Sizing up the new crew

You can’t really know what a class is like until you spend some time with it. Having looked over everyone’s transcripts and Google-snooped a bit, I see this poetry class should be a live bunch. Lots of interesting characters, of various ages and experience, with a clutch of English majors, a knot of education majors, a fistful of slammers. A good mix.

I asked them each to send me an introduction via e-mail, and to send a poem or two if they had any. Some excerpts from my welcome:

Maybe you’ve never written poetry before and you’re just curious about trying it. That’s OK, too. As long as you put forth the effort, you should see some improvement in your work. Be assured that I will require both regular attendance and demonstrable effort. Writing, like music, dance, acting, or athletic training, requires hard work and commitment. Poetry is the most demanding of the written genres, and no one can learn all there is to know about poetry in one semester. What we’ll do is see what we do know; then, each of us will find our own way, haltingly. I and the poets you will come to know this semester will guide you. Sometimes you will guide the rest of us. Onward to Parnassus!

(yammering on about what to expect and my bona fides)

Like all writers worth their ink, I’ve held numerous crappy dead-end or temporary jobs in every area of every kind of restaurant you can imagine, as well as in a boatyard, cleaning houses and offices, editing a couple of fly-by-night mags, peddling pralines, teaching swimming, lifeguarding, and (of course) teaching English as a “freeway flyer” or part-time/adjunct instructor.

About my poetry: I write both formal and free verse and have little patience for those who bash one camp or the other. Poetry is more important than po-biz. Reading other people’s writing is just as important as having them read yours. That’s pretty much what you need to know about me as a poet.

(yammering on about being on time and being prepared)

Finally, remember the late great writer Audre Lorde‘s dictum: “Poetry is not a luxury.” Each of us is part of a society which does not value poetry and which mocks the life of the mind. You, however, are one of the rare individuals who steps back and says, “My words matter.” I’m looking forward to hearing and reading your words this semester.

I really am. The last time I taught creative writing as such was about six years ago. Of course I try to work it into freshman comp as much as possible without committing malpractice. But that’s not the same thing as sitting around the seminar table, introducing people to workshop, and urging them through the finer points of a single line.

I think of Fred Chappell‘s essay, “First Night Come Round Again,” collected in A Way of Happening. In it, he pegs the nascent writer types who wash up in workshop, with the compassion of one who has been one or more of those poseurs. I remember the HIV+ Writers’ Workshop, circa 1994, which found a home in the basement of a Unitarian church and which let anyone come and go, writing about anything in any genre, free of charge, and which worked. And I remember many other workshops I’ve taught over the years, including the one which I thought was a dismal failure because some students would show up halfway through class and none of them seemed to take the work seriously, meaning as seriously as I did.

A few years later, in the afterglow of a stunning theater performance, the star of the show called me by name. I didn’t recognize this person at first. She was one of the students I’d mentally filed under not serious. And she wanted to thank me because, she said, it was in that Intro to Poetry class that she gave herself permission to be creative. Silly, freshly-minted MFA that I was, I’d expected at least one poet out of the bunch. I never envisioned that an actor might emerge.

That is the point of the exercise. Poets get so hung up on “professionalization” that we forget our job is not to turn out an army of poets. It is to bring poetry to those we meet, then to stand back and watch poetry do its work.

I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to going to work on a Monday.

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One thought on “Sizing up the new crew

  1. christine says:

    You’ll be a great teacher for them. You have so much passion for words and ideas, and you have a great sense of humor. My son took a poetry writing class at App State, and he wrote some nice pieces. Young people who are engaged bring their teachers such joy.

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