Poets as Teachers as Poets

Poets who write and teach in a university often find the two aspects of their professional lives interrelated. Unlike a vast number of workers who necessarily must stop work at the end of the day, a writer, whether producing or not, continues to perceive and often feels compelled to communicate to others intensely personal thoughts and ideas. Three such contemporary creative writers on the Indiana University faculty devote their time, careers, and attention to pursuing their creativity and development as poets and ficton writers as well as to shepherding both new and experienced students through the ins and outs of writing. These writers have carved out for themselves stimulating, fulfilling careers in which they have been fortunate enough to catalyze excitement, experience, and even angst into readable, tangible prose and poetry in a public forum.

Maura Stanton, the Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry on IU's Bloomington campus, is currently director of the Indiana University Writers' Conference, a post she also held from 1986 through 1990. Early in her writing career, in 1974, Stanton was given a Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and she has received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Stanton has published the poetry collections Snow on Snow (1975), Cries of Swimmers (1982), and Tales of the Supernatural (1988), a novel titled Molly Companion (1977), and The Country I Come From (1988), a collection of short stories about the Midwest. Her fourth collection of poetry, Life Among the Trolls, scheduled to be published in 1996, includes many poems that have appeared in American Poetry Review about metaphorical trolls, "anybody who stops you from living a free life . . . [and] keeps you from being fully human," says Stanton.

David C. Wojahn, a professor of English and former Ruth Lilly Associate Professor of Poetry at IU Bloomington, was named by Richard Hugo as the 1981 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He has received fellowships for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A member of the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences since 1985, Wojahn is the author of four collections of poetryŃIcehouse Lights (1982), Glassworks (1987), Mystery Train (1990), and Late Empire (1994). He also edited The Only World, a posthumous collection of poetry by Lynda Hull that was published last June. Wojahn is currently collecting many of his previously published essays for a book on contemporary American poetry. Wojahn teaches an intensive graduate poetry workshop as well as a large lecture- format introductory course on creative writing. He assures students that there are varied approaches to creative writing instruction and labels it a "very, very inexact science." Though instructors can develop tried and true techniques that do seem to benefit students, Wojahn says, there will always be challenges to such approaches. He adds, "every workshop, every class that you teach tends to be situational."

Associate Professor of English Mary Fell teaches creative writing, introduction to poetry, and precomposition courses at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Fell's collection of poetry, The Persistence of Memory (1984), was selected for the National Poetry Series, and she has published a chapbook entitled The Triangle Fire (1983). Fell is currently putting together a chapbook of lyric poetry with the working title Traveller's Advisory. A native of Worchester, Massachussets, she attended college there and found herself in a culturally exciting creative writing oasis where she met a lot of working poets, sometimes in the early stages of their development. Inspired by her environment, Fell became interested in creative writing and received her Master of Fine Arts in 1981 from the University of Massachusetts. She suggests that academia has become a haven for creative writing and writers largely because of the proliferation of M.F.A. programs in this country. The university has become "one of the few places where the written word is still venerated," she points out, adding, however, that she believes everyone is capable of writing poetry, whether attending a school or not.

Stanton suggests the following theory: "I think what the college can do is give [students] some time . . . . It's the one period in your life when you have a little bit of time to write. You need that space, that time, to see if you are a writer." Whereas Wojahn and Stanton teach creative writing at both the graduate and undergraduate levels at IU Bloomington, Fell's IU East students are all undergraduates, many of whom are returning adult students taking her classes as an elective. She says of their work, "I'm amazed. In the creative writing classes, they do it so willingly. They have a lot of pressures, but I think because it [the writing they do] deals with them, it doesn't impose restrictions." Stanton frequently gives her new students numerous exercises and models to work with that contain enough imagery and concrete detail to help them get into the frame of mind of poetry reading and writing. All the professors concur that any class in poetry writing must include poetry reading, and Fell stresses the importance of reading poems aloud, asserting firmly, "You can't really know a poem until you've heard it."

Fell encourages her students to use a notebook, which has also become a valuable tool in her own writing. She recounts an affirming anecdote about her own writing experience, stating "The notebook is a really valuable tool . . . but [until several years ago] I never really understood how it worked. I went away to this artist's colony . . . . and I was feeling very anxious, uptight, and I had this notebook. I started writing down dreams, observations, anything . . . . I had written in it in May or June, but I went back to it [much later] and in October, I found the perfect poem." During her years of teaching, Fell has discovered that many of her students enter the classroom with conventional and sometimes negative assumptions about poetry; they might believe "that they have nothing to learn from other poets," Fell notes. In response, she tries to foster in her students an appreciation from the writer's perspective. She states, "If people experience what it is like to write poetry, then that experience will inspire them" and, as with many situations, she notes that "having tried it yourself, you have a greater appreciation." Convincing her students to approach poetry reading and their attempts at writing poetry from a level of play, she maintains that "they usually do have fun with it and . . . can feel like they're not risking anything emotionally." One of Fell's techniques is to provide at the beginning of the semester a poetic form for students to follow whereby they often unintentionally "get hung up on the structure instead of the content," says Fell. This allows them to express themselves without being inhibited. "I believe that you can teach people to write better," she says, "but you cannot teach them to be writers." Fell suggests that for students to succeed as creative writers, they must learn to write concretely, using imagery rather than platitudes, and, in short, the process means "learning to write honestly . . . and getting in touch with their own voices."

