Monday, June 27, 2016

Four Questions About the Future

How sophisticated does any
creature's mind have to be
to conceive of Future? Was
there an evolutionary ad-
vantage to imagining Future
and oneself in it? When
they were hiding from God
in the brush after complications
arose, how did Eve and Adam
discuss Future? What are you
going to do tomorrow?

hans ostrom 2016

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Lot's wife, unnamed in the Bible,
at long last unsalted, has her say:

"I looked back. It's a human
response, a habit not without
practical merit I got salted
because of some arbitrary,
impractical order, and
without naming me they
named a stone pillar after me.

I'm a mother. You don't think
I knew we had to leave the city?
Who do you think got the kids
ready and packed? Not Lot.

For Christ's sake (thinking
prospectively), let's have less
drama, catastrophe, and
excessive, gratuitous extortion
and a lot more common sense.

You need to salt a fleeing woman
to get your goddamned point
across.  What was your point?
Yeah, I know what the write-up
says. I'm talking about for real.
Admit it. You over-reacted."

hans ostrom 2016

Park and Fly

At the place with the sign that read
"PARK AND FLY" people were parking
their cars, getting out, and flying.

A lot of them roosted in trees
nearby. Up there they tore through
their baggage and briefcases,

grabbing paper, pencils, and wires
I guess to build nests with. Some
people perched on roofs

and huddled shoulder to shoulder,
cheeping or cooing. I think they
just wanted to get away from their

jobs kids pets companions husbands
wives partners televisions poverty
depression phones & asexual routines.

Anyway it was quite a thing, and it
made for an awful commute,
selfish of them really.

hans ostrom 2016

Monday, June 20, 2016

Nutritious, Too

It was a little bistro, as I recall, located
somewhere between Sierra City, California,
and Istanbul. "Tabula Rasa" was the name.
Minimalist dining. Never to be found using
GPS. Somehow they block the signal.

Minimalist dining. No decorations.
Simple wooden tables. Two kinds of soup,
one kind of bread, olive oil. One type
of salad, one entree. No specials.
Water and/or vodka. Table white, table red.

Servers wore white aprons and did
not reveal their names.  They opened
the conversation with philosophical
questions, such as, "Is language
a medium of deception?" (I think
I answered, "It depends." )

Ten different desserts, three ports,
several brandies and scotches.
Absinthe. It kind of sneaks up on you,
a place like that. Impressions are made
on your senses. Things about a bistro
of this nature catch in memory's webbing.

Yeah, and after the kitchen closed,
the dancers came out. The lighting
changed.  Tables disappeared. Short
surrealist films appeared on the walls.
I think of it now as a transformative
dining experience.

hans ostrom 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Candelabra in a Desert

Like a candelabra stuck in desert sand,
I wonder what my purpose is. Like
a coin made by the previous empire,
I wonder what I'm worth. Like a stray
cat in a cold alley, I wonder if I'll
ever be wanted again. Like a statue
opposite the Bureau of Statistics,
I'm facing facts. Like a traveler

picked clean by thieves, I have
nothing to trade for that old feeling
of being interesting, desired,
caressable. Like a hermit, I close
a door on all this silly yearning
and read until I fall asleep.
Sleep it seems will still accept me.

hans ostrom 2016



Boxes full of possibilities
when emptied. Cupboards
or bookshelves for
the lean of budget.


So much packaging
So much printed matter
Bag inside box
So much surreal imagery
Just to deliver cooked grain and sugar.


Two empty produce boxes
fight in an alley,
slamming their rectangled
cardboard together, trying
to cut each other with corners.

A dishwasher comes out
for a smoke-break,
clothes damp from water
and grease, and separates them.
"What's this all about?"
is the dishwasher's question.
The boxes, they/re not saying anything.


Our parents didn't go in
for lunch boxes painted
Disney or Wyatt Earp.
They sent us to school
with silver or black lunch pails
shaped like barns. The idea
was schoolwork. I think they
were in a hurry to make us old.


Black box, bottom of the ocean,
holds its secrets like sinister jewelry.
Malfunction, malevolence, murder?
why why why why why why
cheeps the beacon, voice of the

hans ostrom 2016

Fast Food

An apple really moves when
you get a good grip
and put your weight behind the throw.
Better though to save or eat it.

If you're hallucinating
mildly, cups of tea and bowls of soup
can shift positions in a room--
like that! Nobody knows why.

