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Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Revisiting “Black Chalk” (1994) by Rochelle Owens

It’s hard to believe it has been almost 30 years since the long poem, “Black Chalk,” was published as a chapbook by Texture Press in Norman, Oklahoma. A companion video was filmed and produced in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to be debuted at the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Oklahoma.  


The text: 

The poem consists of three interwoven threads. The first consists of the arrival of the Spaniards in North America and the brutality and mass death. The second thread ties to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, not only his works of art the studio, but also his anatomical investigations. The third interwoven thread is one of societal malaise, where there is a great gulf between social classes, privilege vs homelessness, and consumer culture.  The interweavings and the repetition had an incantatory effect which generates levels of meaning as discordant sounds and disparate concepts are juxtaposed. 

Black Chalk (1994) by Rochelle Owens

In the video, the layering, interweaving of dialogue is manifestly powerful and the visual narrative adds levels of gallows humor, horror, and bourgeois creature comfort stripped bare. The experience of watching the video “Black Chalk” is both disconcerting and enlightening as the inescapable realization dawns on one that the discomfort is evidence of a deep connection with the text. 


Greedy devouring insatiable hunger.

The scene where a curly headed young man who could well have been a model in Leonardo 's studio devours a Peach. The extreme close up continues and lingers almost excruciatingly and is repeated a number of times just after lines about the Spaniards and the conquest are intoned which graphically illustrates the relentless, munching, finger licking horror of the Europeans rapacious destruction and ingestion of all that had pulp, which is to say, living value.

Gleeful celebrations of death.

Evoking the idea of an ecstatic dance macabre four privileged wealthy summer residents in a convertible luxury car echo medieval images from Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch gleefully chatting blankets infected with plague which invokes the smallpox outbreaks in Mexico and North America which killed indigenous on a genocidal scale and also the ship of fools plague infested ship refused quarter in all ports of call until a fateful “yes” with devastating consequences. The actors shriek with carnivalesque glee which invokes horror. The “hungry bum” refers to an existential state. 

The hungry bum played by George Economou picks up a fanny pack containing an empty wallet and then he repeats the act many times as the camera encircles him creating a dizzying vertiginous journey into a disruption of the boundary between self and other. The bum’s hands rip through the wallet and the emptiness of that very wallet reflects the bankrupt morality of 20th century Americans who are comfortable in their neat New England town and expensive cars and studios but the search for self ultimately yields empty seams and compulsively repetitive digging and searching.

The Studio: The “Chalk” of Art

A black chalk dirtied hand moves over ink and chalk sketches of hands, bodies, and fingers but all are fragmentary and none are fully formed. The scene suggests process, the work in progress, and the ultimate goal, perhaps Leonardo’s Vitruvian man from 1490. The only fully formed complete images in the studio are those the artist and young man who could be the artist’s model or an angel coming to give the gift of artistic creation. In the scene, a slender, aged but attractive woman, the artist, contemplates work in her studio. Her art elicits ideas of fragmentation or even dissection. The angel touches the artist’s withered hand and arm. The lines and the body parts on the canvas are smudged which gives an idea of creation, but also that there is an essential horror at the core of creation. It is simply not possible to have creation without contact with dissection, disruption, and a canvas smudged black and gray with cremains, which could be the “chalk” of art. 

There are many other repeated scenes, repeated snippets of dialogue and behaviors, all which build to a climax of vulnerability, invasion by the other, and profound grief. Some elicit visceral revulsion such as when we are confronted with the lusty munching of a peach, which represents the way the Europeans devoured the civilizations of the Americas.

The Artist

At the end, the artist’s chair is empty. This means, at the end of the day, the artist is obliged to depart. The artist’s white plastic beach chair is empty.  In the world of Black Chalk, the artists is not a god or even Shiva. It is important to consider that the artist could even represent nothingness. The responsibility of meaning is in the consciousness of the viewer.

---Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

"Oklahoma Too" - A Rare Video Gem by Rochelle Owens: Humor, Disruptions of Language, and a Question of What Is Real

The short film, Oklahoma Too, written and directed by Rochelle Owens in 1987, is filled with wry humor and social commentary. In addition, it is an exploration of the capacity of language to classify, represent truth, human desire and behavior, and ultimately to contain the seeds of its own disruption of meaning(s). 

