Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Creative Writing Classroom
by David Wright for Poets’ Quarterly
“I think of [teaching] as a provocation and a sequence of enthusiasms.”
—Poet Dean Young[i]
1) I believe in an excursive approach to creative writing instruction.[ii]
Excursive writing contends that elements of craft are not an end in themselves but a means to equip writers to make the many complicated choices we encounter daily in our work. Poems, stories, and essays grow from excursions into our selves and into the world. Whether a visit to an art museum or approaching a daily ritual as a “sensuous excursion,” I want to encourage writers to develop habits of attending carefully to what they experience, to what they read, and to the worlds they inhabit. Once challenged to “come to terms” with their experiences, questions of genre and craft become all the more urgent. Poetic imagery, prose style or narrative structures become necessary tools then for writers as we make continual choices in language.
2) I believe in intuitive, unconscious choices in language made conscious for the purpose of making them informed, intuitive and unconscious again.
Much like learning to sing well or to play a sport, learning to write involves making us more conscious of our intuitive choices, an awkward process that can leave us mute or stumbling across the soccer field. This process also leads to revelation, but that requires student and instructor patience, an acknowledgement of how awkward such a process can feel, and a giving over of at least contingent trust to the instructor. My goal is to reward this trust by helping writers to name and to build on their various aptitudes, to identify and to develop new skills, and to see this process as recursive and necessary. Much like a musician or athlete’s muscle memory, habits of attention and craft can develop and become, once again, unconscious and intuitive. And then we name them and start again.
3) I believe the practice of writing turns us into more receptive readers and better critical readers.
To read a sonnet after trying to make one can generate a reader’s respect for the craft and can sharpen her critical engagement with a poem. My own reading and teaching of literature have been transformed by the experiences of teaching creative writing and by writing poems and essays.
4) I believe words carry with them the places where they’ve been.[iii]
No writer gets to own the language. No poet can ignore the connotative, allusive resonance that accumulates around her choices of diction. No novelist invents story as story. We inherit narrative forms and must do something in and against them. In other words, we begin somewhere. Far from being a paralyzing insight, I want writers to feel this recognition as hopeful. Think of it as improvisation. The blues or jazz musician knows the tradition, the chord progressions. Because he knows the changes, he can change the changes.[iv][v]
5) I believe in the “imagination’s tongue.”
“Art,” writes Wendell Berry, “like sexual love, is of the body. Like sexual love, art is of the mind and spirit also, but it is made with the body and it appeals to the senses.”[vi] Poems in particular can marry the activities of mind, spirit and body, what Denise Levertov calls “all that lives / to the imagination’s tongue.”[vii] For writers, this means discovering and including sensuous particulars in our poems; it means putting language in our mouths as well on a page; it means learning how lineation and poetic rhythm can be so intimate that they put the writer’s breath into the body of another.[viii]
6) I believe in taking students seriously.
As novelist A. S. Byatt expresses it in Babel Tower, a teacher is “not a therapist, and her students are not sick. They are intelligent people who need to think hard and deep, and don’t get the opportunity.”[ix] Offering opportunity for sustained attention to the details of thinking and writing makes up the bulk of my work as a teacher. Practically, I read students’ work in progress and tell them the truth about what I read; I listen to and answer their questions; I have as many individual conferences as I can fit into a semester; I give them books; I act as if everything they have written is offered up in seriousness, even if I suspect it isn’t.
7) I believe in disorientation.
Once we establish trust and a general direction of hopefulness in a writing classroom, the best thing we can do is get a little lost. To be disoriented inside an excursion, reading, or draft is to be, quite possibly, on the edge of surprising oneself as a writer. It provides impetus to reach towards new technique, tradition or insight because what we have at our disposal proves inadequate. Poet G. C. Waldrep likes “to use Surrealist parlor games in the classroom” because they can ” trick students into discovering, or at least suspicioning, that their ‘authentic’ selves lie deeper, and more strangely, than they had hitherto imagined, and that language, if employed within a critically conscious framework, can afford them access to these selves, if they will be adventurous.”[x] I think he is right. I think I would trust him.
8) I believe I teach best when I am also writing.
