Thursday, March 6, 2014

John the Revelator

John the RevelatorJohn the Revelator by T.J. Beitelman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If we remember Harry Crews or Barry Hannah or even Larry Brown, it only means that we have a choir that sings with this book, and make no mistake, it is a song. The rapture of John the Revelator is in the octaves and volumes it slides over us like clothes that change color and let us pass into unknown places. The book is these things: skin, song, color, and a taste in the mouth not unlike mud, but in a good way at first, like the pies we built as children when we were convinced of their sustenance.

As Mose says late in the book, "I had a notion something hurt and scared was headed out here." And in that way we know that the souls of this novel are out there scared and moving toward us, and that they rest inside each of us. While we are in the dirt of those broken and surviving, there rests within their story a hope. A hope that urges us to swim in the catfish ponds, or in the more pleasant waters that hide the mess of life. Once there, we can taste this truth and grasp it like the sides of a fish, which is to say momentarily and with some discomfort.

In the end the novel calls for return and visitation, whether all at once or in small bites like communion. In John the Revelator we find filth, love, revenge, and survival, which TJ Beitelman shows bleeding into one another and becoming, at times, much the same thing.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I'm the Man, I'm the Man

Dear Friends,

When you’re driving a van filled with middle schoolers
and a boy in the front seat starts singing
I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man
let him finish.
When he’s done,
a girl from the back seat will turn and say
“E-’s the man y’all.”
You’ll all laugh together.
E-’s excitement will blind him though.
Dancing in his seat and sculpting the words
out of air, he’ll forget about calling his mom.
So, he’ll go one extra stop with you
and you’ll hear him say into his phone,
“Yeah, mom I was singing and I’m almost finished with
my short story.”
She’ll pull up in a Carola,
her gray afro more motherly
than anything you’ve ever seen,
and he’ll sprint toward her
smiling under the streetlamps.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Last Day At Elzy

I know I indicated that this next post would be about Ink Stains and our television debut, but I have to stop and just tell you something else first.

At a certain point, all the boxes are packed, all the desks are back in line, and the scavenger hunt of signatures to get cleared have been obtained. The latter being the process for being released into the summer. Turn in folders, place stickers here, textbook inventory, and turn in the keys. All with little initials and the guarantee of your paycheck.

For the first time in 360 school days I no longer have a classroom. I took down my decorated door. The classroom rules and consequences. All the binders that could not be salvaged went in a giant black trash bag.  Crates stacked in the corner housed all the work students completed. My desk sat empty ready to accumulate summer’s dust. A few students came to visit. We stood in the room where all our words had their say.

At the end I remember first day of school’s electricity. Every student is ready, hungry from days a humid wandering for anything. We limp into the end of the year. All the disruptions. The dam of accountability is broken and students rush out of the school, carried about by the currents of corner stores, family trips and the prospect of sitting uninterrupted for a while.

Storm clouds have shadowed much of these days. My windshield collided with a rock and now bears a large crack. At another point in my life I might read these as indicators of mood or symbolism of some larger influence, but life is not a novel. And this ending carries none of the catharsis I anticipated only a strange longing for a pavilion many hands raised. The hours of listening and responding that got a few students inside, and the hope that those behind will carry the work coupled with the promise of visiting.

At the Freedom Project I’ll still be Mr. Stevens. Though, it will carry another meaning, like tomatoes off the vine, in a preserve jar, or in a sauce. Each carrying the same essence, but changed each time.

As I packed up my classroom these last few days, and sat in the silent school, I looked back at my white board where all my students signed their names. It started with one student drawing my name in big bubble letters, and then, one by one throughout the day, students came and added their names around mine. Perhaps not a symbol, but a nice ending.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Freedom Project

Part III The Freedom Project

The town of Sunflower is small.  It has a population of about 696 people and is home of the Sunflower County Freedom Project (SCFP). There’s a little Post Office, a corner store, a gas station, various housing, and many fields. I’ll drive each day from Cleveland to Ruleville to Doddsville and then make my second right turn of the thirty minute drive into Sunflower.

