Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook
Edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
University of Iowa Press, 2010
Review by Chris McCreary

Teaching is teaching, I suppose, and yet I have found there to be a striking difference between leading creative writing workshops in high school and in college classrooms. This is my fifth year as a full-time high school teacher, and I’m lucky in many ways: not only do I teach literature courses at a well-funded prep school with smallish classes full of mostly hard working, generally sincere students, but I also get to teach semester-long creative writing electives for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. There are a number of challenges to this gig that didn’t present themselves as often when I was teaching creative writing at the college level, though. For one thing, seeing the students every day changes the dynamic of a workshop in an obvious but potentially overwhelming way – there’s roughly twice as much face time with a high school class as there is with a semester-long college course – and in the high school environment there’s even more pressure to keep them focused on me instead of a "real" class like Honors Spanish or Pre-Calc or, for that matter, American Literature.

One other challenge – and I have no sense if this is unique to a high-powered private school environment or if it’s true of high schools in general – is that many students experience a near-paralysis when confronted with an assignment that doesn’t spell out, in painstakingly detailed bullet points, exactly what its parameters are and what requirements must be met to receive the desired grade. If you’re asking them to write an essay on estates satire in The Canterbury Tales, for instance, perhaps this isn’t bad; if you’re asking them to write a poem, though, this need for specificity and boundaries can end up hindering more than helping.

I’ve read many a writing guide in the last few years and have certainly found some worthy texts. I delved into Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary, edited by Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr, for instance, and while I found much of it intriguing, its concerns were, in some ways, more abstract than what I needed and didn’t ultimately change the way I was teaching creative writing. At the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of books on the market brimming with wacky writing prompts, the type that are so ably parodied in Dan Wiencek’s "Thirteen Writing Prompts" in The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes. (Two of my favorites: "Write a story that begins with a man throwing handfuls of $100 bills from a speeding car, and ends with a young girl urinating into a bucket"; "Your main character finds a box of scorched human hair. Whose it is? How did it get there?") While I could always extract some entertaining exercises that could be bent to my needs, most of these books were better suited to fiction writing, and even the ones that I could aim toward poetry always felt a bit disconnected from what I wanted to accomplish within the broader project of teaching students to engage with the process of writing poems. While I’ve developed a staple of half a dozen or so exercises over the last few years, then, I’ve never felt like I was presenting a truly coherent approach to reading and writing poems.

All of this is to say that Poets on Teaching : A Sourcebook is what I’ve been looking for all along, in part because the link between poetics and practice is so well forged. Dorothea Lasky’s contribution, "A World Is a Thing: Teaching Poetry through Object-Based Learning and Felt Experience," is a prime example in that it sketches out a quick poetics of sorts ("I believe that poets, more than any other artists besides dancers, are always engaged in the work of felt experience… a connection between thought and the body, between the mind and the action of thinking and feeling simultaneously."), then suggests specific exercises that spring from this concept. I may not convince any of my students to go out on the campus quad and act out the behaviors of a favorite animal prior to writing about this animal as Lasky suggests, but maybe that’s my own sense of irony in the way, which is perhaps one of the reasons I so adore K. Silem Mohammad’s "Impersonal Universe Deck (IUD)," an ingenious riff on Michael McClure’s "Personal Universe Deck." While those who know McClure’s poems will not be surprised to hear that his project is focused on generating words related to The Body and sensory experience, Mohammad’s is grounded in a world that my students can recognize more as their own with categories for their "impersonal" words such as "Fast Food," "Bad Politics," and "Empty Sex" (the latter of which, I confess, I modified for the high school classroom). Plus, there’s the physical process of creating your own deck of cards, which has been met with enthusiasm or, at the very least, bemusement. In both of these cases, and in plenty of others contained with this volume, there’s a coherent view of poetry at work: the philosophical underpinnings and the writing process itself are so intertwined as to be one.

Lest I give the wrong impression, this book, with its ninety-nine contributors, covers a great deal of ground and is divided into four sections: "Reflections / Poetics," "Exercises / Praxis," "New Approaches to Poetry Courses and Methodologies," and "Talks / Directives." While the first section strikes me as not unlike statements of avant-poetics that I’ve read elsewhere, the latter three sections seem particularly fresh, especially when offering ways to inject the writing of poetry into more "literary" studies. Graham Foust, for instance, presents an approach to teaching John Ashbery’s poems that includes having students write poems imitative of his thematic preoccupations and stylistic quirks. Foust them compiles these poems alongside some of Ashbery’s own poems that the students haven’t read yet, then distributes this packet to the class, with all of the poems presented anonymously and in an identical font. Students are then assigned to comb through this packet in search of the "real" Ashbery, which, according to Foust, they are able to detect the vast majority of the time. He writes, "Somehow, this exercise seems to help students to begin to come to terms with – which is to say to begin to come to terms for – some of what makes Ashbery Ashbery." In this "micro-essay" and in many other contained within Poets on Teaching, the teacher of writing (be it "creative" or not) should find much to bring into the classroom. If you’re looking for an anecdote to high school students writing rhyming couplets about a recent breakup – or, for that matter, if you’re aiming to hone the focus of your grad-level workshop – give this book a try.

To read some excerpts, visit Poets.org.

Chris McCreary lives in Philadelphia. His latest book of poems is Undone : A Fakebook.

© Chris McCreary, 2010