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Teaching: Poetry Workshops

The primary type of course that I teach at Susquehanna is the poetry workshop, which we hold at the introductory (WRIT 252, previously 250), intermediate (WRIT 353, previously 350), and advanced levels (WRIT 452, previously 450). We have over 160 creative writing majors and all majors must take Introduction to Poetry. In addition, all creative writing majors must take two intermediate level workshops, selecting two of our three genres (poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction) for this requirement. All creative writing majors must also take an advanced workshop and may choose between poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction for this requirement. At the advanced level the student works on a book-length manuscript.

As the only tenure track faculty member devoted entirely to poetry, this sequence is my main responsibility and makes up the bulk of my teaching load. I teach between two and three sections of Introduction to Poetry a year. I offer Intermediate Poetry once a year and Advanced Poetry is offered every other year. I also regularly advise between one and five independent writing projects in poetry. For your reference, syllabi for the most recent iterations of these courses can be found here: Fall 2017 Introduction to Poetry is here; Fall 2017 Intermediate Poetry: Lyric is here; Spring 2017 Advanced Poetry is here and "Language Compost," our class blog, is here.

Because we have so many majors to move through our required sequence, generally all of my workshop students are creative writing majors, with the occasional publishing and editing, English or non-major at the introductory level. Capped at fifteen to sixteen students class sizes are relatively small and I am fortunate that nearly all of my students are genuinely interested in the subject matter of writing. That being said, a number of students come to Introduction to Poetry finding poetry to be as foreign to them as their first course in symbolic logic or chemistry; in addition, many writing majors arrive at Susquehanna quite sure that they are purely novelists and wonder what poetry could have to offer to them. Some of these very same majors (and plenty who come into the major excited about poetry) find that they take to poetry and study all three levels, often repeating a level for the sheer experience of it as well as doing an independent writing project or honors project in poetry with me. Four advanced students have worked with me as a teaching assistant after completing two intermediate-level courses and/or the Advanced Poetry course. My goals for those who do not go on to study poetry is for them to have learned basic elements of the genre and to have understood that acquiring the skill of detailed attention to language required by poetry will serve them well in any form of writing they may do in the future. From novels to memos to briefs to grants to business reports. 

Consistent practice. Creative critique. Larger context. These three structures are the foundations of poetry workshop at all three levels. I have varied what they mean over the years and across levels, but here I will give you a general scope. All creative writing “workshop” classes involve a component where students send around drafts of work for the class to critique verbally (and often also via critique letters). "Workshopping" in this way is a pedagogy that dates back to the first creative writing workshops at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-1930s. As per tradition, students listen closely (without talking) to peer critique and interpretation, then after class, work on revisions. The tradition of creative writing pedagogy emphasizes mentorship and, as my other creative writing colleagues also do, I meet with each student one-on-one in conferences two or three times throughout the semester to guide them in developing their pieces. The strongest and most carefully edited version of each poem ends up in their final portfolio, which ranges from eight to eleven poems (at the intro level) to fourteen to eighteen interrelated poems (at the intermediate level) and a thirty to forty-eight-page manuscript at the advanced level. The workshop process is a wonderful way for distancing the author from his or her work enough to spark enlightened re-vision, and all of our writing majors' creative writing workshop classes include this component. Along with its usefulness in distancing and for practicing giving and receiving constructive criticism, it is also an essentially generous pedagogy, asking students to devote time and energy to seriously considering work that is not their own. 

While the workshop is a main staple, my workshop courses go far beyond this practice to teach students consistent practice and larger context. For several years “consistent practice” at the introductory level has meant that I ask students to write eight sentences a day, every day of the semester, which they fashion into poems. This semester for intro students it means that each Thursday each student has a typed rough draft poem due, based on a specific writing assignment I've developed out of our discussion of the published poetry we have been reading. We pass drafts around the table for feedback and I give a specific revision assignment to the class, also developed out of the published poetry we have been reading. All students then have a typed revised draft due the next class. This pattern happens each week throughout the semester: new drafts Thursdays, revised drafts Tuesdays, and not only encourages discipline but also cultivates the practice of reading poetry as a writer—reading to "reverse engineer" the way a published poem works into a writing or revising exercise that will better one's own poetry. This semester, for “larger context,” students will attend five literary readings by visiting writers and/or senior creative writing majors, writing each visitor or senior a response poem that I will mail, as a class packet, to the guest author or senior writer.

