Shoshin by CM Burroughs

I’m sitting in my living room in the day’s last light, listening to a Gillian Welch track, “Look At Miss Ohio,” a song that seems to give permission for a bit of tossing the self about—...look at miss ohio/she’s runnin around with her ragtop down/she says ‘I wanna do right but not right now.’ Only I haven’t been tossing myself about in the least—I’ve just begun a new teaching semester at Columbia College Chicago, my tenure clock has begun its run, and I have a new book on the brain. There’s no room for wayward being. I’ve got poetry readings, faculty meetings, and three classes to teach. And I love it—all. I have to remind myself that during all the moments of hustle, late night work, and what sometimes seemed painfully minute movements forward—I was devoted to my arrival here. I write now as a recording, an entry, my breath of being present for this all.

Lately, I have an unavoidable fixation on notions of beginning—in the way of considering where one finds herself and how she decides to come to motion. I’m teaching a graduate seminar that requires making that same kind of naked start, leveling the critical mind, operating in the mode of shoshin, or Buddhism’s concept Beginner’s Mind—a state of complete openness and lack of preconceptions. The course is called Queer Shelves: Identity Designated, Identity Disturbed, and we are reading texts that are of prescribed genres and can also be readily referred to as hybrid texts—yet my investment lay before their naming. I am eager to know what occurs when we readers/scholars strip ourselves of what we know (rather, what others have told us to know) about a text and approach the work as, simply, text. Word, syntax, punctuation, line. When do we let ourselves this close to language other than when we are writing? (And we discover so much in process.) My students and I will read deliberately, go it slow and keep wakefulness for what Barthes calls punctum, the detail that disturbs, that becomes synecdochial—part becoming representational of the whole. Our mode of bare approach means letting go of so much ready critical language—and the struggle to, as do children, discover language in the effort to describe what we are reading and experiencing that is, without the preconception of genre, happening somewhat anew. We’ll be reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Notley, Michael Ondaatje, Jean Toomer, Renee Gladman, and two yet unknown texts that I’m giving my students the pleasure of choosing. I expect it will be a surprising time, wherein we will witness one another unlearn ourselves.

I create courses and conversations that will feed me. During the months while I assign, read, and discuss the writing of others, rarely am I writing. The summer months provide the time I need to cultivate my shoshin, and, during the academic year, I grow a healthy amount of envy for the work my students accomplish with my and my colleagues’ guidance. Their working enervates me, and, no matter how busy I find myself, poems will seek me out; even now, poems of the past summer plaster my wall awaiting revisions and organization. I am at something, can feel it, and each part of my living feeds what will become.

These last months spent reading for Tupelo Quarterly have been (what?) exciting, surprising, thick with the work of making. This past week, a student called the act of reading with openness becoming into texts, which momentarily held me in its syntax and instinctive truth. Still it resonates. What we editors and readers for Tupelo Quarterly have done is create a gather of voice within which you can become—so long as you give yourself up, hold yourself open, and commit to presence.


CM Burroughs

15 September 2013