Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Some Thoughts on Teaching Poetry

I had a request (my first) from Amy Lee, who asks: "i was wondering if you could do a post on teaching poetry. what do you ask of your students?"

Thanks for asking, Amy. I should tell you a little about the college and the course for context's sake. Fresno City College is a little under 20,000 students---it's a vibrant and diverse student body in a rather urban setting. The course itself is always an awesome experience. The students are all undergrads, of course, and most are English majors. This isn't a workshop or grad school, so unfortunately the cap is 30 students, and it always fills. The course units transfer to the UC and CSU systems. The skill level varies, and the reading preparation is what you might expect; they have a canonical foundation but little in the way of contemporary poetry.

I don't think you want to know how much I have them write, how I respond to their poems, how mean or encouraging I can be, etc. (incidentally, "etc." is one of the words I tell them to avoid). However, I will tell you that I believe in what Richard Hugo famously told his poetry students---something like this: During this course, I want you to listen to every single thing I say. Do not argue. It's futile. Then, at the end of the course, I want you to forget everything I told you.

I strive for an atmosphere of collaboration, openness, risk, and freedom. It would take way too long for me to explain how I achieve this, so let me shift into freewrite mode and tell you things I say to them, and some things I want from them in return:

make it new (ezra pound)/ convict thyself (dostoevsky)... modern translation(?): get real/ good poets borrow, great poets steal (eliot)/ we must read widely and deeply/ everything is in the re-visioning of the poem/ struggle/ work hard through the forms (we write ghazals, sestinas, petrarchan and shakespearean sonnets---this week they are writing odes with espada's "alabanza" and keats as examples/ i want them to cultivate the accents, flavors, and authenticity of their sensory worlds/ think about caesura/ think about sound and pace/ again, hugo---we owe the truth nothing. we owe it to the poem to be true to its sound (this may reveal my bias toward the auditory, a la Pinsky)/ i want them to have fun/ i want them to work hard/ i want them, in the end, to have something meaningful to say about their poems and how or why they evolved/ of course, they should know the basics---couplet, tercet, quatrain/ pentameter, iambs, etc./ learn where your poems get tired and how to rework them/ how much failure is involved in the successful poem/ beauty and grit go hand in hand/

Some books I've used in the past include Park's The Temperature of This Water, Uyematsu's Nights f Fire, Nights of Rain, Montoya's the ice worker sings and other poems, and Addonizio's Tell Me. I will soon use Espada's Alabanza, Levine's The Simple Truth, perhaps The Selected Levis, and I am looking at Barbara Jane Reyes' poeta en san francisco, Carolyn Forche's Gathering the Tribes, and Brian Turner's Here, Bullet among others. I also highly recommend (and have used) Addonizio and Laux's text The Poet's Companion.

This is a little of what I talk about. The subject matter is also conducive to storytelling (so I do some of that), discussions about the world and our interaction with it through language (so I do a lot of that), and silliness (so I am right at home). I can also tell you that I love my work. For lack of a better way to say it, the students make it all worthwhile.

13 comments:

barbara jane said...

wow lee, GOOD answer.

Pris said...

Hey, interesting to have a peek into your process! You surely make a wonderful teacher, Lee.

Lee Herrick said...

Thanks Barbara and Pris! It was fun writing this.

ashok said...

You sound like an amazing, thoughtful teacher. It was a pleasure to have come across this post, just stumbling around.

I tried to teach Sonnet 73 of Shakespeare once, and while the lecture was nice, I don't know how well my students learned.

Anonymous Poet said...

Mmmm . . . makes me want to stop by your class and listen in. . . . : )

Hui Jeong said...

thanks lee, the reason i asked is for my thesis in ed at SFSU, i'm doing a curriculum for a comm college asian am lit course. i want to teach asian am at community college but dont want to get my MA in the discipline (i have my BA in it). i'm hoping to submit the curriculum as an alternative to an MA in asian am... i'm trying to create a lesson plan around asian am poetry (including temp of this water) and am super struggling w/ it.

Lee Herrick said...

sounds interesting. i wish you the best with it...feel free to e-mail me at leeherrick [at] hotmail if i can offer any more specific sorts of questions. one of the poems i focus on from park's book is queen min bi.

Lee Herrick said...

ashok, thank you very much for saying that! and anonymous, thank you as well...i really do enjoy the class. thanks for stopping by!

Kimberly said...

wow. i'd love to enroll in one of your classes if i ever life out in your direction.

sarahkim said...

Lee, I was wondering what your opinion is of spoken word? I saw that you have a link to Ishle Park. Do you have any other favorite APIA spoken word artists?

Lee Herrick said...

kimberly, any time!

sarah---i like some spoken word. some i can't stand. i like Ishle Yi Park a lot, and i also really like Bao Phi. I don't know much of Beau Sia's work, but what I've read i like a lot as well. I also dig the asian-american collectives like I Was Born W/ Two Tongues, mango tribe, and yellow rage. going back a bit, i love sherman alexie and of course martin espada rocks like nobody's business. i also like sam pierstorff, taylor mali, bryonn bain, and yes, saul williams too.

they're quite different for me than more "traditional" (for lack of a better term) poets, with whom i connect a bit more closely. I'm not a performance poet, but i admire those who can do it. critics lament the scoring of theatrical content, which can detract from some of the poetry. sometimes this is definitely the case.

i like it for what it is---a variation, new angle, sort of vibrant ownership of language and theater. it's entertaining and often moving and poetic. i think it will last a long time. when it's bad, it's really bad. but when it's good, i enjoy it quite a bit...

Lee Herrick said...

oh yeah...and kelly zen-yie tsai at www.yellowgurl.com !

Michael Parker said...

This is a wonderful post! I beat you are an excellent instructor/mentor/teacher!

BTW: I just picked up Jack Gilbert's "Refusing Heaven" and am spellbound. Amazing poetry.