Compression is achieved by leaving things out — useless details, obvious emotions. This is why I prefer espresso. Its blackness tells me there is just enough water. Consider the following maxims and observations on writing to be fifty cups of espresso:
On the need to write every day: No one can shoot a nickel off the back of a galloping ox with just one bullet. The most one bullet will get you is a dead ox.
On mistakes: There is a kind of progress we make when we trip and fall forward.
The eye can see only by continuing to blink. This is an argument for stopping work when a poem gets stubborn and ceases to improve. Time in a dark drawer is always time well-spent.
The critic has the blueprints, but the poet builds the palace.
On my former aversion to prose poems: I used to think of them as mules — sterile hybrids. Now, I see the prose poem as a euglena — that cutthroat survivor with a foot in two kingdoms.
There are works that I’m ashamed to have not read, and there are those that merely embarrass me. This is the difference between the greatness of the past and the enthusiasm of the present.
Certain scenes are awkward because the characters don’t play well together — they are like dolls of different scales pushed into the same tea party.
The painter with chopped-off hands will learn to sing better than the writer with inherited pitch.
A good book should stay with you at least as long as your average tick bite. Reading it should make you itch.
In a forest, the best poets think of axe handles and violins.
On revisions: Don’t treat first drafts too preciously. Nobody carves a log before pushing it into the fireplace.
Distancing yourself emotionally from the subject matter of your stories is important. But there’s a point at which the faces grow indistinct and we cease to have any stake in who dies or falls in love.
On the popularity of confessional poems: The mirror always answers.
The painter would make different choices if he began instead with a black canvas.
On poems that refuse to get finished: It can be like carving your initials into the sea or digging up the shadow of your favorite spruce.
I’m the kind of person who takes more pleasure in the novel he burned than he does in the novel he’s trying to finish. The former, at least, provides a good anecdote at a cocktail party.
On the critic who tries to advance the careers of his friends by writing favorable reviews they don’t deserve: The dog is the planet to his fleas.
On the charge of strangeness: The world is my materials. I won’t apologize for my materials.
On ambition: Climbing the mountain doesn’t bring the stars any closer.
Extra syllables at the end of a poem are like a squeaky piano stool as the final notes of a symphony try to evaporate.
The dictionary is an anthology of one-word poems, footnotes included.
A sonnet is a jail that lets us in.
On the influence of dead poets: The wake of a swan continues long after it has taken flight.
Trusting a poem is our first mistake. Living as if we had not read it is our second.
That a poem means is more important than what a poem means.
On obscurity: Poets in America are fourth magnitude stars, and everyone’s night vision has been ruined by sitcoms and football.
On the growing number of people claiming to be poets: The tiniest flowers have no fragrance; America is full of tiny flowers.
When I was young, if a poem wasn’t about being with a woman, it was about being apart from a woman — and all the great merits of either circumstance.
On writer’s block: We need not fret about our occasional lack of inspiration. The guitar player needs to take a day off to let his calluses thicken and heal. A man needs a nap before screwing his woman a second time.
On reading the lines I wrote when I was high: After the sunset, the pollution goes back to looking ordinary.
Stories either start stable and become strange, or start strange and become stable. The ice is always melting or hardening.
In defense of sonnets: The piano is an old instrument, but we can play new songs on it.
On the charge of prettiness: Yes, the bell of the tulip is pretty, but it cannot rise without some dirt beneath it.
The critic concerns himself with the parts of a poem the way a disreputable mechanic wants every piece to shine and be new. The poet simply wants the goddamned car to move.
Nature poetry should be more than verbal postcards. In any glorious arrangement of mountains, we must find at least the shadow of a man.
The poet transmutes the world into sound the way a bluejay turns trash into a nest.
Don’t let your admiration of traditional forms override the notion of suitability. If the form doesn’t correspond to the subject, the poet will be accused of trying to fit a puppy inside a ringbox, of delivering a diamond inside an aircraft carrier.
