Staggering Assignments

Distillation by Alembic, 1910. (Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.)

Distillation by Alembic, 1910. (Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.)

In my poetry class, I decided to stagger revision assignments throughout the semester instead of assigning a final portfolio, because I wanted:

  1. to avoid end-of-the-semester-grading fatigue, in order to ensure that I was always fresh and never rushed in grading;
  2. to alleviate students’ end-of-the-semester stress, so that they would be able to concentrate on revising individual poems rather than meeting basic requirements of a portfolio (better— instead of more—work at a time);
  3. to give students a better, ongoing sense of how they are progressing in the course;
  4. and to situate revision as an integral and ongoing part of the writing process that goes hand-in-hand with writing new poems and reading.

Structuring the course in this way, I felt like I was able to give more feedback, and my students’ revisions improved. In previous courses, a revision unit at the end of the semester suggested that revision was an afterthought to the writing process. By having students revise throughout the semester, workshop directly correlated to students’ next steps and, in their self-assessments, they often referred to feedback they received from their peers. Workshop, therefore, was explicitly linked to revision; it wasn’t the end but the means of their creative work—not a junkyard, but an alchemical machine.

“No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” Handout and Exercise

Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).

Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).

I taught a class titled “No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School’s Writers’ Fest yesterday. We discussed hybridity of poetry and nonfiction, as well as the ways in which poetry can take on and explore “truth” using essayistic strategies without the requirement of “fact.” Several students came up afterward to show me their exercises, and one told me that she felt like it was one of the best things she’s written. The class ranged from high school students to adults.

In this course we will examine works of poetry and creative nonfiction in order to open up these genres to hybrid works. We will discuss features that are shared by the genres, how to bend the rules, and look at some examples before doing an exercise.

With over forty students in a one-hour class, we had these objectives:

  1. Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein.
  2. Think about the function and aims of each genre.
  3. Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.
  4. Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein. We looked at definitions of essays and lyric essays and Edward Hirsch’s definitions of line, lineation, lyric, prose poem, and stanza from A Poet’s Glossary. We looked at these definitions because they seek to define and, therefore, draw boundaries. We needed to know these definitions in order to explode these boundaries. In particular, we looked at Hirsch’s definition of line, in which he quotes Longenbach:

“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.”

And compared it to the prose poem definition:

A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature—it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. . . . Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems—along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Malarmé’s Divagations (1897)—created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Malarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffused. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”

We thought about these paradoxes, discussed why lineation makes a poem a poem, as well as considered some alternative definitions. We then examined Hirsch’s definition of “lyric”—

The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. . . . The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance

—in juxtaposition with a discussion of point of view in essay.   Think about the function and aims of each genre. When I think about the intersections and differences of poetry and nonfiction, it’s helpful for me to illustrate the two genres with metaphors.

  1. Poem as a river. With all of their musical elements, I think of poems as a river—something fluid, flowing, that rushes and eddies, deltas, and empties out to sea. Poems are one of our oldest forms of literature and therefore seem natural to our landscape of language.
  2. Essay as a bridge. The essay, an analytical form, builds upon its subject piece by piece, element by element, fact by fact, experience by experience. We might think about this strategy as similar to building pillars with blocks, hammering planks together, supporting and trussing.

We might use these metaphors to understand hybrid works—nonfiction prose poems, lyric essays—better. Sometimes a poem is a river we want to cross; we see and hear the rushing water, but we want to examine it from a sturdy vantage point where we stay safe and dry. Some music comes into the poem, but we rely on the exposition that essays provide. Adversely, we could be in the water, prone to the rapids, splashed in the face, paddling fiercely. Just trying to stay afloat in the overflow of language, of experience. There are times, however, where we might pass under the shadow of a bridge, have insights into reason, into conquering this flow, bridging one experience to another.   Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.

  1. “Say It, Say It Anyway You Can” by Vievee Francis (two versions—the prose poem version from Rattle and the lineated version that appeared in her collection Horse in the Dark). Let’s take a look at this poem, which started off as a prose poem and then became a lineated poem. Discuss the poet’s possible reasoning for lineating the poem. What are the effects of the two forms?
  2. An excerpt from Citizen by Claudia Rankine and an excerpt from Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Talk to me a little bit about what these prose forms borrow from poetry. Are they poetry? (How were they marketed? How were they identified?) Is it enough to say something is poetry? Nonfiction? Are these true hybrids? How would you categorize it? Does it need to be categorized?

Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

“No River, No Bridge” Exercise

  1. Select an everyday object that’s in your house. Ex. a television, a pair of jeans, a can of kidney beans. (1 min.)
  2. Now describe the object using all of your senses, with only concrete details. Do not use any metaphors or other figurative language. (2 min.)
  3. Imagine how the object was made. Write a step-by-step description of its fabrication. (3 min.)
  4. Imagine the harvesting, mining, or creation of the raw materials that went into making this object. (i.e. the shearing of sheep for your wool sweater or the mining of silicone to make your iPhone). Describe. (2 min.)
  5. Now talk a little bit about how you came to own this object (and talk about not remembering how you got it, if that’s true.) Tell us the backstory. Or, what connotations does the object have? Do you have specific memories associated with it? (2 min.)
  6. Now describe the object using only metaphors. (“My pair of jeans is muddy water reflecting sky, a bird with clipped wings . . . ”) (2 min.)

