Writers on Teaching

Writers on Teaching: Kiki Petrosino

We’ve seen an influx of poets and prose writers obtaining their Creative Writing MFA and it’s worth asking again, can writing be taught? Beyond journal entries and tweets, how do you teach a student whose sole exposure to contemporary writing is popular or commercial offerings to write beyond entertainment?

I believe that writing is a practice that you refine over a lifetime. Taking a creative writing course, joining an informal writing group, or just following prompts on your own can help you develop new skills that you can use in future projects. Process comes before product, and yes, you can develop and improve your practice.

Example: this semester, I showed my students excerpts from the 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which traces the career of 85 year-old Japanese sushi master, Jiro Ono. There’s this incredible montage that shows Jiro and his apprentices preparing for an evening service at the restaurant. There are apprentices washing rice, others carefully slicing fish, and still others just stacking plates and chopsticks. Everything takes place on the scale of a human hand. One piece of sushi at a time. With each piece, the sushi master strives for perfection. As a writer, you are not writing “all of the literature,” just like Jiro is not making ALL of the sushi. You are just working on one piece at a time. And the things you do in that creative process—your research, pre-writing, even your Tweets and journal entries—add up to something. In essence: it’s your practice that makes it possible for you to write the next piece.

In the same vein, why teach contemporary literature? Arguably, students often haven’t even had a fair exposure to Joyce, Stein or Pound. How do you make the jump to DFW and Zadie Smith? How do you lay the foundation?

Students can and should be voracious readers of canonical and contemporary texts. When it comes to my own teaching, I see no reason to keep the most innovative or complicated “new” texts out of the classroom; I start right in on them. I try to find projects for which students can discern the author’s process. Something like Anne Carson’s book-length elegy Nox, for example, engages directly with classical elegies AND with questions of translation, while presenting a personal account of grief. Everyone can relate to the emotions that might cause an artist to create a project like Nox; in class, we identify the special tools that Carson uses in her unique interpretation of elegaic form. We go from there.

Is there something you’re “looking” for in contemporary work before adding it to the syllabus? Certainly bias must come in to play but how do you decide on just a few titles to teach for a few months? And what about the dreaded year-end review when you discover everyone hated the required short-story collection?

As stated above, I look for contemporary work that displays a clear source of inspiration and/or a recognizable conceptual framework. Many of my literature students have never read a book of poetry before entering my classroom, and in my surveys, I teach 7-9 single-authored collections in a semester! Those collections better be awesome, because they must catch and keep the student’s interest. Luckily, there is so much wonderful work to choose from. Poetry that takes inspiration from history is a great way to introduce the genre to new students. Books like Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, and Shane McCrae’s In Canaan are just three examples of recent projects by African American poets that unfold the painful legacies of race in America. They start with history and develop unique, individualized speakers that take the reader on a journey. Not every reader will enjoy every book; that’s OK. The key is to remain open-minded and to appreciate what the poet is trying to do.

In speaking of the opportune, would you say that mentoring relationships flourish under such an academic community? That is Professor to student mentoring as well as teacher-to-teacher.

Poetry has always had a strange relationship to the academy. Poets flourish in university settings, and the artistic freedom we enjoy in that context is immense. At the same time, it can be difficult to establish the kind of relationships—i.e., friendships—that you might find outside the ivory tower. Who knows why? Perhaps it just comes down to having enough time to attend to all of your academic responsibilities. As a poet, I have always sought friendships with other poets. My education takes place in coffee shops AND in classrooms. I encourage my students to take the same approach. Your best teachers are, often, your friends.

Hymn for the Black Terrific, Kiki Petrosino

Petrosino offers us wildly inventive lyrics that take as launch pad allergenesis, the contents and significance of swamps, a revised notion of marriage, and ancestors—both actual and dreamed. The eponymous second section storms through Chinese delicacies, doubts, and confident proclamations from regions of an exploratory self. Hymn for the Black Terrific is a book of pure astonishment.

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author herself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education

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