The will to criticism: It’s just the urge to have answers at a particularly severe cocktail party.
We like listening to known liars. It’s the pleasure of hoping they’ll trip themselves up. A poem must proceed with the liar’s bravado. In this sense, a poem should leave the reader frustrated.
On failed poems we can’t stop revising: There’s nothing so steady as a half-sunk canoe.
On finding no one to publish a poem: It feels like a five-dollar bill with too much taped and missing.
The worst poets treat their poems like puzzles — something merely to be figured out. In the most dire cases, they withhold several pieces, hiding them in their breast pockets, forcing us to come to them with questions we would rather not ask.
Poems can fail in two ways: boredom or confusion. Boredom stems from too small a grasp — the ordinary sand grain in the palm of a hand. Confusion stems from extravagance — the attempt to palm a city. Given the choice, I prefer my poems to fail always by confusion.
On self-promotion: A car can rev its engine just as loud whether the trunk is full of gold or horse shit.
We are awestruck by actual sunsets, but embarrassed by their photographs. This is a proof that some beauty defies translation.
On the need to take a break from the daily routine of writing: If a garden goes untended long enough, even the weeds come into flower.
During the initial draft of a poem, when we are knocking on every door we come across, there is that moment when a peephole goes dark, and we know that the door must be kicked in.
On inspiration: Sometimes, the girl is brought out of the marble by a single hammer tap.
On our steadily fragmenting culture: At the rate things are going, someday even Jesus will require a footnote in the Norton Anthology.
On ambition: I won’t be content to be called the American Shakespeare. I won’t be satisfied until Shakespeare is known as the English Rafferty.
PHOENIX (October 3, 2012). The Arizona Commission on the Arts, an agency of the State of Arizona, today launches the nomination process for the inaugural Arizona Poet Laureate.
At the start of the last legislative session, Arizona was one of only eight states without a poet laureate. The Arts Commission and the Arizona literary community worked in close partnership with State Senator Al Melvin during the Fiftieth Legislature’s second regular session, to put forth a bill establishing a poet laureate post for the State of Arizona. On May 11, 2012, Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1348 into law, and October marks the beginning of the nomination, review and selection process.
Jaime Dempsey, Deputy Director of the Arts Commission, said of the process, “It is our hope that the appointed Arizona Poet Laureate will champion the art of American poetry, inspire an emerging generation of literary artists, and educate Arizonans about poets and authors who have influenced our state through creative literary expression.”
The bill specifies that the appointed poet laureate will serve a term of two years; will offer public readings throughout the year, in both urban and rural communities in various regions of the state; and will pursue a major literary project over the course of the appointment term.
The Arizona Poet Laureate will be provided with an annual honorarium of $2,500 to offset travel and so that he/she is able to actively serve the broadest constituency of Arizonans, who live, learn and work in urban, rural and suburban areas of the state. The honorarium will be disbursed from the Arizona Poet Laureate Fund, which consists of private monies donated by individuals, organizations or businesses – raised by the Arts Commission and its statewide literary partners.
Interested parties may nominate themselves or others for the position of Arizona Poet Laureate through a process managed by the Arizona Commission on the Arts. The initial deadline for nominations is November 9, 2012. To review details and information regarding the nomination/application and selection process, visit http://www.azarts.gov/azpoetlaureate.
“We would like to recognize and thank Arizona Senator Al Melvin, who introduced the bill and shepherded it through the legislative process, and to our partners in arts advocacy, the Arizona Citizens for the Arts for helping to see this bill through to success,” said Bob Booker, Executive Director.
About the Arizona Commission on the Arts One of 56 state and jurisdictional arts agencies across the United States, the Arizona Commission on the Arts is an agency of the State of Arizona that supports a statewide arts network. The Arizona Commission on the Arts supports access to quality arts and arts education opportunities for all Arizona citizens; the development and retention of statewide jobs in the nonprofit arts, culture and education sectors; and increased economic impact in local communities through arts-based partnerships that develop tax and small business revenue.