Perhaps because of or in spite of academic time constraints and initial nervousness about poetry, students often find that the challenge of writing has a unique appeal. Stanton explains, "I realize that they are probably taking all kinds of other courses, but I think that they really like [writing] . . . it makes in their week a kind of space that's probably different from the time they're devoting to studying for tests, or writing papers, things like that" and as a result, Stanton notes, they find themselves willing to devote more time to their creative writing assignments. Stanton herself tries to write at least daily, usually in the company of one of her two cats, Oleander and Olive. She maintains, "I think cats have emotions and intelligence. I can really talk to [mine] and they listen." Stanton says she is aware of an acute need to write if she neglects it for too long.

As a teacher and a working poet, Wojahn strives to communicate to his students an undiminished enthusiasm for the art of poetry. He admits, "I think [people] who write poetry or fiction would like to spend all their time writing," and yet, he adds, "I am always very stimulated in my own work when I teach." He stresses the importance of providing students with appropriate models of poetry to emulate and prosodic samples that encourage them to develop and practice essential poetry writing skills. Wojahn asserts, "If you are teaching the work, it is important to always be aware of how the models you teach are going to be models for each writer in a very specific and very subjective fashion."

Stanton believes that perhaps the greatest gift she and other teachers can offer is to save writers time in their own development by sharing with them the professional, published poet's experiences and insights. From her own poetry writing experiences, Stanton says she has learned to "see what's extraordinary in the ordinary." Furthermore, she notes, "I've learned to pay attention to what's going on around me," citing that she found inspiration for one of her recent poems in the image of a child's angel in the snow while she was out walking one evening. It was "perfectly beautiful in the moonlight," she says. Similarly, she was inspired to write a poem after researching the history of a woman whose portrait had hung on her wall for years and whose story had begun to fascinate her. Stanton offers aspiring writers of all ages and stages of development the uplifting assurance that "you don't have to have any wasted days as a writer."

Fell agrees, noting that one of the most important revelations for anyone learning or continuing to write is that "it's not a question of how good you are, just that you're doing it." Fortunately, as Wojahn affirms, "the process by which you write bad poems, the failed poems, is often as valuable as writing the successful poems." And Stanton's own process illustrates the point. Currently, says Stanton, "I have about three years worth of poems, but it will be a while before I shape a book out of them." Out of a collection of maybe 150 poems, written over five or six years, Stanton finds that she eventually settles on about 40 for publication and discards the rest.

To encourage their students and themselves as poets, Wojahn, Stanton, and Fell recognize that they must continually emphasize the process of creative writing and de-emphasize the product. As a result, notes Wojahn, "through a lot of trial and error, [the aspiring writer] will eventually create something that is good . . . and lasting." Stanton insists upon having her students revise their poetry for

her classes and often they only complete about ten poems in a semester. She confirms that in a creative writing class, a teacher "can introduce students to contemporary poetry, its subject matter, and the basic techniques of poetry writing . . . [and] can also show them how to search for their own material." She explains, "I'm aware that when I sit down to write, a lot of things happen unconsciously to me that I try to establish as habits in my students." Often, she gives new students a writing assignment of two poems reflecting on their childhoods. Stanton asserts that through such an introduction students can learn that "their own lives are significant somehow and that they can make sense out of their world" through poetry.

Once a writer recognizes that his or her own passions and concerns can be verbalized in writing, a true understanding of the power of creative writing and of what it means to be a poet begins to emerge. Wojahn maintains that when a writer is aware of his or her concerns, the subjects begin to select the poets. He says, "It seems to me that most writers really have a rather limited number of subjects that they keep coming back to. It's not so much an issue of choosing those obsessions because [they] are going to be there, whether a writer likes it or not." According to Wojahn, this situation makes for an interesting career and can aid any writer's development. Very often, he explains, "the interest precedes the writing" and the writer's task is to find a variety of ways to address issues so that, although topics recur, the writing itself continues to be fresh. Fell explains that her own writing reflects thematic concerns of physical displacement in a different culture. As a native easterner, her most recent poems describe the Midwest landscapes she has observed.

Ironically, time constraints and the demands of full lives and teaching schedules become the teaching poet's lament while simultaneously feeding the desire and motivation to write creatively and prolifically. With an extremely busy teaching schedule, the summer is generally Fell's most productive writing period. Whether teaching a creative writing class to inexperienced or advanced writers, she finds that as she encourages and speaks to students, she is also addressing herself as a writer in a kind of self-talk. "I tell myself to keep going, in spite of the fact that there's no time."

Ultimately, the creative writing teacher has the all-important and certainly challenging task of bringing people to poetry. Wojahn observes that "in many cases, what happens in a creative writing class is that even if the majority of people you teach in a writing class leave that class and never write again or only very infrequently, [teachers] have performed a valuable service because ideally [they] have created an audience of readers who are going to be appreciative of poetry."

Wojahn says that "a lot of us turn to poetry writing for solace and . . . a lot of people turn to the reading of poems for a kind of consolation" Creative writing teachers and writers alike "hope that [they] can catalyze people so that they are ready to take the plunge . . . . Really you're bringing people to the diving board, not to the swimming of the English Channel," he adds. Perhaps, as Wojahn suggests, the world's need for poetry and its curative powers will become greater, especially as we reach the dawn of a new century. Poets like Wojahn, Stanton, and Fell can be regarded not only as the university's teachers but as society's observers. With hope, they will lead the way.

--Mary Cox Barclay