What makes my heart happy?
When students say things like:
"I don't enjoy writing poetry, and I certainly don't enjoy reading said poetry to a class full of people I barely know... but the poem I concocted ended up being one of my favorite pieces in my writing career thus far."
"Poetry was like rowing a boat upstream with no paddle to me before our workshop. The angst I felt towards reading, analyzing, and especially writing poetry was beyond what you could even imagine. That being said, I thought that the workshop changed my mind significantly and, for lack of better words, was very fun."
"I loved this entire assignment. From the beginning when we had to write about something uncomfortable to actually sharing it with the class and not knowing whose was whose... I honestly didn't think I could write something like this considering I am not too familiar with poetry and this is an uncomfortable subject and something so personal."
"I really enjoyed the way we did this assignment. It made me appreciate a genre of writing that I would have never thoughts I could enjoy. It was really nice and refreshing to see the vulnerability and creativity from everyone in class."
Changing minds about poetry, one student at a time. :)
For anyone who is curious, here is the assignment my students are referring to. This was for an upperclassmen writing course that stresses awareness of rhetorical decisions. Students submitted their poems anonymously, and we spent two and a half weeks in class reading each poem out loud and discussing them, including: what we liked about the poem, what we found confusing about the poem, and suggestions for the poet. At the end of each discussion, the poet would own up to the piece and had a chance to clarify for us if they wished. We then gave the copies back with written commentary, and students revised the poem to turn in for a grade with a short reflection on the experience and on the revision. This is the second time I've used the assignment, and to great success.
If you are an instructor and wish to use this assignment, feel free, but please credit me.
I was invited by my best and oldest friend Kari Hall, who happens to be a very talented artist, to join a blog hop project. Thank you, Kari! The project consists of answering some questions regarding art and my process, as well as to to highlight three artists I admire. While following this particular chain of the blog hop backwards, I found many stunning encaustic painters (the medium of art that Kari primarily works in). I am thrilled that she chose to branch out to me, a poet, and so I have invited other writers in various genres to carry the blog hop forward from here.
These are the questions I have been tasked to answer:
1) What am I working on/writing?
I am currently working on my first full-length collection of poetry, which is tentatively titled The Length of Distance. I have enough poems to complete a collection, but am still revising about ten of them, and then need to put the poems in order--which sounds like a really, really daunting task. The poems are quite different in subject matter, but the unifying thread is, as the title suggests, the idea of distance. Some distances explored in the poems are physical--moving away from home, travel, and long distance relationships. Others are emotional--empty or unrequited romantic relationships, the distance that forms between oneself and others after a great loss, and divorce. Not all the relationships in the collection are romantic--there are also family poems and friendships addressed. And the distance that even dwells within oneself, that distance between who you were and who you are becoming, who you are and who you want to be, is also worth consideration. How well the collection works as a cohesive unit remains to be seen, but I am excited to be nearing the stage at which I'll start piecing it together into sections and experimenting with how one poem best leads to the next.
2) How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?
I found this to be the most difficult of the questions to answer. There is SO much variety in poetry. So in many ways, my poetry is quite like many others. In other ways, quite different. So I guess the best way to answer is to try to describe my style as a poet. I generally write in free verse, meaning I don't use a rhyme scheme or structured pattern. (The exception is my occasional attempt as a sestina, an incredible strict and repetitive form, but I digress.) However, in spite of the lack of pattern, I do like to divide my lines up into stanzas that have some consistency. I often use couplets or tercets. I also write poems with much longer stanzas, or even single stanza poems, but whatever form I end up with it, I try to allow the form to add pause and weight to the words wherever necessary. I tend to write short lines, creating a lot of space for emphasis. Like most poets, my work tends to be personal and relies heavily on metaphor and simile to pack an emotional punch and to make my experience relatable to my readers. I try not to shy away from specific details (names of airports, streets, cities, for example. Or including specific items like a pressed penny from the zoo in relation to an old boyfriend.) I've been told I have a knack for endings, for stopping on that moment that takes your breath away just for a second. That thing that can only be identified as "poemness" - that indefinable quality that makes something a poem and not just words on a page. (What a rambling and unclear answer this is!)
