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10) Iceland is not actually made of ice. It probably got its name due to the Vatnajokull – Europe’s largest glacier, which is in the southeastern corner of the country. The rest of Iceland has mountains, volcanoes, more glaciers, rivers, meadows, cliffs, black sand beaches, and this crazy moonscape-type area which isn’t found anywhere else in the known universe (well, except for on the actual moon). On the whole, Iceland is much greener than Greenland.

 9) Iceland is all about confluences. It’s situated where the North Atlantic and Artic Oceans converge, though only a small part of the country, Grimsey Island, sits above the Arctic Circle. In Thingvellir National Park, the gap between the North American and Eurasian continental plates is visible.

8) Iceland’s capital city is Reykjavik, but maybe they should just call it Rage-kjavik. (As in the slang for partying, not a synonym for anger). The city is renowned for its runtur (literally “round tour”), a pub crawl which occurs both nights of every weekend all the year ‘round.

7) Perhaps because of their runturing, Icelanders are very fond of hotdogs, which are made with lamb and served with a special mustard. In the true fashion of a hangover meal, Icelanders pile toppings on their “pylsurs.” In 2004, Bill Clinton was skewered (see what I did there?) in political cartoons when he ordered a pylsur with no toppings. Other national delicacies include puffin, whale, and fermented shark meat.

6) In 2008, the Icelandic government established the Vatnajokull National Park, which surrounds the glacier of the same name. With glaciers, rivers, geysers, and such, the park embodies Iceland’s dynamic geology. About 12% of the country’s total land area is protected in the park, and Vatnajokull is, in fact, the largest national park in Europe.

5) J.R.R. Tolkien was a devoted fan of all things Icelandic. He studied the language at Oxford and taught Old Icelandic as a professor. Before the Inklings were the Inklings, they were the Kolbiturs (literally “Coalbiters”), a term for a type of hero in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. J.R.R. Tolkien had an Icelandic au pair watching after his children while he was working on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many of his ideas, such as trolls turning to stone, have roots in the types of stories Icelanders tell young children.

ChristmasCat

4) Icelanders like to profess a belief in elves, trolls, and, my favorite, a giant cat that comes down from the mountains at Christmas and eats all the children who didn’t get new clothes.

3) Convincing potential tourists that Iceland is more than a frozen, dark hunk of rock at the top of the planet has become a national priority. They’ve done a good job thanks to the Inspired by Iceland campaign, where visitors to a website can propose alternative names for the country, and watch videos of trendy people having a good time.

2) There’s more to Rage-kjavik than a pretty face. In 2011, it was named a UNESCO City of Literature. Reykjavik is the only non-English speaking city to earn this honor. Iceland loves its writers – there is even national union for them which provides modest living stipends.

1) Andddd….the most interesting thing about Iceland, at least to me, is that I will be spending most of the month of June there.  Woohoo! Fist pump! The school where I work offers study grants for faculty who have taught at the school for at least three years. I’m wrapping up year six and finally decided to take advantage of it. This is what happens when you sit around on New Year’s Eve talking to two very well-traveled Classics teachers, I guess.

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I’m thrilled. Aside from a few weekend trips to Canada when I lived in Montana, I haven’t left the country since I was 17. Like the American Transcendentalists, I’ve always defended and enjoyed the idea of “deep travel” – taking any place you happen to be and opening all five senses to it. I’m fine with road trips, and I know that I could spend the rest of my life exploring this corner of Appalachia and still not know all there is to know. However, there’s also something to be said for throwing yourself into a completely new place. This summer, that’s what I’m going to do.

I have some specific plans for the three weeks I will be in Iceland. I’m really interested in exploring the reasons for and effects of item #2 on my list. Why does this remote, sparsely populated country value literature so much? How does that valuation inform the national ethos? I’ll be spending lots of time in Reykjavik to get a sense of the contemporary scene, but I’ll also explore the Western Peninsula (where the Sagas were set), travel up to the northern capital of Akureyri for an arts festival, and make stops at various cultural museums and writers’ residencies around the county.

I have some days scheduled in for roaming around the natural landscape as well. So far, the Hornstradir looks the most interesting. It’s about as remote as you can get, and there are some backcountry tours I can connect with to get up there. I’m really hoping to see some puffins and whales in the wild, not just on my plate. (Ha, ha…I don’t think I’ll actually eat either, but one never knows about such things.) If you have been to Iceland and have any suggestions for things I should do, see, or eat,  please leave a comment!

I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity and interested to see how/if it changes the essays I write later this year.  I’ve never claimed to be a travel writer, but maybe there’s a niche for me somewhere.

English is spoken almost universally in Iceland, but its citizens also take a great deal of pride in its own language. I guess that’s to be expected from a country that places so much stock in written expression. In hopes of at least learning the basic phonetics of the language, I’ve downloaded an app on my phone and poked around on YouTube. So far, Icelandic makes absolutely zero sense to me, but I have at least figured out how to say goodbye:

“Bless Bless.”

