Monday, January 11, 2016

On Entering the Arena

44º ~ brilliant slanting sun, some cloud cover moving in, the hours of light are lengthening, campus is crawling with all manner of folks

Tonight, dear readers, I will teach my first "live" graduate workshop in poetry. I write "live" to distinguish this from my teaching online for the University of Arkansas Monticello for several semesters. While that job offered me a great chance to get my feet wet with teaching at the graduate level, I confess, I'm thrilled to be now engaging with grad students face to face.

As I crossed campus earlier, taking a mid-afternoon break from my prepping for tonight's class, I turned all golden with nostalgia as I remembered my first workshop as a grad student. I was, then, wired with a combination of excitement and trepidation, and what I remember most is that very little of what I thought might happen in that room actually happened. Some of what happened was great; some of it horrendous, and in preparing for tonight's class, I've thought a lot about what worked best for me as a student and what I would have liked to have seen done differently. I've thought about different learning styles and different personality types and how the leader of the workshop might attempt to offer something to everyone. I've thought a lot about balancing the excitement and the trepidation that I seem to be feeling all over again.

True story: At some point near the library, I stopped mid-step as I realized that it was another century when I was a graduate student. Ok, just barely, as I entered grad school in the fall of 1999, but still.

Returning to 2016, here's a glimpse at the agenda for tonight.

The UCA Arkansas Writer's MFA Program is a small (18 students total at the moment, I think) 3-year program that is only in its 4th year. As such, most all of the grad students know each other on some level, and many of the 2nd- and 3rd- years have had overlapping classes. I'm the new kid, since I only started at UCA this past fall, and I didn't teach any grad classes last semester.

With this being said, we are going to do the typical introductions and exchange our set of writers who take the tops of our heads off. There's really no better way to get to know a writer than to talk about who they read (and idolize).

**The Syllabus:
Chaucer writes, "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne."

Perhaps my biggest point here will be that the class is one of exploration and that I am more interested in the students' questions and poetry obsessions than in my own. We will read as well as write/workshop, and we are using Cate Marvin and Michael Dumanis' Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande) and Dean Young's The Art of Recklessness (Graywolf) to kickstart the semester. (Hat tip to Molly Spencer for recommending the anthology and who might, through her own reading/posting, have introduced me to the Graywolf series as well.)

My second biggest point here will be that I believe in careful attention to craft and that revision likely plays a big part in that. In other words, I'm going to push back against the rush to publish, even as we talk about current issues in the publishing world.

**What is Poetry?
This question might seem basic and simple, but it really isn't.

One thing I lacked as a grad student was a good picture of the history of Western poetry, so I'm going to start with a brief, very brief timeline from Aristotle to today. Most likely, this will be old hat to my students and they will probably yawn. So be it.

Then, I've designed a little worksheet (egads!) and will ask students to rank which poetic elements (e.g. sense, diction, sound, form, lines, &etc.) rise to the top for them as readers (i.e. which of these elements seem to make a poem STICK with them after reading a poem). From this, I hope we will have a freewheeling discussion about the craft elements that make up "poetry" today.

We are heavy with reading assignments at the beginning, and I'll give my spiel about "reading like a writer" (annotating to excavate craft lessons) and the value of sticking with readings that don't particularly set one's hair on fire.

We will also create a class anthology next time, so each student will be bringing 3 poems published by others that do set their hair on fire. Students will bring enough copies for the class and we'll go old school with a stapler to create our own supplemental textbook.

And, I'll send them off to write, write, write.


That's the plan. However, anyone who has taught even one class, be it in academic, at the local community center, or in church/temple/mosque, knows that plans have a funny way of morphing in the moment. I'll keep y'all posted.

Also to look forward to, I'm hoping to post after this week's Persona classes with an update on our class' big-picture questions on the topic.

And, I'll be starting to polish up poems to send out for submission this week, so there's another possible update to come, time allowing. (I've posted a lot in the past about sending out work, so feel free to use the search tool at the top to find out my process if interested. The technology may change, but the method stays mostly the same.)

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