3) Why do I write/work what I do?
Author Lorrie Moore says of how to become a writier: "First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably." Many people say one does not choose to be an artist of any kind, it chooses you. I think this is partially true. I have wanted to be a writer since about third grade. It took me several more years to discover I'm a poet, and even more before I made the decision to BE a poet. I tried to be anything else. I was just going to minor in creative writing once I got to college, but before my first college-level poetry class was over (thank you Rhoda Janzen) I'd decided to major in English. After many years of being a sort-of writer, I finally began to embrace it, and after a few more years of studying poetry (thank you Jack Ridl) I made that decision - to go to grad school for an MFA in poetry and see where it would take me. It's been almost 10 years since I finished my MFA and I'm finally digging my heels in and working seriously on publications. (Teaching college can be a veritable distraction from your own writing.) But at the end of the day, I feel more whole when I write poems. It's one of the things in my life (tap dancing is another) that makes me feel more myself. The poems I write are often cathartic, a way to process life's experiences. They can also be a way to connect with others, with readers. And a way to observe the world around me and participate in some way by writing about what I've seen and felt.
4) How does my writing/working process work?
I tend to write when I feel moved or inspired, though I am trying to learn to be more disciplined. Usually a poem begins as just an idea. Either a metaphor, an image, or an experience that I'd like to write about. It churns around in my head for awhile. Maybe I'll jot down a line or just a tidbit. Sometimes it could be as short as a few hours of thinking about an idea before I draft a poem. Sometimes it could be months. But at some point I sit down with an old fashioned notebook and pen (often in a coffee shop or a park) and write the poem. After I draft it, I type it up and play around with line breaks and stanzas. I then usually take it to a few trusted writer friends for feedback before continuing to revise. Some poems go through very little revision, and others go through several drastic changes before I feel content with it as a finished product. The learning to be more disciplined part means I'm trying to carve out more space for inspiration and for drafting/revising. Time outdoors, time at a coffee shop, time at a museum, whatever it is. Getting out into the world helps me clear my mind of daily stress and make space for poetry. The more I can incorporate that space into my life, the more I find my poetry thrives.
And now, meet Kari... she's been my best friend since the age of 4, and even if I didn't know her personally, I would still love her artwork. One of my favorite aspects of visual art is texture, and Kari's paintings are rich with texture, both literally and figuratively.
Born and raised in the Chicagoland area, Kari Hall earned a BA in Visual Communications Design from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. It was there Kari was first introduced to encaustic painting and has kept her concentration on developing work in this medium. Her work has been shown in many galleries around the Chicago area such as the Zhou B Art Center, Fine Arts Building, Black Cloud Gallery, Union Street Gallery, and Morpho Gallery. Her art-making process is focused on a visual and emotional unfolding, personal memories and honest expression revealed through a landscape of color, light, texture, and dimension. She melts, carves, and transforms layers of wax to expose the depth of her life. Through it she is guided to a place, whether real or imagined, simple or complex. This process encourages a thought-provoking journey and allows her natural creative mind to spill open. When she isn’t in the studio painting, she is spending time with her husband, Drew, and Bloodhound puppy, Harvey.
Kari's website: http://karihall.com
Next week, I invite you to read the responses from the three beautiful women I have invited: Meridith De Avila Khan, a photographer/writer/artist I have had the pleasure of knowing since college; Kristin Luehr, a fellow Roosevelt University MFA alum; and Joan Hanna, a colleague from Rowan University who has generously agreed to help out with Glassworks Magazine. Meet them here!
Meridith De Avila Khan is a creative soul, wife, and mother; she has been a photographer for over eight years, including the past four years as the official photographer for Sweet Briar College. She owns & operates MDK Studio, a commercial photography studio. Previously, Meridith worked as the Director of Marketing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lynchburg, and as an interim coordinator for the Tulipanes Latino Film Festival in Holland, Michigan. She has written human interest stories freelance for The Lakeshore Press, as well as Lynchburg Living and Clutch magazine. She is currently preparing essays for graduate school. Her fine art photography has exhibited regionally in juried and group shows. Meridith holds a Bachelor of Arts from Hope College, where she majored in creative writing and minored in studio art. While at Hope, she participated in the residential Phelps Scholars Program, an academic-intensive cultural learning experience. Conversations about what makes us human, even when they’re sometimes difficult, are one of the things that Meridith enjoys most.