For more information about the grants, services and programs of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, visit www.azarts.gov.
We imagine an Arizona where everyone can participate in and experience the arts.
It’s been about a week since I returned from Delhi to Phoenix and I don’t really know how to process things. Everything is now as different to me as it was once familiar and I find myself appreciating a variety of things on a very conscious level. Not that I was unappreciative before I left, but after really feeling what life can be like in a place so radically different from Western society, every little thing seems like something for which all should be appreciative. Water tastes way better; my house looks at least 10 times bigger than it did before I left; and going hungry is about as likely an event to occur in my life as that asteroid from Armageddon crashing into my front yard.
I suppose since spending the summer in my homeland, I have developed a very comprehensive realization that even on their worst day, any given member of the American middle class can find boons in spades when compared to the lifestyle of the average Indian person. I’m not trying to minimize the strain both Americans and Indians and other cultures all over the world have to endure on a regular schedule. Everybody deals with some version of struggle to a greater or lesser extent on a moment-to-moment basis, and I completely understand that fact.
But the gap between what people already have to begin with in metropolitan areas like Tempe or Scottsdale compared to Delhi is just so vastly antonymic that it almost defies my sense of reality. I mean, for the love of God, when was the last time an American population had to worry about a power blackout covering 620 million people since the turn of the 20th Century? The closest North America came to this kind of power failure was in 2003, and that was staggeringly low in comparison, coming in at 55 million people.
And food? At last count, 60 million children in India were listed as food insecure. What’s the count for all food insecure members of the entire American population? The data varies, but I’ll bet my left lung that it’s nowhere in the same state, let alone the same neighborhood, as 60 million.
And housing? Oh man, the worst project developments in the United States put together don’t hold a candle to the rampant poverty in the majority of Indian living spaces. In Tempe, I’ll see 1-2 homeless people every couple of months with a street sign in their hand and a tin cup next to it. Maybe the sign says something funny, and people give some money to him or her, and call it their good deed for the day.
In India, I saw the homeless, the crippled, the destitute, and the derelict live in droves under freeways, overpasses, and on the streets, scouring between moving traffic for alms, many without even tattered rags to cover the little modesty they might wish to retain.
And coming back from that kind of differential has been a massive shock to my world paradigm. It’s placed in my mind a more universal idea of what it would mean for me to have a happy, successful life. And that idea is just keeping it more basic than basic. I don’t mean Survivorman or ascetic monk basic; just whittling down the things in my life to the bare essentials, like food, water, clothing, shelter, and enough power to turn a light on.
Tomorrow marks my first legitimate workday as an English teacher in another country (another continent). And it’s a country that is by and large considered a part of the underdeveloped third world. The geographical shift alone has greatly enhanced my perception of what education is supposed to mean in a place like India, but without hands-on experience, my knowledge still leaves much to be desired.
So far, my capacity in the school’s hierarchy has been assistance-based learning, meaning that all the teaching or guidance I have provided over the course of the last two months has been closely supervised by a more senior staff member. Although these staff members varied greatly in age and subject of interest, each one was able to help me understand that the Indian education system is one that does not permit great unorthodoxy in curriculum.
In short, despite being comprised of individuals dedicated to drawing forth the potential of their students, the Indian education system allows no pedagogical heroes. Teachers are not allowed to deviate from the state-mandated standards. They have limited resources at their disposal to subvert or fill in the cracks in the system. Now, I’m not saying that this kind of situation doesn’t exist in American classrooms, but I am saying that the average American classroom has a lot more creativity and financing to foster student growth. And having been in both classrooms as a student, I can say this with absolute certainty.