In the gift store, Voila, in Oklahoma Too


How Much Paint Does the Painting Need 


Filmed in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1987 during the depths of the oil bust, Oklahoma Too takes place in a gift store across the street from Norman Public Library on Gray St. and also in the nicely appointed living room in a private home. 

(Personal note: There was a used bookstore in the same shopping center. I used to ride my bicycle to it after visiting the library in the mid 1970s, when the library was very new. I think it is possible that the used bookstore is still there. I used to buy and sell Regency romances as well as Jane Austen novels. The first Jane Austen novel I read or attempted to read was Sense and Sensibility, purchased in paperback form in Vermont).

The name of the store is Voila and it features jewelry in locked glass cases, plus gifts and lovely collectible decorative pieces for the home including cloisonné and China figurines such as a whimsical ornamental rabbit dressed in a jacket, reminiscent of the rabbit in Alice In Wonderland.

Gold nugget jewelry, fashionable in the 1980s, plays a prominent role in the film. Contrary to what one might think, based on the appearance of the nuggets, they were not mined by bearded prospectors panning for gold in streams in Nevada or California.  Instead, the chunks of gold were 14 karat confections fashioned to look like nuggets and worked into pendants, rings, and earrings, and often considered investment pieces. Such an investment was a good one in the 1980s when gold and silver skyrocketed in price. In the video, the inauthenticity of the “gold nuggets” introduces a tension between appearance and reality, and the way that language convinces one of “the real.”


The video has several key characters. They include three upper middle class professional women eager to purchase something novel to reinforce their social status. Next is Mr. Markup, the owner of a line of nugget jewelry. He recruits a graduate student from Greece to sell the nugget jewelry to pay tuition. Finally, there is a local man who sits behind a jewelry case and reads excerpts from a poem by Owens, “Anthropologist at a Dinner Party” that later appeared in the collection, How Much Paint Does the Painting Need. 


The poem, “Anthropologists at a Dinner Party” was inspired by an actual dinner party with professors from the University of Oklahoma which included George Economou, chair of the English department, and professors from the anthropology department. 

Although one of the anthropology professors ostensibly specializes in Native American culture, he brings the history of the peoples of northern Europe to the conversation. Despite his specialty, he himself is of European origin, and not Native American. He talks about Picts in Northern Europe and then mentions Aryans and intermarriage. The professor’s narrative is subverted by subtexts of eugenics, a theme that underscores a later work by Owens, “Black Chalk.” The history of Oklahoma informs Oklahoma Too, which includes the removal of Native Americans, the Trail of Tears, and a history of cultural destruction and the many attempts to subjugate, exploit, and potentially eradicate Native American peoples.


The film commences as three women dressed as the elite of a small college town appear in the opening scene. The cast of men consists of the entrepreneur and an impecunious graduate student along with a diffident potential customer of gold nuggets or other trinkets. 

Owens has said that she typecasts to facilitate and energize improvisation.  In Oklahoma Too improvisations occur in the jewelry store and then later in the scene when the graduate student is attempting to sell the gold nugget jewelry. He's in the living room of a home of one of two women and the more insistent he becomes the more they resist. They even counter his sales pitch with one of their own: Why not contribute funds to save the Arctic seals being clubbed to death by hunters? There is an element of the absurd in not only the lively and humorous dialogue, but also in the exaggerated Western wear that the foreign student from Greece wears. He is a Greek cowboy wholeheartedly embracing the accoutrements of local culture, and thus potentially equipping himself to be more convincing in the heart of Oklahoma. 

Whether the Greek graduate student’s pitch succeeds, or if the women succeed in convincing him to donate to their cause, is part of the negotiation of text and textual space that marks Oklahoma Too. In fact, one could consider the improvisations as ultimate language play.  One can further suggest the dialogue, with its many levels of ambiguity, and the three voices speaking over each other, are, by their very indeterminacy, a part of the world of art.  Reality is a series of complex negotiations. Signification is just one of those negotiations. Another language negotiation is the right to deconstruct, which embodies the right to collapse and implode language itself the ultimate liberation from oneself and impositions of identity and thus fate.


“Foreign” vs. “Local:” The film toys with the notion of “foreign,” and suggests that all are constructed identities. In fact, when the “foreigner” (the Greek graduate student) dons the apparel of the Western cowboy, he reinforces the notion that appearances always deceive. 