Share and discuss: How has the object changed in each iteration (concrete description, origin story, deconstruction, entrance, emotional connection, metaphorical naming)? Which form (poetry or essay) better conveys these approaches? Why? How can we combine these strategies?

Writing Poetry Final Reading Photos

My fifteen students in ENGL 305: Writing Poetry gave a final reading on my front porch yesterday morning. They each read one of their own poems and then a poem that they loved from our required texts. We all stood down on the sidewalk for each reading. Additional audience members included the mailman, pizza guy, and several passersby in cars and on foot. My hope is to continue to have my students do public poetry projects. The following students gave me written permission to share their photos here.

Kierra Collins reading poetry on December 12, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Kierra Collins reading poetry

Natalie Esch reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Natalie Esch reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Gagan Kaur  reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Gagan Kaur reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Colin McEligot  reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Colin McEligot reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn  reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Mariah Monk reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Mariah Monk reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Auverin Morrow reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Auverin Morrow reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Tchakalla Romeo reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Tchakalla Romeo reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Alyssa Trop  reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Alyssa Trop reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Police Poetry Workshops

Police with billy club postcard with writing

A postcard (circa 1900–1920), found at a Richmond-area antique store

In addition to prison poetry workshops, let’s do police poetry workshops. I believe that poetry—all art—has the ability and responsibility to guide others into new perspectives. In “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now,” Mark Doty says:

People who read imagine the lives of others. Literature makes other people more real to us. It invites us to notice differences but, even more so, points toward commonality.

Reading makes us more attuned to the needs, wants, and experiences of others and, therefore, has the potential of making us more conscientious citizens. I am the daughter of a former police officer and I was raised as the stepdaughter to another. Of course, there are good cops out there who genuinely strive to protect citizens. That being said, with the recent events in Ferguson—both the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson and the police response to the community’s riots—and in Staten Island—the chokehold death of Eric Garner—I’m concerned about the tendency toward violence and discrimination by our nation’s law enforcement.

As mentioned in my previous post, last year I encountered a cop who told me he had a book of poetry in his car. He asked me questions about poetry and what he should read. When I shared this story via social media, poet Staci R. Schoenfield led me to the idea of police poetry workshops when she said she suggested “arming police with poetry.”

Could poetry have a meaningful impact on police officers? What if we were to offer poetry workshops for law enforcement? While prison poetry workshops have been established in many communities across the nation, it strikes me that it also assumes that convicts are the only ones in need of these exercises in creativity, empathy, and imagination. While I’m certain that these prison or probation poetry workshops are doing vital and important work, why not also address the other side? Perhaps poetry workshops won’t alter systemic problems in the justice system, but they could have a meaningful impact on individual officers or groups of officers. In response to the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police, Claudia Rankine writes: “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” Can we change this through poetry?

When I posted the idea for this program on social media, a friend posted a link to Art At Work’s “Thin Blue Lines” project and poetry calendar.  Art At Work is “a national initiative to give municipal governments the powerful resource that comes from direct creative engagement.” They partnered with Portland, Maine’s police department and asked their officers to write poems that were then published as calendars. This is the only initiative that I know about right now that directly engages police officers in writing poetry, but if you have any information about similar programs in your area, please contact me using the form below.

I’m looking into the possibility of starting a police poetry workshop in my own community, and I encourage others to do the same. As I find out more information, I will post it here.

Holiday Door-to-Door Poetry Recitations

I want to get a group of poets and poetry readers together to go door-to-door reading poems in the community for the holidays. The poems should be about community, but that doesn’t mean that they should be easy, “rah-rah” poems. Rather, they should engage issues that the community faces—that our nation faces—that will also provide something to the listener, be it a new perspective, an idea, or even hope.

Although I’m going to try to launch this in my own neighborhood—Oregon Hill in Richmond, Virginia. My hope is that this could eventually happen in neighborhoods all over the United States. These groups could even ask their neighbors several questions like:

  • When was the last time you read a poem?
  • What was the greatest challenge you faced in reading poems?
  • Do you feel like the poems you had previous experience with appealed to your own life?
  • Do you know that poets are still writing today?
  • Did this poem address a concern that you have about your community?

Additionally, poetry educators could ask their students to be a part of the program, as a service learning endeavor.

Of course, not all neighbors would be receptive to this project, but some people would at least listen. Others might be engaged or inspired.

The seed for this project comes from an encounter I had with a police officer who was looking for the previous tenant at my house. When he asked me what I teach, he told me had a book of poetry in his cruiser. We talked for over thirty minutes about poetry and how he wanted to understand it better. This whole exchange happened on my front porch.

If you are interested in this project and would like to talk about collaborating on a door-to-door poetry caroling project in your neighborhood, please contact me through the form below.