But without having been a teacher in either type of classroom, does my opinion really cover all the bases? I’m not sure yet. That’s why tomorrow is going to be an important day for me. Not just because it’s my first official step into teaching, but also because I will finally be able to put myself in front of the blackboard for hours on end. This repetition will help me fully comprehend the rigors of being an educator. I will need to eschew the romanticized notions I still associate with the often thankless job of a teacher.
And when my view of the profession is stripped down to its bare essentials, just like my worldview has been from my continued exposure to the starkness of India in general, whatever remains will tell me whether or not I am committed enough to education to make it an integral part of my life for the next decade.
Right now, I don’t know much about the specifics of teaching. After tomorrow, I might not know much more. But what I will know is whether or not the entire prospect of it is something I want to know more about. For now, I’m just going to put my best foot forward.
Superstition Review intern Crista Jackson conducted this telephone interview with Tina Packer, the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. Her play “WOMEN OF WILL” is running at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival July 5 through Aug. 12 at the University Theatre on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. Directed by Eric Tucker. Created by Tina Packer. Featuring Packer and Nigel Gore. Part 1, July 5, 7, Aug. 10; Part 2, July 10, 14, Aug. 11; Part 3, July 17, 21, Aug 11. (7:30 p.m. curtain) Part 4, July 24, 28, Aug 12. Part 5, July 31, Aug 4, 12. Single tickets, $10-54. Special packages available. Info and Tkts: coloradoshakes.org or 303-492-0554
Superstition Review: When did you first begin acting? What was the first production that you were involved in?
Tina Packer: I first began acting in high school, although, not a lot. It was not like American high school where you do musicals all the time. I performed in three plays, or something like that, but I liked it enormously. Then I went off to Paris, and obviously, I could not act there, but I thought to myself ‘hmm…maybe I could stay here forever and become an actor.’ When I came back to England I applied to drama school. I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied there for two and a half years. After that, I did some television roles and went on to the Royal Shakespeare Academy. Essentially, I did my training and then went straight into professional acting. The first production that I was involved in was a television show called “No Hiding Place.” It was a thirty minute program that ran every week.
SR: When did you discover your interest in Shakespeare’s plays?
TP: I did eight plays in school and then I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company, which I had always loved. I suppose my real interest began when I started to work at a theater company that had very weird ideas about how to perform Shakespeare. In any case, I started to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company almost immediately after drama school. I was getting deeper into it but I kept encountering the problem of wanting to work on Shakespeare’s plays a certain way while they wanted to work on it in a different way. That is where I felt like I could see the brilliance of Shakespeare’s plays and that brilliance just grew over the years. I was in the regular theater as an actor for about six years and doing television when I thought ‘I’ve got to switch to being a director because I have all the ideas of what Shakespeare is about. Unless I’m a director I’m never going to have the power to put them into practice.’ I switched to directing at that point. The kind of directing I was interested in was how actors could go further than they were with their acting and their bodies. So, it was an ongoing process. There was a eureka moment when I set up my own company but there was no eureka moment concerning why I was fascinated with Shakespeare; my fascination just grew and grew.
SR: You have authored several books, how has your experience as a writer differed from your experience as an actor and director?
TP: It is a completely different medium. When you are an actor you use your entire body and you are in a state of being. You are being as truthful as you can with the whole of your being. When you are directing you are directing other people to be as truthful as they can. You are absorbing all of their energy and their emotional state of being. So being a director is quite painful in a way because you are absorbing other people’s energy. When you are writing you are imagining what is going on and you are getting it on paper as fast as you can. It is just a different state. Of the three mediums, acting, writing, and directing, I find acting the most organic. I like directing because it really spins my brain and forces me to think through what every character thinks; what the overall shape and form is and how I can best represent it. Being a writer you only have yourself. You do not have an audience that is going to react to you and say “this is good. That is bad.” You do not have a load of actors trying to do what you are saying; all you are doing is imagining it and writing it down on the page. You have no idea whether it is any good or not.
SR: You were quoted in another interview as saying “the actor’s job is to speak that which cannot be spoken.” Can you explain the concept of the actor as a messenger?