Here’s a little snippet of the history:

The Freedom Project is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to educational excellence and leadership development in Sunflower County, Mississippi. We use the history and spirit of the 1960s freedom struggle to motivate young people to become capable and compassionate leaders in their communities. Read the rest here.

Next year I’m going to be taking over the as the Program, Health, and Communications Director at the SCFP .I’ll spend time working with students in a garden, publishing a literary magazine, visiting colleges, camping, applying to summer programs and internships, building the character traits a person needs to grow, thrive, and lead - all of that after school. The kids that are this program have a level of dedication that is astounding. They range from sixth to twelfth grade. They’re bound for a future that is chosen by them. My time after school has always brought the most significant growth. The opportunity to mentor and commune one on one without the barrage of classroom constraints inherent in a dysfunctional system directly interfering in the day to day.  

I’m choosing the Sunflower County Freedom Project because my work is not finished here.. The control, support, and freedom that the new position offers me will allow me to put students in the situations and experiences that give them the control, give them the power, and give them the growth. It is no longer about Mr. Stevens’ room, but a about what a group of students empowered together can accomplish with and for each other.

My heart is heavy because I know the students I’ve taught at Amanda Elzy deserve such a program. They have an open invitation to drop in one or two days a month a commune with the Freedom Project Fellows as writers and thinkers. The pen will keep us connected and write our futures, one letter at a time.

Next Part IV: The Local TV Station Comes and Watches Me and My Students be Sweaty

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Life With and Without Air Conditioning

At the end of the year there are series of moments that are a mosaic that makes up the end of Corps Members commitment. I will offer you these to you a series of short parts in the last week of school. All I've done here in Mississippi is owed to you all back home who have read, called, and donated. You have given money, time, and advice. These reflections are by no means comprehension or even that well written. They are my attempts to capture what happened here from my perspective.

I hope you enjoy parts one and two. Thank you.

I At The End
.At the end of two years with Teach for America I could hold out my hands a look at the ashes around me. All the burned up attempts and shattered flying machines I pedaled off numerous cliffs.  The cynical edge adopted in such a focus would indicate that the ten percent I’ve reached might have been reached anyway. Before such toxicity can converge  dozens of faces rush up to meet mine and shatter whatever self pitying vision was forming.  They are wide eyed with notebooks in hand, small mouths down turned into ovals. Their foreheads are sweaty because the AC is still broken in my room. They’re looking at me and their hands are extended out to all the work that I’ve assigned them. They’re pointing to piles of poetry and now they’re pointing at Ink Stains. I can seem them shouting their poems into the stained wood rafters of Turnrow Bookstore. They demand I see the good and learn. They demand what I ask of them.  

There’s always more work to be done. The movement occurs with nudges from a lot of shoulders. It  feels glacial at times. Nothing like what Ginsberg described in “America.” What I’ve done down here isn’t so much a mad shoulder to the wheel, but more the inching of a titan. In such slowness  guilt, repercussions, and doubt can dominate.. The staff that have seen countless CMs come and go in a range from the toxic to the mediocre to the exceptional, can always demand more. At the end of it though I have to remember the humid fanfare of my last few nights of Ypsi. When every face I ever knew  showed offered a hug, advice, a beer, and filled a sloping backyard with all the fuel that took from 94 to 75 to 240 to 55 until I arrived in Mississippi. I think of all the books that came down in some fifty boxes of all the notes and all the supplies and debriefs and thousands of sheets of paper and toner cartridges and lost sleep and face to face meetings and comments on essays and calls home and individual progress reports and countless phone calls with professors, master teachers, and TFA staff. I can look at all of that see ash or I can see the fire that burns without my insistent and interfering hands.

