Thursday, January 15, 2009
I have been asked by Joshua Marie Wilkinson to contribute to an anthology on teaching poetry, which, given that I work in a classroom maybe once every decade, obviously seems intended as a bit of a provocation. But it’s a good and serious question. Far from being “the easy way out” for writers around the question of how to make a living, I think it’s a difficult and important task, and that the people who take it on are very poorly paid for the work they do.
There are, I think, two very different dynamics involved in the making of a poet. One is learning that you already know everything you need about writing before you even begin. The other is an extended reading of the literature, to understand what has been done, why, and what its implications might be.
The first sounds easy, but is in fact the harder of the two tasks. Many starting writers never solve this problem at all, which means that they’re destined to fail. The difficulty is what happens in that instant between the moment before you even begin and the moment once you’ve begun, into which is inserted every vague notion you may have about what writing is, how it is done, who does it, every conceivable fantasy you might harbor about “being a poet” or “being a novelist.” Before you begin, the blank page or screen is in front of you, absolutely free of any irrevocable marks, literally virgin territory. Once you begin, however, you instantaneously discover yourself burdened with thousands of ghosts and beliefs about what writing is. It’s like trying to swim with a team of elephants on your back. The opportunities for drowning are immense.
Much of the actual process of “learning to write” is involved in examining these beliefs, one at a time, almost as though you were peeling them away. You would be surprised just how many of the things you do as a poet, unconsciously, are in fact decisions you’ve made predicated on these beliefs.
So one of the things I do in a classroom, always, is to work through a series of exercises intended to make people conscious of the decisions they make. This is something I picked up from three of my teachers, Wright Morris, Jack Gilbert & especially William Everson (Brother Antoninus at the time I was his student). Following Everson, I let students know at the start that what they write for my class is not going to feel like their work. It’s going to seem uncomfortable and alien. If it doesn’t, they’re not doing it right. Their discomfort is really an index of how well they’re doing their homework.
I start with the actual physics of writing. How do they do it? On a computer? In a notebook? On a legal tablet? Whatever it might be. I ask them to change this: if they usually work on a computer, try doing it by hand; if they usually work in a notebook, try writing on a PC. Robert Creeley has an interview somewhere in which he recommends this as a mechanism for getting out of writer’s block, and I can see how this exercise might be useful in that circumstance. I recall that once, back when I was a student at
Later, when I was at Berkeley and thinking about writing in prose, I made a point of buying one of those smaller black-bound sketchbooks, the size of a trade paperback, and sat on the roof of our apartment building on Highland Place in Berkeley, usually watching the sun set over downtown San Francisco, constantly writing and rewriting what I hoped someday would become “the perfect” paragraph. Tho I worked on this project years before I would begin Ketjak, there is one (incomplete) sentence in that work taken directly from this project.
Depending on the length of the class, we examine a variety of such variables. Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you have to have silence? Do you like to have music? What kinds? Do you need total solitude? If you use paper, what size, color, etc.? Do you write under the influence, whether it be coffee & tea or something stronger? One can switch one or more, or even all, of these variables and it’s worth looking at the impact of each.
Making students conscious of the terms & conditions of their writing is one step toward making them responsible for every single element on the page or screen or in the air. Do you capitalize at the left margin? If so, do you know why you do so? If you don’t know, why are you doing it? A writer needs to own everything she or he does.
The second task, the extended reading, takes far longer. There are people – Bruce Andrews was one, Rae Armantrout another – who are writing in their mature style very early on, but in both cases you will find that they were voracious readers also. This is where I think that Malcolm Gladwell’s gimmicky 10,000 of work to become good at any one thing, whether or not it’s writing, comes into play. You need to understand the range of poetry that you are seeking to become part of – a process that becomes harder each year as the number of contemporary publishing poets grows – and you need to be able to trace the history of this landscape backwards at least 200 years. I would go further than that myself – I’d argue that you need to know enough middle English to reach Chaucer in the original, and really grasp (a deliberately vague term) your own place within this constellation. If you can’t, you haven’t read enough, written enough, thought hard enough.
To do this, your reading needs shape, which is to say that if you can’t articulate where a poet fits into the universe, their work either is not distinct enough or you haven’t read enough to place them. Conversely, you need to be able to challenge claims that want to lead you astray. Anyone – anyone! – who argues that either Dickinson or Whitman leads you to the
Ultimately the poems you or anyone will write will be the poems you (or anyone) needs. I always think of this as the blind spot in the totality of verse, a place toward which each of us is driven & where we never quite fully arrive.