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)


  1. Stephen, great post! So glad this activity "worked" as it did. I do this a lot with extra copies of lit mags I've amassed, as it has the added bonus of the students being able to take the poems/mags with them after class.

    Another hook I've found is to skip the introductory conversation and just play some youtube video of poets reading their own work (as long as the poets are good at reading and not a total bore). Often, I have the poems available on a handout. This jumps right to the accusatory "Is that a poem?" question more quickly. :)

    Thanks for teaching and being passionate about what you do!

    1. That's another great idea. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I don't know how to email you without your website's putting an app on my computer, which is something I don't want to do. I do want to invite you to visit my poem blog, homoeroticpoems dot blogspot dot com