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Angela Ball

The New York School Diaspora (Part Forty-Two): Kirsten Kaschock [by Angela Ball]

MY STUDENTS WANT MY TENURE

They want a little bit of mothering
and a little bit of God.

They want a little bit of someone-who-admits
-mistakes from someone who never makes them.

They want a safe space built where As
are hatched into beds of cotton. They want

a teacher who knows all the things so they
need not click on needless links.

There are so many of them
and their lives, so varied. I cannot intuit

their lives. And they are more afraid
than they’ve ever been—but not of disclosure.

Not of trauma. Their own is not what they find
impossible to offer. And they secretly crave

triggering. To feel. No, what they cannot say
is how they come to think.

It’s not refusal—I think most
do not know their home computers

to be machines they should take apart
to learn. To know this is to know a mind

may be manipulated. That alien
voices from far across space/time

can alter radically perspective through old
fangled technologies

called books. Such knowledge over-
whelms and shames. And eventually obliterates

me as I teach, as is my job, instructing students
in my needful obliteration. Here, I think

is the crux of their desire: more than almost
anything they want, they want

me, someone like me, to acknowledge my
inherent uselessness while I please

please retain my position.

                                          (from Explain This Corpse)

-Kirsten Kaschock


Kirsten Kaschock, a 2019 Pew Fellow in the Arts and Summer Literary Seminars grand prize winner, is the author of five poetry books: Unfathoms (Slope Editions), A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press), The Dottery (University of Pittsburgh Press), Confessional Science-fiction: A Primer (Subito Press), and Explain This Corpse (winner of Blue Lynx Prize from Lynx House Press). Coffee House Press published her debut speculative novel—Sleight. Recent work can be read at Conduit, The Diagram, and Los Angeles Review.

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The New York School Diaspora (Part Forty-Two): Kirsten Kaschock

Kirsten Kaschock’s “My Students Want My Tenure” astonishes in its astuteness about pedagogy, a subject so often dealt with in lofty abstraction. Like Frank O’Hara, Kaschock gives us, in dialogic, enjambed couplets, a live public, a marketplace of needs, opening with “They want a little bit of mothering and a little bit of God.” This brilliant comic statement clarifies an exchange too seldom explored. One other example occurs to me, and that is Donald Barthelme’s hilarious and affecting short story, “Me and Miss Mandible.” In Kaschock's poem, as in Barthelme’s story, what students need is vastly more murky than help with punctuation. The poem constructs an expansive empathy akin to Frank O’Hara's as he illuminates our need for Billie Holiday’s voice “whispered . . . along the keyboard” and for Lana Turner, whom we love, to “get up.”

How spot on, Kaschock’s description of students’ desire for authority minus its blunt edges: “They want a little bit of someone-who-admits / -mistakes from someone who never makes them.” And they want “A safe space built where As / are hatched into beds of cotton”—none of bewilderment’s discomfort, effort’s uncertainty. Students are haunted by the need to “make” grades—as though mere desire—or past achievement—can insure an outcome. Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” comes to mind: “If someone is chasing you down the street, you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep!'"

How accurate, Kaschock’s reproduction of the fuzzy, the approximate often so central to human desires: “They want // a teacher who knows all the things so they / need not click on useless links.” And for their own part, the teacher is locked in approximation: “There are so many of them / and their lives, so varied. I cannot intuit // their lives.” Undaunted by this impossibility, after first dispatching what the students aren’t afraid of—“disclosure,” “trauma”-- the poem moves on to touch obscure, ineradicable aversions: the inability to see beyond the structures, economic and cybernetic, that so determine their thinking; the origins of which remain, to them, obscure.

       . . .That alien

       voices from far across space/time

 

       can alter radically perspective through old

       fangled technologies

 

       called books. Such knowledge over-

       whelms and shames. And eventually obliterates

 

       me as I teach, as is my job, instructing students

       in my needful obliteration. . .

 

How apt, the word “crux,” in “This is the crux /of their desire.” The students want to see someone, a teacher/martyr, swallowed by the impossibility that presses them onward (too frequently goaded by parents’ insistence that they “make something of themselves”) so they won’t be. To take the hit of knowledge in their stead. So that confusion lessens, pain lessens. There’s nothing personal about it:

     . . . they want

     

     me, someone like me, to acknowledge my

     inherent uselessness while I please

 

     please retain my position.

 

Kaschock’s final phrase, “retain my position,” in its bureaucracy-speak, underscores the obliteration that the teacher invites. This is dark comedy indeed; and, like the best examples of that genre, it refuses to absolve us from futility—except that we know that this poem, as a bearer of insight, is itself one of the “voices from far across space/time” that “can alter radically perspective.” Kirsten Kaschock’s “My Students Want My Tenure” is a true emissary of fresh air to counter sentimental, self-serving, and otherwise perverse depictions of the classroom, that micro and macrocosm.

--Angela Ball


January 03, 2023

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Radio

I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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