- Watch Patricia Smith perform “Skinhead”: https://youtu.be/Klb5TniRGao. Discuss.
- Jot down some notes about a situation in which you found yourself in direct opposition with someone else. Perhaps it’s as extreme as the violent racism in Smith’s poem or as routine as having the same seat number assignment as another person on a flight. The best situation is one in which the conflict was never or not easily resolved. (2–5 min.)
- Describe the diction that person uses and provide some examples. (1–2 min.)
- Now freewrite in the voice of that person as if he or she is addressing you. What would they say? How would they defend themselves against complaints about their actions toward you. (5–7 min.)
- Share your efforts. Did the exercise of writing in their voices change your opinions of your adversaries? What does this reveal about poetry’s ability to engage in empathy? Do your opinions carry into your rendering of their voice?
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Purpose: To become more scrupulous readers of poetry
In order to prepare my Intro to Creative Writing students for talking more about poetry with regard to the author’s intentionality before their poetry workshop, I’m asking them to read and examine the poem “Ornithology” by Lynda Hull. They then have to answer questions about specifics in the poem. I’ve provided these questions via track changes in Microsoft Word:
Once they respond to these questions on their own, we will then discuss the possibilities. My hope is that they will see the value in discussing the possibilities rather than strive to make proclamations about what the poem is or what it’s doing.
After they complete the analysis, I’m going to ask them to try to write an imitation of at least ten lines (the formal unit that’s repeated throughout the poem) with special attention to sound and rhythm.
For my intro to creative writing class at William & Mary this semester, I’m asking students to write one hybrid work as their final workshop piece. Often I feel like these introductory classes set up limits for students, but I wonder if allowing them to see genre as something that’s a little more fluid will encourage continued reading across the genres, an understanding that writing techniques can be used across genres, and creativity with the execution of their ideas. They will be reading a few hybrid texts at the end of the semester, too. The hybrid assignment will also give us a chance to review what we’ve gone over about the three genres by forcing us to consider their respective challenges. I think it will also give students the opportunity to tackle issues they faced across multiple assignments. Say they struggled with point of view in their poetry and concrete details in their nonfiction, but the poems presented strong images and their nonfiction offered an unwavering first-person. Perhaps they’ll be able to double up on their strengths through a hybrid work.
Regardless of the success of their pieces, I hope that we can have a great discussion that will prepare them for debates about form and theory in upper-level, genre-specific courses. Additionally, I don’t want to have a situation where I say, “You’ll discuss these forms if you choose to continue taking creative writing courses.” I want to be able to answer these inevitable questions thoroughly, not offhandedly in a minute or so in the middle of a workshop. Besides, you never know which discussion might excite a student about writing. Maybe those slippery hybrid genres are what really interest some students and they might not know it until you offer it to them!
In my poetry class, I decided to stagger revision assignments throughout the semester instead of assigning a final portfolio, because I wanted:
- to avoid end-of-the-semester-grading fatigue, in order to ensure that I was always fresh and never rushed in grading;
- 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);
- to give students a better, ongoing sense of how they are progressing in the course;
- 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.
Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Purpose: To talk about not relying simply on the drama inherent to subject matter or narrative
Readings: “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and student poems
Before beginning workshop today, I read aloud Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Song” to the class as a way to open up the conversation about their own use of inherently compelling or dramatic subject matter. Of course, Kelly’s goat, whose head has been severed from its body and hung in a tree by a group of boys, is interesting; but it’s only a good poem for the ways in which Kelly works with sound, imagery, and lines. As this isn’t a close reading of the poem, I won’t go in depth about our discussion, but we did consider how poems with interesting dramatic situations, narratives, or images might fool us into thinking they are “good” poems simply because we remember the content. I urged my students to consider Kelly and her artfulness in presenting compelling subject matter when they write their own poems; to not simply rely on something that seems “meaningful”; to make it meaningful through their presentation.
I haven’t had a chance yet to give this exercise to my Writing Poetry students, but I hope to give this to them by the end of the semester. A “cadenza” is a soloist’s improvisation that later gets written into a piece of music. It’s my hope that this exercise will produce in-class improvisation that later becomes a revised poem.
Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Purpose: To consider how pace and sound relates to emotion, tone, and intensity.
Readings: One might provide the students with musical examples in lieu of readings.
- Provide students with a glossary of musical terms, such as http://www.classicalworks.com/html/glossary.html, or a selected list. (Italianate terms preferable.)
- Each student should select a term, study its definition, and then conceive of a poem that demonstrates the qualities of the term. The poem could embody these qualities with form, syntax, diction, sound, prosody, or any combination thereof. This term must serve as the title of the poem. For instance, “Sonata” might produce a poem in four parts that each differ in tone and pace. (30+ minutes)
- Students should share their results with the class for feedback on whether or not they embodied the musical terms in their poems. Open up a discussion about how line breaks, forms, and syntax/diction create a kind of music in poems and how these can be manipulated to produce certain tonal/emotional effects in addition to those implicit in dramatic situations. (10–15 minutes)
- The students will then take home the poem and revise it. Share again at a later date.
I gave the following two exercises to my Writing Poetry students in the last month. Because these exercises encourage students to build their poems upon concrete description, I’ve presented them together.
Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Purpose: To explore strategies employed by authors we’ve read as well as situate poems in concrete details, settings, and narratives
Readings:Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey and When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
“The Side of the Road” Exercise
“What matters is context— / the side of the road”
—Natasha Trethewey, “What the Body Can Say”
- Only using concrete details, describe as much as you can about your hometown or your current neighborhood without editorializing. For instance, if you believe something is “pretty”, describe those features that create its aesthetic appeal (the fleur de lis ornamentation on the porch railing, the ivy trellised up the front of the house, etc.). Your readers will likely know how you feel about the looks by how you describe what’s there. (7 min.)
- Look at what you’ve written and underline those concrete details that seem signficant to a reader’s understanding of the place. Meaning, the descriptions must provide us with a clue about what’s going on there or what someone is like. Ex. On China Street in Oregon Hill, there’s a house that has abstract acrylic paintings nailed on the siding. Across the street, a small sherbert green house flies a Confederate Flag above its porch junked up with a recycling bin full of Miller Highlife and several ashtrays full of cigarette butts. In the window is a sign: “Roomate Needed / Must like Dogs” accompanied by a phone number. What does each detail reveal about the invidiuals that live in each house? What does it reveal about the neighborhood? (2 min.)
- Say someone from another part of the country—or even another neighborhood—visited you here. Speculate about what that person would notice about the area. What would excite them? What would trouble them? (3 min.)
- Consider what assumptions that person might have about you based on your affiliation with the place. (3 min.)
- Rewrite all of this in lines, cutting out excess wording and ending on one of the telling images you previously identified without explaining what it means. Think of Trethewey ending “Again, the Fields” with “his hands the color of dark soil.” If I wrote about the two houses in Oregon Hill, I might end with this image: “the paintings and the flag will both fade in the light of day.” (5–7 min.)
A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea Exercise
[Note: This is a variation on my “Headliner” exercise.]
An image is a detail that allows us to feel as if we “see” rather than understand what happened or is happening in a literary work. It’s imitative of the tangible. It suggests meaning rather than explains it. It can be within the “real world” or it can be figurative, Natalie Diaz’s men “leaning against the sides of houses” (realistic) or the coins “We are born with spinning coins in place of eyes” (figurative). In understanding how image often serves the function of both providing us with concrete details, narrative, and/or abstract ideals, thoughts, or emotions, complete the following exercise.
- Describe the narrative implied by one of the following real headlines. Be sure to use descriptive details that will reveal the place/setting. In doing so, try to be as objective as possible. Only describe what’s happens as it happen. Remove any commentary or statement of meaning. Focus only on tangible details and action. You may have opinions about the people, animals, or objects involved, but don’t reveal them. Through the attention to details, you may even empathize with these characters. (15 minutes)
- Now go back through your description and circle any images you find. Make a column for at least three of the images you identified. Underneath them, write down what the image literally represents to the reader and then record the literal and abstract connotations that might arise from each image. For instance, if you wrote “the pig’s jowls, bearded in foam” for the first headline, you might come up with this: (10 min.)