When you think about it,
frozen peas are like hardened pixels
exploding out of a pointillist painting.
When you think a little more,
they don't seem like that at all.

Did you see how fast that
sausage was going? That's
German engineering, my friend.
Nothing like it.

hans ostrom 2016

Sunday, June 12, 2016

How To Fix the Humanities in Higher Education

It’s a true fact that in the U.S., the humanities division of higher education is in trouble.  Students are voting with their feet and staying away from history and English and other humanistic venues.
I’d like to take a moment to address the problem in a way that most humanities professors and administrators do not seem to emphasize and, in some cases, reject.  It’s called practicality.

In one practical move, the humanities need to go back to classical basics, except I’m not talking about teaching Greek and Latin and rehashing what used to be the grand narrative of Western Civilization.  Many Greek and Roman thinkers and teachers (the categories are not necessarily exclusive) were empiricists and nascent social scientists.  Aristotle’s writings on rhetoric reveal a mind keenly aware of how public discourse functions, how political arguments get put together, and so on.  Whereas many English Departments and colleges farm out the teaching of rhetoric to graduate students and adjuncts, Aristotle embraced it as essential.  I doubt if he’d have much time for most of what the Modern Language Association represents. 

At my own university, the English Department decided to manipulate the notion of “writing across the curriculum,” which was never meant as a replacement for first-year composition, and have the faculty at-large teach in the form of “first-year seminars.”  One problem, of course, is that writing really isn’t getting taught the way it should be, in most cases.  I don’t blame the faculty who have taken on the seminars.  I blame English for jettisoning their responsibility—not just English at my school, but English across the profession.  A second problem is that those students who once became interested in the humanities by means of a first-year composition course now never have the opportunity. A third problem is that enrollments in English courses have plummeted. Of course. 

So my first suggestion is to re-embrace rhetoric, not just at the first-year composition level, but also with new courses in public and political discourse.  In an age when these two areas of communication are undergoing revolutions, English departments are sitting on their hands.  It’s ludicrous.
My second suggestion is to find out, in detail, why students are walking and wheeling away from humanities.  Hire social scientists, if necessary, or even if it’s not necessary, for we know how humanities types love their confirmation bias. I know I do. 

I’d be delighted to be proved wrong by data, but my moderately informed guess is that students will take ethnic studies classes in history and literature even if most of them may not choose to major in such disciplines.  African American and Latino Studies classes at my university continue to attract a lot of students, even as enrollments in English plummet. It makes sense, at least on first glance, for just as public/political discourse is undergoing a revolution, conflict and cooperation between and within ethnic groups is another area undergoing revolution.  Why wouldn’t students—of all ethnicities—energized by Black Lives Matter and related events and conditions be interested in ethnic studies courses that dovetail with these phenomena?

Think of students as citizens.  That is how Aristotle and Quintillian thought of them—if you feel the need to seek classical approval.  The original seven liberal arts were rooted in civil practicality.  That’s why they included arithmetic, rhetoric, and music.  How beneficial it would be for students to learn how the blues, for example, massively influenced later genres of popular music but also the American culture at large. Ethnic studies courses—in a variety of humanities departments—think of students as citizens, too, he wrote, climbing on his hobby horse one last time.

Yes, that’s right, I’m invoking the call for relevant courses that arose in the 1960s.  No, I’m not suggesting that colleges base their humanities curricula on whatever students deem relevant.  I am suggesting that colleges look at what’s happening in society, how young people are responding to some of what’s happening, and adjust accordingly.  Besides, ethnic studies have come of age.  Texts are more widely available than ever.  The scholarship and pedagogy are seasoned. 

If, in English, it’s creative writing students want to take, then offer it—in the forms of poetry, fiction, and screenwriting, among others.  Offer playwriting.  Teach journalism. Teach blogging. Teach magazine-writing, including online magazines (obviously).  These are all opportunities to refine critical thinking and sharpen writing in general.  If you, personally, recoil from such courses, then hire someone else to teach them.  Keep teaching what you teach, but get out of the way. Please.

I don’t want to drift too far from the main point of my second suggestion, however.  Get empirical. Find out what students are interested in academically and why.  Make some adjustments based on the data. You don’t need to burn your dissertation (although you should stop trying to teach it) or give up on your pet critical and cultural-studies theories.  Just suspend your beliefs and find out what’s really going on. If necessary, respect your youngers, a radical concept, I know. 

