writers, have the patience for not just clarity of image, not just objective realism in unfolding detail, but also for the sympathetic—the shared vision, a companionable vision, an intimate vision, as if our readers are blind, and can only gain sight through the patient revelation and through the retelling of what we as writers have already seen again and again and again. We create an affinity. What I see, you see, even if not in strictly the same way.

But there is also empathy, less shared, more intimate, which as Joseph Burgo explains helps individuals to “become aware of something unconscious they’re afraid to know.” The empathetic vision may be the seeing that we as writers reserve for ourselves, the unconscious imagery that we will never be able to communicate—“the hidden part of the story,” as Italo Calvino maintains. “The region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no words to enable us to get there.” The blind leading the blind.

Southwest border
January 3, 2015

Proof of Art by Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

We live in a culture driven, largely, by measurement—data, information, statistics. We live in a culture that is comfortable in drawing clear distinctions between the creative mind and the analytical mind—separating art from science, poetry from mathematics And where measurement doesn’t exist, we find a way to either ensure it does or pretend that it does, because proof has become our guiding principle; we have come to value assessment over illumination and data over narrative.

In the world of academia, we create the convenient dichotomy of quantitative and qualitative disciplines—math and science in one camp, art and humanities in the other. Some educators create an even finer distinction—those disciplines driven by content and those driven by process. The problem with such divisions—as when anything is divided so distinctly—is that conflicts inevitably arise regarding valuation of the two. In resolving that conflict, one camp often wins out, becoming the authoritative camp. For the present, at least in educational institutions, data, statistics, and information hold sway—a culture of assessment.

So here we stand, trying to authenticate human experience as a pathway to authoritative reflective existence. We divide existence into content and process, the quantitative and the qualitative. Is it any surprise that the student writer searches for the same voice of authority—that elusive proof of art?

As writers, we hope to have chosen a different course, but we are in no way immune from the pressures that lead us away from discovery and toward the provable. We measure our proof by whether we are published, how much we have published, and by whom we have been published. And in an effort to prove our authority as writers and as teachers, we can inadvertently pass these pressures onto our students by extolling the virtues of our achievements as a measure of our authority—a way to elevate ourselves and validate our reasons for teaching fiction and poetry, which can move the student further from the process of exploration and closer to the measurement of results.

Of course, we could take another path—proudly displaying our degree as proof— to allow our credentials to speak for us. We are masters of fine art, after all. But even here, we are suspect not only in the minds of our students, but in the minds of academicians. (How else can we explain the credential of Ph.D. in creative writing?) It is clear that we cannot rely on the credential alone as our source of authority.

How, then, do we identify our source of authority as writers and teachers of writing—for ourselves and for our students? One way may be to accept the balance between the freedom of exploration and the certainty of accomplishment. It is not unusual for me to encounter students in the classroom whose approach to creative writing is to emote; for them, creative writing begins and ends with the expression of feelings. It is not a measurable task. Often form, aesthetics, and clarity are foreign concepts to beginning creative writing students, and they are likely to dismiss them altogether. In this type of subjective environment where the only goal is the expression of emotions, the teacher relinquishes authority. The authority exists only in the individual feelings of the student writer. Yet we know that we don’t grow as writers with only our own voices to guide us. And as teachers we rely on our knowledge as well as our sense of discovery to recognize what works in writing, and to convey those ideas. Although it may seem counterintuitive for us as artists, it is our adherence to both knowledge and discovery that leads our students to understand what good writing is.

Since we can’t simply rely on credentials or memorization of facts and information, or the ability to recite theory, perhaps we can rely on our ongoing experiences as writers to establish our authority. Every semester when I teach the introductory course to creative writing, I offer basic exercises that are designed to jumpstart projects for new students: observational impromptus, passages of dialogue, playing with perspective in narrative. During these activities, my authority as a writer emerges not because I have completed such exercises in the past, but because I am willing to complete them in the present. If I avoid participating in these exercises because I see myself as being beyond where my students are, my authority diminishes. When student writers are developing characters, they are not thinking about my academic credential. When student writers are making observations, they are not thinking about how many stories or poems I have published. What they do see, however, is my pen struggling across the page, as theirs struggles. They see my search, my anxiety, my freedom, my sense of magic, along with theirs, that is all part of our collaborative writing process. In that instant, my authority is heightened by my willingness to write, to explore, to play, and to fail, none of which lend themselves very neatly to proof by statistical assessment.

How, then, do I identify my source of authority as a writer and a teacher? One way is for me to embrace both the known and the unknowable, the faith and the evidence, the mystical and the practical. Loren Eiseley recognizes the relationship between science and art, and addresses the issue in examining two approaches to science. He describes one scientist as someone “who still has a controlled sense of wonder before the universal mystery, whether it hides in the snails eyes or within the light that impinges on the delicate organ.” The second observer, he describes as a “reductionist who is so busy stripping things apart the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle, to intangibles not worth troubling one’s head about.” We might be wise to accept the balance between the freedom of exploration and the certainty of accomplishment.

My authority as a writer and teacher comes from just such a “sense of wonder” and engagement with the “universal mystery” of the writing process—the blunders, discoveries, mistakes, reenvisioning, drafts, successes, and the failures of first efforts. At the same time, my authority in writing springs from my authority in living, which is an ongoing event. My authority comes from ensuring that second and third efforts exist and that I can persevere through confusion, complexity, completion, and resolution. It is beginnings and endings. And when my work has ended, I gladly accept, without data or statistical proof, the authority to begin again.

Southwest border

January 2, 2015

“A writer is someone who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do… The not-knowing is crucial to art, it is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

Donald Barthelme

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