Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Failing Less: Teaching Poetry in Composition Classrooms

I've spent nearly eight years teaching college composition classes and through that experience I've had many failures and many successes. At this point, I feel pretty confident. I'm never the teacher they are expecting (I'm younger, funnier, gayer, etc.) and I use that to my advantage. My goal is to make them hate writing less and to understand that all writing is a process and takes time. You aren't simply born a great writer or born a bad one. It takes work, which is not how most of them view writing coming into the classroom. I also provide them with a wide range of examples that they actually connect with and care about (most comp books are simply terrible in this category, so I do a lot of photocopying). I've recently been using a piece from The New Yorker about Rihanna. I'd much rather they debate the stardom of a pop singer than give me another poorly written essay about abortion or why weed should be legalized, and quite honestly, I care more about Rihanna than weed or abortion.

Teaching essay writing has become almost second nature to me, but when I bring poetry into the composition classroom things often crumble, which might seem odd, as I'm a published poet. With the exception of a pop culture poetry class that I designed and taught at Florida State (which went well), my other poetry teaching experience has been in traditional comp classes and hasn't always been so great. During the semester, I take a class period and do some poetry with the students. The goal is to get them exposed to contemporary poetry and to have them see that much of what we discuss about essay writing can apply to creative writing. They are often shocked to discover that poets do research and revise.

As a whole, I'm not a very naive person or teacher (direct, realistic, a little bitchy? yes, yes, and yes), but on poetry days I'm suddenly some save-the-world-Teach-for-America type. I enter with the belief that I'm going to get them all to fall in love with poetry. Five or maybe ten minutes into the class, I suddenly turn bitter and regret everything I've decided to do. I spend the rest of the class wishing for a fire drill, or a bomb threat, or any reason to abandon the building and forget I ever brought up poetry.

My intentions are good, but I know the majority of people don't really like poetry and most read so little of it that they become like deer in the headlights when asked about a poem. Poetry has become something to fear and when we fear something we grow to hate it. Students have been force feed "correct interpretations" of literature in high school, which have left them bitter and feeling stupid. Even though I'm coming at it from a different angle, they don't trust that I'm not about to make them all into fools.

My standard approach is to begin class by asking them what they associate with poetry and what poets they know. This results in them shouting out words like "rhyming," "love," "death," "Shakespeare," "Robert Frost," "Dr. Suess," and on a slightly better day "Plath," "Dickinson," and "all poems don't have to rhyme." Sometimes a student raises his/her hand to say "I didn't know anyone wrote poetry anymore." I then go on to address the issues they have raised and tell them that we are going to look at some contemporary poetry as a class. This is when things begin the downward spiral. This is mostly my fault. How do you select just a few poems to read in class to showcase contemporary poetry to students who think the last person to write one lived over a hundred years ago? This task proves difficult. I've tried a lot of different poets, but they rarely connect with the students.

Of course, I'm being a bit dramatic and hard on myself. Yes, some like the poems. Yes, some might decide to pick up a poetry book sometime because of something I mentioned. But most stare at me blankly and part of me can't blame them.

Actually, this isn't all my fault. It's partly the fault of the poetry community. We've once again spent April celebrating National Poetry Month, but how many new readers did we get? Wasn't most of the month spent talking to other poets or poets reading each other's work? We are a rather incestuous group. Most outsiders don't see the diversity of the poetry world because they aren't in it. They connect poetry with the mostly white, mostly old poets who win big prizes or are named Poet Laureate. Even if a slightly diverse poet gets a public moment, it is often for one of their tamer poems. If this is the face of poetry in America, I can't blame my students for not wanting to hear me out.

Perhaps it is all of this in the back of my head that makes me freeze up as a teacher on poetry days. I want them to know that there's more to poetry than Billy Collins or Philip Levine or Sharon Olds or Kay Ryan (who even puts me to sleep) and that people of all ages, colors, classes, sexual orientations, genders, etc. write poetry, and that poetry can be funny, entertaining, dark, mysterious, and full of pop culture, sex, and jokes. I want them to see what I love about poetry.  

