Kiki Kaschock shares her dream of teaching “deepcomp,” the dangers of musing, and the necessity of revisiting the primal elements of language itself.
I’ve had this pedagogical dream. Does that sound like a lie? It sounds like a lie to me—I mean, who dreams about courses? Short answer: a woman who has spent an inordinate amount of time in classrooms as a student, who loved being a student because being a student in the way she sought to be a student was to succeed while subverting. I wanted to be doing well, I wanted praise, but I also wanted to be using all the assignments that were given to me in the service of my own particular project (not that I was always sure what that was—and that has gradually become the most honest thing I can say about my art—I’m never sure what it is or how it will develop). In this way, during my time in classrooms and workshops I became a double agent for my own becoming.
This is how we Gemini do.
I joke about astrology as I joke about Tarot (and kismet in general) while occasionally paying attention to them. To offer up agency to a force beyond yourself is to remove the pressure of direct consciousness. A prompt for a writer—really any task or assignment or, in fact, teacher—does the same. It removes a teeny bit of responsibility. You become a partner in the creation of your own work, rather than the god of it. For me, that’s a far more comfortable position to be in… even if after the work is completed I take all the credit, having kicked away the scaffolding to see if the thing will stand on its own or collapse. If it collapses, it was clearly the prompt’s fault. This is self-deception, of course, the kind that removes me from a type of writerly paralysis I won’t call block because it is always there for me—not so much as an obstacle in the road as a condition of that road. My writer’s road is all muck and also like the ethereal flightpath of Zeno’s arrow: if I stop to contemplate each step, my writing will never be in motion, my feet sucked into the silt of thin air.
But I haven’t quite got to the dream yet—have I? Ah, the dangers of musing. My dream is to teach a class called “deepcomp” (a title translated from the late great composer Pauline Oliveras whom I had the honor of taking a series of workshops with a decade ago). The class is all about sameness and difference: the most basic and, indeed, binary choice an artist can make. Any artist of any kind. Will I continue with the thing I am doing or will I alter it? Only the parameters that change from art form to art form. Oliveras developed interactive musical and movement scores based on just such scripted decisions. Will I hit this same note again or choose another? Will I move to a different color here? Will I write another sentence from the point of view of the child, or switch to the mother? When composition is distilled in this way, choice becomes both both simple and nearly infinite. (Zeno again.) This is a type of paradoxical dichotomy that enlivens me. The project becomes like DNA… in that every alteration, every mutation, has the potential to create something new, something that could fuel evolution to its next stage, or fall into disease and death. Free will is the most epic of the toys an artist plays with. It is at once terrifying and intoxicating to understand that the thing all artists share is this: choice-making towards creation.
When I approach art this way, my heart explodes a little. I become an anti-Oppenheimer.
Not-to-be but yes-to-be a little grandiose—if I didn’t believe art could save us from the worst of what we also are, I’d have studied medicine or law. I do believe it though, I still do.
But why would I want to teach a class like this right now you may ask? And I think right now is precisely the answer. Right now I think the world could use a little removal from its surfaces. A little withdrawing into basics to divine deeper pathways to connection. And I mean divine. I’ll be honest… I think people could use a pause from immediately putting everything they do out there, whether in the service of capitalism, or political action, or personal branding. I think walking ourselves back to the most fundamental choices out of a deeper, more expansive curiosity—discovering potentials both as individuals and in community—could be a soul-saving practice.
So I’m dreaming of a creative writing class for artists of any type. A writing class built in view of other art forms that is *not* at its heart ekphrastic, not a response but an investigation. A class based on microscopic and macroscopic attention to strategies. In the first class, we look at repetition. What is repetition? We look at it in a poem, in a dance piece, in a painting, in an aria. Students bring up other examples. We discuss. We ask—what is repetition doing here? How about here? And what about here? What else might it do? And then we experiment, and then we share our experimentation. This process is radical, a root practice. It asks juxtaposition to be the teacher, and it embraces the synaptic work students make between areas of expertise and forms in which they are novices or of which they are altogether unfamiliar. We move back and forth between our positions as appreciator, student, practitioner. After a week or two the class would move to another basic micro-form/conceptual strategy: like dialogue, or beginning-middle-end, reversal/inversion, point-of-view, theme-and-variation, accretion, spareness, luxury/excess. These abstractions can be mapped across many art forms, even when their translations are not obvious: What is a dialogue in sculpture? What is color in fiction? What is diction in dance? In fact, when the translations themselves require creativity to posit or apprehend, that’s when they have the possibility of truly expanding the work at hand. And maybe perhaps, increasing our understanding of the human impulse to be making art, to be becoming in this way.
In “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin wrote: “The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own, he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realized to what extent this is possible.” In my dream class, we view art across medium and discipline as connected but not same. We view artists of other forms as untapped teachers, guides able to point out realms of meaning we have not yet plumbed; we see vast fields of work ahead of us yet to get to. But in my dream this undone work evokes not a sense of Sisyphean futility—but joy.
I have recently been given the opportunity to manifest my dream in a classroom. This spring, I am teaching “Creative Writing for Illustrators” to a class of graduate students nearly half of whom are international. During the first week, I asked my students to look at an excerpt from a Pina Bausch ballet, the first section of Joy Harjo’s poem “She Had Some Horses,” and the short fiction “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. The prompt: “After deeply considering the examples provided to you, write a piece of your own that foregrounds repetition.” The work they are turning in is wide-ranging and wild: an additive-subtractive children’s story of a fishtank emptying itself of fish, a comparison of Persephone’s journey to the underworld to a surgical tale where hell is plucked from inside a woman like a pomegranate seed, a micro-fiction about a hermit crab trying on vessels found on a temple’s altar, philo-poetic musings on the nature of wanderlust. I shouldn’t be shocked that these art students have a talent for visual description and a sense of compositional rhythm. And I’m not. I was a little surprised that the first fruits of this dream class felt so freed from the workshop snare of “getting-it-right.” That was an unexpected pleasure—one I hope continues as the class develops.
I stayed in school for a long time because I did not believe I was done learning. I did not want to be. I still don’t. And yes, I have recurrent dreams of classrooms filled with students who are enthralled by the idea that there are infinite places to look for transformation… that growth and change are beautiful because they are (as dance once taught me) personal depictions of an eternal movement. My dream is that my work—as a teacher and writer—and I are still unfolding, that all things are (and become more clearly) significant when honored by a student’s gaze.
Kirsten Kaschock, a Pew Fellow in the Arts, is a poet and novelist who writes across several genres. Her background in dance has impacted her work—she consistently addresses intersections between language and body. She is the author of five poetry books and a chapbook: Explain This Corpse (Lynx House Press), Confessional Science-fiction: A Primer (Subito Press), The Dottery (University of Pittsburgh Press/winner of AWP Donald Hall Prize) A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press), Unfathoms (Slope Editions), and WindowBoxing (Bloof Books). Coffee House Press published her debut speculative novel—Sleight. Her second novel, The Rate at Which She Travels Backwards, is forthcoming… stay tuned.