PALS Note: PALS is pleased to have a guest post from James Van Wyck. Van Wyck interviewed Jordan Windholz to discuss teaching contemporary poets and being a both a scholar and poet. At PALS, we are invested in thinking about the different roles each of us plays in the classroom. The following interview provides insight into the ways the many facets of our roles as creators and scholars coalesce in a teaching environment.
One of my favorite scenes in Annie Hall is when Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) are on line at a movie theatre. A pompous Donald Trump type is mansplaining Marshall McLuhan’s work to his date. He knows some of McLuhan’s terms, but has no sense of how to apply them. When Woody’s character confronts him, the man says “I happen to teach a course at Columbia called ‘TV, Media, and Culture,’ so I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity.” “Oh do ya?” Woody’s character responds, “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here.” Out from behind a movie placard steps McLuhan, and he puts the ignoramus in his place.
Sometimes I feel like our students might feel a sense of kinship with Alvy Singer. Especially when we’re privileging our esoteric readings of texts over their emotional responses to these same texts. And I can easily imagine a scenario in which a student gets in touch with an author via social media and gleefully shares with her classmates a DM that appears to debunk a carefully-wrought lesson plan. But wouldn’t that be a great learning experience all around, even though a painful one for the instructor?
Previous posts on PALS—including this series by the very much alive teacher/scholar/poet Melissa Range—have mentioned something that I’ve found to be true in my own teaching experience: teaching poetry is hard. I think this especially true for contemporary poetry.
As a nineteenth-century scholar, I’m more at ease teaching Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, than I am teaching Robert Creeley. But I’m infinitely more nervous to teach the work of a living poet like Clare Pollard.
So I decided to sit down with a living poet, and chat about the difficulties (and opportunities) connected with teaching the work of writers who aren’t dead.
Jordan Windholz is a scholar of Renaissance English literature and a poet. He earned his MFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and PhD from Fordham University in New York. His research focuses on constructions and representations of bachelor identity in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. A recent collection of poems entitled Other Psalms (University of North Texas Press, 2015) won the 2014 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize.
Q: Do you think scholars tend to “fix” poets in place and time, and too closely associate the poet and the poetry? For example, in the introduction to this interview, I unconsciously referred to “teaching Walt Whitman.” I guess this gets me to my half-facetious title, which gestures toward the seminal Barthes essay. What changes when the poet we’re teaching is not only alive, but on Twitter?
Well, if they are on twitter, you can talk to them, and if you are teaching their work, you can ask them to Skype into your classroom so your students can talk to them. As for “fixing” dead poets in place and time, I suppose it depends on the scholar. We’re at a moment now when historicisms of various stripes dominate scholarly criticism. Poets can be fixed in time and place by such methods, but I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. Sometimes fixing them in time and place opens up some surprising readings. And I don’t know if conflating the poet with the poetry is a bad thing either. Poets write poems, and, inevitably, who we are gets into what we write.
I think what really changes for a scholar used to teaching Whitman, or in my case, Shakespeare, Lanyer, or Wroth, is learning to talk about poetry without an archive of scholarship. These poets are interesting for lots of reasons, but one of the reasons they stay interesting is that they have a chorus of scholarship that keeps talking about them. They are never without their audience. Teachers don’t have to worry about what to say about dead poets because they have this archive to dip into; if you have little to say about Whitman—or have been too busy to come up with something on any particular day—you know someone else surely has a lot to say. Living, contemporary poets can have buzz and reviews (or not), but they don’t have this archive. And if you don’t know the poet, you might not even have biography to draw upon, and certainly not in the ways you have it with Whitman.
And so you have the poems, which means you really can’t “fix” the poetry in place and time; it just sort of floats through the present. This might mean you have to rely more on formalist approaches than you would otherwise when you teach the work, which would be a means of trying to “fix” the poems in terms of their aesthetic merits or demerits (which can be reductive in its own way). But on the other hand, you might feel liberated to have students talk openly about the stuff we usually don’t talk about with Whitman—how the poems make them feel, what they like and dislike and why, which poems are better than others, and how we determine the terms of such a critique. You can teach them to read like reviewers instead of scholars. That’s a cultural competency worth cultivating. That’s not a bad thing.
Q: What strategies for teaching poetry have you found to be particularly helpful, especially for a class full of non-English majors?
In my classes we practice reading poetry out loud. We practice memorizing poems, even contemporary poems that have yet to prove themselves to be worthy of memorization (though I don’t really believe some poems are worthy of memorization and others are not—I believe in the mental practice of memorizing poems, of internalizing poetic diction and rhythm, so any poem that grabs a student or interests her is worthy).
We listen to readings of poets reading their work. Melissa Range has some excellent suggestions on Pedagogy and American Literary Studies for teaching contemporary poetry collections, and I heartily endorse her recommendation that we teach whole collections. I think this is especially important for non-majors, who might think of poems as one-off pieces. Books of poems tell students that any individual poem can, and often should, be read in relation to other poems.
I like to give non-majors the vocabulary to talk about poems, so I quite literally give them that vocabulary by distributing work sheets with all the keywords we might use—metaphor, anaphora, apostrophe, enjambment, elegy, whatever—as a resource (you might keep a running list of this vocabulary on a class blog or wiki).
I then ask them to apply this knowledge. Pointing them to various poetry zines and websites—The Volta, Linebreak, Fishousepoems, Poetry Magazine, Fence, CURA, Drunkenboat, Memorious (there are so, so many)—I might ask them to find a poem they like, write a one page paper about one technique the poet uses that appeals to them, and then to come to class ready to read the poem. If we’re using a class blog or wiki, we then link to these poems. I’ve had students write analysis or close-reading papers of poems, but have allowed them to replace one or two of these required papers with a video of their reading of a poem or poems (which also gets posted to our class blog or wiki).
