Sunday, February 22, 2015

Buy the Book - Buy the Book

My Found Vocabulary (Aldrich 2015) is available to buy from Amazon or from me at a reading.  ($14 what a bargain!)  My next reading is on Sunday, March 8 at 4pm at the Nielson Library at Smith College.  I will post information about other readings as they are scheduled.

Buy the book - buy the book.  

Friday, January 9, 2015

From Imagination to Truth (from The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2015)

At a recent event at my community college, students shared projects that were the result of an interdisciplinary study of Henry David Thoreau. One first-year student read an essay that compared "The Ponds" from Walden to E.B. White’s "Once More to the Lake." Eloquent and insightful, the essay describes Thoreau as having "a healthy mixture of the analytical and creative."
I looked around the room at colleagues—faculty, staff, and deans—with whom I have sat in long meetings for the past year trying to develop a new set of learning outcomes. What did we hope that students at our college would be able to do and know upon graduation? Seems to me, I thought, that this student was able to convey the heart of the matter—in eight words—everything our long-winded conversations and multiple-page presentations could not.
Still, it would be absurd to bring eight words to our state’s Board of Higher Education, even if we want to keep our outcomes succinct. We finally came up with: Students will, upon graduating, be able to analyze, communicate, research, engage, and create.
Too simple? Not to worry. Many pages have gone into explaining, describing, articulating, defending, decrying, defying, and artifactizing these five outcomes, especially the last—the nearly overlooked, the most controversial of them all: create.
In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes that humans are "meaning-seeking creatures." That idea is central to any discussion of the importance of creativity, at any level of education. A key component of Armstrong’s philosophy is that humans are capable of both logical thinking and what she calls mythical thinking. Later in her book, Armstrong writes that "Western modernity was the child of logos" and explains that since the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution, Western cultures have placed logical thinking over mythical thinking, relegating the latter to a minor role in meaning-making.
Armstrong argues that this prioritizing of reason over faith, head over heart, has been the cause of much modern malaise, anxiety, and unrest. But why? Surely mythical thinking must be false thinking because a myth, after all, is not true. Didn’t the likes of Newton, Galileo, and Darwin persuade us to stop relying on myths to explain the world?
A work of the imagination is inherently an untruth, yet it is one that reveals a truth. A painting, a poem, or a dance is trying to express something important about the human condition, a truth that is revealed through intuition and feeling. The creator engages in logical and analytical thinking, too, but the act of creation is fueled by our capacity to intuit knowledge and beauty, to imagine what is not and never has been through a faculty different from reason. The receiver of the work can analyze it—a logical endeavor. But art also engages the viewer/reader/listener in the act of making meaning, finding relevance—not only through analysis but by connecting emotionally with the meaning that the work helps us to make.
Hannah Arendt writes in The Life of the Mind: "To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded."
Last year, my daughter and I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, a novel that reveals profound truths about human nature. But it’s all a lie. It never happened. How could it? The story is narrated by none other than Death himself. It’s like a myth: untruthful while revealing truth. For me, that truth has to do with ordinary people’s capacity for heroism, cowardice, and naïveté in the face of great evil and injustice. My daughter saw something else. She’s 13. She focused on the relationship between the protagonist Liesel and her best friend, Rudy. The novel allowed us each to make our own meaning.
What makes art different from science is that the scientific method relies on proof and evidence. Scientists and philosophers pursue knowledge to gain truth, to understand the truth of how things work and why they work as they do. While those pursuits do make meaning, they prioritize truth over meaning. A work of the imagination, while revealing truth, prioritizes meaning over truth.
In measuring and quantifying student learning, I fear that an outcome such as "create" will be co-opted by things like "creative problem solving" and "creative thinking," both pieces of the same puzzle, but only small pieces. And those skills are so similar to analysis that to emphasize them too much is to shift focus away from what creation can do for students that analysis cannot.
Nurses, for example, use creative problem solving every day, and the training of nurses must emphasize that skill. But creativity encompasses much more because the problems that are often solved in creative problem solving—the thinking that is creative in the context of most disciplines outside the humanities—have a "right" or "best" answer. We want our students to be fluent in this skill, but don’t we also want them to engage in making meaning beyond solving problems?
