on teaching poetry

Sidelong and Uncodifiable

Level

Graduate
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Of late, and perhaps of long, I've been trying more experiential approaches to the hours we spend together in the classroom. What is our goal there? In the thicket of writing programs, I sometimes wonder. What seems important to me, more and more, is establishing a collective, collaborative space in which we can explore some of the edges of our interior conditions (which include the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual) as well as engage in documentary (socio-, eco-) experiments, and to test those edges against what previous poets have done. As we all know, there are already too many workshop poems in the world eating up available reality (as Robert Creeley once said of Robert Frost). I want to see what other realities we can explore. At the University of Denver, I have the enviable challenge of working with PhD students who have either read nearly everything or are trying to read nearly everything, so I know they're in the process of figuring out the lineage. What I want to steer them away from is "product"; what I want to steer them toward is an exploration of consciousness (whatever that term may mean). With my undergraudate students, I also want to steer them toward at least a rough grasp of twentieth century poetry (though I must confess in a particular vein, as outlined in athologies like the New American Poets and the Norton Anthology of Post-Modern American Poets), with some indication of writers from other parts of the world, and I want them to know where to go to continue their readings. With either group, our work is to recognize and circumvent received ideas, and to play, at least some of the time, outside our comfort zone. I mean this for myself as a teacher, too.

Looking to my own studies in a writing program, it makes sense that my inclination steers away from packaging the poem. I attended the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa in the late eighties and early nineties, studying for a week or for a semester with poets like Allen GinsbergAnne WaldmanAlice NotleyBernadette MayerSusan HoweJerome Rothenberg, and Anselm Hollo (who first introduced me to such life-shifting poets as César VallejoPaul Celan, and Aimé Césaire). Other inspiring figures were wandering around, and there was a certain thrill to watching William Burroughs cross the parking lot. There was very little focus on craft and a lot of focus on the poem as an exploratory form, a playground for intellectual, emotional, social, sensorial, and language experience. I learned from Allen Ginsberg a generosity of spirit—he didn't generally assume to be the master-poet, but posed questions and readings with an air of collective inquiry, and seemed to equally delight in revealing his own knowledge and his own ignorance. He could also be a brutal critic of student work; he wasn't always right, but he wasn't afraid to say what he thought.

Transmission was a common word, if an elusive concept. The poet modeled poetry by living it right there in front of you and with you. He or she didn't pretend to be anything else. The poets teaching at Naropa were generally interested in what happened around a poem, how one lived as a poet, in the building of community both among poets and through other forms of social intervention. There was encouragement to teach in prisons and public schools, to found magazines and presses, to open art centers. There was also an emphasis on the performance of the poem, how the voice and body carry the words. My schooling at Naropa didn't teach me to prepare poems for the American Poetry Review or to put myself on the market. Instead it directed me into the exploratory space of the poem.

I don't think I realized how marked I'd been by that schooling (which worked well for someone from a long line of social misfits) until I began teaching at DU, and as I've questioned how to teach (and how to write) in the professionalized atmosphere that the rise of the MFA has led to. (I was stunned to overhear a young poet recently calling an older poet I know "an outsider poet," because "she doesn't even teach in a writing program.") Many of us have probably been asked, "How can you teach someone to write poetry?" and obviously, the answer is you can't. Beyond any schooling, there is by necessity a measure of autodidactism on the path; it's the unorthodox mapping of personal electrical fields that makes a poet. In a recent article, French novelist Olivier Rolin calls up the work of Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant on the Greek notion of mètis, which in its original meaning indicated both magical cunning and deep thought. Mètis was Athena's mother. Odysseus, you may remember, was polymetis—many-wiled. It is an intelligence that is subtle, "sidelong, uncodifiable, unformalizable, not opposed to épistémè, to scientific knowledge, or to dianoïa—well-considered thought—but different from them." I am sometimes drunk in the face of trying to impart magical cunning, or ways to leap the gaps between life, imagination, and language in the classroom. I can't teach anyone to be a poet, but I can point out some potentially interesting trailheads, in terms of reading, in terms of accessing the mind and the world.

To the ends of making an exploratory space in the writing classroom, there are a number of texts and exercises I've found particularly useful.

  • "Event" performances, as modeled on the two Events sections in Jerome Rothenberg's ever-rich Technicians of the Sacred. After reading those sections, I ask students to come to class prepared to perform an event. One of the most transporting: watching Christina Mengert think a series of questions and statements—exquisite to see thought and language move through the muscles of her face. (Technicians of the Sacred generally opens the possibility of the poem out beyond our limited time-space coordinates and into the tribal.)
  • I recently tried hypnotizing students and asked them to write a correspondence with the dead in that state, taking Alice Notley's Close to me & Closer. . . The Language of Heaven as a starting point. (I learned that young poets like to be hypnotized.)
  • After reading Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's work, I've often laid out a series of objects on a table (a glass of milk, an apple, a light bulb, etc.) and then given instructions along these lines:
    Write the planes and geometries between objects.
    Note what happens in time and perception as you move around the table.
    Locate us in ordinary meaning.
    Add a memory and interrogate its phenomenon.
    Now write an abstract fable of memory and perception based on these notes.
    (In response to this kind of exercise, my undergraduate students usually say, "What?" which I take as a good sign.)
  • Other, longer-term assignments with which I've had excellent results: documentary projects after Charles Reznikoff and Brenda Coultas, "Land Art" projects after Williams and his one-time pediatric charge Robert Smithson, etc.

Teaching is often a painful experience for me. Like many, I feel my interior relationship to language and thought gets externalized in ways that are not always useful to me as a poet, and small forms of self-censorship arise. The occupation of facilitator is a bit like parenting, in which you must always strive to see your protégé and their needs as clearly as possible, but are yourself somewhat invisible to your charge. For those who can step in and out of roles fluidly, this may not pose a problem, but for those of us who can get stuck in identities, this asymmetrical equation may not always be conducive to leaping from facilitator back to poet. I also question my part in the industry. But teaching has also brought great revelations, some quotidian, some more profound. It took a second grader to teach me that the rhythms in Blake's "The Tyger" mimic the tiger's heartbeat and the pounding of the hammer making him. How could I have ever missed that? (I should have read my Northrop Frye!) More recently I learned, from PhD student Logan Burns, a new way to think about that first utterance in "The Red Wheelbarrow": as "the subject everything else gossips around." How beautifully apt.


Reprinted from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2010 by Eleni Sikélianós.