In the poetry workshop, it is important for students to be not only writers, but readers. Because young writers often lack models for what contemporary poetry can accomplish, I ask students to read a range of contemporary voices, including Kim Addonizio, Kevin Young, Matthew Dickman, Rae Armantrout, Matthea Harvey, Charles Wright, and Lucille Clifton. By assigning a range of contemporary voices and styles, I give students a set of possibilities and a frame of references through which they can begin to establish their own voices as participants in an ongoing aesthetic conversation. Additionally, through discussing the work of established poets, students develop a critical and craft-oriented vocabulary with which to discuss their own and their classmates’ writing, leading to more fruitful workshop and revision experiences.
While teaching craft is important in any creative writing workshop, good writing is more than a mastering of technique; rather, students must also cultivate a curiosity about the world around them. I believe it is possible to teach not only the craft of writing, but also how to recognize the elements from which writing is inspired. Students must learn not only to use the tools, but to develop the materials. Because so much poetry that young writers encounter and produce is confessional and private, I emphasize the need for writers to look beyond their own experiences and ideas for source material. I ask students to consider diverse subjects and areas of inspiration, such as history, science, medicine, art, or music, as a way of opening them up to new experiences. In addition to asking students to read contemporary poetry texts, I ask them to study a secondary subject area of interest, to learn as much as they can, and to use this source material in some way to create poems. Students’ poems become more dynamic, and students also learn to take agency for their own inspiration and learning beyond the classroom, while the act of writing poems deepens their appreciation for the original source material.
In the literature classroom, I attempt to situate pieces of writing in a theoretical and historical framework for students while also challenging their ideas of writing as fixed and unchanging in meaning by creating connections across genres, cultures, and time frames. I asked students in a world literature survey course, many of whom were not humanities majors, to read a selection from Coming of Age in Mississippi and Persepolis to discuss themes of oppression, resistance, and how larger cultural contexts shape individual experiences. By challenging student notions of what literature is, I ask students to critically examine not only a piece of writing, but the framework in which it is considered, leading to a more nuanced understanding of the processes by which we judge literature. Students develop more flexible critical thinking skills, and take ownership of their scholarship by recognizing their ability to question existing interpretations and become participants in creating meaning, rather than passive receivers.
In both creative writing and literature classes, revision is an integral part of not only the writing process, but the learning process as well. To emphasize revision, I include a portfolio aspect in each course. In a poetry course, students create a final collection of their own work with a critical introduction, while in a literature course students may create a portfolio of revised response papers written over the course of the semester. By asking students to reconsider their work, they can deepen their understanding of the concepts they discuss as well as the ways in which they express those concepts.