“Faux” vs. “Authentic” nature:  The “gold nuggets” are shaped to look like they came straight from a prospector’s gold-panning operations, with his donkey observing from the edge of the stream. In reality, they are simply lumps of 14K gold (or even just coated with a veneer of gold to be “gold filled”). At any rate, gold is melted and fashioned into a shape that mimics authentic nuggets. 

Con the Con: Mr. Markup is telling the graduate student that he can sell nuggets and earn enough for tuition. In a flash, the Greek graduate student becomes an accomplished sales rep, with a stunning repertoire of sales pitches.  The bourgeois women are likewise cons – except what they “sell” is participation in a high-status philanthropical “cause.” They try to convince the graduate student to contribute to their fund to “save the seals.”


The poem by Owens satirizes university faculty and the conversations they have at dinner parties, which are almost always remembered in retrospect as a platform for one or two dominating, bloviating know-it-alls, who, despite their seeming commitment to liberal perspectives (human rights, civil rights, etc.), reveal their internalization and unconscious espousal of normative forces.  In this case, there is a subtext of eugenics. 

Owens’s vision and direction create an energetic scene In the living room as all three actors speak over each other, creating “noise” rather than clear dialogue. Their attempts to con the others into giving money to their own cause or self-interest explore the way that the audience tries to make sense – which voice dominates? Which one can you follow? The fact that all three voices are of equal valence is critical:  at the end of the day, cacophony prevails. Art is what happens when clarity comes from the cacophony. The artist provides the clarity.

It is also worth noting that the Voila gift store was a charming oasis. The University was likewise an intellectual and spiritual oasis, which fostered creativity and self-expression during the mid to late 1980s, when Oklahoma suffered through the devastating “Oil Bust” and farm crisis. 

---Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

O Jaw Bone: The Experience of the Two Choctaw Removals in Poetry and Biography

In the winter of 1831, the Choctaw Indians were forced out at gunpoint to walk barefoot and in thin clothing from their homelands, 11 million acres in what is now Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, to the Indian Territory in what is now southeast Oklahoma.  There are historical accounts of the privation, suffering, and extreme cruelty, but I did not realize that anyone who made the terrible journey had written a song or a poem.  

The Gilcrease Museum (located in Tulsa, Oklahoma), actually has a document written by an unnamed author about the removal. It appears on the Choctaw Nation website: 


1. Jackson send the Secretary War
To the Indians of the law
Walk o jaw bone walk I say
Walk o jaw bone walk away.

2. Eaton tells us go away
Here no longer you can stay
Walk o jaw bone walk I say
Walk o jaw bone walk away

3. On my way to the Arkansas
G_d d__n the white man’s laws
O come and go along with me
O come and go along with me

The manuscript of the poem by an unnamed Choctaw author

 The website contains the poem along with a guide to understanding the people mentioned in the poem.  Reading the poem and imagining the cruelty of the suffering, especially to the elderly and the young, gives me chills. 


Until today, I did not realize that there was a second Choctaw Removal.  It took place in 1903, and coincided with the dissolution of the Choctaw Nation. In it, Choctaws were sent by train to Ardmore, Oklahoma, which was in the Choctaw Nation.  The way they were transported was brutal – they were loaded like cattle onto box cars, and when they arrived in Ardmore, they were imprisoned in a warehouse, where there was no ventilation, sanitation, heat, or adequate food (  Some were then shipped out to different farms and locations where they had to work for a place to sleep. Others were given allotments of land that had no water or arable land. Some stayed in Ardmore, living in abject destitution. 


My mother was born in Ardmore in 1932.  My grandmother had lived in that town, staring in the late 1920s, and I remember her telling me that the way the Choctaw Indians had to live was worse than criminal. In addition to a lack of food and water, the Mississippi Choctaws suffered from outbreaks of disease. Despite the desperate poverty, the Choctaws pulled together the best they could and preserved their dress, songs, beliefs and culture. Here is a link to Choctaw tribal members wearing traditional outfits: 


Lesa Phillips Roberts (1889 – 1994) was a very Choctaw girl who survived the Second Removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma. She ended up in Atoka, Oklahoma, where life was very precarious. The Mississippi Choctaws were given allotments of land, but they were often in undesirable areas, and the Choctaws already in Oklahoma were often placed in conflict with them.  Her life story was captured by her son, Charles Roberts, near the end of her life. It was published in The American Indian Quarterly in 1990 in an article entitled “A Choctaw Odyssey, The Life of Lesa Phillip Roberts.” 