I like to think of Robert Frost’s comment: “Practice of an art is more salutary than talk about it. There is nothing more composing than composition.”[xi] When I am generating new work and revising drafts of earlier material, I find myself both more sympathetic towards and tougher on my students. I also find that their work becomes generative for my own writing. Poet Scott Cairns argues that far from being the collecting of a finished experiences, the “poetic . . . is something else: it is an occasion of immediate and observed — which is to say, present — presence; it is an occasion of ongoing, generative agency.” Teaching (like poetry) is most exciting when it is generative of new experience. Making new work along with students keeps my teaching and my writing from being an exercise in anecdotal transmission.
9) I believe I write and teach better when I am reading.
Returning to familiar, model poems that “teach well” tempts me often. I have a shtick about “My Papa’s Waltz” or “The Fish” that never fails to explain imagery to beginning poets. However, re-reading Bishop, Whitman, Stevens, Roethke or Millay keeps me open to something more than a proof-texted lesson. Such engagement reminds me of all the ways poems mean, and how image never fully separates from form, sound, allusion, etc. And discovering Olena Kalytiak Davis, Terrance Hayes or Dean Young confirms that new work is possible:” You are in your pajamas / eating cold pizza / when you decide to make a coyote. / Now all you need is a pregnant coyote.”[xii]
10) I believe imitation matters, but I believe sometimes you must tear up sunflowers.
Imitation forms one of the oldest traditions of artistic apprenticeship. Mimic the masters in the museum. Write a Shakespearian sonnet or copy out a passage from Fitzgerald. Imitate and perhaps you will have inside you the rhythms and understandings that led the master to make the masterpiece. I sometimes ask writers do poetic cross-dressing: write a T. S. Eliot poem in the voice of Gwendolyn Brooks or rewrite Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” in the style of Jorie Graham. The results often impress right away. I do these exercises myself when I am creatively stuck.
Ten years ago I told Marvin Bartel, a retired art professor, that my daughter’s teachers had helped her paint a really good imitation of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. I was going to have it framed. “That’s bullshit,” Marvin said. “Imitation is how people teach themselves. Her teachers should have taken her into a field of sunflowers, let her spit out sunflower seeds, tear apart petals, and, then, have her paint them. After a week or so, when they showed her Van Gogh she would’ve seen him as another artist trying to do what she was doing.” For Marvin, imitation was too often a shortcut to product, a quick way to get frameable art from kids, and a pedagogical crutch for teachers. I have not abandoned imitation, but I try as often as possible to tear up sunflowers and write about them before we look at Van Gogh or O’Keefe.
11) I believe in community and in generous, attendant readers (but not so much in workshops).
Writers need one another. We can be one another’s most helpful and difficult readers when we learn to attend to one another’s work with care. So, I work to build a classroom vocabulary and a reciprocal atmosphere that allows for practical conversation and challenge between writers. We take a trip to the Art Institute together. We chat. We sometimes eat. We read work aloud and we exchange drafts via email or google docs. We fill out critique sheets.
But I dislike and deemphasize the term workshop. It implies “fixing” a piece of writing—both in terms of repair and reification—and can easily turn into an exchange of formulae or tricks to make a poem “work.” Instead, I want the class to be comprised of generous, attendant and honest readers who can name and describe what they see rather than offer “fixes.” I think individual conferences, group critique, and master classes succeed best not merely when the writer leaves with suggestions but when she returns to her own work aware of a constellation of artistic and linguistic choices she had not before seen.
12) I believe in faithful writing.
To be a faithful writer is to contend with so many forces tugging on our fidelities. We can be faithful to experience, to language, to communities, to audiences, to the self, to forms, to traditions, to innovation, to family, to moral, political or spiritual convictions. But more often than we’d like, we cannot keep all these faiths at once. In the process, most writers reach serious moments of crisis and exhaustion, convinced that poetry or fiction is not only a challenge but also a waste of time. “After all,” we might say, “It’s only a poem.” And we would be right.
But writing can also, I think, be its own faithful act, even an act of faith. At some point, as Christian Wiman writes, “[O]ne has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended. This is true of poetry, too: I do not think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.”[xiii] Teaching writing offers a way to move faithfully past silence, in inadequate yet faithful forms.
13) I believe writing can be taught. I know this because I have learned to write and I am not a genius.
