Fresh Out of the Oven and Back Into the Classroom

It’s been busy around here. I haven’t been in my classroom for a week because of flooding from a sprinkler. My daughter’s first Halloween and Day of the Dead, a debate tournament, a wedding reception, along with the normal but neverending stack of essays to grade have made for a week busier than usual. My students have been great. I hope they’re looking forward to getting back to a regular schedule and classroom (did I mention that our schedule has been different every day as well?).

Also, I’ve been polishing up and recording some essays and poems that have been picked up. More details as I have them, but you can read the first of three poems today that The Bakery will be publishing. I’m really happy to get some work highlighted over there. They are doing daily, weekly, and monthly specials and even Sunday horoscope poems. I love the format of this online magazine. Check it out:

Happy Days of the Dead

I think I’ve said in an earlier post how much I love the artwork of this holiday. Every year I swear I am going to decorate and every year I fail and instead offer up a morbid epitaph. The “calaveras literarias” are becoming a tradition for me. And, yes, tonight is grocery night. And, yes, sadly, I have run from grocery stores.

Here Lies McClurg (2012)

He hated the grocery store–
A nightmare more than a chore.
So sad he bid adieu
while looking for glue,
Now he’s the clean-up–aisle two.

Here Lies McClurg (2011)

Slowly her hand was raised.
The others all thought she was brave.
But she wasn’t prepared–
for when the question was aired
her teacher just stopped and he stared.

And here’s a moldy oldy:

Here Lies McClurg (2010)

He had but only one wish,
To play in his native English,
But his eyes, they teared,
As he sniffed and he feared,
“They’ll only remember the beard!”

Poe’s Hoaxes, Pt. 2

Here’s my example for the writing assignment in the last post:

Man named “Lucky” missing, possibly eaten by tiger

By Frank N. Berry

A former children’s TV and commercial star, known as “Lucky”, may have been abducted from his home in General Mills last Tuesday. At the crime scene in front of his home, police say that they found what may be part of a foot and a red bandana. They declined to speculate on the nature or owners of these items. Rumors are spreading that he was the latest victim of a tiger said to be roaming this sleepy suburb.

When asked whether he thought this was an abduction or wildlife attack, a neighbor  named Wendell said, “A lot of people have said they have seen a tiger in the neighborhood, but I think that’s hooey.” When asked what he meant, he only offered this, “Mind control.”

Wendell seemed to be corroborating some of the rumors connecting Lucky to an underground pagan cult. It is believed that this group is involved with various forms of “magic” and has one goal of controlling the production of wheat and grain, which are said to be used in their rituals. Lucky was last seen involved in an argument turned brawl with three other men. Only one man was identified, Mark “Pop” Ballou, also rumored to be a pagan magician.

Wendell wouldn’t explain what he meant by his statement but others who did not wish to be named mentioned everything from the tiger being purely part of a mind-controlling spell cast by the cult members in order to hide their real plans to the tiger being a trained pet. Police say they have no evidence yet of a tiger being involved in Lucky’s disappearance, but are not ruling anything out at this point.

Many of his neighbors describe Lucky as friendly, but a bit of an eccentric. His house is multi-colored like a rainbow with purple horseshoes hanging over the front door. Each room had its own color and item. We’ve had access to a yellow room full of hourglasses and stars and a red room, furnished completely in red balloon furniture. One neighbor said, “The house creeped me out. It’s like an Edgar Allan Poe story or something on the bad side in Harry Potter. It kinda looks like a clown threw-up in there. I don’t know. It ain’t right. But honestly, there’s a lot of weirdos around here like that guy who dresses up like Dracula and sells chocolate. It’s quiet, but, man, it’s a freakshow sometimes.”

Could General Mills become the next “Twin Peaks”? Check our website for updates on Lucky.


“Lucky” possibly spotted in Crichton, Alabama.


Poe’s Hoaxes: “The Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar” Assignment

Poe invented or re-envisioned several genres including horror, detective, and science fiction (Poe possibly supplied Jules Verne the idea for all those hot air balloon fictions!). While not discussed as much, he was also a purveyor of the hoax. Our story for this assignment, “The Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar,” is one of Poe’s famous hoaxes that grew out of the country’s interest in the interstices between life and death that were said to be traveled in séances and in mesmerism.

Let’s look at some of the ways he “facts” his fiction:

The title tells us that this is a “case,” not a story and that we will be reading “facts.” Contrast this to a story called “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for example.

The first paragraph tells us that this story had to be released because the public has been bombarded with “a garbled or exaggerated account.” So we now know why it is “necessary” that the narrator “give the facts.” He doesn’t want us disturbed by the false versions of this “extraordinary case.” He wishes to simply set the record straight.

Later, we find out that Valdemar is an editor and author who uses pen names. We get several titles of books that are a mixture of real and imagined ones. And, of course, something like the “Bibliotheca Forensica” sounds important, right? (We are entering the realm of some of Poe’s humor, as well, with some of the book titles and description of Valdemar. He has black hair and white whiskers—he’s between “light” and “dark”—“life” and “death.”)

