David Stacey first introduced me to the teaching and learning concept of “textual interventions” in 2002. While taking a course titled, “Rhetorical Approaches to Writing” Dr. Stacey described Rob Pope’s work. Years later, I discovered Stacey’s (1995) review of the primary book through which Pope described the approach. See Stacey’s book review of Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literacy Studies at JAC Online (archives): http://www.jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol17.1/stacy-textual.pdf.
Put as simply as possible, a textual intervention requires that a reader change some portion of the original text and then determine the implications of that change.
For years, while teaching first year composition courses (that emphasized writing instruction through the study of literature and poetry), the “poetic intervention” assignment was always one of the most exciting units to teach. In most ways, I think it represented a chance for students to feel a bit rebellious. As most of us probably have experienced ourselves, the reverence and priorities that many teachers demand when assigning literature and poetry often obscures students’ own access to the texts. Interventions, however, offer a small, but meaningful opportunity for students to change that. When assigned, an intervention allows a student to invent a unique relationship to a text. At first they find it confusing, then liberating, and before you know it, they are explaining not just the changes they made to a given text, but how those changes differ from the author’s original work.
There is often a real excitement in the room when you tell students to weigh in to the margins of a revered text, or poem. But, this post is not about the method, or specific teaching strategies, etc. It isn’t a reinterpretation based on Rob Pope’s work, or a conceptual analysis of the practice; instead, I am sharing here one of the more successful examples that I created to introduce the practice and prepare students to conduct their own. Enjoy.
1. INTRODUCE THE POEM
Let’s read a poem together. At the end of it, I will introduce you to an exercise that you will eventually do on your own. But before we get there, let’s read a poem that combines mystery and love with reading and writing.
This is a poem, titled “Marginalia” by the contemporary poet Billy Collins.
Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.
And if you have manage to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
~Poet Laureate, Billy Collins
2. GIVE STUDENTS SOME TIME TO DIGEST THE POEM
General Script: Before we talk about this poem, take a moment (5 minutes) to look at the poem again and write down some of your reactions to it.
3. HAVE AN OPEN CLASSROOM DISCUSSION
Ok, now: What are your reactions to this poem?
Did you expect that ending?
4. PROMPT A TEXTUAL INTERVENTION (IN SIMPLE TERMS)
General Script: Now, instead of just admiring the poem, what if you jumped into the text and changed it somehow? What would you change?
But what if they did meet? (the one “whom I would never meet . . .”).
What if the book wasn’t ‘Catcher in the Rye’ but ‘_____’ instead?
What if the end-note hadn’t been “Pardon the egg salad stains” but a different sandwich?
5. AND FINALLY, INTRODUCE THIS PREPARED SAMPLE INTERVENTION:
General Script: Let’s look at an example. What if the final line of the poem:
Original: “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
Was actually this instead?
Intervention: “Watch out for the chocolate smear, but I dig this cat.”
A. GIVE A MOMENT FOR THEM TO THINK ABOUT THIS CHANGE
General Script: Take a moment (the next 5 to 10 minutes) and write down your immediate reactions to this change.
What kind of things did you jot down just now?
B. SHARE SOME OF THESE PREPARED REFLECTIONS
- Immediately it is obvious, this change isn’t nearly as good as the original; however, this simple change to the text made me, for a brief moment, consider more just what I liked about the author’s original, “Pardon the egg salad . . .”. From this brief ‘re-considering’ I realized that we are not entirely sure what the girl is asking us to pardon her for, the egg salad stain, or the fact that she has fallen in love with Holden Caulfield, or perhaps both. In fact, by making it less than certain, she is incidentally suggesting that, “Hey, it is just an egg salad stain. And it is just a little bit of love. You can forgive me for this right?”
- Love, in this manner, is partially equated with an egg salad stain. She is inadvertently saying that they are similar – pardon the egg salad, pardon the love. Implicitly then, love takes on aspects of an egg salad stain. Love, like an egg salad stain, is a bit messy. It is yummy.
- And further, I would argue that it is legitimate to go a bit further, that egg salad is usually something that people eat during the summer time. And so, according to this assumption, we can assume the time of year. We can assume it is hot out. And because of this assumption, we can virtually imagine this young ‘beautiful’ woman bounding out of the library, back into the hot-summer world . . . full of this new found ‘Catcher in the Rye’ love-inspiration, ready to do something daring, brave, bold, adventuresome.
- And speaking of Holden Caulfield, what if she had said, “Pardon the egg salad stain, but I am in love with Holden Caulfield.” No, no this is not nearly as romantic. It is her state of being-in-love that is important. It is the simple fact that she feels love that appeals, I believe, to the narrator’s sensibilities and hence eventually my own (the reader). For if she is just-in-love, the possibility exists that she could eventually love others, like “you”. But if she is specific, if she says Holden Caulfield – is it possible to feel jealous?, considering it is someone that the author has never met?
- What if it was chocolate smear instead of egg salad stain? Well, chocolate doesn’t have the summer feel to it. It isn’t as fresh, or healthy. It is more something someone would eat because they are gluttonous. They are indulging. Chocolate leads, in this manner, to a whole different feeling about this person. And we do not get the same sense of a specific time of year that the egg salad implies.
“She was a sad girl, I could tell.” Again, different poem, right? Now, practice this with a poem of your choice.