All of this was on my mind the last few days as I prepared for yet another one of my poetry attempts. I decided to try a new idea that I got from an AWP panel run by fellow poet and comp teacher Jessie Carty. One of the presenters, Tawnysha Greene, suggested bringing in a bag full of poetry books and having students spend time looking through them and selecting a poem to share with the class (Jessie does this too). This seemed like a good way to achieve my goals without the pressure of deciding poems for the whole class to read.

I began class the same way by asking them about their associations with poetry. Next I spoke just a bit about contemporary poetry and then wheeled over a cart of 32 books I'd brought from home (all of them published in the last twenty years). I told the eight students who showed up to class to get up and start looking through the books. They weren't sure at first, but quickly started grabbing volumes and searching through. I heard a few bursts of laughter and a few gasps, which gave me some encouragement.

I asked them to write out a short response to the poem and then we took turns reading the poems aloud. It took them awhile to decide and even longer to write down a short response. As they worked, I had some nervous moments like when one student came up to me after about twenty minutes and pointed to a Kim Addonizio poem and said, "is this a poem?" Her eyes were wide and her voice was accusatory. It was as if she thought I'd created some scavenger hunt or put in trick books. I assured her that all the books were full of poems. I'm not sure she believed me, but she sat back down and continued on with her assignment.

As the students read their selected poems and explained what they liked about them, I realized this was a perfect way to introduce contemporary poetry to students. I wasn't judging them or telling them they were right or wrong. I was just listening. They picked interesting and diverse poems. I gave the power of selection to them. I made them into readers of poetry for just two hours. I don't know that I got any more of them to care than I have in other classes, but I left the classroom feeling better and less like a failure.

Teaching poetry to those interested in poetry is completely different than bringing poetry to general education courses like English Composition. While I often feel like I'm failing, I still believe in the value of introducing new people to poetry. I don't write poetry simply for other poets to read or to win some award (I realize that now I've been a finalist for two poetry awards, so this may hold less weight, but I promise that's not what I think about when I write). If I did, I'd probably write very different poems. I write to engage with an audience and I'd like that audience to be as diverse as possible.

-Stephen (Teaching)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Learning Curve

As a writer, it can sometimes be difficult to discuss your work with your family or for your family to understand the literary world, if they are outside it. I've found this to be true in my experience. Most of my family are not great readers of poetry and I know that my subject matter might make some of them uncomfortable. I also rely a lot on my own experiences, which can add to the discomfort. This can lead to odd conversations, but it mostly results in very little discussion. Everyone knows I write. Everyone knows my book came out. I've gotten the obligatory congratulations and my mother has made some more direct comments about the book and asks me about new work from time to time. I'm not sure if other family members have even read the whole book.

It can be frustrating that something you love and work hard at doesn't necessarily get as much recognition as say having a kid or buying a new house (normal things). But, at times, I also understand how the poetry world can be intimating and how many simply don't know what to say.

In March, when my book was named a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award and for the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry, I realized that the ceremony for the Thom Gunn Award was during the week that my parents had already planned a trip to New York (their first). I told them about the awards and they were excited, but, again, I'm not sure they fully grasped what it meant. They'd never heard of either award before I was named a finalist.

My parents arrived last Saturday and spent all week with my partner and me. Their visits are always fun and since they'd never been to New York, we took them everywhere. They were real troopers and did more walking than ever before and they truly loved the city.

On Thursday, I took them to the Triangle Awards and to my surprise the evening really connected with them. For maybe the first time, they understood what I've accomplished and it made everything a little more real. Of course, they are proud of me. I'm their son, but on this night they seemed to really realize that we were in a room full of very accomplished writers and publishers and that my very first book (published when I was just 29) had been recognized and named one of four finalists.

My parents were both born in the early 1950s and were raised in Indiana, where they lived until just four years ago when they moved to Houston, Texas. They have always supported me and my partner and I love them for that. They've also always supported my interest in writing. This support, however, hasn't always come with full understanding. At the Triangle Awards, they not only saw the significance of my accomplishments, but they also realized more and more that there's a lot of history in the gay community that they know nothing about.