Meridith's Blog: http://meridithcreates.com
Kristin Luehr is a fiction writer and English teacher, although she sometimes thinks those must really be mutually exclusive careers, given the time commitments necessary. She currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where she teaches high school English at an international school. She received her MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University and her BA in English from the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. The literary journal Dappled Things recently published her short story “Where Moth and Rust” and awarded her their J.F. Powers Prize. When she has time and something to say, she blogs about teaching, writing, living in Kenya, loving God, and anything else that seems important to her (like using “whom” correctly).
Kristin's Blog: http://wordslikenets.blogspot.com
Joan Hanna has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in several online and print publications as well as book reviews and interviews for various outlets. She is Assistant Managing Editor for River Teeth, A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and Assistant Editor, Nonfiction/Poetry for r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal. Her debut chapbook, Threads, (Finishing Line Press) was a finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Hanna teaches teaches creative writing at Rowan University in New Jersey. She holds an MFA from Ashland University in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction.
Joan's Blog: http://WritingThroughQuicksand.blogspot.com.
Today's post is a reblog from a former classmate of mine, Kristin, with whom I studied creative writing and literature at Roosevelt University during graduate school. She is a fellow English teacher, and her words spoke volumes to me earlier this week. I find it particularly interesting that even though I teach in New Jersey and Philadelphia, and Kristin teaches in Nairobi, Kenya, our experiences are much the same. I think the rest of the post speaks for itself. You can find Kristin's full blog here: http://wordslikenets.blogspot.com
Sometimes there's something that you want to say. And then you remember that you have a blog. And then you feel passionately ashamed for how you ignore your blog. But then you think about all those months when you didn't have something to say, and it seems impossible for you to have written any more blog posts than you have. And then you come to terms with your writing self and realize that people will still love you (although they may not forgive you for continuing in this personal-reflection-only-thinly-disguised-by-the-second-person). You decide that you have an "occasional" blog, which not only means that you are allowed to post only "occasionally" but that you are allowed to wait until you have an occasion, a reason, something to say. Like now.
I teach an online college English class. As a part of this course, students read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” The students are then asked to answer this question: Sometimes this poem is entitled "Dream Deferred." Which title do you think is more appropriate and why?
A majority of students invariably choose the title “Dream Deferred” over the title “Harlem.” This is partly because this is an introduction to literature course and many of my students are more interested in completing the assignment to get the gen-ed credit than they are in actually thinking deeply about poetry. Within about five seconds, they see the connection between the deferred dream of the title and the similes of the poem (indeed, the first line of the poem even asks “What happens to a dream deferred?”). This strange geographical reference would take more work to parse. What was an obvious cultural reference to Hughes' contemporaries mystifies, and many students seem willing to give up on whatever isn’t immediately understandable (sigh). However, there are also a set of students who do think carefully about their answers, even googling “Harlem” to figure out the connection, and yet still end up writing something like this:
“Dream Deferred” is better because it’s more universal and can apply to everyone.
I have to admit that this answer drives me crazy (and not just for the logical conundrum of something being "more universal"). And yet, I understand why the student--even the thinking student--might write it. A poem that more people can relate to must of course be a more powerful poem. And a poem with a more general title will be a poem that more people can relate to, right?
Not exactly. I'm reminded of Emily Dickinson, who writes about poetry as “spreading wide my narrow hands.” Can’t you just see her in her white dress, alone in her room, with her arms flung wide? Her experience was narrow (like everyone’s, limited as she was to being just one person), and yet, based on her enduring popularity alone, her poetry also spreads wide. Not because she focused on the universal but because she embraced her narrow life so fully.
I want to bark this truth into my students' faces like an over-eager golden retriever, and I often have to give my own collar a good yank in order not to scare anyone. With good writing it is specificity, not generality, that creates emotion and connection. It is the very fact that something specific is happening to someone that is not you that allows you to feel most fully what you ought.
