Monday, July 23, 2007

Introducing Creative Writing

The challenge before me is not that of teaching poetry. If such were my task, I would take it as my clear responsibility to introduce students to the Anglo-American literary tradition (and a smattering of examples from other traditions) and to give them a full understanding of traditional forms and prosodies before introducing them to the paradigm-swerving alternatives from which the most interesting contemporary poetry derives. Instead, I am tasked with providing my students with an "introduction to creative writing" in accordance with the course description provided in the Lake Forest College catalog: "A beginning course in the art of writing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction prose. Literary analysis will be combined with creative assignments." And so I assume the stance—necessarily in advance of actually meeting my students, or coming to know the learning environment of the college—that my primary task is to inculcate a spirit of possibility, and to criticize the communicative assumptions most beginners bring to the notion of "creative writing." I take my cues from Thoreau, in a passage from the last chapter of Walden:
It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor women nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and who, which Bright can understand, were the best English. As if there were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced.... I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments, for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression.... The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.
Thoreau throws down (Thoreaus down) a gauntlet which I feel anyone of real sensitivity and intelligence must respond to, and I take it as a welcome antidote to the crummy philosophy evoked by phrases like "Write what you know." Thoreau's is not an invitation to formlessness, though he could be read that way; had I world enough and time I would familiarize my students with every context and boundary that they would then find permission to exceed. But in a single semester, I can’t hope to teach the tradition: I can only create boundaries within the limits of the class (formal experiments, exercises, genres) and provide limit-testing examples. Their necessary education in the traditions of (minimally) their favored mode (poetry or prose) is something I can only encourage them to pursue in other classes and on their own. And so, though I have techniques and tricks aplenty to offer them, what I really hope to give my students is an example of a stance toward writing, and to contribute toward their unlearning the notion that writing is simply a matter of self-expression (as though either "self" or "expression" could be simple). How very, very little of each other do we actually understand, the more we submit ourselves to conventional codes of "hush and who" So I put my faith as a teacher in texts the students will find bizarre or opaque, the better to demonstrate the difficulty of actual communication between the awake and the awake. Only then can I teach them the sensibility that an artist needs to have, by which we recognize that before we can paint what we see through the window, we have to build the window. Knowledge of the full context is necessary and desirable—who built the house in which I construct my window? in what neighborhood do I find myself?—but far beyond the scope of a single semester.

To speak more pragmatically, my chosen texts for the class are once again the Norton anthologies Postmodern American Fiction and Postmodern American Poetryalongside Ron Padgett's wonderful Handbook of Poetic Forms. Postmodern Fiction is better organized and has a more useful apparatus than Postmodern Poetry, but I haven't found an adequate substitute for the latter for a course like this (again, I will do things differently in courses that specialize in poetry). I will supplement these readings with a sprinkling of canonical ones, which I think is preferable to the tokenism practiced by more staid anthologies. And instead of separate poetry, fiction, and nonfiction units I'm building the course around nodes that cross genre lines and interconnect them in hopefully useful ways: point of view, responding to media, the line versus the sentence, ekphrasis, constrained literature, writing the city, etc. I wish to stimulate and provoke, asking with Thoreau, "Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense?" It may be difficult to judge the success of such a course, at least at first. But I have a great advantage now that I didn't enjoy as a grad student teacher: I'll be sticking around, and it will be possible for me to get to know and mentor my students over the course of years, so that they shall certainly teach me a thing or two about how best to teach them. And after all, Thoreau's polemic is aimed first of all at himself. If I am not learning alongside my students, if I am not also stretching my capacity for being in mysteries and doubts, I will be of little use to them save perhaps as an obstacle. Teaching creative writing is difficult because it doesn't adapt well to the discourse of mastery that pervades academia, and that may also be its most valuable trait. The term "creative writing professor" is almost a contradiction in terms: I am going to do my best to live that contradiction. Hopefully, my students will go on to challenge and be challenged by the canon(s), but my primary interest in this kind of class has to be in the venture, the lines of flight, and not the filling in of blanks.


This past Saturday saw the last SOON Productions reading that I'm likely to attend for a long while: we hosted Michael Carr, an editor, poet, and publisher (he and Dorothea Lasky run Katalanche Press) out of Boston, and Geoffrey Olsen, late of Boston but now living in New York, for whom this was his first non-open mike reading ever. Some stimulating conversation afterward about syntax of the line versus syntax of the stanza. It will be an enormous change for me to suddenly be immersed in a large and vibrant poetry community in Chicago, as opposed to importing new talent every month. (Not that Ithaca lacks a poetry community—it just doesn't have anything like the critical mass of a big city.) I'm looking forward to it.

On Wednesday I defend my dissertation. Hopefully the experience will be less medieval than the expression.

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