The Choctaw Nation Cultural Center is located in Calera, Oklahoma, near the town of Durant.  Durant is a regional center with a four-year university (Southeast Oklahoma State University), Choctaw business enterprises (casino, food products), and the Choctaw Nation Tribal Complex.    

Friday, May 12, 2023

History of Oil-Finders Friday: South Texas Serpentine Plugs

 The 1915 headlines read, ‘Oil in an Igneous Rock,” which certainly piqued the curiosity of oil finders, used to displaying their porous sandstone and limestone cores, stained with oil, in their office display cases.

But, in South Texas, they had done it. They had found oil in a green igneous rock they dubbed “serpentine,” even though it was actually an altered tuff resulting from underwater volcanic eruptions.

Udden, J. A., and Bybee, H. P., and others, 1916

The adventure had started a year earlier. In 1914, Fritz Fuchs, a rancher deep in south Texas near the small town of Thrall, decided to drill a water well for his cattle. He did not encounter water, but at about 300 feet, he brought up a strange mix of oil, salt water, and what appeared to be weathered igneous rock, green in color. Mystified, he called the University of Texas geology department to see if they could shed light. The result was a well drilled in February 1915, which was the discovery well for the Thrall field, and the first of many so-called “serpentine plugs.”

At least one study has pointed out that the deposition of the tuffaceous mounds occurred in conjunction with submarine volcanic vents which emitted volcanic ash which then was deposited in the form of mounds, which subsequently altered to palagonite. The volcanic activity occurred with the deposition of chalk and marl of the upper Austin and lower Taylor Groups, which served as both source and seal. 

Interaction between the submarine volcanic system and carbonates

It turns out that all along a belt of volcanic activity, there were similar submarine volcanic eruptions and they became perfect reservoirs for oil generated in the adjacent source rocks. The stratigraphic traps were found in the porous zones of tuff, and also in porous zones in the surrounding carbonates, and in traps in sands draping over the serpentine plug, and in fracture porosity in the carbonates near the plugs (Loucks, 2022).

The wells could be incredibly prolific, with a feature covering less than 10 acres producing 100,000 barrels. Others were not as prolific. However, by 1986, more than 47 million barrels had been produced (Matthews, 1986).

The serpentine plugs are found associated with the volcanic centers that align with the pre-Tertiary Balcones and Luling regional fault and fracture systems. Some of the minerals in the tuffaceous mounds are magnetic, resulting in magnetic anomalies. 

Some of the minerals in the tuffaceous mounds are magnetic, resulting in magnetic anomalies. While the first oil-rich serpentine plug was discovered by accident, science was used to discover dozens of the features scattered along the belt of pre-Tertiary-age submarine volcanic activity. The fact that the features tended to be shallow and of dramatically different lithology than the surrounding carbonates, and that were often oil seeps, made it possible to use new methods, which included surface geochemistry, in which soil samples were taken, and plants observed to see if they were affected by hydrocarbons in the soil. Second, newly developed magnetometers were used. Most were truck-mounted, and they were able to detect anomalies by means of differences in the magnetic field.

Source: Loucks, 2022

The features were small, and it took a lot of patience to find them, but when they did, the wells could be extremely prolific. Ranging from just a few feet deep, to 5,000 feet deep, the wells were inexpensive to drill.

Today, with high-resolution drone-mounted magnetometers, and highly accurate surface geochemistry, it’s possible to revisit a fascinating play, which to this day is one of the few areas of the world where oil is found in igneous rocks.

I love this play, and I’m thrilled to have an original copy of the November 25, 1916 Bulletin of the University of Texas published by the Bureau of Economic Geology and Technology which is dedicated to the Thrall Oil Field. 


Loucks, R. G., R. R. Reed (15 April 2022) Implications for carbonate mass-wasting complexes induced by volcanism from Upper Cretaceous Austin Chalk strata in the Maverick Basin and San Marcos Arch areas of south-central Texas, USA. Sedimentary Geology. Vol 432. 

Matthews, T. F. (1986) The Petroleum Potential of "Serpentine Plugs" and Associated Rocks, Central and South Texas. Baylor Geological Studies Bulletin, Spring 1986.  