It’s popular to assert that the proliferation of creative writing programs, conferences, or little journals forecasts a literary apocalypse, and that, as a creative writing teacher, I am part of the problem. Of course I have heard (and repeated) the apocryphal story about Flannery O’Connor. Once asked if creative writing workshops discouraged young writers, she is supposed to have said “Not enough of them
However, becoming a writer is not a zero-sum game. When a new writer begins to work, an older writer doesn’t have to quit (or die). I wouldn’t mind fewer poets competing for jobs and grants and publications, but the art of writing doesn’t suffer because more writers want to take it seriously. Writing (and the teaching of it) is not primarily about being ushered into a profession. It is about being opened to the pleasures and difficulties of living faithfully in the world though language. As William Stafford puts it, in the end, writers do not need to be “special—sensitive or talented in any usual sense. They are simply engaged in sustained use of a language skill we all have. . . . [W]riting itself is one of the great, free human activities . . . Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more space than space and time can offer.”[xiv] The classroom is an extension of that space, a season of that time.
David Wright teaches in the English department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Before teaching at UIUC, he taught for nine years at Wheaton College (Illinois). His poems have appeared in Image, Ecotone, Poetry East, and Artful Dodge, among many others. In 2003, he was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for poetry. His most recent poetry collection is A Liturgy for Stones (Cascadia, 2003). He intermittently updates at sweatervestboy.tumblr.com
The Triggering Tune: Springsteen Songs as “Places” of Inspiration for Poetry
by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael
Possibly the most common question asked of artists is, “What inspires you?” Bruce Springsteen has been queried about inspiration in many an interview; and he usually cites musical predecessors and forms, as in his recent keynote at SXSW in Austin. We do know, however, that at times Springsteen’s songs have been influenced by books he’s read and events, current or historical. Tim McAleenan mentions Flannery O’Connor’s influence on Springsteen’s work, particularly his Nebraska album, and goes so far as to claim “almost every song I hear from him draws some kind of parallel with a great literary work or offers a deep historical allusion of some kind” (McAleenan). McAleenan’s brief essay develops his assertion that Springsteen is Wordsworthian in his ability “to use common language to express emotion through unadorned lyrics,” but he jumps a little too easily to the assumption that Springsteen’s inspiration is “the common man” (McAleenan). It is that assumption I want to examine as
I draw some parallels to the way poets—some poets, myself included—work with so-called inspiration and the ways we might read or interpret Springsteen’s inspirations.
One aspect of this assumption with which I take issue is the stereotype of the common man. The phrase is so vague as to be misleading: think about how many Reagan voters were fans of Born in the USA, and just how paradoxical that is. A cliché is seldom an inspiration—though it can become a theme, such themes usually arrive later in the progress of a work or are decided upon by interpreters, not artists. If I were to interview the songwriter, I would approach the question of inspiration in a more specific way. I would ask, as the poet Richard Hugo does in his book The Triggering Town, how does the initial subject evolve into the generated subject when you write? What would you say acts as cause for your work? How does your writing locate your inner life? (Hugo 4).
I will be getting back to Hugo’s text in a few minutes, but here I need to interject that I’ve been thinking about origin and inspiration a great deal lately because I find myself writing about adolescence—a subject I had happily avoided for years. My writing life elided my teen and young adult years right out: for me, memoir-based work was grounded in early childhood only. So it came as some surprise recently when I found myself writing lyrical narrative poems in the personas of teenaged girls of the early 1970s. Poems with rhyme or rhythmic schemes, ballad-like, telling stories of girls I might have known, girls who might have been me. These girls were answering the perspectives of boys of that era, too, and often, they were listening to rock. My own tastes in music leaned, early on, toward the singer-songwriter folk genre; Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. I was devoted to John Donne, William Blake, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Vivaldi, Motown, and opera. Not bad fare for a young person interested in words, but my enthusiasm for their work put me slightly out of step with peers in my working class New Jersey suburb. Springsteen’s first three albums played in the background of my life in the 70s—literally and figuratively. And Springsteen spoke to nerds, too.
