Writers on Teaching: Kyle Minor

Our last installment of the education discussion from our 2013 Newsletter features Kyle Minor, author of Praying Drunk (2/14). A big thank you to all contributors who made this Spring issue possible!

SB: 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?

KM: I had a few good teachers, and what they offered me was a kind of catalog of what other writers had already shown to be possible, and also a kind of analytical toolbox that enabled me to find new solutions to problems raised in my writing, including solutions different in some way from solutions other writers had found, by understanding how things were working at a technical level, and then hybridizing other solutions, or turning the logic that served some other thing inside-out, so it could serve my thing. They also helped save me time by showing me some ways of working that aren’t profitable, and they pointed me toward good stories and books I hadn’t read.

A person makes himself or herself into a writer, and it’s a lot easier if you have some good voices in your ear in the beginning.

As to the question of what the purpose of the writing is going to be, or what kind of writing it’s going to be, or what writing’s place in the culture is going to be, I think all of that belongs rightly to the individual writer, and there isn’t any one right answer. A good teacher probably knows that, too, although of course we all have our own prejudices and predilections, me included, and it doesn’t hurt anybody to be honest about what I think is good, and why I think it’s good.

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 lay the foundation? How do you make the jump to DFW and Zadie Smith?

Read everything, I say.

Is there something then that you’re “looking” for in contemporary work before adding it to the syllabus? Certainly bias must come into 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?

I try to offer a broad range of stylistic, structural, and technical approaches in the stories I choose to offer, because it gives us a chance to talk about the range of possibility implied by the choices. In all of these things, I hope to communicate, explicitly and implicitly, that freedom is advisable, and that technical knowledge and aptitude is one path toward freedom.

With student considerations in mind, would you say that mentoring relationships flourish in an academic community? That is professor-to-student mentoring as well as teacher-to-teacher.

There are as many answers to that question as there are academic communities, individuals within them, and relationships among those individuals. I have had a few good mentors, and I’ve also enjoyed helping others in the ways in which I was helped.

I think that the words academic and literary and genre and art, and so on, are words that are politically charged, and which don’t mean the same things to all the different people who use them. In general, I think that Zadie Smith was right when she declared that literature is a big tent, and that there is room for all sorts of circus acts beneath it. As a teacher, I’m hoping to find students who are chasing good work of whatever sort appeals to the student, and that no one will be limited by anything so small as some imported idea of what it means to be literary, even as I hope that all the work, whatever label might attach to it, will aspire to great power, whether that power is intellectual or aesthetic or emotional or historical or pure cane molasses sugar. 

Writers on Teaching: Thomas Heise

SB: 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?

TH: My experience has been that students are driven to write out of an “authentic” voice, rather than write for entertainment purposes. Which raises a whole other set of challenges, since “authenticity” easily gets coded in clichéd rhetoric and styles that are passed off as true. I’m highly suspicious of claims to “authenticity” by writers and artists, because they are usually grounded, though not acknowledged as such, in unexamined assumptions about “the natural” and unmediated life experience. I find students love Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg because they think they give them “the real thing,” sexual desire, longing, alienation in all of their rawness. But too often, they don’t understand how that affective response is generated on the page. And so “authenticity” ends up getting asserted, rather than earned. At the other pole, postmodern playfulness and delight in artifice has its own suburban cul-de-sacs lined with geometrical front yards. Teaching can point some of this out, but it’s a delicate negotiation one must make between honoring the unabashed nerve to write in the first place and cultivating awareness that writing is always a form of rewriting.

What makes a writer a writer? Obsession and diligence to turn those obsessions into form. I’m not sure either can be taught, but a context can be created in which both get to breathe.

What I stress in workshop is that our job as respondents is first and foremost to say back to writers in the class what it is that we see and hear in their work. Our job really isn’t to correct the work. That will all sort itself out in the long run. Those who don’t want to be writers or don’t have the chops for it will stop writing eventually. A large percentage of MFA grads go on to other lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m vigilant about the tendency to sand down the rough edges of a new piece of writing in order to make it less complex, more formally cohesive, and easier to digest in the space of a workshop session. I honor messiness, difficulty, and risk. And that’s different from letting sloppy work pass through our hands or valuing the raw as a sign of the authentic.

Writing workshops are at their best when they make students conscious of their stylistic quirks and thematic obsessions. Not to eliminate them, but to give students choices in regards to them. To turn up the dial higher or lower, if desired. Ultimately your style is your obsession encoded in the lexicon, image banks, and forms that you return to time and again in a compulsion to repeat. But your imagination—if you feed it—will also find new ways to slip past the forms by which you give it expression, which will keep your work always pressing against the boundaries of the workshop community or the tastes of editors.

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 lay the foundation? How do you make the jump to DFW and Zadie Smith?

