on teaching poetry

Unlearning to Write

Level

Any

Type

Essay

There are, I think, two very different dynamics involved in the making of a poet. One is learning that you already know everything you need about writing before you even begin. The other is an extended reading of the literature, to understand what has been done, why, and what its implications might be.

The first sounds easy, but is in fact the harder of the two tasks. Many starting writers never solve the problem at all, which means that they're destined to fail. The difficulty is what happens in that instant between the moment before you even begin and the moment once you've begun, into which is inserted every vague notion you may have about what writing is, how it is done, who does it, and every conceivable fantasy you might harbor about being a poet or a novelist. Before you begin, the blank page or screen is in front of you, absolutely free of any irrevocable marks, literally virgin territory. Once you begin, however, you instantaneously discover yourself burdened with thousands of ghosts and beliefs about what writing is. It's like trying to swim with a team of elephants on your back. The opportunities for drowning are immense.

Much of the actual process of learning to write is involved in examining these beliefs, one at a time, almost as though you were peeling them away. You would be surprised just how many of the things you do, unconsciously, as a poet, are in fact decisions you've made predicated on these beliefs.

So one of the things I always do in a classroom is to work through a series of exercises intended to make people conscious of the decisions they make. This is something I picked up from three of my teachers, Wright Morris, Jack Gilbert, & especially William Everson (Brother Antoninus at the time I was his student). Following Everson, I let students know at the start that what they write for my class is not going to feel like their work. It's going to seem uncomfortable and alien. If it doesn't, they're not doing it right. Their discomfort is really an index of how well they're doing their homework.

I start with the actual physics of writing. How do they do it? On a computer? In a notebook? On a legal tablet? Whatever it might be. I ask them to change this: if they usually work on a computer, try doing it by hand; If they usually work in a notebook, try writing on a PC. Robert Creeley has an interview somewhere in which he recommends this as a mechanism for getting out of writer's block, and I can see how this exercise might be useful in that circumstance. I recall that once, back when I was a student at San Francisco State, I inadvertently dropped my typewriter and suddenly had a couple of hundred typewriter pieces all over my apartment. Since I had almost no money, it took me to the end of the semester to be able to afford a new machine. So I was forced into switching my basic method of creating first drafts, which I'd been doing on the typewriter since I was in tenth grade. I switched over to legal tablets, a process that also gave me more flexibility as to when and where I might write. Since I was living in Berkeley at the time, getting to school meant a long ride on the F bus (this was before BART), followed by a long ride on the Muni to get out to the Sunset District. For the first time, I began writing on public transportation, inspired in part by the fact that three of my favorite poets, Robert Duncan, Phil Whalen and Paul Blackburn, had all written about doing so themselves. It was a fascinating process and took my work forward very quickly, although I noticed that once I typed up my manuscripts, virtually all of them fit perfectly on a single typed page, often filling it completely both vertically and horizontally.

Later, when I was at Berkeley and thinking about writing in prose, I made a point of buying one of those smaller black-bound sketchbooks, the size of a trade paperback, and sat on the roof of our apartment building on Highland Place in Berkeley, usually watching the sun set over downtown San Francisco, constantly writing and rewriting what I hoped someday would become the perfect paragraph. Though I worked on this project years before I would begin Ketjak, there is one (incomplete) sentence in that work taken directly from this project.

Depending on the length of the class, we examine a variety of such variables. Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you have to have silence? Do you like to have music? What kinds? Do you need total solitude? If you use paper, what size, color, etc.? Do you write under the influence, whether it be coffee and tea or something stronger? One can switch one or more or even all of these variables and it's worth looking at the impact of each one.

Making students conscious of the terms and conditions of their writing is one step toward making them responsible for every single element on the page or screen or in the air. Do you capitalize at the left margin? If so, do you know why you do so? If you don't know, why are you doing it? A writer needs to own everything he or she does.

The second task, the extended reading, takes far longer. There are people—Bruce Andrews was one, Rae Armantrout another—who are writing in their mature style very early on, but in both cases you will find that they were voracious readers also. This is where I think that Malcolm Gladwell's gimmicky ten thousand hours of work to become good at any one thing, whether or not it's writing, comes into play. You need to understand the range of poetry that you are seeking to become part of—a process that becomes harder each year as the number of contemporary publishing poets grows—and you need to be able to trace the history of this landscape backward at least two hundred years. I would go further than that myself—I'd argue that you need to know enough Middle English to read Chaucer in the original and really grasp (a deliberately vague term) your own place within this constellation. If you can't, you haven't read enough, written enough, thought hard enough.

To do this, your reading needs shape, which is to say that if you can't articulate where a poet fits into the universe, their work either is not distinct enough or you haven't read enough to place them. Conversely, you need to be able to challenge claims that want to lead you astray. Anyone—anyone!—who argues that either Dickinson or Whitman leads you to the School of Quietude (though they won't call it that) is a fraud. Though it is worth noting that Dickinson and Whitman will lead you to very different parts of the post-avant spectrum. So read the New American Poets as a project. And the Objectivists. And the Imagists. And the Romantics. Even the New Formalists. If a writer falls outside any cluster, as many over the last two decades have, figure out what makes them so misanthropic. Is it really, as I suspect, a natural (but defensive) reaction to the conservative ascendancy that began with Reagan? Are flarf, conceptual poetry and hybrid writing the first steps toward a post-Bush era literature?

Ultimately the poems you or anyone will write will be the poems you (or anyone) needs. I always think of this as the blind spot in the totality of verse, a place toward which each of us is driven & where we never quite fully arrive.


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