I mentioned that I started up a new class. Just to clarify, it is a class that I am TAKING, not teaching. But I should point out that one of the reasons I’m taking it is to learn how to teach a poetry workshop. I’m afraid to teach poetry writing to people, and I want to find out why and how I can fix that. Because I love teaching, and I love poetry, and why shouldn’t I be able to combine them?
Well, one reason is that I am at a complete loss when someone presents me with a poem they’ve written that is terrible. I don’t know where to begin with them. Also, I’m at a complete loss when I encounter a poem that is supposedly good but which doesn’t speak to me at all (the inaccessible poems that require an OED and a master’s in English history to decipher or, even worse, the ones that don’t care about voice and meaning at all but are just a smattering of sounds and images). So I’ve been watching my teacher work in order to get ideas about this kind of thing.
My teacher, Jill McDonough, has several strategies that really work well. (Keep in mind that I’ve only been in class three times now, so I’m sure she’ll have even more as time goes on.) First of all, she has really structured her class and her assignments so that we go the places she wants to go (as opposed to a free-for-all, write-whatever-and-we’ll-spend-the-whole-time-discussing-it approach). For example, we’ve concentrated on only one form for these first few classes (blank verse), and we’re hammering it. I’m getting kinda sick of it, but it’s getting hard not to think in iambic pentameter—in other words, it’s becoming second nature. And it’s a really smart beginning in a situation like hers in which the students have a huge variety of skill levels and background in poetry (some are still struggling to know what a metric foot is, for example).
A second smart thing she does is that when we are critiquing, she has us “ask the poem a question,” not criticize the poet. Either orally or in writing on the poem, we ask about the things that confuse us or which don’t seem to be working: “Why did you choose this word? Is there a more concrete word you can use here?” “Why is this line only four feet long when all the others are five?” “Which person is this pronoun referring to?” etc. That way we don’t get the long answers from the defensive authors.
But the thing of most value (to me, at least) that Jill does is that she teaches us right at the beginning how to set assignments for ourselves. She demands several timed free-writes during class, each building on the previous one, so that we never have no basic material to begin with. (I myself never run out of ideas for poems, but for some of the students a blank page with an assignment to write a poem is paralyzing.) But also, she has taught me how to set myself a very specific assignment based on something else I’ve read. For example, we read Ted Hughes’s “The Thought Fox,” then analyzed it for quite a while. Once I decided what was really happening in the poem, I set up similar parameters for myself, making changes as they interested me. “Write a 14-line, blank verse pastoral in which a person, without actually performing any action, makes a realization. This realization is shown only externally, through the natural world.” This very specific assignment resulted in something more interesting than what I would have produced had I just begun with my trigger (January in Salt Lake City). I may take the poem out of blank verse when I revisit it, but I got more and different language with the assignment than I would have without it. Jill’s example was very interesting—she had read a particular poem and then set up for herself an assignment that was even more specific, including, for example, the requirement that she “draw heavily on the vocabulary of a specific profession” and “describe a disaster.”
Regardless of whatever else I get from this class, that one thing has made it worthwhile. I’m doing an adequate job of producing pretty good poetry, but the thing I needed most was instruction in how to BE a poet, how to walk myself through process, and this is what she’s given me. (Also, I’d sure like to move from “pretty good” to “great,” but I’m still not sure that’s possible.)
Of course, another huge benefit of the class is that it includes deadlines and assignments that I wouldn’t normally give myself. These things always push me to a higher level. (Which is why I was hoping to enter school . . . but that’s a whole nother discussion.)
Finally, this class, as do all poetry classes I've taken, has exposed me to some new work that I'm enjoying. Last week I discovered Stephen Dunn (I know. Ridiculous that I hadn't before) and have a new one to add to my list of favorites.