#CountdowntoPub - The Classroom Is Its Own Kind of House: An Interview Between Lindsey Drager and Peter Markus
LD: In an interview with Fiction Writers Review, you were asked to define story, to which you answered: “A story is a room in a house I sometimes wake up inside. The best stories are rooms that I’ve never been in before and yet inside them I feel strangely at home.” In the past, your projects have taken shape as primarily language-driven fiction that employs repetition and simple syntax to create a narrative universe that orbits and spirals in which readers find themselves transfixed. For Inside My Pencil, you explore arguably more intimate territory through the genre of the essay. Yet, the reading effect of this collection, this book, feels very much like the way you describe a story: a room in a house which is both familiar and foreign. Could you speak a bit about working in essay, when so much of your past writing has taken shape as short stories, as fiction?
PM: I feel strangely at home inside the classroom which is its own kind of house. I also feel strangely at home when I don’t know exactly what I am doing or what I am going to say. I tell this to my students all the time: that I don’t know what I am about to say and because I don’t it’s as if I am standing on the threshold of both unpredictability and mystery, a precipice where anything, even flight, or at least levitation, is possible. I write fiction in this way and I teach in this way and again it’s where I feel most at home. And yet, there I stood, inside the room of Inside My Pencil, and the story that took shape around the stories that I often found myself telling to my students was a story I could not imagine. To quote one of my favorite songs: “I gave words and you gave words. Sounds like an even trade.” And it was. My students delivered to me this book when they received my own words with open eyes and ears and through the words that they wrote back a kind of correspondence of sorts took place that transported and transformed my own relationship to the pencil in my hand.
LD: I’m struck by the way instruction is treated as an art form in this book, where Mr. Pete—who the narrator defines as a façade, a teaching persona—embodies and performs the mantras he tries to instill in his students about writing: writing allows us to become someone or something else, words permit us to realize and face the impossible, language endorses transformation on the page and in the world. How would you characterize your own experiences as a pupil, a learner, a child? Beside the vibrant and intrepid students that populate Inside My Pencil, who along the route of your life as a writer and a person has taught you how and who to be?
PM: As a student I was always the boy near the window who liked to turn away to what was outside the walls of the classroom. The best of my teachers like Mrs. Fortner in the third grade allowed for this kind of reverie in that she knew that the clouds and the trees have many truths to teach us. Of course there were those other teachers like Ms. Brooks who liked to shutter out such outside truth-speakers and truth-seekers. I know I’ve learned more about poetry by reading in the shade of a tree or near the mud of the river than I have found inside the pages of an actual book. My greatest teachers have been the river that runs through my hometown south of Detroit and also the young voices of my kids—both my own and those who are my students—who have always been here to remind me of the boy I used to be who grew up listening to the stories that my mother used to tell my imaginary friend Jerry and I in the basement of my childhood home while she did the laundry. So my mother and father both, and my children who are now adult-aged and their mother and my wife who are the people who know me best of all and can tell you about the invented language that I continue to speak in to this day (a language that I first came to back when I was a child who would hear his mother speaking to her own mother in a language I could not decipher and who also on some Sunday mornings found himself inside a church listening to a language—Greek—that seemed to bring with it the smells of frankincense and the stained-glass hallucinations of angels that continue to live in my dreams where sometimes at night when I am asleep I find myself talking in my invented language to God).
LD: I see one of the central arguments of the book to be this: that sanctioning and cultivating young imaginations gives children agency. It seems that these students, who live in the darkest avenues of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Detroit, might be empowered when they are given permission to become visionary. Throughout the book you remind us that a story is an offering, and that to read or listen to another’s narrative is a gift, for which we should give thanks. How has your own writing changed or shifted or morphed after encountering these children and their intense and at times devastating stories? How have your stories been influenced by theirs?
PM: 1) To see with eyes not of my own head. 2) To become other-than. 3) To make things up. 4) To invent. 5) To be strange. 6) To find joy in the making. 7) To be spontaneous. 8) To free-style. 9) To trust in the story itself. 10) To be a river that forgets and flows the opposite way. This is what my students have taught me—just ten of the many lessons I hope I bring to the page especially when I write my fiction.
LD: As you note earlier on, one of your goals with these students is to ensure they understand that “Words can get us to believe in the unbelievable.” Later, Mr. Pete says this: “To learn how to see, to see what’s not there, to see beyond the surface, to see what nobody else has seen. That, too, is what and why we go to school to learn. That is what I teach for, teach toward.” Neither our speaker nor Mr. Pete ever overtly states this, but I see your work as a P.E., a “Poetry Educator,” as advocacy and outreach. What would you hope these children take with them from their encounters with Mr. Pete as they become adults?
PM: I hope that the children that I teach remember what they’ve taught me: that it’s essential that we see beyond ourselves, that we trust the words that we find ourselves speaking, that we seek out others unlike us, that we never forget the joy in making and making things up. That kindness in all of this is King and is what makes us all kindred in this kingdom that language can often take us to.
LD: At the conclusion of Inside My Pencil, you note: “This book, I hope, is my ode to the child.” What do you think children can teach us about language, stories, possibility?
PM: Children still believe in the possibility and the truth that is waiting for us all inside every pencil. In the best classrooms (that are often more like sandboxes than they are boxes cluttered with desks) there is that sense and sensation of: tell us what you know and we will listen, we will believe. I sometimes invite my students to make up their own invented word and to build a poem around it and the experience of such word-making (which is fundamental to speaking with utmost authority) is a lingual encounter that they carry with them long after this session comes to an end. A child makes up a word that he likes the sound of, says the word “pucale,” it off-rhymes with “tamale,” and from that moment on, when he sees you he remembers that word and the pleasures found around it, and he says the word again, and again, with pleasure each time, the word becoming its own kind of flesh and fruit inside his mouth. It’s like a tree that bears fruit and we hope that the fruits that fall around it go to seed and other trees in due time take root around them. Words can work in this mysterious way. We are trees walking around in the rain, each of us with a job to do, and my job is to invite the child to stay a child as long as possible, to live inside that house, made of straw, made of sticks, made of brick or of words, and if we believe that this house is a good house—“Our words,” says Hafiz, “become the house we live in”—then even the big bad wolf outside our front door might become a fiction for us to erase. Or, in the very least, I would hope, we might be given the opportunity to revise the big bad wolf into being a dog that finds pleasure in the chasing and chewing of sticks and not the eating of flesh and bone.