- Based on these literal and abstract connotations, select the image from your list that best represents you personal feelings about the people, objects, and/or actions in this narrative. Now rewrite the poem and end only on that image without explanation. (10 min.)
Pig in Australia Steals 18 Beers from Campers, Gets Drunk, Fights Cow
Hiker discovers an abandoned town inside Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park
White Ohio lesbians suing sperm bank over mixed-race baby
Donkeys reunited at Polish zoo after sex scandal
Two die, three injured after woman drops cell phone in toilet (China)
Swiss Town: Have Cave, Want (Social and Outgoing) Hermit
Davidson Co. home catches fire after man smoking tries blowing his nose (North Carolina)
Jogger hospitalized after being hit by airborne deer (Dulles, Virginia)
Alejandro Melendez Puts 911 Dispatcher On Hold To Complete Drug Deal (Cleveland, Ohio)
Philly Bomb Scare Caused By Hotdogs At Ballpark, Mascot Implicated
Reputed Colombian Drug Lord Complains Of Claustrophobia From His Prison Cell In New York
Man In Wheelchair Robs 7/11 Of Condoms (Dallas, TX)
Asian elephant cured in rehab of heroin addiction (Beijing, China)
Python Kills Intern Zookeeper (Venezuela)
Literal Representation: the pig has just been drinking beer that produced the foam
Connotations: the pig has rabid qualities; the beard implies a kind of personification, taking on of man’s roles/behaviors; the pig is out of control; the speaker is in awe of the scene and endangers herself by looking this closely at the pig; the pig is fat because of the word “jowls”; “jowl” is used in butcher charts, so therefore this pig is meat, it’s a commodity; the pig is adorned with things outside its natural habitat and therefore this poem suggests that there’s an intersection between nature and humanity; etcetera.
Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Purpose: To encourage students to be generous, curious, and discerning readers of poetry and to consider poetry’s impact on culture.
Readings: Poetry‘s July/August 2014 issue that includes poems by Dean Young, Philip Fried, D.A. Powell, Traci Brimhall, Devin Johnston, Rosanna Warren, Amanda Calderon, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rickey Laurentiis, Timothy Donnelly, and Alice Fulton
Sharing “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” Assignment
Several volunteers will share their “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” assignment (500 words, completed outside of class) in order to start a discussion on the topic. Students should feel free to debate this question, supporting and/or countering one another’s arguments. Some students may take a more person approach, answering the question “Why is poetry relevant to me, my life?,” whereas other students might consider macro reasons as in, “Why is poetry relevant to society? Our culture? Politics?”
ON POETRY’S RELEVANCY
In a class in which the term “relatable” is banned, it may be difficult to understand why the “relevancy” of poetry is, well, relevant to our discussion. Aren’t these two concepts synonymous? Don’t they both suggest poetry’s ability to appeal to our emotional, cultural, or intellectual needs? Let’s break it down. “Relatability” as a concept, used in comments like “The poem’s subject matter of a child’s dog being run over by a car is so relatable because we’ve all lost something or someone that’s close to us,” has the expectation that, as Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker, “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” “Relevancy,” however, suggests that the work has social or practical pertinence or applications, meaning you can use the poem as a means to access other points of view and to understand your own role in society. “Relatability” is a connection between what you’ve already done and what’s happening in the poem. “Relevancy” is a movement between who you are now and how you can understand what’s going on in the world. “Relatability” is predicated on the past, whereas “relevancy” is predicated on the present and, for some, what’s to come. One looks backward, one looks forward. “Relatability” is passive, and “relevancy” is active.
Patricia Smith’s poem “Skinhead” is in the persona of a white supremacist who says things like:
I’m just a white boy who loves his race,
fighting for a pure country.
Sometimes it’s just me. Sometimes three. Sometimes 30.
AIDS will take care of the faggots,
then it’s gon’ be white on black in the streets.