Four years ago, I was on a semester-long medical leave to undergo a brutal treatment for a highly treatable cancer. The fact that I would recover was only small comfort during the worst of my treatment, in which I lost the ability to talk, swallow, drink, and eat. During that time, I received cards and emails, books and flowers, all welcome and precious. But the most profound gift I received came from my college’s nurse.
I had asked her in an email if I would heal, if my body would heal itself. I would heal, right? I was desperate for confirmation, and I thought that I wanted to hear something about cell reproduction and how many weeks or months it would take for the lining of my mouth to repair itself after radiation.
She sent me a poem by the 13th-century mystic Rumi, "The Guest House": "This being human is a guest house," the translation by Coleman Barks begins. "Every morning a new arrival."
A metaphor is, by its very nature, a lie. Sometimes it’s a simple lie; sometimes not. I am not a house. But during my illness, the image of myself as a guest house was a lie that told a truth I needed to hear, a lie that helped me to endure pain and suffering by telling me that along with suffering, the house that I was would also be visited by other guests. The poem instructed me to "welcome and entertain them all! / Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows / who violently sweep [my] house, / empty of its furniture."
Radiation and chemotherapy did not just sweep me clean; they stole much that spring. The biggest loss was connection with my children. Since I could not speak, and my youngest boys—4-year-old twins—could not yet read, we had a difficult time communicating. The poem, though, insisted that I "treat each guest honorably. / He may be clearing [me] out / for some new delight."
The nurse had prescribed just the right medicine, but it didn’t come in a bottle or require a prescription. The healing offered was a lie, but it held in its invention a profound wisdom that my radiologist could not administer. Would the poem have shrunk my tumor? No. Did I not want a treatment plan guided by the latest in modern medicine, the result of careful study and years of research? Of course. I’ve heard it said that the arts and humanities are "nice to have" but not "need to have." Four years ago, I needed a doctor who could treat my cancer with the most effective medical protocol available, but I also needed someone who understood the emotional aspects of healing.
Nurses and secretaries, computer programmers and auto mechanics, clerks and case workers, managers and accountants, dental hygienists and police officers are more than just highly trained practitioners of skills learned at the community colleges that produce our work force. They are human beings who are as befuddled and pained and lost and lovely and generous and confused as the rest of us—those of us who, as students, because of family wealth or an innate doggedness, were shown the gifts that are given through encounters with our own creativity and with the creative spirit of humans throughout time.
In early December, my students and I discussed the Langston Hughes poem "Night Funeral in Harlem," published nearly 70 years ago, which I had put on the syllabus in August: "Who preached that / Black boy to his grave? … The street light / At his corner / Shined just like a tear— / That boy that they was mournin’ / Was so dear, so dear / To them folks that brought the flowers, / To that girl who paid the preacher man— / It was all their tears that made / That poor boy’s / Funeral grand."
On that day, in college classrooms across America, my colleagues in criminal justice might have been discussing with their students police-community relations and the line between enforcement and brutality. A class in the paralegal program might be focusing attention on the recent Supreme Court rulings. A sociology class could be studying institutionalized racism; and a U.S. history class might be connecting our country’s history of lynching to the events in Ferguson and Staten Island.
But in my class, we look at poetry and art as ways to understand the world. To imagine another’s grief, to find meaning in the incomprehensible, to ask unanswerable questions, to learn about how people have coped with what Armstrong calls "the problematic human predicament"—these are not only valuable but necessary. The why and how of meaning-making have changed very little over time. No one would choose a treatment for a life-threatening illness that was used in 1949, but a poem published in 1949 might very well be the medicine to, if not heal us, then at least help us cope, nurture in ourselves and others compassion and tolerance, and, finally, offer some hope for our troubled world.
That freshman saw something profoundly relevant about Thoreau, whose observations of the flora and fauna around Concord and records of the water temperatures of Walden Pond have proved invaluable to climate scientists today. Thoreau was a citizen-scientist as well as a poet. His ideas, metaphors, and descriptions of the natural world, his call to live deliberately and simply and to stand up to injustice are hard to measure and quantify—but they continue to inspire us, to help us make meaning and to cope.
A healthy mixture of the analytical and creative. We need both.
Michelle Valois is a professor of English and chair of liberal arts and sciences and general studies at Mount Wachusett Community College.

Link to the article - but a subscription might be needed to read it online.

