Ze is awesome: adventures with gender-neutral pronouns

English is missing a word. (Well, probably many words.) However, this is a really useful word: it’s a gender-neutral singular pronoun for people.

In the good-old-boy days, they just said “he” but that’s not cool anymore, nor should it be.

“It” is gender-neutral, but also implies a lack of humanity.

“He or she” is correct but oh-so-stiff.

“S/he” is unpronouncable.

“They” tends to be my go-to, but is technically incorrect, since “they” implies more than one.

Personally, I’d love to see us expand use of the word “it” so that it didn’t imply an object, so that the aliveness and dignity of its subjects came through clear, whether they were dogs, mountains, children, or silverware. However, our culture is pretty far from respecting the dignity of silverware. So in the meantime, what do we do?

There have been many attempts to add a gender-neutral pronoun to English, starting over a century ago. Wikipedia chronicles them here, along with much more details about the whole subject. This predicament came to my Carnation class’s attention recently, while we were working on grammar, so I brought in the list of invented pronouns. Their favorites were “co” and “ze.”

We decided to try and use them all day. We began by reciting the Emily Dickinson poem (#228) we’d been memorizing, gender-neutrally: Blazing in gold and quenching in purple/leaping like leopards to the sky/then at the feet of the old horizon/ ze lays zer spotted face to die. And so on. It started off well, but like these experiments tend to do, faded out over time.

And so we have to talk about unborn babies as its, and assign a gender to ambiguous strangers before we can talk about them gracefully. We slip into stereotypes too easily, calling doctors “he” and teachers “she” because it’s easier. We use the singular “they” so often our ears can’t hear its inconsistencies. And my young aspiring novelists still cannot write a novel without revealing the gender of their characters. Which is too bad, because that would be interesting.

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The Beard of Poetry

Last week my friend Joshua Gottlieb-Miller came to my Friday class as a visiting poet. It was pretty exciting. The kids had great questions for him. Some highlights:

“Are you a famous poet like Robert Frost?”

“I am zero percent famous.”

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller

Photo courtesy of 32 Poems. (Josh is an eensy bit famous after all.)

“Are you a famous poet like Charles Darwin?”

“I may be a more famous poet than Charles Darwin.”

“Do you write poems about nature, or reality?”

“Both. Sometimes I start a poem with nature, and then it needs some reality so I put in a telephone or something. You know?”

(Rapt stares and nods.)

They were amazed to find out that poets can work at Trader Joe’s (Josh says he is one of two staff poets at his branch), and that you can write poetry about recycling (Josh has an entire manuscript of recycling-related poems). Mostly, however, they were fascinated by Josh’s beard. And it is true, he has an impressive one.

When Josh was leaving, one of the girls called out, “You’ll always be famous to us! What was your name again?” Classic.

After Josh left, they wrote him a collaborative poem, each student adding a line as we went around the circle. They managed to put Josh, basketball, beards, garbage, pink fluffy unicorns, squash, and luna moths in one poem. Pretty coherently. And they wrote it in the shape of a beard and called it “The Beard of Poetry.” Josh says he’s going to frame it.

This week, they waxed on for a long time about how much they liked his teeth. They also decided they want to memorize one of his poems. Random poet-face objectification aside, I think introducing Frog Hollow to a living poet was a success.

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Some Opposites — a Frog Hollow Crankie

After a steep technical learning curve, I have a Frog Hollow Crankie* for you all. This is one we made to the poem “Some Opposites” by Richard Wilbur. We memorized this poem, and had a great time with it. It’s got a great rhythm, which helps make it easy to memorize, and it’s funny to boot.

I recorded this at home, so it’s just me performing it. Imagine ten enthusiastic young voices….

*A crankie is a moving panorama that accompanies a song, story, or poem, and is called a crankie because you crank it.

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For the past few years, I’ve been making crankies with my classes. Crankies (so named because you crank them) are scrolling pictures that usually accompany a song, story, or poem. They are a traditional Appalachian art form, but have cousins in many times and places. There are miniature ones — my friend made one out of an Altoid box and some pencils that said (letter by letter) HAPPY BIRTHDAY! — and enormous ones. Ours are in the middle. We use scrolls of butcher paper. We make them collaboratively, using beeswax crayons. We have illustrated songs, poems, and hand-clap rhymes, written our own crazy stories, and made one with shadow puppets to illustrate a folktale. They help the students integrate the songs, poems, and stories we learn, are an excellent exercise in collaboration, and make a fine thing to share with the families at our periodic poetry readings.

I first got inspired to make crankies when someone showed me the work of Anna and Elizabeth. My favorite is their version of the banjo tune The Lost Gander.

I am working on getting some videos of a few of our crankies up, and I will share them when I do. But even better, Frog Hollow has been asked to perform one of our crankies! So if you would like to see some crankies live, come join us at the Seattle Crankie Festival, 8pm February 21st at the Northwest Puppet Center, 9123 15th Ave NE, Seattle. Details (and many, many examples of crankies) at The Crankie Factory.

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