Monday, February 6, 2012

Going long in verse

In the fall of 2010 I taught a course on novel writing to 15 undergraduates at the University of Central Arkansas. Or rather I was the faciliator of the semester space that allowed them all to finish first drafts of novels in the span of just a few months. It was a powerful, mind-opening experience, one that taught me a lot about the limitations of the conventional workshop and the need for our creative writing "system" to be open to allowing students to pursue longer forms. As I quickly found out, other teachers had been thinking the same thing and trying their own experiments in their own undergraduate classes. I heard from some of them in response to my blog entry. And I was honored to be interviewed on writer/teacher Cathy Day's own blog, The Big Thing.

The experience got me thinking about other ways in which we college teachers of creative writing could and should encourage our students in their ambitions to "go long." One of these ways, it occurred to me, was to run a course on the long poem, a form that is at least as discriminated against and underutilized in the workshop as is the novel. If you've ever taken a poetry writing workshop, ask yourself: Did anyone bring in anything longer than 2 pages? 1 page even? I'm betting the answer is no. Given my master's degree is in poetry writing (strange but true, I know), and given how much I enjoy working with students on poetry--despite my own current and longtime emphasis on writing fiction--I decided to propose a Topics in Creative Writing course that focused on the production of long poems.

Did that mean I would make the kids write epics? No, of course not. I decided, arbitrarily, that I would define "long poem" as anything 8 pages or more. And I decided to require students to submit four poems of 8-15 pages length. Additionally, if they wanted to make each assignement an installment on what would eventually be a 30-60 page poem, that was fine. So they kinda sorta could write an epic if they wanted to. Finding a textbook was tricky, but I did locate an actual long poem anthology (The New Long Poem Anthology from Talon), a book that features Canadian poets exclusively, many of them--let me say--doing very fine work. It's a superb text. Sniffing around the bookfair at AWP last year, I was shown a book called Collected Longer Poems by Hayden Carruth. I liked the idea of reading in depth one poet's lifelong engagement with the form combined with the survey quality that the anthology provides, so when book orders were due I ordered the Carruth book too.

Now the class is up and running, and the students are bravely taking up the challenge. I heard some rather big gulps when I told them they were going to have to write 8 page poems--more gulps than when I told my novel class they would finish novels in one semester--but we had our first "workshop" session the other night and everyone, every single student, posted his poems to the class web site days in advance, as required. And the peer group discussions were gratifyingly animated. (Btw, I put myself in a peer group and submitted an 8-pager of my own.) I've assigned them, I think, rather too much reading--given the necessarily slower pace of reading poetry--but so far they've kept up with that too. This class is still a work-in-progress, but I think it's going to turn out great. While some students are there simply because they feel comfortable with me as a teacher, others are there because they really are looking forward to the opportunity for engagement in the longer form, something that's never been encouraged or allowed them. Similar to my novel class, half our class time each week will given over to simple (or not so simple) composing, and I'm forgoing the usual workshopping routine for small peer group discussions. (I'll explain more about that on a later post.) It's brand new territory for me as a teacher, just as it is for them as students, but so far we're having a good time keeping our heads above water.

I will surely let you know how it goes.

Speaking of The Workshop: Anyone interested in an animated discussion on the pros and cons of traditional workshopping as well as MFA programs should check out this recent item in the Huffington Post.


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