Scary, right? It may be helpful to know that Patricia Smith is a poet of African descent. So, ask yourselves, why has she chosen to write in the voice of a violent white supremacist? Perhaps it’s an act of empathy, of trying to understand this person, but I imagine it would be incredibly hard to have any sort of tenderness toward such a person. Or: she has chosen to draw our attention to this kind of voice in our country so that we can know about this sort of threat. Or: she has situated herself in direct with white supremacists and saying, “See, I know what you’re thinking.” In that way, it may make her appear stronger for having gone through the writing of this poem, and in some ways, she may have triumphed over this point of view by bearing witness to it. Whatever the reason, this poem is certainly not “relatable” to Patricia Smith or, I hope, to you. But is it relevant? Discuss.
Break up into groups of two or three. I will assign each group one poem from the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry that you read over the weekend. Read the poem, and then compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Now, do the following:
With the fall semester starting at Virginia Commonwealth University this week, I have started to think about some new writing and reading exercises for my students. As these exercises will relate with our course goals and readings, I thought I would share my course descriptions and reading lists for my two classes, English 215: Textual Analysis and English 305: Writing Poetry.
ENGL 215: Textual Analysis
“The Captive Body, The Body Captivating”—In order to investigate the means by which writers have control over textual bodies, we will examine a century’s worth of narratives about individuals’ control, or lack thereof, over their physical bodies. Beginning with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) and working our way toward Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays (2014), we will explore through class discussion and written assignments the relationships between identity, form, and point of view. In doing so, students will hone their abilities as close readers and critical thinkers, analyzing the writers’ choices in presenting these narratives and their effects on the reader, as well as the historical significance of each text and its consequence in today’s debates about individuals’ rights over their own bodies. In addition to the following primary texts, we will also read criticism that reflects a diverse approach to these issues, including new criticism, feminist and queer theory.
- Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Knopf Doubleday, 1998. ISBN: 978-0385490818.
- Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. Vintage, 1999. ISBN: 978-0375701290.
- Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN: 978-0060850524.
- Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams: Exams. Graywolf, 2014. ISBN: 978-1555976712.
- Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis, In The Penal Colony, and Other Stories. Touchstone, 2000. ISBN: 978-0684800707.
- Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 2004. ISBN: 978-1400033416.
- Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita: Revised and Updated. Vintage, 1991. ISBN: 978-0679727293.
- Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2012. ISBN: 978-1608196265.
ENGL 305 Writing Poetry
American poet C.D. Wright once wrote: “If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance . . . I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In this course, we will hold poetry to this noble standard, as an amplifier for the voices in our culture and an invocatory rendering of our world. In doing so, I’ll ask you to not only read and write poetry but begin to look at your surroundings as a poet would. This requires close examination of images, scrutiny of your thoughts and feelings about subject matter, and consideration for other points of view. Additionally, you will be asked to think deeply about language, in terms of its meanings, its sounds, and its rhythms. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. As a means of introduction to the craft of poetry, students will submit original poems for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers. In addition to workshop, you will be asked to engage with the writing of contemporary poets, to read like a writer would. I’ve chosen seven contemporary poetry collections and Poetry magazine so that you will have a lens through which to examine the current landscape of American poetry and to see that even today poets are still trying to “redeem the world in words.”
- Bendorf, Oliver. The Spectral Wilderness. Kent State University Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1606352113.
- Diaz, Natalie. When My Brother Was an Aztec. Copper Canyon Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1556593833.
- Emerson, Claudia. Secure the Shadow. Louisiana State University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0807143032.
- Faizullah, Tarfia. Seam. Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0809333257.
- Reeves, Roger. King Me. Copper Canyon Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-1556594489.
- Smith, Carmen Giménez. Milk and Filth. University of Arizona Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0816521166.
- Trethewey, Natasha. Native Guard. Mariner Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-0618872657.
Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Readings: Each others’ poems
Time: 30 minutes
- Each class member should respond to a poem written by the person seated on their right. They can argue or interrogate an idea, provide an anecdotal narrative that relates to the first person, or work associatively away from the original kernel to access something new. Participants should remember their addressee’s personality, concerns, and
- The next step has two variations. Students should then write a response to:
- the response to their own poem so as to create a dialogue between the two poets, or
- the response written by their original addressee so as to create a chain of communication.