If we’re reading a bunch of different poetry from an anthology, I might ask them to create their own anthology of the poetry in which they group and divide poets based on an alternative logic than the one the anthology presents. Really, I just try to find ways to give students various ways they can be conversant or comfortable with poetry. I want them to see there are many things one can do with poems, that there isn’t just one way of reading or appreciating or thinking about them.
Q: Can you offer some suggestions for lesson plans that involve contemporary poetry? What might a typical class look like? A week-long lesson plan? A month-long unit?
I’d start by echoing Melissa’s strategy for teaching books of poetry. It’s really excellent. And I suppose this should go without saying, but I’m going to say it. If you are teaching contemporary poetry, you should be teaching books and poets that challenge and interest you and that you are eager to engage, almost viscerally. How you will teach a particular poet depends on the class, and it certainly depends on your familiarity with the contemporary poetry landscape.
I like to teach contemporary poetry in relation to larger historical arcs. I’ve taught a course called “Verse / Versus” that asks students to think about how poets position their work against other poets, political movements, cultural trends, or aesthetic camps. In the past, we’ve started with early modernists and ended with conceptual poets, but you could really start later, with Emerson and Whitman, say, or even with the modernism or postmodernism. For this class, we’re usually reading poetic treatises in relation to the poems. So, a typical sequence of classes in this case would often involve breaking the students into groups and assigning them a portion of a poetic manifesto they read for that day. We might look at all or portions of Ken Chen’s Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show, for example. Each group will present a summary of the part of the essay they’ve been assigned, and I’ll write that summary on the board so we have a working outline. Once we feel we have the argument, we’ll discuss its advantages, disadvantages, potential and limits. That will be one class.
The next class, students will have read the poetry, so in this case, they’ll have read Chen’s Juvenilia (2010). They’ll read Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire (2012). I’ll ask them to come in with poems they feel resonate with the poetics or seem to defy them in compelling ways. They will come in with a written response, about a paragraph. I usually ask students to take the lead on discussion here. I might call on a student to read their response or to point us to a poem. This kind of exercise asks students to read for politics and not necessarily for aesthetic value or worth, or not to prioritize form above content.
A month-long plan will ask students to consider another movement (we would have done conceptualism before this, and maybe we’ll focus on Latinx poetics after). At the end of this class in particular, I ask students in a final exam to reorganize my syllabus, to regroup poets upon other grounds than the ones I’ve laid out.
Q: Sometime the most difficult moments in the semester (at least for me) are the beginnings of classes, early on in the semester. Do you have go-to class opening exercises that work well when teaching (contemporary) poetry?
I do. When I teach poetry, I like to open classes with readings. I ask a student to be responsible for choosing any poem that strikes her from our reading for that day. She’ll read the poem she chooses. As she reads, I ask students to write down and take note of any particular images, sounds, or turns of phrase. After the reading, we list these on the board. If an image is repeated—and this is often the case—I might circle it, and then ask students to throw out connotations, which I write around that phrase. We go on like this for two or three more phrases. Then I ask the student to read the poem again, and we listen with this new information. Upon listening a second time, and now with the poem in front of them, I’ll ask them to write a short paragraph of what they think the poem means, using specific examples from the text. They do this for seven minutes. Then we get together and discuss their observations and how they made them. I don’t do this kind of exercise every class, but I find it’s a good way to get students into the poetry, and to engage their ears, eyes, and brains (and whatever organ feelings come from—the liver? I’m an early modernist, after all).
Q: Have you noticed a difference between the kinds of pedagogies that work for, say, poetry in the Elizabethan period, and poetry by a contemporary poet like Clare Pollard?
Yes and no, but I think mostly yes. If students are coming to all and any poetry as essentially unfamiliar or difficult, then the processes of familiarizing students with poetry—some of those enumerated above—will be the same. But there is a difference between Elizabethan poetry and contemporary poetry. We write poetry for different reasons and within different social and economic systems. We really don’t have patrons, so if I’m teaching Elizabethan poetry, we need to talk about the world in which poets are writing; we need to talk about diction and Elizabethan aesthetics and coterie culture; we need to find ways to cultivate our historical imaginations in ways we might not need to when we teach contemporary poetry.
I don’t want my students to come away from Elizabethan poetry thinking Sidney and Spenser wrote poems for the same reasons poets do today (or not entirely for the same reasons) though I do want them to think about the legacies such poetry has left us. And then there’s the language. Elizabethan language is not our language, and it really isn’t the student’s language. That said, getting students to read the poetry out loud, to hear it and speak it, helps get the language inside them and gets them inside the language. I might ask them to translate the poems into their own words, and I wouldn’t necessarily do this with Clare Pollard’s work (though I might, because this is yet another way to get students to make the poem their own!)
I think Jordan’s perspective as a scholar of Renaissance literature—a field further removed from our moment than my field of nineteenth century literature—is instructive for non-experts like me who are asked to teach contemporary poetry.
We shouldn’t fear teaching contemporary poets: we should embrace the possibilities afforded to us by working with the words of living artists. As Jordan’s answers show, contemporary poetry allows us to work with words in ways ranging from the formal to the experiential, cultivating skills and habits of mind that are valuable for undergraduates of all disciplines and majors.
James M. Van Wyck is a PhD Candidate in English at Fordham University. His dissertation examines the relationship between the fictions evangelicals read in the nineteenth century and the evangelical life of the mind. His classrooms often incorporate archival research, collaboration, and public-facing projects. He’s written for venues including The New England Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed and is proud of the fine intramural and extramural publications of his students.