After the awards ceremony, my mother mentioned how she didn't know anything about Stonewall (which had been mentioned in a speech). She was fascinated and the next day we took them by the bar. Then on Friday evening, while I taught class, my partner had them watch Milk. In one week, they not only learned all about New York City, they also got a real glimpse into the literary world and learned some gay history.

I might have lost the Thom Gunn Award to Richard Blanco, but I had a pretty amazing night and I'm glad my parents were there to see it.

-Stephen (Honored)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Fortunate Poet: The Poetry of Bryan Borland

A few years ago, I got an email from a guy named Bryan Borland who wrote to say how much he enjoyed a few of my poems that had been published in a journal. Little did I know that this Bryan Borland would go on to change my life and revitalize the gay poetry world. When Bryan sent me that email, neither of us had books and Sibling Rivalry didn't exist. From that email, a mutual respect and friendship began that led to many amazing things for both of us.

Bryan is now widely known as the mastermind behind Sibling Rivalry Press, which has published some of the best young poets writing today. The press is growing constantly (including some fiction) and gaining great recognition. This includes the recent recognition my book received as a finalist for the Thom Gunn Poetry Award and for the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. Somehow Bryan has made a lot happen in a really short amount of time. I don't think he sleeps.

While his work as an editor and publisher is clearly impressive, he's also written two books of poems. His most recent collection, Less Fortunate Pirates, came out in late 2012. His talent as a poet can easily get lost in all of his other accomplishments. This is partly due to Bryan's great generosity and his constant praise and promotion of his authors. Consider this my attempt to payback some of that praise and generosity.

I was luckily enough to read an early draft of Less Fortunate Pirates, which is a series of poems dealing with the sudden death of Bryan's father. The final product is truly some of the best poems I've read on the subject of grief. They are honest, raw, and cover the vast emotions that come with loss. This isn't an easy topic to write about, yet Bryan makes it look easy.

In many ways, all of us at Sibling Rivalry Press are connected to this story of Bryan and his father. Those more familiar with the press or Bryan will already know this, but many of my readers might not. On December 10, 2009 (a few months after Bryan sent me that first email), his father gave him $1,000.00 to start Sibling Rivalry Press. Ten days later, Bryan's father was killed when his vehicle left a one-lane bridge and plunged into a lake. That money helped build the press that is now flourishing.

Less Fortunate Pirates takes the reader through the first year of Bryan's life without his father. What I loved about the book is how it doesn't try to say the right thing. It questions everything. There's dreamlike moments, psychics, signs, cats, and the everyday. Life goes on, but the question is how. This book is the how (at least for Bryan). It is through these poems that we see the struggle that loss brings us.

The poems are often direct and concise. Many are rather short, but they pack a heavy punch. "The Night I Fight With My Husband" is a perfect example:

I think:

I cannot leave him
     because he knew my father,
no man who came after

That's the entire poem, yet it says so much. These short poems are balanced with slightly longer pieces that explore the themes in more depth like the poems "Dark Horse" and "Car Crashes Are My Family's Cancer." The book also uses holidays and seasons as a way to move the year along and let the reader know how much time has passed.

By the end, the book feels like a complete journey aboard a rocky ship. There's moments of pure heartbreak, but also a sense of hope: the living must go on. Bryan has gone on and the money his father gave him has touched a lot of people's lives. Mine included. While these poems tell the story of the aftermath of his father's death, his father is still there in the pages and you come away feeling like you know him just a little bit.

Sibling Rivalry Press is truly an amazing accomplishment, but Bryan's work as a poet is just as worthy of attention. This book showcases his growth as a poet and is well worth your time.

-Stephen (Pirating)

Monday, April 15, 2013

National Poetry Month: Poetry Video of "Questioning If We Should Get Married While Watching Rear Window"

We are halfway through National Poetry Month. It's been a great month so far. On Saturday, I spent the afternoon at the Rainbow Book Fair here in New York City. It was great to be with so many writers from the LGBT community. My press, Sibling Rivalry, was there as were many of my press mates. I got to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. Thanks to everyone who bought a copy of my book!

