Beyond Tradition: Bringing Poetry to the Classroom

On a panel I attended at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis, poet Jericho Brown addressed the notion of balancing the canon with more contemporary works. Brown noted that he often does incorporate poems he “loves” into the classroom, but admitted that he would feel bad if one of his students mentioned in a conversation that he/she did not know  Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop. What I took from Brown’s comment is that he balances the canon with more contemporary works that he loves, and even in the poems he doesn’t necessarily love, Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” was mentioned, he could at least cover the poem’s techniques with the students.

I thought about this panel again as I finished poet Tony Hoagland’s newest essay collection, Twenty Poems  That Could Save America. Hoagland declares in the final chapter, “Somehow, we blew it. We never quite got poetry inside the American school system and thus never quite inside the culture.” Hoagland is right. Poetry often draws frowns and sighs from students, even at the college level.  He blames this primarily on the way poetry is taught, adding, “Let us blame instead the stuffed shirts who took an hour to explain that poem in their classrooms, who chose it because it would need an explainer; pretentious ponderous ponderosas of professional professors will always be drawn of the poems that require a priest.”

Hoagland’s solution to this problem is to offer students more contemporary work, and his list includes Anne Carson, Sharon Olds, Alan Feldman, Mary Ruefle, and others.

I thought of Jericho Brown and Tony Hoagland’s commentary in the context of my own teaching. I will note that what I teach now is mostly literature and composition. In my literature courses, primarily American literature and African American Literature, the old is balanced with the contemporary, since we move forward in time as the courses progress. That stated, I thought of poetry in terms of composition and creative writing classes, where I am less bound to historical timeframes as I am in a literature class. In those classes, composition especially, students are quite tentative about poetry. Because of that, I include a lot of contemporary work, including Natasha Tretheway, Robert Hayden, James Wright, Phil Levine, and other poets whose language students can understand. For a lot of them, it makes the poetry experience more pleasant. Furthermore, I agree with Hoagland that if a student really becomes invested in poetry, then he/she will go back and see and read what influenced those contemporary poets. In addition, I group the poems by subject matter, so we can examine the way two poems explore the loss of a parent, for instance.

Now, that said, in  upper-level classes, it would behoove an instructor to ensure those students, especially if they plan to enroll in an M.F.A. program or Ph.D. program, have a grasp of the tradition. This is where personal reading lists come However, those introductory composition and creative classes are often a student’s first exposure to poetry since high school, so contemporary poetry is a way to make the experience more pleasant and allow the poet to be an ambassador for the craft as an instructor.

AWP Reading

With AWP only a few days away, my social media feeds have been blowing up with invites and notices about panels and readings that my friends are doing, so I figured that I would share info about the on-site reading that I’m doing.

In celebration of the 10-year anniversary of Wilkes University’s M.A./M.F.A. program in creative writing, there will be a reading featuring two faculty members, Bob Mooney and Neil Shepard, my thesis mentor,  and two students, Marlon James, author of A History of Seven Killings, and I. The reading will be held on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. in L100 D & E of the Minneapolis Convention Center, where the conference is being held.

For a full description of the reading, including our bios, click here. 

If you’re going to AWP, safe travels!

The Writing Class

I wanted to share this article written by Jaswinder Bolina and published by The Poetry Foundation. It’s a bit long, but it’s well worth the read, especially in the context of the M.F.A. debate, academia, the culture of privilege, and labor issues.  Here are some passages that I think are especially striking and raise some of the various class issues regarding pursuing an M.F.A. and being a poet.

Jaswinder on his parents feelings towards poetry: “Poetry wasn’t a bad idea in the abstract to either of them. It might even be a noble pursuit, but it also seemed a thing better left to the children of the wealthy than to the son of working-class immigrants. ”

On class issues, education, and career decisions: “Where the working classes are regularly forced to take pragmatic action out of necessity, the privileged are allowed to act on desire. My parents’ money, modest as it was and still is, did more than pay for the things I needed. It allowed me to want things they couldn’t afford to want themselves. ”

I think the second point I posted is one to ponder, specifically the idea that graduate school is mostly limited to only a select group of people with at some privilege, namely decent economic circumstances.  Furthermore, even those that have access to graduate school don’t necessarily land a full-time, tenure track teaching job at a university after completing the degree, so why do so many people keep signing up for M.F.A. programs? Is it simply about career ambition, and how detrimental is that to the poetry at the national level if much of what is written and published is done so by M.F.A. and Ph.D. students and graduates? Beyond open mic nights, slams, and other community events, how does poetry break out of its insular culture of privilege?

AWP Seeks Proposals on the Adjunct Plight

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference  (AWP) is seeking panel proposals on the topics of interest to adjuncts and non-tenure track faculty, including adjunct unionization. Here’s a link with more information on what they’re looking for and the proposal guidelines. I commend AWP for seeking out proposals like this and the organization’s willingness to address this issue. However, it may be difficult to acquire a number of panel proposals from adjuncts because anyone trying to cobble together a paycheck on an adjunct salary will not be able to afford the conference registration, costs of travel, or costs of a hotel. I hope, though, that adjuncts teaching in Minneapolis, with easier access to the conference, will consider sending in a proposal. I also hope that AWP accepts some panel proposals on the issue of cuts to education, which in turn leads to the creation of more adjuncts and less full-time faculty. I’ve been to the AWP Conference three times, in Chicago, Denver, and Boston, and I’ve never seen any panels that address these issues, so kudos to AWP for actively seeking out such proposals now.

Meanwhile, The New York Times just published an article this week about an adjunct professor in NY who took direct action to raise awareness about the low cost of living adjuncts face. Check out the article here.