Thursday, May 29, 2008

Report from the chain-gang.

One of the courses I teach is a graduate poetry workshop (I'm teaching it now). The convention is that students submit poems they've written, and class time is spent reading and discussing the students' work, identifying its strengths and weaknesses with an eye toward improving the work as it is revised. It's a good model—the whole sounding-board thing provides a (more or less) impartial response, so that the writer can discover what's getting communicated well, and what's not making it to the reader.

Because I think you can't write well without reading much, I make them read much. I teach a couple of poetry collections at the start of the term, and then I make the students each teach one book of poems at some point as the semester continues, so that we usually discuss one book per class session all term.

The upside is that we get to read a lot of poetry—and not the choppy and random selection found in anthologies, but whole collections, arranged (one hopes) deliberately by the writer, with an argumentative arc and some stylistic/thematic/technical unity. It’s like listening to a good album rather than having the iPod on shuffle (and less and less they understand that distinction, I’m sorry to say). And we read a variety, since the students each pick the text they teach and their tastes tend to be wildly disparate; it opens the door to conversation on a wide range of topics in poetic theory and craft.

But here’s the downside, which is playing out with consistency and vigor this term: sometimes I just LOATHE the books they choose to teach. For a variety of reasons, this term's students have—by sheer chance—decided upon books of poetry that have a particular and shared axe to grind. Now, because THEY’RE doing the teaching, I don’t have to come to class having tunneled into the criticism on these texts. But I do have to read them, and read them thoroughly and responsibly, and at least come up with some craft-related insight...which isn’t easy when the poems seem lazy, predictable, and/or downright propaganda. And I don’t want to spend all my comments talking about the books as if they were negative examples, because someone in the room picked that book out of some sense of aesthetic sympathy, and I’m not looking to say to them, “Clearly, your poetic sensibilities are juvenile.”

And again, I have to read them. Closely. And it’s killing my writing to have so much plodding and artless language filling up my life these days.

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***Just for the record: I am aware that if my big complaint is that I have to read bad poetry, I should probably not bitch about my job. It's a pretty good gig, all things considered.

5 comments:

Dr. Write said...

I want to know what they choose!!!! But more, I want to know what you chose, because I'm out of the poetry loop so much these days. I need some recommendations!

editorgirl said...

I second hearing about your choices. And I'm wishing I were in that workshop again, sitting at the back end of the table, watching you discuss those poems. (I should also note that I'm patting myself on the back for choosing a collection I know had the RG stamp of approval.)

Lisa B. said...

Yes, I too want to know the choices for good or ill.

Also, the analytic categories aren't good job/bad job, but good parts of job/bad parts of job. And the bad poetry that the kids love, that's in the hellish sector of the bad parts of the job category. Hellish, I say.

Also, I was thinking about you today, and also, we should have lunch or take a walk or something like that. Something decidedly not hellish.

Renaissance Girl said...

Okay. My recent choices (this term and last):
Paisley Rekdal, Invention of the Kaleidoscope
Linda Gregerson, Magnetic North
Carol Frost, I Will Say Beauty
Jay Hopler, Green Squall
A.E. Stallings, Hapax

I'm not going to reveal their bad choices, because I fear that one of them might find this blog and feel insulted. But the theme that is running through the term is: Politically Angry Women. I don't have anything about Politically Angry Women, by the way; I am one myself from time to time. But when you can summarize a book of poems in three words, I lose interest. I like art, not a journal or an op-ed with line-breaks.

Renaissance Girl said...

Damn. I meant I don't have anything against Politically Angry Women.