I was an English major in college. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience taught me to read in a particular way: to approach texts as if each one had a singular, internally consistent meaning I could discover through close attention to details and the relationships between them. Like a good New Critic, I applied this lesson to everything I read, including the poetry I was assigned for my major and the articles on public health and American history that were assigned in other classes. No matter what I was reading, I was reading for the “argument,” a central idea I could bring up in discussion or respond to in my papers and exams. My professors encouraged me to believe my work as a reader was to decipher, interpret, and respond to these arguments. Explication was paramount. As a result of this training, my reading muscles are strong. After four years of full-time teaching, however, I’m starting to wonder about the limits of my argument-seeking approach to reading and how it might be playing out in my classroom. And I’m starting to doubt that I’m the sensitive, all-around reader I imagine myself to be. Perhaps I’m more like an athlete who spends so much time building up his biceps that his leg muscles have started to atrophy.
My purpose in this essay is to explore two styles of reading, the argument-focused approach I describe above and a more open-ended, “transactional” style I’m trying to cultivate. In order to show the styles in action, I will describe a reading experience that frustrated me and three approaches I am experimenting with in the classroom. I would appreciate hearing your stories about reading’s possibilities, as well, so please check-in in the comments section below.
Struggling with Scalapino
After defending my dissertation in October 2015, I turned to a new project: co-chairing a seminar on poetry and poetics at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference. My contribution to the seminar was to be an analysis of New Time, a book-length poem by the experimental American writer Leslie Scalapino. Here’s a section of the poem I planned to discuss:
for Joanne de Phillips, playing Frank Martin’s Irish Trio
As you can see, the poem is difficult. It starts in the middle and shifts unexpectedly from idea to idea. Reading the poem out loud feels like meditating or/and like being challenged to attend to something important that is happening just beyond the possibility of conscious understanding. (You can listen to Scalapino reading a related poem, “bum series,” in a video project created with the artist Konrad Steiner here: https://vimeo.com/36815960.) In the weeks before the conference, I started to worry I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything intelligible to say. I read and reread the poem, dog-earing pages and taking notes, and thought through what other scholars had written about Scalapino and other poets in her circle. When I sat down to write, though, I found myself stuck. I didn’t understand what I was reading. The poem made no sense, or else it made too much sense to explain. I felt confused, defeated, and ashamed.
Charles Bernstein, a poet, critic, and teacher who was a friend of Scalapino’s in the 1980s, has long advocated for an approach to experiencing and interpreting difficult texts that he calls “creative wreading.” The practice involves transforming texts by translating, erasing, and disrupting them through a set of procedures. As Bernstein explains in Attack of the Difficult Poems, the purposes of “wreading” are twofold. First, the practice enables readers to “investigate the recombinant structure[s]” of texts and the degree to which a text “retains its identity through modification of its constituent elements.” Second, it encourages “more intuitive, even visceral, contact” with textual materials. The principle underlying Bernstein’s approach is the idea that “you can’t interpret what you don’t experience.” (Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann demonstrate a similar approach in their article “Deformance and Interpretation.”)
Reading New Time with Bernstein’s “wreading” in mind made me slow down. Rather than trying to organize the poem’s references into some composite meaning or argument, I paused to absorb its many possibilities. For example, I thought about the relationships between the waste collection scene at the beginning of the passage above and the concert scene at the end. Where I had been asking, “what does a performance of Frank Martin’s ‘Irish Trio’ have to do with entrepreneurial garbage pickers?” I wondered, instead, “what if we put cellos out for recycling and played music on empty bottles?” and “what if the ‘destitute men’ were attending a cello performance instead of collecting bottles?”
While I’m not sure these questions are useful, I’m also not sure they are pointless. Whatever their merits, they helped me finish my talk and left me more interested in New Time and in Scalapino’s larger body of work than I had been when I started reading. I concluded my talk with a description of how it felt when I stopped reading for the poem’s argument and started allowing meanings to emerge:
If my reading of New Time is inconclusive, which it is, my experience of reading the poem is less so. Pursuing the poem’s possibilities rather than pressing against its frustrations forces me to take responsibility for the kinds of meanings that ‘register’ in my encounter with the text and to recognize that each meaning I create with the poem is different from the meanings Scalapino experienced and from the meanings other readers experience.