Today I'm posting a second video for National Poetry Month. In this video, I'm reading a new poem called "Questioning If We Should Get Married While Watching Rear Window." It is from my new book manuscript A History of the Unmarried.

I hope you enjoy!

-Stephen (Questioning)

Monday, April 8, 2013

National Poetry Month: Poetry Video of "A History of the Unmarried"

April is National Poetry Month and a great time to read poetry, promote poetry, and write poetry. This year I'm creating a few poetry videos that include me reading some new work. I'm kicking things off with a video featuring the title poem of my new poetry manuscript A History of the Unmarried.

I hope you enjoy!

-Stephen (Reading)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Why New York?

In the summer of 2011 when I started telling people my plan was to move to New York City in a year, people often asked me why. Why New York? This question has followed me on my journey into the city. When I tell people I recently moved here, I'm often asked why or what brought me here. In a lot of ways, I find this question silly. New York is one of the greatest cities in the world, so, of course, I want to live here.

At this point, it's been five months and I can more directly answer the question of why. It's the big things (cultural events, museums, shopping, constant entertainment), but it is also the small moments and the diversity of the people around me. Honestly, there's just a lot of smart and interesting people here.

A few times a week, I go and write in a local coffee shop here in Harlem called The Chipped Cup. While I'm sitting there working on poems and drinking coffee from one of their giant blue mugs, I often overhear conversations. Last week, I heard two professional clarinet players discussing the ups and downs of the business and then a lot of specific music stuff I didn't even understand. On another day, two people sat discussing the complexities of Beyonce's message of empowerment to women and how it is often contradicted by the lyrics of her songs. These were just normal conversations happening on a weekday in a cafe.

I'm also amazed by the amount of reading all around me. If anyone thinks people don't read anymore, they need to come to New York City and ride the subway. I'm constantly surrounded by readers of all kinds. One afternoon, I was on the subway during the after school rush and I was amazed to see a few kids between the ages of 8 and 11 sitting there on the subway reading. They weren't doing homework. They were reading novels and were extremely into them. On Friday, I saw a girl who was probably only 12 sitting there reading Time Magazine. During the English composition classes I teach, I often ask students about their reading habits. Here in NYC, the response has been very positive. They all read. When I asked that question to students in Florida, most of the room stared at the floor and a few would mumble how they hate reading. I'm not saying everyone is reading great literature, but people here are engaging with the written word on a regular basis.

On any given day in New York, you can have such a wide range of experiences. This past weekend was a perfect example. On Friday, I went to Grand Central to see the artist Nick Cave's piece Heard, which combined art, music, and dance. This was a free event that was happening for just one week. It was amazing to see how many people make an effort to come to things like this. The place was packed. On Saturday, I went to the Macy's Flower Show at Herald Square, which was also free. It was a beautiful tent full of flowers and the theme this year was Asia. On Saturday night, I got see the play The Lying Lesson starring Carol Kane. I have a friend who works backstage at the theater and she got my partner and me tickets. It was a great small theater in Chelsea. It also provided me with my first true celebrity sightings. Sting's daughter is also in the play and he was there in the audience. Thanks to my friend, we got to go backstage afterward and got a tour and Carol Kane walked by and said "goodnight" as she left. On Sunday, I went to the Game of Thrones exhibit, which was also free. We did have to wait in line for like three hours, but it was a fun experience. The exhibit is only going to a few cities worldwide. They had lots of costumes and props that are still being used to shoot the show. I also got my picture sitting on the Iron Throne (gingers will rule one day). After that, I got to experience a Holi celebration, which is an Indian holiday that celebrates spring. People throw color on each other. It was also free. Yes, free. Everything I did this weekend was free. Yes, the theater experience was only free because of my friend, but it's not that hard to find a theater friend in NYC.

This past weekend is just one example of all that New York can offer. You can find culture in many different places, but here it is just so easy and so many people actually care. You can stumble upon so many interesting experiences and know that tomorrow there's just as many things happening. It can actually be overwhelming. I keep having to remind myself that we just moved here and we don't have to do everything this first year. There is time.

So why New York? Because it's amazing and I feel completely alive here in the city where anything is possible.

-Stephen (Free)