Udden, J. A., and Bybee, H. P., and others, 1916, The Thrall Oil Field, by J. A. Udden and H. P. Bybee [and] Ozokerite from the Thrall Oil Field, by E. P. Schoch [and] The Chemical Composition of the Petroleums Obtained at Thrall, Texas, by E. P. Schoch and W. T. Read: University of Texas, Austin, Bureau of Economic Geology and Technology, Bulletin 66, 93 p.

Friday, May 05, 2023

History of Oil Finders Friday: Dunkirk Black Shale Gas Well, 1825, in Fredonia, New York

In the 1820s in Fredonia, New York, William Aaron Hart, a local gunsmith long curious about the gas seeps emanating from the nearby Canadaway Creek, decided to investigate. According to a historical report, he first tested the gas by collecting it in a flipped-over washtub, inserting a gun barrel in a hole, and then lighting the gas as it flowed through the gun barrel.  

Encouraged, Hart started to investigate the origin of the gas seeps, and soon found that they were coming from what he referred to as “slaty rock,” which was later classified as the Dunkirk shale, an upper Devonian black shale, typified by prominent and numerous joints and fracture networks. Early geologists such as Lewis Caleb Beck (1798-1853) studied not only the geology and mineralogy, but the surrounding vegetation as well. 

The Dunkirk shale is a very low-permeability source rock which reached the oil window for hydrocarbon generation during the Permian.  Heat flow occurred at the same time that the tectonic events were propagating the joints throughout the Devonian section in the Finger Lakes District (Lash, 2014). In other words, Gary Lash and his fellow researchers found that petroleum generation was a joint-driving mechanism, due to thermally-driven phase change.

Randy Blood, who studied under Gary Lash, has continued to do extensive fieldwork and to make further connections between thermal maturation and the development of massive joint systems which create a robust and persistent gas reservoir and migration pathway. The exploration implications are significant. 

Gas generation from the upper Devonian black shales resulted from the desorption of methane from the surface of residual organic material (kerogen and bitumen) and clay minerals, principally illite. Production, however, depends the size, frequency, and interconnectedness of natural jointing.  

After continuing to investigate and experiment, in 1825 Hart drilled a 27-foot hole into the rock, and encountered gas that would flow at a rate sufficient for him to invent and implement a small pipeline (first made of bamboo) and to use the gas in gas lamps, first in farms, a mill, and later in a hotel and a lighthouse. 

Several years later, Preston Barmore, a creative engineer unfazed by what might happen as one ramped up the production volumes of natural gas, decided to drill a well to 127 feet in depth, and, when frustrated by the low volume of gas, decided to ignite the gas, causing downhole explosions (Martin, etal, 2008). This early version of fracing was highly effective. 

Within a few years, hundreds of wells were drilled in the shallow Dunkirk shale, and pipelines were constructed to distribute the gas to street lamps, making Fredonia one of the first towns in the world to have gas street lamps (Martin, et al, 2008). Other pipelines were built in western and upstate New York, including ones constructed of hollowed-out tree logs, used for transporting produced salt water to evaporation ponds.

Whether or not the shallow, low-volume gas reservoirs of the Dunkirk shale might still have economic potential given current regulatory frameworks is something to be pursued. Because there were so many active gas seeps in the past, it might be worthwhile to conduct airborne surveys to detect methane and to see if there are any concentrations around natural seeps. There could be local uses for low-volume gas for innovative geologists and engineers today as well as almost 200 years ago. 


Blood, R., and Lash, G. (2019). Horizontal Targeting Strategies and Challenges: Examples from the Marcellus Shale, Appalachian Basin, USA. Conference: Unconventional Resources Technology Conference (URTeC),2019 - Denver, CO. 

Lash, G., Loewy, St., and T. Engelder (2004). Preferential jointing of Upper Devonian black shale, Appalachian Plateau, USA: evidence supporting hydrocarbon generation as a joint-driving mechanism. Geological Society of London. Special Publications. Vol. 231:1, p 129-161. 

Lash, G. G., and E. P. Lash (2014) Early History of the Natural Gas Industry, Fredonia, New York. Search and Discovery Article. August 29, 2014.  

