While the majority of my teaching has focused on undergraduate poetry courses at Susquehanna University, one of my most formative experiences occurred during the creative non-fiction course I offered at the Etövös Collegium Honors College in Budapest during my sabbatical during fall 2012. On the first day of class my Hungarian students read a short memoir published by a Susquehanna student in Essay, our campus literary magazine for creative non-fiction. The piece focused on the memoirist’s father, an alcoholic, and included passages where the writer had sex with her boyfriend in her car. Hungary is quite a Catholic country and I was curious to see how students would process the young American writer’s sexual experiences. As it turned out, students were not at all surprised by the sex, but they were surprised that an average college-aged person in the United States would own a car—and they were shocked that a young writer would write about a family member’s private affairs in a published forum. Their bewilderment over this and over the idea that there might be an audience for ordinary people’s private lives stood out in sharp contrast with my American students who often come to love the confessional poets and flock to our workshops on the memoir.
Throughout the semester I came to understand the cultural reasons behind my Hungarian students’ reaction to particular genres and writing assignments. During communism neighbors informed on each other to the state police and privacy of home-life is a serious matter—even for these students who were born after 1989. In addition, Hungarian literature is full of patriotic poet-heroes who are a far cry from the ordinary twenty-first-century university student, particularly if that student is female. While my Hungarian students had an extensive knowledge of literature and liked, themselves, to write, many did not feel they had the permission and authority to do so, particularly since creative writing is very rarely taught in school and is most often fostered by literary family members and friends.
The reason this experience was so transformative is that it caused me to realize that back in the United States my students’ relationship to writing was equally culturally composed and complex. While I had comprehended this intellectually, only after encountering this truth in a different cultural context—where it was so vivid for me—did I came to respect its significance. As I thought further, I became troubled that I had not put enough consideration into the relationship my students have with the role of authorship. This seemed particularly relevant given the diverse student population of Susquehanna, with our many first-generation college students who seem particularly anxious about majoring in something "practical." But even students who are not first-generation feel this pressure and in the twenty-first century it surely would be absurd to tell one's parents one had decided to become a poet...or even just that one had "gotten into" poetry. What might empower my students to feel confident as authors, regardless of their backgrounds or aspirations for future poet-hood? What models might inspire them to explore diverse facets of their cultural moment and their lives?
Compounding this, while our students come from a diversity of backgrounds, as is typical of the average eighteen-year-old American, the majority of the students who take my Introduction to Poetry workshop have not read much poetry. At most they have read some Shakespeare, a few of the British Romantics, ee cummings and, in some cases, the Beat poets and spoken word poetry. While these are admirable beginnings to an education in poetry they are limited in many ways: when a freshman student sits down to write, which of these writers has the ability to stand before her as a model? What subject matters and points of view does she feel are legitimate and appropriate to voice? Exposure to the rich and diverse offerings of contemporary writing strengthens student’s relationships to their own writing and goes hand in hand with developing accomplished and engaged work. The foundation for this development is, of course, taking each student seriously as a writer and thinker and creating a class environment supportive of their efforts. But the question of how to accomplish deeper cultural awareness while building individual authority is continually before me, and focuses differently depending on the course, course-level, and students.
In both creative writing and literature courses I work towards these goals by assigning a diverse list of authors who address cultural complexity with their work; by giving process-oriented writing assignments that invite students to use their cultural contexts as material; and by focusing on craft to provide a common platform for workshop and class discussions. In addition, one-on-one mentoring is essential to fostering each writer’s sense of permission to write from the whole of their lives, and from an array of traditions. For example, a recent Introduction to Poetry workshop class read Terrance Hayes’s book How to be Drawn, a collection that centers around identity and representation, focusing on African-American identity and its articulation in the media and in the arts. This book opens up the question of culture’s role in subject formation as well as elements of process and craft: many of these poems are ekphrastic, and Hayes uses a number of innovative forms that create striking patterns on the page. Students used Hayes’s work as a model for their own poems, “translating” his approach to cultural forces into their own contexts, and drawing on visual art and media representations of aspects of their own identity that often fall into stereotype. At the end of each workshop the class gave each student poet a suggestion for form inspired by Hayes’s innovations. In addition, one-on-one conferences with students provided time and space for me to listen to the larger contexts they are drawing upon so that I can help them articulate themselves more deeply on the page. Activities such as these connect students with the work of diverse contemporary poets and provide an opportunity to develop craft-elements of poetry while exploring aspects of identity.
Along with this exposure to published poetry from a diversity of subject positions—proof that all humans have the authority to be a writer—is the importance of individually connecting students to writers that feel like family to them. One-on-one conferences are essential to this connection. At the introductory level I work with each student to develop a vocabulary to talk about how the student engages the page and the student's aesthetic and beyond-the-page interests. At the intermediate level I work with students to craft a reading list of authors who speak to their sensibility. At the advanced level students work on longer projects that develop themes across a longer body of work. These projects are always infused with the larger context of students’ lives and I work to help them develop projects that are both exploratory and finely crafted. At all levels, each class culminates in the opportunity for students to share their work with the greater campus community. Intro-level students create a class anthology, while intermediate students create handmade chapbooks archived in our department and perform a public class reading. Seniors participate in our senior reading series held in the campus art gallery. These events bolster students’ concept of self as author—as an author who not only has the authority and tools to create, but who also has the responsibility and opportunity to share her or his work with a larger community. These goals may be slightly utopian, but what I work towards in these moments is the realization that the "other" isn't someone you read about in the newspaper but is your fellow creative writer reading his, her, or their poems at the podium.
These concerns around authority are also significant in activities outside of the classroom such as the editorial processes of campus literary journals as well as the visiting writers reading series—activities that are crucial for a vibrant literary community. I consider these activities to be extensions of the work I do in the classroom, helping to make sure our visiting writers represent a diversity of voices and that students have meaningful interactions with these writers via question-and-answer sessions and class visits. The college experience has the potential to expand the way students assess their own authority, and also holds the possibility to transform the way they see who should have access to authorship, fostering the desire to build a community—a society—where all people have the privilege of being taken seriously as writers, as human subjects who have a voice.
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