The most successful class I have created thus far in terms of consistent practice, creative critique, and larger context was the intermediate course I gave in fall 2016 on the prose poem, and I’d like to go into some specific details about the course to exemplify the way in which I continue to innovate with my classes, even within the framework of offering the same type of workshop again and again. You will find the syllabus to the course, WRIT 352:01, here. But before I go into detail I would like to provide some context about the goals of all of the intermediate workshops in our curriculum. Our curriculum is designed so that while the introductory courses are aimed at giving an overview of the genre, intermediate workshop courses will give students a granular experience of each genre. As such, at the intermediate level each genre divides into sub-categories. Intermediate poetry is not merely a higher level of poetry where more is expected of each student, but is also focused on either lyric poetry, narrative poetry, or prose poetry—depending on which semester the student takes the course. This structure is matched in the other genres: fiction splits into short short, short story, novella. Creative non-fiction splits into memoir, personal essay, and literary journalism. While intermediate courses in fiction and creative non-fiction have always worked in this diversified way, prior to 2014 we did not have this structure for the poetry track of our program, saving diversification until the advanced level. One of my curricular innovations was suggesting that poetry diversify like the other genres at the intermediate level as well as developing the curriculum for this diversified layer. 

Along with introducing students to a specific category, or facet, of genre, the intermediate level writing course has the goals of reading deeply in the published tradition and of writing pieces that go together in a short collection. For poetry typically the collection is “chapbook” sized, meaning fourteen to eighteen pages. This moves students from focusing only on individual pieces (as in the introductory level) into sequences and in preparation for the book-length manuscript at the advanced level.

For my intermediate workshop on prose poetry I assigned David Lehman's anthology of American prose poetry, which begins with Edgar Allen Poe and ends with poems published in 2000. I also assigned three books of prose poetry as models for how a collection of poetry might cohere. Planning the course I realized that I wanted my students to not only read widely in the prose poetry tradition, but I wanted them to internalize what they found to be the most significant poems. I wanted them to internalize these poems not only once or twice during the course of the semester, but to internalize them as part of their consistent practice. I also wanted them to do this not only by themselves in their notebooks—or for me—but for and with each other.

As such, I came up with a bi-weekly response poem assignment that they posted to our course facebook page along with an image or piece of media from the web that they thought expressed something significant about the poem. Adding additional layers, they also responded to each other’s posts and twice during the semester they presented their post to the class. These class presentations allowed us to talk intimately about the published poem, the student poem, and the various genre conventions of prose poetry. You can read the full assignment here on a document that walks through the facebook post, the commenting process, and the presentation write-up. If you have a facebook account (required for logging in) you are invited to browse our facebook group, “Prose Poems” intentionally made “public,” by our class so that anyone might read the work. If you have a facebook account, click here, and after logging in you will be taken directly to our "Prose Poems" group. I believe this assignment to be a success because it was interactive on so many levels: student writers interacted with published poems, images interacted with text, students interacted with students online and in presentation. It included consistent practice, creative critique, and larger context. Furthermore, the public nature of the posts led students to write and think at their highest level. This seemed to me to be the case even for the couple of students who I knew were taking the course less out of a love for poetry and more from a need to fulfill that last-minute requirement. 

The second assignment I will share with you here is the chapbook and poetry reading component of the course. I have been using this form of the culminating intermediate-level project since 2014 and it is successful every time. For their final project students not only gather together 14-18 poems that are related, but they typeset and print their books; design and create their covers; and produce two copies of a hand-made chapbook of their work. As a class we work on the covers and I teach the students simple bookbinding techniques to hold their collections together. One copy of the book we keep on display in the Writers Institute, the other copy they take home. On the last day of class students read from their books in the art gallery. During finals week they compile an appendix portfolio of drafts and self-reflections, analyzing the process of putting together their books and discussing the decisions they made for their covers (which are not graded on artistic ability, but on thought). While the books themselves are meant to be held in the hand, I have scanned one of the books so that you can see an approximation of the final project here.

This assignment was inspired by a component of our senior writing major capstone project: a chapbook of best work and a reading in the art gallery. It also takes inspiration from the chapbook contest I invented not long after coming to Susquehanna when I revamped our Small Press Publishing course. For this course the class forms a small press that selects, edits, and produces hand-bound chapbooks of peer work. (The syllabus for my most recent version of Small Press Publishing is from spring of 2014 and can be found here; this is a course we now share, evolve, and revolve among several instructors in my department and my syllabus reflects my colleagues' innovations as well as my own.) Incorporating this publishing component into the poetry workshop provides a method for getting closer to the modernist model of the creative writer who actively participates in bringing writing into the world on a material level. While I was optimistic about the assignment when I first used it in 2014, I was surprised to discover what a large impact taking the time to design and create a book seems to have on students, their poems, and their relationship to the writing process. Just as the facebook assignment brought each writer up to their best level, the chapbook assignment has a similar effect. Investment and engagement breeds investment and engagement. Making books out of their collections and participating in a community reading in the gallery transforms the final project from something that feels rather theoretical (this would be a book if it were published) and done mostly for a grade into something actual, something lived: this is a book because I made it so

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