II The State Test

Two weeks ago  State test is in full effect. Teaching stops and the schools empty out with a full two weeks left on the roster. We all sit in the heat and we do our best to generate what we can. The only think sticker than those classrooms in late May heat is the shame and guilt of being so powerless in the face of that test. All the talk and writing and demonstrations of knowledge are flattened by some 400 multiple choice questions filled in silently a dark air conditioned gym. 180 desks lay out on a massive tarp and teachers roam and intimidate students we have watered with our hearts and minds. Every time I’ve seen my students sit in those desks they often look at me with fear. For many of them they’re futures are being determined by the few strokes of their pencil. Now my students, those thirty percent mentioned at the beginning, they’re fine. They smile and we shake hands, it’s the other seventy that are asking for a highlighter or just put their heads down or use an odd trick like starting on number forty five because that might change it. At times like those I try and sit in their shoes and I think of all the choices that lead the to being scared. The arguments that took them out of class, the choices on the corner, the substitutes, the teachers who placed the books on the desks put the questions on the board and sat down, and I think of myself and my catalogue of failures as an educator. I know that the greatest effect against this is dependability: a teacher who becomes a pillar, and then I sit in silence with the students from 8am till 2pm and I leave emptied and dehydrated. My thoughts blank. The first hour is clear though, I can see it all.

Next Part III: The Sunflower County Freedom Project. Part IV: Ink Stains.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bomb Threat: Poetry Round One

In case you're coming to this unaware, April is National Poetry Writing Month. The goal is to write a poem each day. I'll share some of them here with you on the blog. Comments are open feel free to share your own. The slashes indicate what day out of the next thirty days the poem was written. Most poems will not have titles beyond that. 


Yesterday a boy called in a bomb threat
We stood out on the bleachers
while the sky threatened rain
and the electric blue and yellow wooden risers
held little puddles.
Students formed knots and hollered
threw raps and compared peoples’ heads
to tomatoes, q-tips, and thermometers.
The teachers stood beneath the students
on the plank
that ran longest near the handrail.
The football field sat overgrown
and dotted with hurdles.
The elementary kids did jumping jacks
and across the muddy fields we could see the flashing
We all worried about lunch.


Though this isn't an apology,
and the pressure remains unsatisfied.
I can hear the piano keys
playing a melody simple.
I like their sound: undercoated

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ink Stains: Let Student Talent Shine

Hey Everyone,

Getting published is the moment where all the silent effort of a writer receives light. For students across the Mississippi Delta that moment can come in the form of Ink Stains, a publication that I, and my two compatriots, have put together. These students have rewritten, added concrete imagery, appealed to the senses, performed for their schools, and are ready to see their names in print. Ink Stains will feature short fiction, memoir, and poetry. As of this moment we have 11 days to raise the last $285 on Kickstarter. If we fail to raise it we get none of the money pledged.

You can donate here:

When you donate we will mail you a copy of the magazine. Your donation is the same as buying a small press publication off the rack at a fraction of the cost.

Even one dollar gets us closer. Writing this makes me think of all the NPR pledge campaigns there are. I remember the guilt I feel and the strong desire for my radio to possess some kind of fast forward button, but if you donate you will receive the powerful and original work of new emerging writers who are not heard by the big publishing houses, television stations, or even seen in films. These are voices that deserve to be heard.

Let me just give you a taste, two different stanzas from two different poems that I think puts into perspective what we're trying to put out to donors across the country and communities across the Delta.

my abnormal anomalies usually mirror astronomy,
So greatest praise to the most high honorably,
But it’s funny to me how I covet the same things that I was structured to be.

And here's another in a much more direct and conversational language: 

Hey You,
You know that land they call
Free, but still tries to prevent
Me from being me

Give a few of your dollars so that these poems can be read by the audience that they deserve. Share the Kickstarter link and this post with anyone you think can help. 

Thanks for journeying with me to this point. 

Word is bond, 

Mr. Stevens