Writing poetry is not for the timid or the stodgy. The best work involves not only craft, but a willingness to be vulnerable. Lyric poetry, as Audre Lorde noted in her book "Sister Outsider," is erotic poetry, because it integrates all aspects of one's life--intellectual, emotional, sensual.
But sometimes the graduate creative writing classroom can be restrained. Individuals have their own reasons for being there. Most really want to write and to stretch their abilitites, but some are only there for the credentials. Most will delve and explore with their language and their rhythms, but some will hold back very deliberately.
Mid-way through the semester I usually assign the topic that Sharon Olds gave a student at Squaw Valley Community of writers: "Write about your mother's nipples." The poet was being "too much in his head," and this assignment was geared to shaking him out of that intellectual stance. Robert Hass overheard the assignment, and took it in for his own writing. The devoir worked--the poem "My Mother's Nipples" is a centerpiece of Hass's book "Sun Under Wood." From then on, it seemed he could write whatever he wanted or needed to. The poem took him to a place of danger and grief and vulnerability, and it seems to have had a liberating effect on his work.
The assignment usually works in my classroom, too. Poets come to a halt in their finger exercises, and explore real emotion. The resulting poems can be breathtakingly good.
Recently, though, when I gave this assignment to a class of nine people, two students (male), balked. Both handed in beautiful lyric poems, but did not even acknowledge the topic. We proceeded in class to discuss the poems that did grapple with taboo material; these poems were especially well-written and moving. At the end, we also read and discussed the two that were off-topic.
In contemplating how to grapple with the two poets and poems that did not respond to the assignment ("Fail them!" my scientist husband said), I had a flashback to an experience I once had during my grad student years.
I lived in New York City, in a small apartment, in a suffocating marriage. My friend Cathy Stein and I decided to go to a topless beach in Brooklyn. It was 1978, we felt daring and beautiful and young. The weather held, balmy. The beach was delicious, and we were relaxing on our blanket on the warm sand, sans our bathing-suit tops. Audre Lorde would have approved. We were in the body and in the moment, part of the sultry weave of that time and place.
Then two marines came over to our blanket and sat down. They stared at us. The day changed. The voyeurs made us feel shame, made us feel taken-advantage-of. The cynicism of the 80's was there on our blanket, and so, alas, was the patriarchy with its threat of violence.
It's a stretch to compare that situation to the classroom. But I did feel that those who held themselves aloof from being vulnerable in their poetry, those who watched the others revealing themselves in language, would have cast a pall on the proceedings if I had given them too much attention.
Poetry writing is not a spectator sport, and the poetry classroom is not for voyeurs. It requires real personal risk in addition to skill. It requires trust in the teacher's ability to create an atmosphere where everyone can learn, and where one's ungainly efforts, one's rough drafts, are protected and given a chance to become art.
It takes courage to teach poetry writing. The teacher is not the marine at the edge of the blanket. The prof is vulnerable, too, and must create an atmosphere in the classroom of permission and respect. A sunny day with the screech of gulls slashing through. And if grad school is for adults only, those adults still have access to very young selves that remember and can restore real creative play in words.
Causes Marilyn Kallet Supports
Southern Poverty Law Center, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, ACLU, Amnesty International, Save Darfur.