I teach contemporary literature for any numbers of reasons. Because I want to share with students the books that have captured my imagination and I think bear reading, re-reading, and analyzing. Because I want to promote a writer in whom I believe. Because the best of contemporary literature mediates the abstract, inchoate, and seemingly random events of early twenty-first-century life and allows us to feel, see, and understand what is otherwise invisible, un-representable, pervasive but diffusive and unorganized.

But why stop at Joyce, Stein, or Pound? Why not step back on the airport’s moving sidewalk to Dostoevsky, Dickinson, and Rimbaud? And before them? Augustine and Sappho? One can get into a game of infinite regress. But pretty quickly you run into purely pragmatic problems—the shortness of the semester, the limitations of your own expertise, the desire for a cohesive reading list.

If I’m teaching literature to writing students, rather than literature students, my goals are different. For the former, I want us to learn to see what made or makes a writer new, disruptive, and challenging, not what has made him or her a part of tradition, or an authority, or a sage. I want my students to see what was radical and innovative about Whitman or Thomas Bernhard, not so they can do the same thing—God forbid—but so they can do something different.

Is there something then that you’re “looking” for in contemporary work before adding it to the syllabus? Certainly bias must come into 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?

Most contemporary work is mediocre. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because most of anything in any period isn’t very good.

Occasionally I assign a novel or book of poetry not because I’m enthralled with it, but because it brings to the class a set of issues about form and politics that are worth debating. A formally or aesthetically “flawed” book—whatever that might mean in a given instance—is often interesting to teach not in spite of its problems, but because of them.

At the end of every semester, I ask my students what books on the syllabus they found to be the most worthy of study, which one or two they would replace, and what titles they would add. I listen and make adjustments, because I’m truly interested in what speaks to students who are a generation removed from me in time. That information all gets filtered through many layers, however, including the curricular needs of my department, my desire to provide historical coverage and diversity on the syllabus, and other considerations too. But I don’t simply cater to the taste of students in order to increase demand, like a restaurant manager who changes the menu because the locals want sour cream rather than crème fraîche.  “Less Ashbery with my two helpings of Plath, please!”

With student considerations in mind, would you say that mentoring relationships flourish in an academic community? That is professor-to-student mentoring as well as teacher-to-teacher.

I can’t speak for other academic communities. I imagine in small, elite liberal arts colleges where every Friday there are cocktails it might be different. I teach in a large research institution. New professors fly solo for the most part, which was fine for me when I arrived. Everyone is so busy cranking out material at the Publish or Perish Sweatshop that who has time except to hand you the keys to your office and mention that there’s also a bathroom on the third floor in case there are too many students in the main one. Professor-to-student mentoring: there is a lot of that and it can be incredibly rewarding, especially if I’m advising intellectually curious undergraduate and graduate students. They’re the ones who make teaching an amazing pleasure.

MOTH; or how I came to be with you again, Thomas Heise
12.00

MOTH is an adventurous book-length project, best described as a “poetic narrative.” In columnar, densely lyrical sections, it’s built around a mystery: the story of a young man who is trying to fuse together his present and past, pieces of which include abandonment by his parents, his childhood in an orphanage, and a sense of disconnection from his adult life.

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

 

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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
14.95

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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Writers on Teaching: Lauren Shapiro and Critical Thinking

For me, teaching and writing have always been related; though while working on Easy Math, I wasn’t teaching poetry or even creative writing. I was variously teaching remedial English composition, ESL, Research Writing, College Preparatory, and Critical Thinking. In essence, I was teaching classes I never had to take, and many of my students were first generation undergraduates or they didn’t speak or write English fluently. I was in the position to help them gain basic important writing and thinking skills.

The experience heightened the weirdness I felt about the world—here I was living in Wisconsin, of all places, talking about diagramming sentences and FANBOYS (coordinating conjunctions) to students who were desperately clinging to the coattails of what they imagined to be the American Dream. It was an abrupt transition from working toward an MFA and discussing poetry and poetics with like-minded people.

Walking into class, I often felt that I was entering a poem written in the Surrealist tradition. Sometimes the only bridge I could build was by using pop culture icons as examples for concepts I was teaching. So Britney Spears has this new song out, right? This changed me in a number of ways.

Most immediately, I began to consider more fully the education system in America—whom it served and why—and it made me think about logic in general, or the lack thereof, in contemporary America. This entered heavily into the content of my poetry, while also changing my worldview significantly, which is a more oblique way of entering a poem.

Now I teach creative writing to more privileged students at a small liberal arts college on the East Coast. It’s surreal again, in a different way. There’s the clichéd saying that you learn as much from your students as you teach them, and while it’s odd to quantify learning in that way, what I took away, and what entered my work, was a new sensibility based on the varied experiences of the students around me.

Easy Math, Lauren Shapiro
14.95

Aesop stood on end, Shapiro’s poems tells wry fables that defy our instinct to find a moral to the story. “There are an infinite number of ways to torture the soul with hopefulness” she tells us, so instead we have ways to survive—crooked grins, twisted logic, and equations of jello shots, amusement parks, and post-it notes that never add up.

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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