TP: Yes. The function of theater, I think, is to articulate those things which are hidden. They are hidden because they live in the subconscious mind. All art, whether it is painting, music, dance, etc., functions to bring those things that are subconscious to consciousness so that you can see them. Well, with the actor you have to take it a bit further. Especially in Shakespeare, it is the language that makes the difference. There are things that are not being said, either because they are suppressed by the powers that be or the people have just absorbed those ideas as thinking ‘oh, that’s reality,’ but it is not reality it is the way reality is depicted. You know how in the ’50s movies they presented a kind of very innocent, un-embodied sexuality? The films would always present a certain kind of sexuality which was the form that society wanted to think about sex in, or was comfortable with. With the ’60s came a whole turnaround that showed the ’50s as a misrepresentation of what humans are, of what marriage is. So really, in a way it was theater’s job to point out that that was not how things were. That is an example of how theater articulates a further truth.
SR: What inspired you to explore the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays?
TP: I had done about two-thirds of the canon and I suddenly saw that there was a progression in the female characters. It came to me one day when I was watching one of my own productions. I had done different parts of the canon by then; the beginning, middle, and end. Suddenly, I realized a pattern in the female characters. Once I got the idea I wanted to explore it further, because obviously, I am a woman and Shakespeare’s relationship to women is very important to me.
SR: What do you mean when you say that Shakespeare’s writing embodies or explores feminine qualities?
TP: As a rough categorization we ask, what is masculine? Well, masculine is much more linear, based on glory and is going to have an aggressive streak to it. The cliché of what is masculine is going to be goal oriented rather than relationship oriented. It is going to be cerebral. That is what people usually consider as masculine. What are usually called feminine are relationships, feelings, allowing your intuition to take hold. If you have got a goal it is usually related to a relational goal. For instance, you want your family to be really happy or you want everybody to get along. It is similar to how I felt when I wanted a deep collaboration with everybody, not wanting some people to be stars and others not. Those characteristics are usually called feminine. So if you think about what an artist uses, whatever kind of artist, what they use are feminine qualities. They are very much to do with feelings, intuition, and relationships. Whether the relationship is paint on a canvas, of one color against another, or whether it is how your characters relate to each other on stage. The attributes are very much feminine. When you think of the embodiment of female sexuality and physical function it is very internal. Menstruating, being pregnant, etc. Whereas, masculine is much more exterior physicality—who runs the fastest, throws the ball the hardest— it has more to do with action than female physicality does. So if you are embodying a role like actors do it is a much more feminine attribute regardless of the actor’s gender.
SR: What do you think of the evolution of Shakespeare’s female characters? What caused the transformation of his early characters from the false dichotomy of modest virgins and harlots to more complex, multifaceted and realistic female characters?
TP: Well, this is what I got a Guggenheim for. I spent a whole year finding out what the answer was and the answer is in “Women of Will.” The best way to have this question answered is for you to come see “Women of Will,” because I can’t do it justice but I will have a go. Basically, what I believe happened to Shakespeare is that he started off as most young men do, being full of sexual hormones and feeling that women had the upper hand or did not have the upper hand. He didn’t really associate with women; he projected onto them. In part one, women were usually either shrews or virgins on a pedestal. During this phase of his writing he either over idealizes them or makes them into marauders. That is a very early Shakespeare. Suddenly, he seems to fall in love himself and becomes passionate and suddenly the women like Juliet have as much air time as the men. He begins to explore the female characters as deeply as he explores the men. They are allowed their full sexuality, their full voices, they are whole people. So suddenly, he is not seeing women as something he thought he had to control or deal with, instead, he is seeing women as human beings and that might be because he grew up, fell in love, and therefore saw women differently.