Experimenting in Class
As a result of my struggle with New Time, I have started to experiment with different kinds of reading activities in my first-year writing classes. Modelled on Bernstein’s “creative wreading” approach, the activities encourage students to experience the texts we are reading more fully and to persevere when they feel like they are missing something. Some of the activities have worked well and others have failed. I describe three of them below. My hope in introducing the activities has been that they will help students build confidence in the insights they have as they read. By doing that, I also hope that they will enable students to construct more dynamic understandings of our course materials. More than anything else, I want my students to trust their responses to the texts we read, not because their responses are correct or comprehensive, but because, as Rosenblatt theorizes, their responses are integral parts of the “transaction” that comprises the text’s meaning.
Reading by association: The first activity builds directly on Bernstein’s “creative wreading” strategies (a complete list of Bernstein’s strategies is available here: http://writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/wreading-experiments.html). I ask students to read a section of the text and copy down 5-10 words or two-word phrases that seem important. For each word or phrase, they draw an arrow and add the next word or phrase that comes to mind and then a second arrow and the next word or phrase. Applying this strategy to Scalapino’s poem might look something like this:
The matrix of associations becomes a new text. Some of the associations point back to the poem, for example, “homelessness,” “poverty,” and “escape,” while others point elsewhere, “dew,” “Christmas tree,” and “construction crew.” The point of the activity is to experience all of these possibilities and to recognize which ones seem helpful, which ones seem provocative, which ones seem like dead ends. When the activity works, several things happen: students laugh at the wilder associations, come up with more than two columns of new ideas, and get upset when someone else’s associations take our discussion too far from a meaning they have invested in. The activity fails when I can’t stop myself from pushing for singular arguments or when students aren’t willing to risk coming up with interpretations that float away from the words on the page. As in Bernstein’s “creative wreading,” the associations serve as a beginning point for further discussion, writing, and research.
Reading by believing: The second activity draws on the practical wisdom of Peter Elbow’s “Believing Game.” Elbow describes the “believing” method in an essay appended to Writing Without Teachers. The essence of the method is to entertain multiple possibilities of meaning while reading and to continue to believe as many as possible until one starts to seem like the most likely meaning. He elaborates on how the method works by contrasting it with another method, “doubting,” which he explains as a practice that aims to protect readers from errors by probing for inconsistencies. “Believing” reorients this process of suspicious interpretation. Rather than reading for details and identifying and “doubting” patterns among them, a reader who “believes,” in Elbow’s sense, starts from a sense of the text’s overall meaning—its “gestalt”—and then considers how well that meaning accommodates the text’s many details. When new meanings emerge, the reader adds them a list of possible meanings rather than seeking to disprove them or reconcile them with a previous understanding.
Like Bernstein, Elbow prioritizes the experience of reading over the results of interpretation. “Because words are full of redundancy and ambiguity,” he explains, “you’ve got to hold up in the air countless possible meanings of parts—and even meanings of the whole—and then find the whole that makes the most sense. While “believing” in the meanings that emerge as we read might seem simple, the practice is actually quite challenging. Scroll back to the passage from Scalapino’s New Time above. Believe, for a moment, that the poem really means to tell us about a crisp winter morning in the city. How well do the details of the text align with that interpretation? Still imagining that meaning to be true, believe that the poem shows us the truth about humanity’s relation to the objects it creates. How well do the details of the text align with that interpretation? How has believing both meanings simultaneously changed the way you think about the poem?
To put Elbow’s “believing” method into practice, I ask students to read a text and trust their gut instincts about what it means overall rather than worrying about what they don’t understand. After they write a sentence or two summarizing their sense of the overall meaning or purpose of the text, I ask them to identify one or two details they don’t immediately understand. For a poem, these details might be lines or phrases. For prose, the details might be paragraphs or whole sections of the text. Once they’ve identified the details that still seem hard to understand, I ask them to freewrite using the following template: “Since I know the text means ______________________, the detail about ____________________ must mean ______________________.” I encourage them to write as many different versions of this sentence as they can for each of the confusing details they identified. The purpose of the activity is not for students to come up with correct interpretations of the text or of any one of the details. Instead, what I hope happens is that the activity helps students recognize that some of the meanings they construct are more believable than others. My sense from Elbow is that recognizing the possibility that some meanings are more or less likely than others is a first step toward recognizing that meanings (plural) rather than meaning (singular) are the more attractive outcome of reading.