We also get a note from Valdemar later. I’ve always found it an interesting technique when an author includes notes, letters, quotes, etc. from other works—existing or non-existing. It can help an author achieve a kind of realism or verisimilitude because it hints at an intertextual world, a world rich with perspectives; it hints at an “archive.”

Notice the details that lend the story believability: “five minutes of eight”; “his breathing was stertorous and at intervals of half a minute”; and the use of vocabulary such as “aorta” and “ichor.”

Introduce and/or discuss your own hoax. Make something incredible completely credible in a minimum of 500 words. You can be serious (Giant squids are the real cause of the “Bermuda Triangle”—they need boats and planes for Undersea Trench Tetris, of course) or silly (Rainbows are made of multicolored unicorns and squishy pandas). I will be posting mine soon.

You can also read more about Poe’s hoaxes here:

France was a long way off.

In a reading group I’m in, which may have two or four members, we are beginning Hemingway’s novels. His first, Torrents of Spring, is a parody of Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter and, what I would call, High Modernists like James Joyce.

Not having read Anderson’s novel, I’m not qualified to comment on the parody itself. Parodies are usually funny, but I think humor is difficult to sustain over time, by this I mean that what is funny in one year may be irrelevant and not humorous the next. And I’m unaware of any other Papa tomes devoted to comedy or parody (I don’t think he was good at it or poetry), but I’ve read some extremely funny letters that Hemingway wrote to friends and foes alike.

Torrents of Spring can be funny and oddly foretells of certain stylistic elements that are later proudly displayed in Beckett’s prose and in the ironical and intruding author notes of the last 15 years or so. Anyway, here’s my favorite passage (pgs.13-14). The narrator is at a train station and a carload of frozen deer has stopped near him :

“He looked over at the deer lying there in a pile, stiff and cold. Perhaps they, too, had been lovers. Some were bucks and some were does. The bucks had horns. That was how you could tell. With cats it is more difficult. In France they geld the cats and do not geld the horses. France was a long way off.” 

Hemingway was obviously a fan of the stream of consciousness technique.

Next is The Sun Also Rises.

Symbolism Is Simple…Sort of: “The Black Cat” Assignment

Along with Poe’s “Black Cat,” I hope you are reading the How to Read Literature book. Foster does a great job breaking down a lot of the basics of the type of reading that will be expected in the class. The more you understand how to read literature in this way, the better you’ll do on these assignments, the AP test, and also the more fun you can have with the material.

You could read the “Is That a Symbol?” chapter of the Foster book as a companion to this assignment.

So, considering that we have all read “The Black Cat,” we know that this one is pretty crazy and sick even for Poe. Well…maybe.

I guess on the surface it is violent. But if we begin thinking about the story a little deeper than what’s presented on the surface, then we may find some interesting ideas beyond the superficial horror of the story.

Let’s look at the title. Beyond the functions of plot, maybe the titular character serves some other purposes. Psychoanalytic readers love Poe. For example, I’ve read at least one essay in which the black cat is symbolic for a mother figure. The patch of white on the cat’s breast symbolizes a “mother’s milk.” Hmmm…I don’t think I’ve ever been satisfied with that reading and maybe I should be generous and go find that essay again. Even if that makes total sense to you, let’s take that idea and use it.

If we can take the black cat as symbolic, and I think we can, well, what does the symbol mean? (This is where literature holds all matter of fun for me.) In one sense, maybe the black cat as “mother” here represents our narrator’s traits that he believes or imagines are inherited. Maybe he’s trying to cut himself from his family by killing the symbol of it. Here, I think, the black cat could be symbolic of our narrator’s alcoholism, madness, or wrath or any mixture of these. Remember though, the white spot on the black cat becomes a noose, possibly the noose that eventually hangs the narrator. Maybe the black cat is his inherited degeneracy that leads to his downfall. The narrator is then “tied” to his family and to this inheritance. In the end, he can’t kill the black cat or “sever” himself from his genetics or addiction.

If we abstract this a bit from the story itself and talk about it in terms of a more thematic generalization, we could come to a statement like this: the black cat is the thing we hate in ourselves, but that we cannot “kill” or get rid of it without destroying ourselves.

And this is just the beginning of a thought process on the black cat. I’m sure I’m missing several interesting ways to read the symbolism of the cat.

But on to the assignment.

Do one of the following:

1. Analytic

For this assignment, give a reading of an object or animal from a text much like the one that I’ve given above. (By “text” I mean a movie, comic strip, novel, or poem, etc.) THIS MUST BE YOUR OWN WORK. Be creative and thoughtful (that’s easy to say, I know, I know) and not obvious. Yes, Garfield could represent sloth, but that’s obvious—go beyond that. Explore some new ideas.

You could start with these types of questions: What does this character or object mean? Represent? Say about the world? Say about being human? Can I use this specific detail or characteristic to say something more general about living in the world?

2. Creative

You don’t have to parody Poe for this one (sometimes that is irresistible, I know) but write a sequence using an animal or object as a symbol. Like the analytical assignment, this should not be obvious, but try to be thoughtful, explore some ideas, and have fun.

You could approach this from the mysterious, like Poe’s black cat, or state up front something like “Life is like a box of chocolates” and then creatively explore this symbolism.