The only way men and women can have real, deep relationships is if you have power to give up. You cannot have a deep relationship, then or now, if you don’t have power to give the other person. So what you see out of this is that Shakespeare starts using women to tell the truth about what is going on because women are always outside of the power circle. They don’t particularly have power; they get power through the men they have associated with, the exception being Cleopatra, of course. So, by and large, women are looking at power much more deeply than men are. So we go into the third part of his writing life where women are really trying to tell the truth about what they see. Here if they disguise themselves as men, if they live underground, they can say what they like and everybody responds to them and that is just fine. Then at end of the play they can say “oh look, I’m really a woman,” but by that time they have organized the society; everyone gets married, procreates and it is all well and good. If they stay in their frocks and they start telling the truth about what they see they get killed or kill themselves so their voices are useless. So you really see what women are up against.
In the fourth section, the women take on power the same way as men, like Lady Macbeth, the eldest daughter in Lear, etc.,the women have power just like the men do. They want power just like the men, they start going after power in the same way that the men do and the country ends up in chaos. In the fifth part he finds a way out of the killing cycle which he has been telling for so long and it is by the daughters revealing the fathers and the art of acting. He shows that art has to come into life somehow, otherwise, we will never be able to stop the killing cycle. That is the sixth part, when Shakespeare has gone back to live in Stratford and he is with his daughters again who he has not seen for 20 years while he has been in London working. So it is all about how the daughters can redeem their fathers. That is the briefest of outlines.
SR: After four decades of studying The Bard of Avon are you still mesmerized by his writing? Do you still find yourself gleaning new epiphanies from the texts and plays you have become so familiar with?
TP: Yes, because texts which hold big truths, you tend to see differently at different points of your life. You might read something that you never thought anything of and then all of a sudden it holds some significant meaning because you have reached a new place in your life. So you can see things you had not seen before. For example, a hundred different books have been written on “to be, or not to be, that is the question,” and it is still the question. People still come out with a whole host of answers about what it means. It is the exploration which is important not the answer. That is true of all of Shakespeare’s plays or any great poetry; it doesn’t give you the answers to life, it breaks life open.
SR: What are the unique benefits of theater as compared to other forms of art? Is there something special about using the body as an instrument of communication?
TP: Yes, there is something special about theater but it depends because different people are awakened by different art forms. If you are the type of human where music awakens all of your sensory perceptions then maybe theater isn’t going to do it for you. So it really depends on the human being but why theater is very important is it is really trying to recreate life as a whole so it can include music, dance, poetry, and all of the other art forms. It is really trying to use life itself as the art form. So that means there is a huge demand on the body because you are putting your own body there. With your own body you are trying to recreate life. All art forms awake sensory perception, which means that you see the world more clearly; you have got more tools to look at the world. What happens to me when I am acting is that I get to feel more consciously what it is that I am feeling. It is not just the body; it is the body and the voice together that make theater so incredible. The body looks like it is solid and it feels solid, the voice is ephemeral and it is coming and going.
SR: What about the difference between live theater and broadcast theater? Is there something lost in the intimacy between the actor and the audience in broadcast theater?
TP: Acting in front of an audience gives you incredible energy and focus. When acting for television and film, you have a more internal focus; you don’t have that huge blast of energy from the audience. What happens to you when get the focus of all those people is that it starts transforming the energy and something starts happening, that you have no control over, because of the energy that you receive from the audience. In that respect, theater is an incredible medium. You feed off of the audience’s energy and it takes you places that you didn’t know you could go.
It isn’t that film and television can’t do some really good work, they can, but it is much more self-representing than when you have the audience. I think that a large part of it is the acknowledgement, ultimately, that you are all in the same space. You just pretended something and maybe everybody wept and laughed and you have done that together and there is a real sense of unity in that which you never get on television or in film. In film the camera is picking up your performance and then translating it and you are never in the same space with the audience. It is a different experience and I think that it lacks the sense of community that theater builds.
SR: The story behind the founding of Shakespeare and Company is incredibly inspiring. You began with 20 homeless actors and a couple thousand dollars. What was going through your mind? Was there ever a moment when you thought of giving up?