Finally, I’d suggest reaching out across disciplines and campuses to find unlikely partners.  When I served briefly as the director of the writing center at U.C. Davis (about a hundred years ago), we were interested in pairing upper-level writing courses with courses across the curriculum.  I  made cold-calls to many departments and asked if they’d be interested in a partnership.  I vividly remember picking up the desk phone and calling someone in in wildlife science.  Pretty soon a writing course taught to students in that field materialized.

I’m not suggesting that anyone ought to turn the cold call into the primary mode of reviving the humanities, although it couldn’t hurt.  It’s probably more practical and workable for people in the humanities to reach out across their own campuses, to walk or wheel or drive to other departments and start with a tabula rasa, asking how you might collaborate with business departments & schools, education departments, engineering, sciences, and social sciences.  Teach all kinds of professionally applicable writing and socially vibrant literature courses. 

Be peripatetic. Get over yourselves.  Get out there and mix with students and colleagues.  Attend conferences outside your specialty and outside humanities.  Go on the road, see what’s what.  Ask questions (not rhetorical ones).  Shut up and listen. Revive the humanities brick by empirical, grounded, socially alert, sometimes old fashioned (rhetoric), innovative brick.  

Friday, June 10, 2016


Wind so hard the lake-surface bristles, and because the word
Saturday appears above a box representing a date, the person,
categorized as a man, is not somewhere else but here, for
even in so called off hours everyone is regulated. He's

hunched inside a coat, hearing wind so hard it whistles
through reed stalks and he notes he can't distinguish
between a vaguely recalled sadness and this day's
specific one, as if all pumice-gray clouds were one smear

across one sky he's lived under, wind so hard his ears
ache, and he knows eventually he'll do something called
"the sensible thing," and his legs will move him toward
something called a "house," but he like standing in muck

near the whipped up lake because standing here seems
like the one thing that hasn't been arbitrarily labeled,
wind so hard now his nose runs, and he mutters,
"whatever you say," which encapsulates what he's felt

like saying to everything from STOP-signs to tweets
to good-mornings to cityscapes and his own name
and all the names for things, including life--life?
Whatever you say, wind so hard it blows a bird

sideways and the man's chilled deep and grateful
for that and walks buffeted back toward sensible
things, wind so hard it's almost but not quite
made life plausible today.

hans ostrom 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Advertisers

They went to a lot of trouble
because they didn't know any better.
We speak of advertisers, decades
ago.  They crafted heavy metal
signs in the shape of a flying
horse (petrol). They made radio
and TV commercials as subtle
as pile-drivers. They showed
stag films to unsavory clients,
lots of smoke and leg. A steak,
potatoes, beans, martinis, and
pie a la mode every night:
deserving of a medal, maybe.
In retro-spectro-vision, I guess
the marketeers were as obvious,
naive, and simple as us, their
targets. Because they were targets, too.

hans ostrom 2016

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Wish Lists for the Dead

You know there's these online wish-lists
for people about to get married.
Toaster (1). Champagne glasses (12).
That sort of thing. A lot of pre-newlyweds
just want cash. Why did I just write "just"?

Anyway, I think there should be wish-lists
for people who've just died. Some things
with far more granularity than a will
or a trust or a box of photos. Bouquet
for Giselle (1). Fuck-you to cousin
Rexx (3). Trees planted (1,345,238).
Bourbon-and-branch-water for
Dolores (3). Kind word (1).

hans ostrom 2016

I Demand to Know

A dragonfly, wearing standard-issue
lead goggles, downshifts its wings,
which when still look like foggy
cracked windows. Resting,

this dragonfly pulses. Its curved
blue tail befriended a scorpion
once during a vacation in Mexico.

I demand to know
what this dragonfly thinks.

hans ostrom 2016

The Fiddler's Response

The absorption of music operates
individualistically, in spite of
communal structures, hitocracies,
group performance, and ubiquitous
corporate dispensers. Thus

was the violin-player in a four-
person acoustic jazz band induced
by the present music and her
personal compunctions to play
with her hair, twisting it with
one finger, then looking at it

as if it were a clue; this, as
she waited (was she waiting?)
for a guitarist to complete
his wailing interval.

* "wailing interval"--sometimes
used by Duke Ellington to refer to
an instrumental solo

hans ostrom 2016