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.