Lash, G., and E. Lash (May 2015) The Unsung “Father of the Natural Gas Industry” AAPG Explorer. May 2015. 

MacDonald, Ronald (2002) Application of Innovative Technologies to Fractured Devonian Shale Reservoir Exploration and Development Activities, Proceedings of the Forty-First Annual OPI Conference, Ontario Petroleum Institute, November 4-6. 

Martin, J P., Hill, D. G., Lombardi, T. E., Nyahay, R. (2008). A Primer on New York’s Gas Shales. New York State Geological Association: NYSGA Online.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Interview with Maureen Mahoney, Director of Online Learning with the National Speakers Association

Welcome to an interview with Maureen Mahoney, a multi-faceted professional who has experience and training in broadcast production, improvisation comedy, and virtual training programs. 

What is your background?

My background is a little all over the place but I have found that my career has really come full circle thanks to the advancements of technology! I graduated from Loyola University New Orleans with a major in Broadcast Production and a minor in History.  Post-graduation and thanks to Hurricane Katrina I was forced to relocate back to my home state of Texas, landing a job in Midland-Odessa as a local TV News Producer. After that experience, found myself in the Insurance industry, working with advisors, helping them build their brand and ran sales and marketing trainings.  After rising through the ranks and a move to Chicago, I found myself in the eLearning industry, building interactive experiences for advisors and running virtual training programs.  Outside of work, I was formally trained in improvised comedy at The Second City & iO Chicago Training Centers performing with my improv group over the last several years around the country.  All of these experiences have been instrumental in my current position as the Director of Online Learning with the National Speakers Association! 

How did you come to be interested in topics of professional and personal well-being?  What are some of the hidden issues that can block people without their being aware of the root cause? (ex. attention deficit disorder, Postpartum depression, dyslexia, etc.) 

This is actually an area I am super passionate about. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was around 6 or 7 years old.  This was in the late 80’s/early 90’s and there wasn’t a lot of information back then.  Growing up I was always told to take my meds and I would grow out of it.  No one ever explained what ADHD was or what some of the symptoms were that I was experiencing.  I was just told that I was different and that I qualify for special testing privileges.  Once I graduated college, I stopped talking my medication because, “I’m an adult now! I’ve been cured!”

It wasn’t until 8 years ago that I reached a breaking point.  Nothing was working in my life personally or professionally.  At work, it felt like I couldn’t please anyone. I kept getting told I wasn’t working hard enough, I talk too much, I was told not to share personal information about myself, I was told, “You may want to keep the fact that you have ADHD to yourself because your team will look down on you,” I was even told to change the look on my face. Spoiler alert, these are all ADHD symptoms (Maybe not the look on my face!). 

I finally started to see a therapist. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was! It felt like a bit of a failure on my end that I needed a therapist but she said something to me that made sense. “When a business is failing, you hire a consultant to work with you to get things back on track.  How is this different?” As I started building my relationship with my therapist, it was very hard at first.  She would ask me questions that I didn’t like.  She was telling me things about my situation that I thought she was dead wrong about.  I stuck with her though.  One day she suggested I get back on my medication. I was reluctant cause I thought I outgrew ADHD! As soon as I got back on my medication, everything changed. It was this ah-ha moment that I need this to function.  Soon, things started falling into place.

While yes, getting back on my medication was step one, it wasn’t until I started working at the National Speakers Association that I really started to embrace my ADHD.  I was meeting incredibly successful people who speak on ADHD, meeting experts with PhD’s on it.  I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about this disorder, and I have it! 

When it comes to these hidden disorders of ADHD, dyslexia, post-partum, etc., they are so much more common than you think and there are many people who have these challenges and they don’t even know they have it.  Or like me, they’ve been told to hide it, or they know they have it but have found a survival method to live with it.  The reality is we are human, and we need to embrace our differences and our challenges. The future can be an amazing place! These days, there are so much more resources, education, and technology around these things that can dramatically improve your life.

Just like anything else, you just need to do the work. It’s your responsibility to educate yourself. We learned this lesson over the pandemic.  Change doesn’t happen overnight.  It’s a trial-and-error period that I like to call “growing pains.” Some days you are on top of the world and some days feel like a failure.  It’s not a failure, its just a growing pain!  If you can commit to learn or implement one new thing a week to better your life, that’s a pretty big toolbox you built in just one year! 