The fact is Hughes’ poem is so much more powerful because it isn’t about all deferred dreams everywhere. The power comes from experiencing Hughes' ideas and emotions, not from eclipsing them with our own. The goal in poetry and fiction isn’t to relate an experience as universal (mostly that bit is built in and doesn’t need a lot of attention) but as real. It’s not two sides of a scale--increase specificity and decrease universality. It’s more like a tree--the more effort you put in to stretching out each branch, to growing in each leaf, the more people can find shade underneath.
After a much needed 6-ish week break, I'm stepping back into the classroom tomorrow to meet a group of incoming freshman and to attempt in 5 weeks to prepare them for the rigors of college-level reading and writing. This week's Huffington Post article on teaching is so clear a reminder of the struggles of this occupation. Because the bottom line is, you can only do so much in the short time you're given. And it's not a 9-5 job; it's an every-spare-moment job. And some students just aren't ready for the material you need to throw at them.
Just a snippet of Peter Greene's brilliant metaphor:
Teaching is like painting a huge Victorian mansion. And you don't actually have enough paint. And when you get to some sections of the house it turns out the wood is a little rotten or not ready for the paint. And about every hour some supervisor comes around and asks you to get down off the ladder and explain why you aren't making faster progress. And some days the weather is terrible. So it takes all your art and skill and experience to do a job where the house still ends up looking good.
Teaching is rewarding, don't get me wrong, or I wouldn't keep going back to it. But oh, this break has been so very necessary to relax, regroup, and now it's time to regain a little energy to jump back into that crazy space where I attempt to be enough for my students (while still maintaining a social life and a professional dance career).
Read the full article: "The Hard Part" by Peter Greene on Huffington Post
Yes! I'm thrilled to see this article in The Atlantic about Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important. On a whim a few weeks ago, I threw some complex poems at my Writer's Mind class, a course for upperclassmen majoring in writing. The focus of the course isn't necessarily literature, but on how the mind of a writer functions, the rhetorical choices a writers makes and the elements and tools available to him or her. The class focuses on the process of writing, on being aware of and overcoming writer's block, and learning to articulate why certain decisions have been made in writing and revising. The kind of writing we practice is really up to the instructor, which makes this an exciting class to teach.
I wanted my students to practice writing about themselves, in particular, writing about the darker parts of themselves they generally don't share. The theory behind this is that if they can write about those dark, secret things, they can write about anything without fear or hesitation. At the last minute, I realized there could be no better way to approach this than through poetry. So in the 30 minutes before class, I threw out my initial plan and printed out copies of Sylvia Plath, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins, and Sharon Olds, and hoped my students would be open to poetry. The results have exceeded my expectations.
After two class periods thoughtfully discussing not only the meaning and emotion behind these poems, but also the imagery, sounds, structure, and symbolism, my students wrote their own "shadow poems". They are blowing me away. We are workshopping them anonymously as a whole class, and while it is taking far longer than I planned, the conversations are insightful and exciting. Several students have asked if we can just keep doing this for the rest of the semester. The poems are intense, the feedback is constructive, and the revisions are promising. I am getting to know my students more deeply through this community building activity, and the techniques we are practicing will spill over into their other writing as well. While only a handful of the students in the class consider themselves creative writers, and even less poets (there are several education majors in the group) they are opening up and growing as writers and as people in new ways because of poetry.
As Andrew Simmons describes in his article:
"Poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected... Teachers should produce literature lovers as well as keen critics, striking a balance between teaching writing, grammar, and analytical strategies and then also helping students to see that literature should be mystifying. It should resist easy interpretation and beg for return visits. Poetry serves this purpose perfectly."
The proof is right in front of me in this group of students. I couldn't agree more.
Check out the full article here: Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important
Learning That Does Not Expire
This article, and this quote in particular, perfectly sums up why I believe what I teach, writing and literature, provides students some of the most important skills they will gain in college.