Friday, July 4, 2014


Finally posting after a year-long hiatus.  I have been writing a lot but publishing little and since this blog is mainly a repository for my published work, I haven't posted much, until today that is.  The Ampersand Review just published a new piece of mine "Latin for Butterfly," which you can read here:

Or below, in case the link fails, though the whole magazine is worth checking out.

The Ampersand Review is a lovely online zine, visually beautiful, great people to work with, too.  Enjoy.


Latin For Butterfly

Yours will be in the tonsils, cancer of the tonsils, caused by a virus someone gave you a long time ago, caused by a virus you gave someone or more than one someone, a Trojan horse of sorts:

Legs and lips, thighs and hips; smooth, curved, welcoming, and well coming in all shapes and sizes, dispositions, and native tongues; coming in various degrees of fury and need and needless fury; want, desire, admiration, affirmation, affection, and (occasionally) love. 

The human papillomavirus:

Human as in Mary, as in Jane, as in Mary Jane; as in names forgotten, names remembered, names chanted, whispered, sighed; names with strange consonant clusters and decorative umlauts; confusing and lying names.

Names that tasted salty and sweet and salty sweet; names that betrayed, names that caressed; names you will never say again; names tripping off the tongue and swimming–not in your blood, this is no aids virus, but treading water in swallowed mouthfuls of mournful small deaths before burying their molecular structure in the soft tissue of your oral cavity.

This molecular structure, when seen under a microscope, resembles the laurel wreathes presented to Olympian athletes first to cross the finish line. Only you are no winner, no champion, just a falling, fallen star: tramp, vamp, slut, tart, floozie, bimbo, hussy, strumpet, whore.

The names you call yourself in those unforgiving hours of those first nights come from a voice bequeathed but never claimed.

You hear papilloma: like papilio, Latin for butterfly; or papillon, French for the same; or Papillon, the 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen, which your father took the family to see at the local drive-in theater; a movie about a prison and a leper colony, a movie about friendship and freedom; and when the scene came where the bare breasts of the native women flash onto the screen, your mother leaned into the backseat and told your sister and you to lie down and close your eyes.

There was a leper with skin covered in boils, whose hands were missing fingers, and when he offered Steve McQueen the cigar from his mouth, McQueen took it and puffed, unflinching.

How did you know that I have dry leprosy, that it isn’t contagious? asked the leper.

I didn’t, answered McQueen.

This, these boils, those hands with missing fingers, you were allowed to see.

Papillon, as in butterfly, as in the tattoo on McQueen’s chest, as in his nickname, as in the movie’s final scene:

Papillon made it to freedom and for the rest of his life he lived a free man.

Human papillomavirus:

Butterflies and leprosy and the names you call yourself in the middle of the night and Paloma Picasso, whose advertisements for sunglasses were everywhere in the nineteen eighties in the big department stores of Stockholm, Sweden, where you went to reinvent yourself (and where you, quite possibly, were infected).

Papilloma, Paloma, Paloma Picasso: a stunning older woman, and you liked older women; dark, sophisticated, elegant.

But you, had you been born the daughter of the century’s most celebrated artist, would you have used your name to peddle sunglasses to the wannabe wealthy and glamorous?

No matter, you are not that daughter.

Your father was a tool and die maker who took the family to the drive-in theater to see action movies and who also got cancer, though another kind of cancer, but not from a virus: lung cancer, and it killed him in the end.

Human papillomavirus:

as in butterflies, as in prison, as in the glamorous daughter of a famous artist, as in all the women you ever loved, even those who broke your heart, especially those whose hearts you broke.  

as in jumping off a cliff into unforgiving waters and trusting in a raft made from jungle debris;

as in the butterfly effect and the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, a theory whose sole purpose is to stifle the chaos;

as in drive-in movie theaters and bare breasts and not looking away from bare breasts;

as in learning by the age of thirty to love your body, how it feels with another body but not always the same body;

as in learning by the age of fifty, in spite of those pre-dawn lapses into self-flagellation immediately following diagnosis, that it never did matter whose body, or how many or how few hours you knew its name before you exchanged phone numbers or bodily fluids;

as in Steve McQueen’s character, an innocent man wrongfully accused and sentenced to life in a penal colony, who jumps from a cliff with nothing but a crude flotation device and the desire for freedom;

as in unfolding, as in emerging, as in transforming,

as in the fluttering of wings:

tiny, tender, membranes,

finally freed from their impossible cocoon.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


