Greetings! I don't know how many of you reading this are teachers of poetry -- whether regularly or occasionally, whether as literature or as a writing practice, whether in a school setting or beyond the walls of the traditional classroom -- but I am talking to you. There's a new book available that you might be interested in reading. It's called Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and it was edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. It is full of micro-essays by poets who teach poetry, including Cole Swensen, Dawn Lundy Martin, Peter Gizzi, Brenda Hillman, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jed Rasula, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Ada Limon, Matthew Zapruder, and C. S. Giscombe, just as a sampler (and there are many more!). What is interesting to me about this collection is that, as it says on the back cover, it isn't "narrowly concerned with how to read poetry or how to write poetry," but rather "with teaching poetry." This means, among things, that it's not a book of writing prompts, although there are certainly several of those to be found in its pages, nor is a series of close readings of specific poems.
Instead, it's a book in which smart, creative people who themselves write poetry are sharing with us their philosophies, their concerns, their strategies, their anxieties, and their aha!-moments related to the ways they approach teaching students to engage with poetry. I have been reading around in this book since it arrived in the mail a week or so ago, and I keep finding myself nodding, or saying "hmmm...," or flipping the page quickly to see what's next, or laughing, and generally feeling my brain expand with new ideas and ways of thinking about this effort to pass on a passion for poetry.
Here are a few lines that have caught my attention and held it:
- "[F]or me the poem is an animal. It's imperfect, asymmetrical. Rules and laws are probably good for it, but it has a mind of its own. It can get across the room even when one leg is shorter than the other, even when it has no legs." Terrance Hayes
- "What happens when markedly different kinds of subjects/tones/discourses come into contact? Sparks may fly. Maybe B doesn't come after A. Maybe X does. Then you have an ax." Rae Armantrout
- "Ironically, though contemporary poets who are also teachers (myself included) seem to like to talk about materiality, they tend to avoid discussions of product. We valorize process over product, as if the product, the evidence of process, is an unfortunate outcome of writing. But there is a product, and it is important. There are books, and most of us like them." Sasha Steensen
- "Working with hundreds of kids taught me that the weird and fascinating panoply of knowledge the mind receives in American grade schools -- marine life, volcanoes, planets, numbers, colors -- as well as neighboring streets, music, food, and the grandparents' donkey in Mexico are completely equal and exciting and allowable phenomena within a child's poem. The borders aren't there." Karen Volkman
- "One student of mind likened the workshop to sitting meditation where you are chanting in Japanese, and you don't know why you are doing it, but when you are done you are centered and energized." Hoa Nguyen
The lines I've chosen are neither random nor representative, but they give you some sense of the ways one's teaching practice might be enlivened simply by reading and thinking along with the writers of these essays. There are some naysayers among them, who are skeptical about whether creative writing, in particular, can be taught -- food for thought. Overviews of successful class meetings or syllabi are shared. And, yes, there are particular prompts and exercises outlined, including a number of ways to play with "translation" and even more ways to experiement with the sonnet. Mostly, I think of it as a window in on a whole slew of poets' classrooms, through which I can glimpse the vast range of options available to me as a teacher of poetry myself. You might want to check it out. (If you stumble across an essay by one Evie Shockley, just skip it and don't come back until you've exhausted all the other lovely possibilities in the collection!)
As you may have noticed, I've included links from each poet's name to a site on the web where you can take a look at a poem or two that s/he has written. I thought it would be nice to offer an easy route into the work of one or more poets who might be new to some of you. These links will be a special treat for people who are interested in or curious about poetry that veers away from the more conventional styles. Enjoy! Free!