TP: What was going through my mind was the kind of theater that I wanted to do. I was just seizing the opportunity of having a house to live in and having a few thousand dollars so I could pay everyone. All I was thinking was ‘okay, so we can get a Shakespeare play up in this amount of time and we can do the kind of work that exemplifies what I am talking about. Then we can invite everybody to see it. They will get inspired and give us more money to work on more projects.’
SR: Do you think Shakespeare had a special message he was attempting to convey to fellow artists?
TP: No. I think that he was doing what all artists do; he was not sitting around trying to think up special messages. Artists try to find out what the truth is and try to figure out what life is about. To the best of their ability they try to see how power structures work, the way in which we deal with our families, etc., and how it affects everyone else. You know, all the big issues of life they were simply trying to tell the truth about. What he did in his later plays, when he got back to Stratford, he started trying to tell the truth about the impact that daughters have on their fathers.
SR: How important do you think it is for artists to teach and pass on their art?
TP: I think the desire to pass on what you have learned is natural. I think that if you are an artist it does not work until the audience is there. Whether it is theater or someone looking at your painting, reading your poem, it does not work until somebody else interacts with you. Then if you find it at all exciting your next reaction is to start telling people how you did it so they can do it too. I think all creativity has been a continuous stream from the very first time people were creating plays around the campfire or doing paintings on the cave walls.
SR: Do you have any advice for novice actors, playwrights, or directors? Were there any words of wisdom that helped you through the dark hours of your career?
TP: Keep on honing your vision. If things are not working just persist and keep on looking to see what is keeping the communication, from artist to audience, from happening. It is all about persistence.
SR: What are you currently working on? Do you see yourself writing anymore books?
TP: I will write some more books on methodology in Shakespeare and Company but the writing is really an expression of the acting and directing so I will write about those subjects. Right now, I am so immersed in the struggle to get “Women of Will” up and the book out that I cannot think further than getting it all done.
A few days ago, I was driving with my cousin and her husband to their house in Gurgaon, when he asked me what I thought was the biggest difference between America and India. After ruminating on the question for several minutes, I realized that despite the overwhelming complexities that have shaped the modern workings and images of both nations, the answer is actually pretty simple.
One is subtle. The other is stark.
To the average person living in Scottsdale, it’s pretty difficult to say that he or she has any first-hand experience with the effects of the recession. If they’re anything like me, they’re aware that unemployment is at an all-time high, foreclosures have been occurring in the truckloads, and that the national debt is so far into the trillions the U.S. government soon might need to make up a new number to describe the amount they owe other people. But they don’t consciously grasp or interact with the repercussions of what any of this means for their daily lives. When the recession hit in 2008, I was in my senior year of high school taking my first economics course, and the relatively small amounts of information I became privy to made me think the whole American experiment was going to explode into a million pieces within my lifetime. Unemployment hadn’t been so high since the Depression? The government had to spend billions to bail out huge corporations as a result of their irresponsible spending? Foreclosures occurred by the thousands all across America? The interest on the national debt could have sent every college-bound kid in the States to the school of their choice FOR FREE? Insane. Completely insane, but also completely factual.
But despite the reality of these facts, there’s no way I would know it by walking out my front door. The same could be said of the many children of my generation I happen to know. Just because America’s fate seemed like the darkest it had ever been (or still is, depending on how you look at it) doesn’t mean this darkness was visible by and large across the country to everyone.
Contrast that with the Indian state of affairs. In the past decade, India has been statistically ranked among the world’s top five largest growing economies, and remains in that bracket with one of the world’s greatest purchasing powers. In the past five years, it has been touted as one of the 21st century’s greatest heralds of economic prosperity.
Today I took a walk for a few blocks around the neighborhood where my grandmother lives in order to get my eyes tested at the local optometrist. My grandmother lives in an area of Delhi called Rajouri Garden, and it only took me 10 minutes of walking to get to the doctor’s office and back. This is what I saw.