I will paper your invitation
to the sky; universe your logic
and purple my memory of lost
satellites.  Once, I broke

the sound barrier; now I sand
time and wrinkle lost space.  Drip
the hourglass down, and smooth
the chutes of contradicting

galaxies.  How many light years
have spectrumed my appetite? 
I could eat consonants
whole, like M or B, swallow

the hues of my found vocabulary
and deliver unto you an uncertain
interpretation of Einstein’s
cosmological constant.  Complexion

me and blush to know: Here I am. 
Orbiting.  Never having left.  Conceding
gravitas.  Come away.  Gone never.
Have I and were we and where.

                                     ("Orbital" appears in Crack the Spine, issue 70)

Friday, June 14, 2013

What the Rain Says

I have a photograph of my sister,
my cousin, and myself.  Each of us
is barefoot and standing on wet grass
in gleaming plastic coats.  In the Instamatic’s
click, no one is fighting.  Our hair is flattened
slick and shiny and drops of rain trickle
down our grinning faces.  The rain said,
don’t hide, and we didn’t.

          If it rains on your wedding day,
          you will be rich.  If it rains
          on your birthday, you have been given
          the gift of prophecy but you won’t know it.

One midsummer, when I lived in Stockholm,
it rained so hard we cancelled our picnic
in the Archipelago.  Sat on the living
room floor with Benny and his dog
Gorbatjov and ate pasta with Gorgonzola sauce.
A few years later, Benny was dead.  He was buried
with his dog.  His mother told cousins and aunts
that he had died of cancer.  We queers
at the funeral knew better.  The rain didn’t fall
the day we buried Benny, but if it had,
it would have said, we all die of something. 

                 If you see a sparrow drop from the sky
                 when it is raining, your hair will fall out. 
                 Chemotherapy will do the same,
                 but not always.  Catch three raindrops
                 on your tongue, and your true love
                 returns to your bed; four and she never
                 walks back through the door. 

I have a garden.  When it rains, the flowers
in my garden bow as if in prayer,
but the next day, the weight of supplication
lifted, they shoot back up and face the sun.
The rain likes this resilience and resolve.

The next time it rains, I will follow
the flowers, kneel so low to the ground
my forehead touches the dirt.  Then,
I will think about sisters and cousins,
dead friends and lost dogs, and listen
when the rain says, let go.

                   ("What the Rain Says" appears in Outside In Travel and Literary Magazine.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Holding Pattern

You are waiting in the library with its stacks of books and stained glass windows; waiting in sunny coffee shops and dimly-lit barrooms; waiting at the dining room table, with three small children prattling away; waiting for the sun to set so you can fall asleep and for the sun to rise so you can, too, just because you can, because when you were ill you could not; waiting for a letter to arrive in the mail to seal a deal for a book you have yet to write; waiting in waiting rooms and bathrooms and in a double bed, alone; for sex; for love; for a still small tremor; for red lights to turn green and for green lights to turn red, just to prove to yourself that you can until it becomes absurd, waiting.

For a period because cancer treatment has stolen your youth; for scans and scopes to tell you the cancer has not returned, or to tell you it has; for your mother to die because you are so afraid of her death it hurts to be with her while she is still alive; for the boots you ordered to arrive in the mail; for snow because this year you will dress the part and not quit after one snowman while the children scream for more; you want more; you want to scream for more.

Because you cannot imagine what life would be like without it, this waiting, only you are not a patient person, and because you never had anything that you did not work for, you deem waiting a kind of work, the work of martyrs, tortured since the day they first said, I want, since they first wanted that second kiss.

Waiting, in train stations and on subway platforms; in airports and vestibules and foyers; in front of elevators and computer screens and outside post offices that open at nine o’clock and it is always eight-fifty-eight. 

Waiting, because something good is on its way, because nothing good ever stays, and if you do not wait for the next best thing, you may very well end up without the right boots and no postage stamps, and then you will never return that letter that never seems to come, the one that always begins,

Dearest Beloved, I have been waiting a long, long time for you.

                                ("Holding Pattern" appears in the spring 2013 issue of Map Literary.)