(Christmas Cat image taken from hugleikurdagsson.tumblr.com. Very cool site.)

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Summer is in full swing now and I have been busy writing, recreating, and setting up readings.

I didn’t blog much last week because I was in a super secret undisclosed location, researching and writing for my latest project.  I bet you can’t guess what I’m focusing on for my next essay collection:

and now for something completely different...

I say it’s a “completely different” project from Confederate Streets, but really it’s not. Like CS, this project allows me to focus on my own interpretation of cultural geography – how we 21st Century Americans, especially Southerners, perceive place, space, and cultural issues, and what external and internal factors drive our perceptions.

For my next project, I’m taking it outside. And that’s really all I can say. It’s so new that it is completely nebulous. Along with reading lots of books (or parts of lots of books), I’ve decided that an important part of the research process is learning how to kayak.  I’ve chosen to intensely research what it feels like to go through rapids while upside down, so I’ve been doing that a lot. It’s all for you, dear reader.

My next project also is not completely different because race will be a factor. Why? Well, because race is a factor in every facet of American life, no matter where you live or what you do.

One of my favorite funny blogs, Stuff White People Like, gets (or got, since it hasn’t had new material in about six months) a lot of comic mileage out of the fact that one rarely sees people of color perusing the aisles of the local REI. But to say that “the outdoors” is purely the domain of middle class whites is pretty myopic. The 7th book up in today’s picture, The Colors of Nature, is a fantastic literary nonfiction collection by writers of color. I highly recommend picking it up, and I’m sure I’ll blog more about it later in the summer as I continue reading  the essays.

Do you know of another work of “nature writing” by a minority author? Please post a comment about it!

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The good folks at The Tusculum Review, which is based out of Tusculum College in Greenville, Tennessee, have given their thumbs up to Confederate Streets.  Incidentally, you all should really pay attention to the TTR and the Creative Writing Program at Tusculum. 2010 was a good year for them – contributor Irene O’Garden won a Pushcart Prize, advisory board member Jaimy Gordon won the National Book Award for Lord of Misrule, and a couple other contributors had some books published, too.

Plus, TTR Editor, Wayne Thomas, is a graduate of the West Virginia University MFA Program, which guarantees he’s running a high-quality operation.

Check out the Tusculum Review here: http://www2.tusculum.edu/tusculumreview/

The review of CS is here: http://www2.tusculum.edu/tusculumreview/2011/06/10/kirsten-eve-beachy/

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The Muse of Fire kids get a standing ovation.

As I’ve been saying this week, May is a beautiful month in the world of education. Oh, it’s stressful, but usually the stress comes because all the stuff you’ve been working for all year is finally completed, presented, and evaluated – the students hand in the big research paper, AP tests are taken, concerts are performed, end of the year picnics and receptions are attended, and so on.

Along with other end-of-the-year duties, I was busy getting the school literary journal off to the printer. Going back through the  poems, stories, essays, and comics the students have written over the past year reminded me of the real power of creativity to speak to universal truths and connect us to each other.

Then, as if I wasn’t riding high enough, I encountered two projects out in the city which are using creative writing to change kids’ lives in fundamental ways.

In mid-May, I attended the Muse of Fire First Class Plays performance at the Hamilton County Public Library.  Named for the lines in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention/A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.), the Muse of Fire Project takes kids from local elementary schools through a 10-week play writing workshop. By the end, each child has a 10-minute play, which is then performed by professional actors (“real grown-ups!” as it says in the promotional literature.)  The project was started by Kate Forbes Dallimore and Stevie Ray Dallimore, both accomplished actors who relocated to Chattanooga from New York City last July as part of the phenomenal ArtsMove program. Good gracious, I love this city.

Kate invited me to come, so I went to the Saturday night performance, unsure exactly what to expect.  It was brilliant. The plays had titles like “Pac Man’s Life Game,” and they were about as imaginative as anything I’ve encountered at any level.  The one I remember best starred a trail marker who was friends with a mushroom and confided in said mushroom quite often. The trail marker was pretty sad because she was in love with the pine tree she was attached to, but he had an extremely wooden personality (ha!) and never noticed her.  Isn’t that brilliant? All the plays were like that. And, while watching the actors was fun, it was even more fun to watch the young playwrights react to the performances of their work (they were sitting off to the side of the stage) Like most writers, they started out timid and ended up thrilled.  These kids are from all types of public schools and all walks of life, and they have now shared the experience of drafting and worrying over work, seeing it interpreted and performed, and receiving all the applause and accolades it deserved.  Even if they never write another word (which I doubt will happen), there’s no way they’ll forget the triumph that comes from working hard, fussing over details, and letting their imaginations lead the way. Bravo! Fellow ‘Noogans, I implore you to check out the next round of performances, whenever those may be.  Or volunteer. Their facebook page can keep you connected.