How can a person turn what they had considered a disadvantage to an advantage? 

I am a glass half full kinda gal. I think you can spin any disadvantage into an advantage with the right mindset. You need to focus on what YOU can control.  There are so many things out of our control especially when we are living in a time where it seems like we keep losing so much of our control! You don’t have control over the weather, but you can control what you wear when you go outside.  You can’t control what’s going on in politics, but you can control how you vote.  There are probably things going on at your organization that seem doom and gloom that you can’t control.  You can control the way that you show up every day and your attitude.  Take a deep breath and be present with yourself in that feeling of disadvantage and ask yourself:

What are the things I cannot control?

What are the things I CAN control?

Out of the things you said that you can control, assess the situation.  Is there a way that you can help? How can you fill a void that needs to be filled? Perhaps you just need to stay out of the situation entirely and take yourself out of it.  There is always some kind of way forward.

Please recommend a book that you have really enjoyed. 

Surprisingly my favorite book that I’ve read lately is, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” I have found this to be so incredibly relevant in my professional and personal life, especially if you are in a leadership role at your organization. Learning about how Lincoln handled his strong minded cabinet with opposing views, big egos, in a life or death situation is truly remarkable. So many lessons and insights came out of that book for me!

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Interview with Thomas Fink: Poet, Essayist, Literary Critic, and Abstract Painter

Welcome to an interview with Thomas Fink, whose latest collection of poetry, Zeugma, a fascinating title for a rhetorical term that refers to a single word that links disparate ideas ("she broke his glass sculpture and his heart").  It is a great pleasure to have the chance to learn more about his background and some of the ideas that inform his poetics, criticism, and art.  In addition to his artistic and scholarly work, Fink has supported publishers and writing programs such as the Marsh Hawk Press

What is your name and background?

I’m Thomas Fink, a professor of English at City University of New York’s LaGuardia Community College for the past 41 years. I’ve published twelve books of poetry and two books of criticism about contemporary poetry, as well as a recent book on teaching college students to interpret poetry. I “moonlight” as an abstract painter.

Portrait of Thomas Fink by Maya D. Mason

When did you become interested in experimental or avant-garde poetry?

When I graduated from Princeton University in 1976 and was just about to enter the MA and PhD program at Columbia University, a high school friend gave me John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror as a present. At first, I found the book infuriating, but eventually, it opened me up to a wide range of avant-garde poetry, and I wrote the third doctoral dissertation (after David Shapiro and Donald Revell) on Ashbery’s work. 

What makes a poem experimental or avant-garde... especially in 2023? 

I’ve given up trying to answer that question! For one thing, if I were to try to apply it to my own poetry-writing process, writer’s block would set in and persist indefinitely. The innovative practices and procedures that have been around since World War II or even before are still viable but can hardly be called avant-garde any longer. Some proponents of what is labeled Conceptual poetry perceive their poetics as a replacement for those earlier practices, which they consider exhausted and not worth “repeating.” I don’t agree. Others believe that particular kinds of politicizing of poetry, whether tied to formal choices or not, are the most authentic, useful avant-garde gestures. Sometimes I find that this approach produces poetry that is both intellectually and aesthetically compelling.   

Please tell us a bit about your collection, Zeugma.  What is the main focus?

I didn’t set out to have a single focus in Zeugma. But in her Foreword, Patricia Carlin finds that the title, which implies the yoking together of disparate things, is enacted in the book itself and hence serves as a focus to represent “the fragmented, unstable, and confusing contemporary scene” (9). It would be hard not to view “Bewilderness,” the opening poem, as a reflection on the pandemic, and individual poems surely have references, sometimes oblique and sometimes not, to extremism in the Republican Party. 


I think everyone will recognize the allusion in the title of “November 7, 2020.” A bunch of poems are written in a hybrid form that I came up with called “Sonnina”; it’s a cross between a sonnet and a sestina. Also, there are continuations of long-running series: “Yinglish Strophes,” which uses an approximation (and often an exaggeration) of Yiddish-inflected English syntax to air topics such as intergenerational differences/connections in a family and perspectives forged by immigration, “Goad,” which actually reflects the theme implied in its title, and “Dusk Bowl Intimacies,” which registers both displacements and quests for individual security. The verse-play, “Who My People Are,” may also reflect some concerns of the three series I’ve mentioned. 

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