Thursday, January 7, 2010

An Explanation of The Sort of Assignment I Will Assign to My Undergraduate Poetry Workshop Regarding the AIDS Anthology "Persistent Voices"

For my intermediate undergraduate poetry workshop, I've decided to use the anthology "Persistent Voices: Poets Lost to AIDS" as the central text. It's edited by Phillip Clark& David Groff.

In my poetry writing workshops, I spend the first part of the semester, if not more, simply reading published poems and enjoy watching them struggle to make sense of them. I say that there's nothing wrong with saying wrong things--we all do. All that happens is you lose your self-esteem. And most of the time you rebound them. Participation is key in my class. In some ways, it's much more important than the actual writing.

I tell them that it is important to what I call "making a generous public display of their confusion."

Each students has to do a presentation on a poem that adheres to a certain set of rules. This is what they are:

1.) They must choose a poem from Verse Daily or Poetry Daily. I choose those websites that contain poems most often by living poets--I believe it creates a sense of urgency. And we all want to feel contemporary and edgy. I'm not any different than them. When I rent a movie from Blockbuster Video, I only choose something from the New Releases.

2.) It must be a poem that intrigues them, but contains something that confuses them, something that they can't get their mind around. They don't need to understand it. But they have to be able to identify it as specifically as possible, and have question(s) prepared that might draw upon mine or the class' interpretive abilities. I always ask them in class: "What is weird about this poem? What do you think is stupid? What is boring?" I am always disgusted with teachers who say their discussions didn't go well because all their students would say was it's boring or stupid. My reply is that most things are boring and stupid. Also: such baldfaced claims can lead to understanding (if the intuitive impulse isn't already there). What's cool also is that whatever is boring or stupid or weird is where the art is. They just don't know how to name it as such.

3.) They must try to understand every single aspect of the poem: from diction to stanza breaks to the use of write space, etc. They must try to identify and explain the intersection of form and content within the poem. And I mean everything: image, allusions, line break, stanza size, white space, etc etc etc

4.) They must identify and explain what they as writers themselves would rip off from the poem themselves.

During their 30-45 minute presentations, I allow them to first talk about the poem and their responses to those standards pretty much in that order for the first 10-15 minutes. And then I interrogate. I am a horribly impatient teacher (and person), so I often will cut them off before they're done. I claim it's because they aren't going to an intellectual place that I feel benefits them. But part of the reason sometimes is I'm aggressive and rude. (If I should ever be interviewed for a job at another college and someone asked me that stupid question, "What is your biggest problem as a teacher?" I'd say that: impatience.)

When they turn in a group of their own poems to be workshopped, one of them must emulate the one they presented in class.

(I should add I do not run my workshop in the One-Poem-A-Week Style. I've always found that counterproductive to talking about art. Creative writing teachers rarely produce a poem in a week that's worth showing--why should we expect our students to? So this is what I do: on-and-off during the semester we work on small exercises and then they have to turn in a portfolio of 5 poems. We spend 30-45 minutes going over the portfolio. Sometimes all energy is directed toward one poem. Sometimes time is given to all of them. Other times just a stanza. This also works better, because students are often repeating the same problem or reifying an unproductive limitation They're only critiqued in class once. I think reading published poems is more important in certain ways than going over their own in a workshop.)

The benefit of presenting an oral presentation on a Poetry Daily poem is that they get to choose whatever they want in terms of form and content. They have hundreds and hundreds of poems to choose from.

So now I'm doing something different. I've chosen this AIDS anthology "Persistent Voices." In the Introduction to the book, Clark and Groff that it is "not an anthology about AIDS, although many of the poets included here do confront AIDS, directly or obliquely." Pretty much I agree. But such statements are going to matter little (if at all) to my students. And it shouldn't. This isn't a critique of the Introduction, but a line of inquiry about how to successfully use the anthology as a pedagogical too rather than for personal reading.

To my class, I could make the pointless claim that this anthology isn't completely about AIDS or gayness, but using those two issues as a vehicle to talk about The Human Condition. But they'd know I'm full of shit. I choose the anthology because it is about gayness and AIDS. I would never allow to use the words "The Human Condition" in their oral or written critiques. How can I use them?

So the question for me comes to, how do I convince (ie justify) them into thinking that they should in the classroom engaging in my own interest. Especially if I'm not entirely sure this is a good decision: am I not going to cause some students to disengage with poetry in ways that they wouldn't if they could choose a poem with content of their own liking?

I always tell my students I'm not interested in content. Form is what matters. And now as a gay teacher, I'm choosing a poem which satisfies my obsession with certain subjects. Am I not revealing myself to be a huge hypocrite that could cause a certain amount of damage with my own students?

After all, they are going to be spending a considerable amount of time discussing poems from an anthology around a particular subject. Which happens to be one of obsessions. Of course, I will encourage them to critique my choice and the anthology, but what other pitfalls come from my choice and what are the limitations and potentialities of using this AIDS anthology?

In my next post, I'll talk more about my apprehensions in this decision (as well as brainstorming "solutions" to pitfalls). I'll also, I think, be describing what happens throughout next semester. If my students help me shape the ways that can or should be done.


  1. Writing as someone who was infected with hiv back in 1984, who grew up as a poet knowing hiv infected fiction writers and poets, sometimes because I knew them from readings, from working at A Different Light in Manhattan, sometimes because I wrote to them after reading something in Christopher Street, fully aware that I cringe when I look at my early published work and survive as a poet only because I can see how and when I am getting better as a poet, I am concerned at times that readers may forget that many/most of those in such an anthology didn't have time to publish their best work, or what they would have considered to be their best work had they had the time to write it in the first place. We, as readers, are looking at poets/writing with a cutoff point which would not be the case for someone like Auden, whose work can be broken down into periods, early, middle and late. I wonder how this factors, or should factor, into our reading.

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