Just a couple days after those performances, I read about Black & Bright!  – a literary journal run by 5th graders at Calvin Donaldson School.   The article I’ve linked to speaks to the power of that project.  Basically, two years ago, no child in that school, a school which is frequenly maligned as being dangerous and sub-par, would ever have identified themselves as a writer. Test scores were abysmal. Thanks largely to the efforts of volunteers and writing coach Kim Honeycutt, writing is now ingrained in the culture of the school. Test scores are up by 30 percentile points, and, more importantly, these children feel like they have a voice. That’s remarkable.

The arts are being sacrificed in schools across the country in the name of test scores and budgets, but Black & Bright!  proves that such moves are folly. Creative writing, creativity in general, teaches students in a way that nothing else can.

There are projects like these going on all around the country. In Montana, I did a little work with the Missoula Writing Collaborative. New York City abounds with creativity outreach projects – from the 52nd Street Project  to Girls Write Now.

I am so glad that I encountered about these efforts to reach out to students in Chattanooga. Next year, I plan to help. With any luck, I’ll get my own students in on the fun as well. May is a time when things wrap up, but new ideas start to form.

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In honor of my students who graduated on Sunday, I am posting the following poem by Richard Wilbur (b. 1921). It’s one of my favorites, and sure, it’s about a girl, not a boy, but, as I wrote yesterday – universality is the watchword here. Congrats, Class of 2011. I’ll miss you.  And, for the love of Pedro, keep writing.

The Writer
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

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Sunday was graduation day at the high school where I teach. (I avoid giving the name of my school so as not to trigger the Google Alert system, but it’s an all-boys’ boarding and day school. Not very hard to track that one down…)

I grew up in a family of public school advocates, and I do believe in the mission of public schooling.  However, one thing that has struck me about my teaching career at an elite prep school is the utter universality of childhood and adolescence. The trappings may be different (my public school colleagues encounter seersucker bow ties and boys driving recklessly in Land Rovers at probably 1/10,000th of the rate I do), but the truths spoken by Tex Evans, a spiritual mentor to me and the founder of the Appalachia Service Project, apply here just as well as they do in the county high schools out in the mountains, or the de-facto-segregated inner-city schools across the country. Tex Evans founded ASP on this principle: Every person wants essentially four things : to be loved, to belong, to own someting, to create something worthwhile. 

I shared Evans’ credo with my sophomores while we were studying One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich earlier this semester.  It resonated with them more strongly than I’d expected.  Many of the boys wrote beautiful papers about how, based on these principles, Ivan Denisovich manages to construct a fuller life in a Siberian gulag than some of them have at their fancy prep school.  Those four things – to be loved, to belong, to own something, to create something worthwhile – are what they want, too.  They are four things we all want, and when we keep the purity of those goals in mind, we lead more meaningful lives.

This year, my fourth teaching at this school, I’ve had the luxury of seeing my students more as individuals than I have in the past. It took me three years to figure out the drill, to grade and prep efficiently, to lose that sense of panicked disorientation, to walk the hallways and feel like I have the time to really  converse with the students.  Also, to be honest, I can be a little shy – it was easy for me to assume that the guys would rather not talk to their dorky English teacher who was never a teenage boy herself.

Thanks largely to re-reading Tex Evans, I’ve abandoned that shyness, sought to reach out a little more. It’s paying off.  What could have been a very, very stressful year for me (I was promoted, given new reponsibilities, and charged with teaching a class outside my knowledge base) has turned into probably the best teaching year I’ve had.

But, getting to know high school students has one major drawback – they grow up and leave. I had the class of 2011 as freshmen, again as juniors, and a handful again as seniors in an advanced writing class. I had probably 60 of them on the crew team, another dozen on the literary journal staff, and led about 10 of them on a trip to build homes in rural Appalachia.  They’ve been with me as I’ve come out of my shell and I’ve been with them as they grew from squeaky-voiced new guys to campus leaders.  They were a marvelously creative and service-oriented class – real idea guys.  On Sunday, I watched them parade across the stage in their school ties,white pants, and blue blazers, and now they’re off to new things.

In honor of this time of year, of commencements and the sense of pride and sadness that they bring, all my posts this week will be oriented to educational issues.  There really are good things going on in schools and cities across the country, and I intend to share what I know about a few of them.  I also have some poems I love and (of course) some photographs of the year to share.

Every day, in the name of education, teachers and volunteers work to provide four things to children and teenagers in all sorts of settings. Be loved. Belong. Own something. Create something worthwhile.  And, often, the kids surprise the grown-ups by offering those four things to each other, and to their teachers and parents, in return. This is especially true at this time of year – May – when endings and beginnings abound.

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It’s been a busy April, both literarily and with my job.  I have many stories to share about Driving Ms. Mason, giving a reading during a Chattanooga monsoon, and making David Sedaris laugh out loud ( Sedaris: 1,273 – Tocknell: 1). And now, there’s this whole blow-up with Greg Mortenson – the latest author to give us honest memoirists a difficult time appearing legit. (thanks, buddy)

However, I will deal with all those stories after Easter.  This is typically a week when I pause and reflect, and I plan to unplug a little and do so.  See you all on the flipside. Happy Easter.

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