Reading with pictures: The third activity combines Bernstein’s principles of “creative wreading” with Elbow’s strategy of “believing” and transfers the activity of reading from interpreting texts to creating images. Reading with pictures follows the same general steps as reading by association and reading by believing. Students read a text then respond. Their task in this activity is to draw a picture or diagram that helps them understand some aspect of the text. I generally allow 10 minutes for drawing and then ask for volunteers to show and explain what they’ve drawn. I think the instruction to draw one aspect of the text induces “believing” in two ways. First, drawing takes almost everyone out of their comfort zone, especially since most of us end up drawing on lined notebook paper with whatever pen or pencil we brought to class. Second, focusing on one aspect of the text rather than all of it at once clears our minds of doubts that might creep in if we had to account for everything. To put it another way, my students are much more likely to draw something they understand than something they don’t, and they are much less concerned with how their drawings look—even if I’ve told them I plan to collect them for a grade—than they are with the quality of their written work. I’ve also noticed that writing assignments that start with pictures and then proceed to arguments often focus more closely on specific details than those that start with words alone.
The first time I tried to read Scapalino’s poem with pictures, I drew stick figures kneeling in the snow. I thought of prayer when I saw what I had drawn. The idea of prayer transformed the sound I heard when I reached “Frank Martin’s Irish Trio” from the jig I had been imagining into a church choir. I wondered if the poet had heard the piece at a funeral, or if perhaps one of the “destitute men” had frozen to death. I thought about the relationships between death and recycling and between the routines we follow in disposing of bodies and plastic bottles. While my guess is that most of these ideas would not be useful for explaining the poem, the stick figures I drew gave me a way to organize at least some of what had confused me on a first reading. Similar things happen in class when we work through the activity. It is exciting to listen as students compare what they have drawn and realize that they are developing completely different readings of the same text.
Writing teachers have been asking questions about how their students read for decades. As Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue observe in a recent special issue of Pedagogy, attention to reading spiked in the early 1980s with the emergence of reader response theory, ebbed during the canon wars of the 1990s and the rise of accountability regimes in the 2000s, and is returning to the center of writing studies scholarship today. I share Salvatori and Donahue’s sense of the importance of reading to writing and thinking and agree with them that becoming a better reader is central to becoming a more effective writer. Like many writing teachers, in fact, I have long included a statement on my syllabi to this effect: “Because good writing starts with good reading, attention will also be paid to critical reading strategies.” As I hope you can see from the experiences and activities I describe in this post, believing in a principle—such as the idea that attentive, open-ended reading leads to better writing—and putting that principle into practice are two different things. I’m at the beginning of what I hope will be a longer engagement with questions about reading and how I can best use the reading muscles I have developed in becoming one of Foster’s “professional” readers to enrich the “transactions” my students experience when they encounter difficult texts. More importantly, I hope that the reflective awareness I am developing about my own reading and writing practices will help me discover more of the possibilities of meaning available in and through the next text I choose to read.
Bernstein, Charles. Attack of the Difficult Poems. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2011. Print.
Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. 1973. Twenty-fifth Anniversary Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
Foster, Thomas. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.
Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. 1978. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.
Salvatori, Mariolina, and Patricia Donahue. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Guest Editing as a Form of Disciplinary Probing.” Pedagogy 16.1 (2016): 1–8. Print.
Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome J. McGann. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999): 25–56. muse.jhu.edu. Web.
Scalapino, Leslie. New Time. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Print.
Nate Mickelson is Assistant Professor of English at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, CUNY. He earned his PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY, and holds an MA from Hunter College, CUNY, and a BA from Yale University. Nate’s research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century American poetry and poetics and its relationship to social practice. His current book project, City Poems and Urban Crisis, analyzes responses to urban problems from poets, city planners, and critical urban theorists. Nate also writes and presents on reading and writing pedagogy and learning communities. He serves on the board of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning.