Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Allowing the Student to Talk (and Talk and Talk Even More) When Their Story is Being Workshopped

A few years ago when I was teaching a graduate workshop, a student was disappointed with the way I ran the class--I like when students critique my pedagogy. I can get bored quite easily, and the sudden need to explain myself provides me with a jolt of energy. It often inspires the better conversations. In my poetry workshops, I don't have each student turn in a poem a week--something that I always hated a student. How many poets write a good poem a week? Or for that matter, even a semester? I arrange their workshop time as I do a non-/fiction workshop: in place of a story, they have to turn in a group of 4-6 poems. They go up twice a semester.

With a group of poems, you can always find something intriguing. With a single poem, it might produce no discussion. Or if you do talk about it, you feel like you're humoring the writer, and no matter how intelligent you may be to disguise your motivations, everyone can see right through you.

My advanced level/graduate students are workshopped twice in a semester. When I first began teaching, I led the discussion twice--the student couldn't talk until we as a class were through.

I did what I always do, and I confess to my students my approach on the first day--at the start, I'll ask them to tell me what intrigued them. To simply describe what they see. Then we'll open it up until I want to take over and interrogate specific aspects/excerpts of their work. (I think workshops where the workshops runs itself, where its "democratic" is never particularly useful--why be disingenuous? the students want your opinion, no? what creative writing teacher who was once an MFA student can deny that. To not say at some point whether you like it or dislike it is mean--a lot of self-dubbed intellectual teachers like to think they transcend those gut reactions, but I often find the most useful starting points for discussion comes from comments like "It's boring" Or "It's stupid." Or "I don't get it." Isn't that how we all react to words? Why deny our students those feelings?

But now I don't. That graduate student who was unhappy said that when I led the workshop, I focused on things that didn't matter to him. I felt like a crappy teacher.

And worse: he had a good point. At a certain level, students have a right to get the knowledge they want about their work. If you're teaching in an undergraduate program that has more than an introductory creative writing class, you have to acknowledge that these classes are training them to see themselves as artists and their "material" as the stuff of art. Also: how many tricks can any creative writing teacher employ to help their students better themselves?

We spend an hour on each student's writing. The first time I do lead the discussion. They are not allowed to talk. The second time they lead the workshop. They can talk as much as they want. For the second time they turn their writing in, they are told that they can use that time in whatever they see fit. They can talk about their writing. They can ditch talking about their own writing, and talk about something simply related to the genre the class is supposed to focus on. They can lead writing exercises, show a movie, lecture non-stop, orally interpret a section from a published book--whatever they want.

When I told a colleague about my strategy, they dismissed it. Understandably. I expected to regret it as well. But it turned out, for the most part, to be one of the best things I've ever done in the classroom. Once a student brought in a piece of religious literature--full of platitudes. She said, "This is what I thought was good writing. Now I'm not sure. I'm confused after we talked about my piece last time."

For me, student confusion is a good thing. And for a student to rethink what they once valued is even better. Because I am aggressive, sometimes to the class' detriment, I try not to say (or even imply) that a "transformation in thought occurred"--it might not have. They may be onto something about themselves, and to push it leads them to a conclusion the might not have made. To supply it for them causes them to affirm you and not the path you're trying to send them on.

Here's another example: In a non-fiction class, I was raising the problematic nature of a redemptive moment in a narrative--the epiphany, what limitations that may cause. A student brought in his new story and the last one that was workshopped. He decided to bring in his last an most recent story. He underlined the exact paragraph where the "change" occurred. Now he asked the class: "To be more successful should I put the epiphany sooner or later?" And then he added: "Or should I be more vague with the actual words." He obviously hadn't understood what I said (or maybe I didn't communicate it at all successful, a definite possibility), but his active questioning allowed me the opportunity to reexplain myself.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The One Year Anniversary of My Blog, or, Thank you Denise Duhamel, Melanie Rae Thon, Le Roy and Lesly Chappell, and One Gay Man in Particular

Today is the one year anniversary of my blog. I promised myself that I would blog for one year and then reconsider my game-plan. This is what I decided: I will blog definitely once a week for the next six months, and then make another self-assessment. I am itching to work on more private projects--and owe myself that.

My big regret is that I haven't talked about enough books on this blog. That's in part why I started it. But it's exhausting, and I like to spend as much time with someone's poems as I can until I commit myself to writing about their work. I've been hanging out with the poems in Chip Livingston's "Museum of False Starts." I look forward to writing about it sometime in the next month.

For this post, I also want to thank people. Before I started this blog, I was becoming cynical about PoBiz (which I'm still unsure as to what that name means exactly, since everything in the community seems so decentralized). But fortunately for me things happened as a result of this blog, and my faith has been restored. Or maybe it's always been there. My dumb cynicism makes things very murky from time to time.

I first want to say thank you to Denise Duhamel. She's one of my favorite poets, and a role model. I don't know how many poets are as generous and as talented as she is. Most brilliant poets have one or the other. She's got both. If she didn't choose my book as a judge in a contest, I wouldn't be here on the blog today. And even more importantly: if she didn't write poems that wowed me and I happened across when I was an undergraduate, I wouldn't be writing today. Period. Some poems in my book are happy unabashed rip-offs of her work. I can't think of too many better poets to become a shameless derivative of.

My first creative writing teacher who supported me was the fiction writer Melanie Rae Thon. I started in fiction at Syracuse University when I was first a graduate student. I went straight from undergrad to graduate school. I wrote the worst stories. I always tell my undergrads this. One story was about a woman with two different colored eyes who had her face ripped off by a pitbull. Another one featured a fifteen year old female who goes to an AA meeting where she's almost raped by a creep named Joe (the name of my ex-boyfriend) and, in the end, saved by an African-American woman named Peaches. Enough said.

I was smart enough to know how bad the stories were. I went to Melanie's office and told her I knew I sucked. She did the most amazing thing. I started to cry and then she shut off the lights in her office and held me as I sobbed in her arms. I wasn't ready for grad school, but she took mercy on me. She saved me. She kept me from dropping out. Like Duhamel, she is one of my angels.

I can still remember when my ex-best friend and I heard that her new book was coming out: "First, Body." I had relocated to the University of Alabama (long story). We called up the bookstore days in advance to see when exactly it would arrive. The morning of the release we drove up to Birmingham, Alabama and waited for the store to open. We needed it right away. The bookstore opened, and we marched in. We were afraid that all the copies were going to be gone. They weren't. We drove home ecstatic that we had made what we knew would be our favorite purchase of the year. And it was.

I also want to thank Le Roy and Lesly Chappell for publishing my memoir. I hate when people talk about their publishers as family. I never believed you could be that close to someone who played those roles in your life. I was wrong. You can be. I love them.

There's a lot of other people who have helped me with this blog. There's one in particular who gave me the confidence to continue. When this gay man noticed it, and affirmed me, I was so, so happy. I had read his poems and scholarly articles for a pretty long time, and looked up to him. I had never met him, but when I saw his note on Facebook that he liked my blog (let alone even bothered to read it), I continued enthusiastically with confidence and less doubt. And then I did something wrong --only after several months, did I realize it was my fault. Which sucked and hurt. I never listen to the obvious. Don't bite the hand that feeds you. We don't talk anymore. No more fun emails.

One of my biggest fears in life is that people are acting nice to me out of obligation. So I thoughtlessly, self-righteously, lash out. If they then stay around, then I know the relationship is genuine.

I know that is a dumb thing to think. But I'll be gay and blame that on my mother. "Sometimes you've got to throw your friends up against a wall and see who sticks," she'd always say. Fortunately, on most days, I'm fairly reasonable.

I won't write about him indirectly or directly on this blog--or any other blog, as I stupidly did in the past. I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I was an idiot. And that I will always be looking forward to reading your work. You are an inspiration.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On the Necessity of Grading Creative Writing

When I was an undergraduate, I was one of those creative writing students who would complain if they got a B +. It would piss me off. I would immediately run to the teacher, and demand that I know what criterion was being used. I remember one creative writing teacher said, "Why are you asking me about a B+. You're creating art. You shouldn't be concerned about grades."

I slumped away, convinced I wasn't an artist. A real artist would either have a.) not asked about the grade or b.) would have gotten an A.

Grades did matter to me. And they should. You are paying for that letter on that transcript. You are not paying for a good teacher. Or a bad teacher. Those sort of guarantees can not be offered. But the letter--that letter--is something that can be guaranteed (At least this is the attitude many students have).


On the undergraduate level, there is one skill that needs to be taught above all others --the need for specific, idiosyncratic observation. I've taught every single sort of class at SUNY Brockport--poetry, fiction, non-fiction, literature, composition--and that ability is by far the most undeniable necessity. And the hardest one for students to master. Wherever I have taught--Alabama, Upstate New York, and Utah (where students are often the most literate and genuinely respectful of teachers, something their admirably evangelic upbringing has instilled)--this is the first and most important thing I teach.

My course is usually organized in the following way: the first third of the course is small readings and short exercises based on those readings. Then we workshop the first of two short stories which comprises the bulk of their grade (the first one essentially a mid-term; the second, a final). And then from my evaluation of their writing, I organize whatever readings and exercises would best help the majority of the class for the rest of the in-class time for the semester. Last, for their final they turn in the second of the two short stories. (I don't believe in rewrites for a number of reasons.)

Teachers who immediately begin workshopping in an introductory or intermediate creative writing course risks doing their students a disservice. Any time a student feels there is the opportunity to get by through offering abstractions, vague language, and platitudes they will take advantage of it. If you immediately jump into workshopping, you can spend half of the semester saying the same thing to every student's piece: "Show. Don't tell." And if you do choose to workshop, you must put a letter grade on their stories/poems/essays, or else they will feel everything is OK, or OK enough, to continue doing what they've been doing, filling their pages with abstractions and cloudy language.

I don't put grades on any of the initial exercises completed during the first third of course. It's full credit or no credit--a good number of students will still get bad grades. While teaching them what I want them to first know, it's not fair to grade a student on what they don't--a mistake so many creative writing teachers make. Immediately grading with an "A," "B," etc. tends to further mystify creative writing, making it even more arguable that it should not be taught in the classroom-- implying you either have the talent or not.

But when they turn in the first of their short stories (usually around mid-term), I emphasize their most significant strength, and what I challenge them to work on in the future. Perhaps more importantly: I mark down their writing grade, a participation grade, and the grade I would offer them at that particular moment in time.

In an Intro to Creative Writing class, I make a list of some of the most important skills I'm looking for:

1.) ability to identify and name abstract versus specific versus idiosyncratic language
2.) ability to identify scene versus summary
3.) ability to create specific scenes with specific characters doing specific things at a particular moment in time
4.) ability to create "summary" that moves beyond platitudes and the obvious
5.) ability to create scenes with characters that incorporate intriguing settings and props for the character to inhabit and use
6.) ability to privilege character over sensationalistic plot
7.) ability to avoid the strictest chronological ordering, using effects like section breaks to demarcate time and scene in overall story

I tell them that if they don't master #1, I won't be able to help them with their story. If the majority of the class can't show me proof of that skill, I tell them, we won't be moving on. Literature teachers often fail in this way--they race through their texts without ever assessing their students' ability to comprehend what they read. You have to begin teaching literature as a New Critic in the classroom or else you'll be doomed in a charming but pointless attempt to fasten a theoretical apparatus to the readings.

New Critics understand that reading comprehension matters above all else. This isn't to say that history isn't of crucial importance, or that it doesn't intersect with close readings. But if your undergrad students can't make literal sense of the sentences and summarize what those sentences mean, you're doomed. Your students will rotely scribble down what they will see as mere amusing factoids and just regurgitate them on the exam.


I call the grades that I put on their first of the two required stories "their receipt." They have written proof of where they stand in regard to the established criterion. I encourage them to come meet with me if they are unhappy with their grade--I'll further explain what needs to be done for their final short story. When they make an appointment, I tell them to bring in one or two pages of new writing (nothing from the midterm and nothing that will be able to be used for their final portfolio). We'll see how well they're engaging the particular skill with which they're struggling.

I believe that only through a grade will they be able to know how serious it is that they master certain basic skills. Each letter grade packs a certain amount of urgency, good or bad. Perhaps even more importantly, the teacher has an ethical obligation to demystify the grading of creative writing in the academic classroom. To a certain, definite degree, writing skills can be taught. Creative writing teachers need to disallow literature teachers from thinking they have a stronghold on a more specific, unarbitrary grading criterion.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


first annual anthology of gay short stories published in the gay men’s lit/art quarterly GANYMEDE
207 pages, 6x9” perfect-bound paperback book
illustrated throughout with fine-art photos
Purchase link, details, sample pages:

WRITERS: Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Eric Karl Anderson, Marc Andreottola, Cyrus Cassells, Wayne Hoffman, B.R. Lyon, Ryan Doyle May, Sam J. Miller, Andrew J. Peters, Boris Pintar, Adam Jeffries Schwartz, Ennis Smith, John Stahle, Charlie Vásquez

“What sets it above similar collections is both the quality of the writing and the audacity of its editor in establishing a new benchmark for anthologies of this kind.”--Chroma, Britain’s top gay lit journal
“An incredible collector’s item that will entice the senses and evoke emotion as well as thought.”--Rainbow Reviews

CURRENT ISSUE: Ganymede #6
DAVID SEDARIS on loving his man, Denton Welch, secrets of the Duchess of Windsor, Edmund White’s new memoir, six gay authors on divas they love, a homo-erotic mystery story from Robert Louis Stevenson, gay poetry, fiction, photographers, artists.

Ganymede is on facebook...become a fan!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Michael Theune, Denise Duhamel, Kevin Prufer, Wayne Miller, David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, and Pleiades

Dear Michael Theune,

Because I google myself at least a dozen times a day, I was happy when I discovered that my name and poem was mentioned in your review of issue #34 of Triquarterly, edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby. It appeared in one of my favorite magazines Pleiades --no joke, the only reason I don't have a subscription is you can't order directly from their website, at least last time I checked. I cannot tell you how many times I've sent work there and have never got in. So you can imagine my excitement that my work was singled out.

Here's the link: -

I think it's so cool that you would write a review of an issue of a literary magazine. So few people rarely do that, and by complimenting you, I'm complimenting myself--I love searching the web and magazines for poems the world might not have noticed.

Because reviews are so rare, I have no choice but to celebrate that I received the sort of attention I crave. For my readers of this blog (and myself--I love to affirm myself that I am indeed beautiful and amazing, be gone, modest Midwestern upbringing), I posted the poem you talked about in the previous post.

Here is what you say about my poem "I am Known as Walt Whitman":

"There are excellent poems here, and there are very bad ones... Denise Duhamel’s “Lucky Me” is a 4-page confessional poem that goes nowhere; however, her “October 1973” is much more typically accomplished for Duhamel. Steve Fellner’s “I Am Known as Walt Whitman” is problematic, with lines like “…O, my dumb, dead boyfriend, / you are my expired muse. Because I know you gave so kindly to strangers, I imagine / your hole as raw as the material for this poem,”...

I have no problems with my work being criticized. Recently, a critic leveled several charges against my memoir. The thing that pissed me off was that they were right!

What concerns me, and why I'm going to address this criticism is I feel it's a vehicle to talk about something larger: the subtle ways in which homophobia presents itself in book reviews --intentionally or not--to marginalize already marginalized authors.

You are unkind in your solemn, wholly unfunny review (you're as guilty for lacking that trait as much as you accuse gay African-American anthologist Reginald Shepherd of being).

How irresponsible of a critic to claim that my explicitly gay poem is "problematic" without telling me why.

Or perhaps you do eerily tell me why by quoting a line that deals explicitly with homosexual anal sex? Because you easily allow this conclusion to be drawn, I would make the claim that this could be read as an act of aggression against a gay author dealing with R-rated (or you may think X-rated) sexual material.

I think there's plenty of criticisms to level against the poem: a pretty clunky beginning (the poem doesn't really become a poem until the second half), ugly, stiff diction choices ("resurfaced"?),etc. But you don't name those or even others. Instead the line is labeled as a problem and then later you reveal your obsession with the poem by mentioning it again (which made me happy--I think sexual humiliation feels way better the second time around.):

"Why these poems by these poets and not others? Why not take, say, just Duhamel’s stronger poem, and then solicit other poems from other poets, including, say, Kent Johnson, a poet rarely thought of as being in “ultra-talk” circles, but whose work in his amazing book of anti-war poems, Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz, and whose recent epigrams, filled with gossip about contemporary American poets, are the epitome of talky poems? Why Steve Fellner’s “I Am Known as Walt Whitman” and not a poem by former slam poet Jennifer Knox?"

I wished that you said I should have been replaced by a gay male poet who deals with explicit sexuality--there are plenty of them out there, and have written much better poems than mine. But you don't do that. Which makes me think one can translate "problematic" as "gay."

I don't understand the absurd arbitrariness of this comment. Through you admitted preoccupation with my poem, and a dangerously coy refusal to name the reason behind that preoccupation, you commit, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, an act of homophobia.

There are some other things you say about a different poem of mine, but that's irrelevant. This reaction to this particular poem is what matters. I do hope that your editors Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer had suggested that you explain yourself and you rejected the critique. Book reviewing is a moral act. They are powerful people; they should be challenging their own critics even if their suggestions are ultimately rejected by the author.

You choose to simultaneously criticize and withhold commentary of a gay male authored poem dealing with sexuality. These ostensibly minor, cryptic acts ultimately server as a gateway for larger ones, such as mandates like Proposition 8.

In spite of all this, I'm thrilled you mentioned my poem. (Barbara and David betrayed me, too --that poem shouldn't have been placed in the middle of the volume. It deserved to be plastered on the back fucking cover! You're all goddamned homophobes!)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My 'Problematic' Poem "I am Known as Walt Whitman," according to Michael Theune in Pleiades

[When I first started this blog, I made a promise to myself that I would NEVER post my own poems here. However, my poem was singled out in a review of the #34 issue of Triquarterly. Poetry critic Michael Theune described the poem as "problematic" in Pleiades which I just recently discovered. There's no better thing for me than to be called a "problem"--a description often applied to gay men. I love attention no matter what kind I receive. Attention is something I can mistake for love, and I like a lot of love. Today, I will post the "problematic" poem. Very soon I will offer a response to Theune's critique--Thank you, Theune, for supplying me with new material. I wanted to write about Chip Livingston's "Museum of False Starts" but I haven't spent enough time with it.]

I Am Known As Walt Whitman

To the gay men who spend their Friday nights lurking in the cyber chatroom, I am known
as Walt Whitman. My alias. My secret identity. My better half.
Somewhere in that claim a stupid joke can be found. Don’t expect me
to discover it. I’m too busy on-line looking for the man who offered my boyfriend

his first taste of crystal meth. It got him so messed up he couldn’t stop
meeting men off the internet, and then begging them to stay after they had their release.

Of course, they always left. Bored, he did other risky things
like having sex in a bathroom stall at Wal-Mart where he was arrested
for indecent exposure. (Somewhere on those tiles there is a trace of him.)

He lost his job as a minimum wage earning bagboy at Wegman’s, causing him
to avoid the grocery story altogether, the only one in town. Crystal kidnaps
your hunger anyway. His appetite resurfaced elsewhere.

Like in orgies where condoms were thought of as unnecessary ornaments.
(Somewhere in my voice, useless empathy can be found.) He contracted HIV.
I broke up with him because I didn’t want to take care of someone who was going to die

in such an uninspired way. Somewhere in this narrative
there may be a shred of logic to be found. O, my dumb dead boyfriend,
you are my expired muse. Because I know you gave so kindly to strangers, I imagine

your hole as raw as the material for this poem. Bloody and needy and lovely. Somewhere in your flesh I had wished to find a reason to forgive you. Somewhere
in your grave I will find the redemption I’ll need for hating you.

Somewhere in another poem I will find the strength to tell this story
without invoking the name of Walt Whitman. But now I need him. I need that dead homosexual to find a way into my prayer for you. I can’t let this be a poem about me

and you. It needs to be something larger. Something that moves our words
beyond a story of drugs, a memoir of lonely people, a poem of catharsis.
Are you listening from the heavens, my worthless love:

Walt Whitman wrote those poems about desire and flesh and never felt any better. Somewhere in that knowledge a lesson can be found. But now
all we have are these words, words which will not be remembered

by any more than a few hungry readers, words which will disappear
as quickly as the instant message in a chatroom, words that will be as unrecognizable
as the misunderstood ones in what was once someone’s meaningless, necessary poem.