If I hadn’t spent every summer in this neighborhood since I was 11, I might have walked back to the doctor for a re-test. Here, within a five-block radius, in this purported place of exponential economic growth, I saw the kind of stark disparity between national image and reality that exists as a direct contrast to the American way of life.
Today, I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book that tries to ascertain the various external factors that help facilitate the possibility of great success. The book as a whole was good, but I found it particularly interesting that in one chapter, the author characterizes American education as a system that places great importance on the separation of work and play, citing the widespread cultural attitude that too much mental stimulation can lead to stagnation and actual digression. Now, on the surface, this seems like a sensible idea to vibe with. You know, the whole “all work and no play” philosophy.
However, what exactly constitutes “play”?
In the U.S., when I think about a playground, several common images immediately come to mind: merry-go-round, swings, jungle gyms, those weird steel bubbles kids used to hang on upside-down and do flips off of. These things come to mind because in America, playgrounds are meant as a welcome reprieve from the intellectual workload of school through exhaustive physical fun in the forms of monkey bars and slides; a place that symbolizes the American separation of learning and recreation with very clear-cut boundaries. Now, I’m definitely a byproduct of the American public education system in that I’ve learned the affiliation of the rooms with the desks and books and lessons as the workplace, which leaves everything outside those walls as a means to escape from that work and do what kids are supposed to do: play. Not to say that I wasn’t intellectually stimulated through class field trips to see things like the science museum or theatrical productions, but even those were far removed from the classroom, solidifying the idea that play is basically anything that’s not school, work or learning. I am not saying this is the only way to look at it, but it is something I happen to find true.
However, does that same definition apply in India?
Today, I visited the school where I am going to start teaching in a week. It was not the first time I went there, but it is definitely the first time I went there thinking about this particular question. Now, kids of all age groups in India grow up playing a lot like kids in America, but they just subtract all the playground equipment and due to monetary constraints, place twice the emphasis on organized sports. Since birth, most children are raised on soccer and cricket, two popular “world” sports, as opposed to Americanized sports like baseball, basketball, and football. However, like their American counterparts, they use the games to alleviate the stress of working in the classroom.
At least that is what I thought until I saw something extraordinary.
Since the two most popular sports played at this K-12 school are mostly aggressive contact sports, the bigger, older kids take up the available space to play them. So where do the younger kids go? What exactly do kids from 5-10 years old do while the bigger kids are all out in the front of the school on the basketball and soccer courts (both concrete, since I don’t think there’s a school in India can afford a grass pitch)? In the very back of the school’s Primary Wing, there is a small elevated area with the surface area of a small apartment. In it, there are no jungle gyms or monkey bars, no slides or bubbles; instead, it has interactive displays like those found in a science museum—each with a sign explaining how to use it and what to learn from it. The displays include:
A life-size model of DNA
A working model of a lifting screw
A pair of parabolic dishes (pictured)
A miniature hydroelectric power plant
And a 3-part model of inclined planes
Now, this might not be the most aesthetically pleasing recreational area to someone who grew up with the decency of American parks and playgrounds. Nor does it in any way work with the American definition of “play,” which itself says a lot about the Indian connection between work and play. This small pitch of land is a statement that schools can intentionally blur the line between learning and recreation to reduce students’ aversion to critical thinking by integrating learning into their play. I am not saying that playgrounds like this are a widespread phenomenon, and I am certainly not saying that all the children take advantage of this particular area, but the whole idea of this integration definitely suggests a very different paradigm for the Indian connection between school and play, learning and recreation. Specifically, that there is no connection; they are the same thing. To generalize, in the Western world, life exists in a compartmentalized fashion. However, in India and other Eastern cultures, life is promoted as holistically as possible.
I guess it is a lot harder for kids to develop aversions to learning when presented with opportunities like this for recess.