"If you really think about learning, there are some master disciplines which unlock all the others. They are philosophy, history, mathematics, language (reading/writing), and science (mainly mastery of the scientific method). These disciplines form the core of learning and comprise the engine of its expression. The student who gains proficiency in these areas will maintain, for virtually the rest of his/her life, the capacity to learn new things and to organize those new things within the context of the older things. The learning that takes place in these areas does not really expire. It does not become dated. It is a fund that maintains its value. The same is not necessarily true of knowledge gained in professional programs."
read the full article here: "This College Professor has a Message for Liberal Arts Majors," The Federlist
Reading Literary Fiction
To continue my diatribe on why literature matters (and by diatribe, I mean my string of quotes and articles suggesting such) a new study suggests that reading literary fiction as opposed to popular/genre fiction or popular nonfiction leads to greater emotional intelligence.
Somehow, I don't find this shocking at all. Makes perfect sense.
See the full article at the NY Times Blog: "I Know How You're Feeling, I Read Chekov"
The Plight of the Adjunct
Apparently my blog is turning into a collection of article links about education. I promise I'll post something of my own now and then.
Buzzfeed may not be the most reliable of sources, but this is an interesting graphic produced by Online-PhD-Program.org discussing the problem of adjuncts in the university setting. Unlike some of the adjuncts described here, I've been fortunate enough as an adjunct to scrape together a 35k+ salary every year... But mostly this is because I teach twice the full time load, including summers, plus tutoring and advising every chance I get. I've also worked in coffee shops, taught dance classes, and done tutoring lower than the college level. After 7 years of adjuncting, I finally landed a 3/4 time job, but that means I still have to adjunct and don't get health insurance, pension (though I will be eligible for this later), paid sick/maternity leave, or professional development funding.
Most people would ask why people still adjunct if the pay and benefits are so abysmal. I don't know about others, but I continue to do it because I love teaching. I don't try to find a teaching job outside of the college setting because while I have a masters degree in my field, I'm not certified to teach, and the stability for teachers isn't much better than for professors. Additionally, this is what I've worked for. I worked hard for multiple degrees in English so that I could teach on the college level, but opportunities for professors have decreased so drastically since I began I couldn't have possibly known what I was in for. Now that I'm here, I can't imagine being happy doing anything else.
In some ways, the hardships of being an adjunct means those who are still teaching really do it for the right reasons - because they love it. For the students. This is a good thing, certainly. The problem is that the number of classes and/or extra jobs an adjunct needs to take on to make a living wage means that we have less time to give to each student who comes into our classrooms. I try to give my students as much time an attention as I can, but teaching 6 classes, sometimes spread out across 4 campuses means a lot of time spent in the car, time prepping for classes, time grading. All this means less time in my office being available for students, less time emailing them, less time writing detailed comments on their work. THIS is the real tragedy. Students with adjuncts for professors are learning from qualified, intelligent, passionate instructors... who just don't have as much time and energy to give them as they should.
While I seem to be transitioning out of the adjunct phrase of my career, some professors never do. I'm one of the lucky ones, though I'm still at an in-between, not quite at that coveted full-time, tenure-track position. I hope wherever my career takes me, I'll always remember how hard I worked as an adjunct, how underpaid and underappreciated I often felt, and I hope that I'll see a dramatic change within my lifetime so that those just starting out don't always have to scrape by the way I have.
Check out the graph here: "Everyone Loses When We Underpay Adjunct Professors"
More and more I come across articles online praising the humanities, the arts, and English majors in particular. As the public education system has been increasingly devaluing these areas, the greater public seems to be recognizing the need for more critical thinkers in the workforce, and more importantly, recognizing that this kind of thinking starts with the humanities and the arts.
This is a long article with many good things to say, but this excerpt is my favorite:
"Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times."
Read the full article from The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Ideal English Major
Last semester, I wrote a recommendation letter for a former student who later told me she was admitted to Temple University. She thanked me a million times for the letter, and said reading it even made her mom cry. (I didn't know it was THAT great! I was just being honest; she was a joy of a student.)
Today I found out another former student was just accepted to St. Joseph University and Chestnut Hill College, both wonderful, small schools in the Philadelphia area.
In the midst of all the students who I see withdraw, repeat courses, struggle, scrape by, or walk away because of personal situations, it's so refreshing to celebrate the success of students who truly deserve it. I hope I had a small part in that.
BA in English