Our school bus driver listened to Oldies 98 WOGL out of Philadelphia, and the consensus among us kids was that the music of the 50s and early 60s was hopelessly hokey. Sometimes there’d be a song, though, that was bluesy soul, doo-wop, or Motown—hits that featured a growly, gut-wrenching saxophone totally unlike the school band sax section. Springsteen describes this kind of pop well in his SXSW address when he says:
“[S]ounds of early pop and doo-wop whispered into my young and impressionable ears. Doo-wop, the most sensual music ever made, the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery, the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA, of wonderful lies being whispered into Tabu-perfumed ears, the sound of smeared lipstick, untucked shirts, running mascara, tears on your pillow, secrets whispered in the still of the night, the high school bleachers and the dark at the YMCA canteen.” (Springsteen “SXSW”)
Alright, then. What this passage does is give us images and facts. It offers some triggers, getting back to Hugo, who observes that “the true or valid triggering subject is one in which physical characteristics or details correspond to attitudes the poet has toward the world and himself” (5). If smeared lipstick and tears whispered in the still of the night verge on clichés, they are nonetheless specific and physical and tell us something about the writer and his relation to the world—or worlds, both concrete and imagined. Richard Hugo claims that “the poem has elements of melodrama” and that with lyric work, “if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self” (7). What else features melodrama and skirts dangerously near sentimentality? How about opera—Springsteen’s work has been called operatic by more than a few observers, notably Lawrence Kirsch. David Lefkowitz says, “Bruce Springsteen concerts in the 1970s and 1980s are fondly remembered as near-operatic affairs, four hours in length, emotionally rich and exhaustive, and loaded with wall-to-wall music (and even an occasional recitative)” (Lefkowitz).
Operas are hugely thematic, but they start with a narrative, a story, characters that listeners find themselves wanting to pay attention to. The lyric narrative, posits Brian Boyd, is deeply ingrained in human evolution and the human need to be social via the exciting, attentive exchange of information. Names of cities and streets and lakes—even invented, imaginary places and names—engage human attention. And so does character: “We…have an endless fascination with character information, since it helps us to predict the behavior of those we interact with and remains relatively stable over time” (Boyd 165). Name and character are likely to fire specific inspirations; in Springsteen’s case, the triggers probably are more music-based or character-based, however fictional, than generated around some general idea of the common man. Here is another quote from Springsteen’s keynote, in which he talks about one of his musical influences:
“He sang about the tragic unknowability of women. He was tortured by soft skin, angora sweaters, beauty and death—just like you. But he also sang that he’d been risen to the heights of near unexpressable bliss by these same very things that tortured him. Oh, cruel irony. And for those few moments, he told you that the wreckage, and the ruin and the heartbreak was all worth it.” (Springsteen, “SXSW”)
He could be talking about Puccini, Bizet, Rimbaud; but he means Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison and also “the temples of life and mystery in my little hometown” (ibid).
The initial trigger for my teen-girl-memoir poems was the release of The Promise set. Songs I heard in concerts, songs that took me back to the days in my hometown when my friend Sandy introduced me to Bruce Springsteen’s music. We drove to his concerts in The Pig, a behemoth beige-pink Plymouth sedan with a column stick, almost impossible to park and humiliating to be seen in. The concerts were in places like college gyms and cost about ten bucks a ticket; Clarence Clemons was doo-wop and blues, jazz and Motown, and Springsteen’s lyrics told too-familiar stories that seemed to happen right next door. Brian Boyd reminds us that “story by its nature invites us to shift from our perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another” and that “[i]n fiction the story lives the more…each character seems to exist in his or her own right” (197). That is what we felt at Springsteen concerts and when listening to his albums. We could imagine that street corner as a corner in our hometown; those characters with their high-jinks and their yearnings lived where we lived.
As to Springsteen as lyricist, I think McAleenan is right to suggest, “Springsteen manages to merge poetry and prose together in a highly unique way—he captures and condenses the strong narrative elements of prose by using a disciplined and creative vocabulary” (McAleenan). For me, that’s the vocabulary of hometown. Hugo says that “the poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another” (12). When writing a poem, the poet has to reverse the usual function of language; and place helps the writer to accomplish that tricky task (11). By the “usual” language function, Hugo means that “the relation of words to the subject…is a strong one,” while the relation of the words to the writer is weak (11). Poets have to “switch allegiance” from the initial subject that got them writing to the words that explore the cause of the triggered emotion, even if doing so takes the poet away from the initial subject: there’s the reversal. So you go away from home to write about home; and you may not do this physically—but then again, you may—as Hugo says he did. Most poets have worked on and revised a piece, startled that what the poem’s words ended up saying do not reflect the initial inspiration. That discovery is what makes art of any kind revelatory for the reader, listener, or viewer and for the artist him or herself.
Hugo employs a phrase that works well to describe what occurs when things go well for the writer—or lyricist—when the reversal of language and the sense of the speaker’s place transcend the usual pedestrian, dead-metaphor vagaries even when using common language. He says we then discover the “obsessive musical deed” of the poem (15). And if it risks repetitiveness, if it risks sentimentality, risk is what it’s all about; risk makes the experience feel authentic. Springsteen again: “Dylan, from whom I first heard a version of the place that I lived that felt unvarnished and real to me. If you were young in the ’60s and ’50s, everything felt false everywhere you turned. But you didn’t know how to say it. There was no language for it at the time” (Springsteen “SXSW”). After many years of avoiding my outcast suburban-small-town memories, a few hearings of The Promise got me listening to myself. I got some new language from those hearings. Yet it was old, familiar, long-ago language which had begun to sound like an obsessive musical deed.
Richard Hugo noticed that a certain kind of small town seemed to inspire him to write. Sometimes, even a glimpse of such a place as he drove past was enough to jog loose an image, to evoke a memory or a sensation that was almost tactile, or an emotion. He says that when you’ve found the town, any town that acts as a trigger—or any river, or any school or scent or song—“you must start the poem” (18). That’s what I did; and I found myself writing not just one or two but over 30 poems—a veritable series!—on these girls. Perhaps it was the reappearance of a few high school friends in my life, thanks to Facebook. Perhaps it was East Street Radio, which I listen to in my car.
A combination of inspirations—memory, Bruce before 1981, driving. It occurred to me this series was inspired by triggering tunes. It was time to start the poems; I experimented with allusions, twists, response pieces, character, ballad form, lifts from the originals. I played with the clichés of pop music, with Springsteen tropes and Springsteen metaphors, trying to “funk up the cliché” as poet Kwame Dawes has put it, just to see where the phrases got me. I came dangerously close to copyright infringement.
Poets do this: borrow, steal, funk up, turn back, pay homage and, hopefully, make new. We call our sources “inspiration.” For my recent set of poems, Springsteen’s early albums act as trigger, as source and setting, as background and occasionally as the foreground of memory. Music and musicians have inspired many poets; I could insert a long list here but won’t, and I feel my use of Springsteen’s work follows a time-honored tradition in which he himself is a practitioner. The resulting poems are wholly my own. They have been generated out of my own observation, imagination, and in a few cases, experience.
Here’s a quote from an imaginative chapter called “Assumptions” in Hugo’s book—which was published in 1979—that demonstrates the poetic veracity of the imagined home town. I have no doubt those of you gathered here will immediately make a connection that is, actually, purely coincidental:
There is always a body of water, a sea just out of sight beyond the hill or a river
running through the town. Outside of town a few miles is a lake that has been the
scene of both romance and violence. (25)
I think the best part of art is its ability to enact transference, one soul to another, across often vast expanses of time or space. Shakespeare. Sappho. My individual path can never hope to cross theirs. I am closer to Bruce Springsteen in time and place than I am to Sappho; his path and mine have never crossed, either. But I think we draw creative initiative from similar relations to subjects and the use of words and the obsessive musical deed. The sphere of influence that makes transference possible through artistic inspiration is there in both cases. For which I am grateful. And so are all the barefoot girls.
Ann E. Michael presented this essay at a panel on “Springsteen and Inspiration” at the 2012 Glory Days Symposium (and academic conference on the work and influence of Bruce Springsteen). http://www.usi.edu/glory-days
Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2009.
Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town. 1979. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.
Lefkowitz, David. “Will New York be a Lucky Town for New Springsteen Opera
Project?” Playbill. 17 Jan. 2002. http://www.playbill.com/news/article/67261-
McAleenan, Timothy. “Yes, Bruce Springsteen Counts as Poetry.” Shenandoah online.
11 April 2012. http://shenandoahliterary.org/snopes/2012/04/11/yes-bruce-
Springsteen, Bruce. “SXSW 2012 Keynote.” NPR. NPR.org. 12 Mar. 2012.