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3 Posts authored by: Catherine Pierce

In the introductory creative writing course I teach, we spend the first half of the semester reading and writing fiction, and turn to poetry for the second half. This transition often provokes some anxiety. Many of my students have never written poetry before, and some have read very little—they come to the course with the assumption that poetry is highbrow and intimidating, and are cowed by the expectation that they will soon be writing their own.

 

I do several things to demystify poetry—insofar as it can and should be demystified!—early on. We read lots of contemporary poems, so that students can hear voices that echo their own with regard to syntax and diction. We talk about the lessons covered in the fiction unit that carry over into poetry, and into all creative writing, things they already know to do, and do well—striving for detail, imagery, and nuance, avoiding the heavy-handed ending, establishing a compelling voice, etc.  And we do daily writing exercises to keep the writing brain limber and to alleviate that initial fear that can come with staring at a blank page and knowing you’ve got to, somehow, put a poem on it. If we do small bits of writing every day, then that blank page becomes familiar—a friend, or at least an only-moderately-irritating acquaintance.

 

I kick off the poetry unit with one of my favorite exercises—it’s simple, but its simplicity is its key. I tell students that they’re going to be going outside for the next ten minutes. (I do this regardless of weather; some classes luck out with a 75 degree sun-filled day, but this fall found my students grumbling out into a chilly, heavy mist. I told them that great poems have been written about hardship.) While out there, they’re to do two tasks. First, I ask them to make note of three things they think no one else will notice—a line of ants streaming from a trashcan, a mismatched hubcap on a Honda in the nearby lot. And I ask them to write down the following beginnings of sentences:

 

The sky looks like:

The air feels like:

The day smells like:

 

Your task, I tell them, is to complete these sentences with something utterly true. Do not worry about being “poetic.” You’re not writing a poem; you’re just observing. Maybe the sky looks like a bag of dirty cotton balls. Not pretty, but accurate, and accuracy is your goal. Pay close attention and report back. Don’t be afraid to get a little weird—often the truest things are a little weird.

 

When the students come back in, I ask everyone to share what they’ve observed, and to read what they’ve written. The results are wonderfully specific and intriguing: I saw where a dog had left a paw print in wet cement. I saw a girl roll her eyes while talking on her phone. The air feels like a wet fur coat. The day smells like cigarettes and gingko berries. By being consciously observant, and by removing the pressure to Write a Poem, students hook into sharp details that are original and evocative. The exercise also helps students to let go of the urge to explain or editorialize their observations. Because the assignment is simply to notice and report, not to write a poem, no one is tempted to dilute a great image with commentary.

 

This exercise then leads us into a discussion of what subjects and words are suitable for poetry, how a strong image can usually stand on its own, and how cigarettes and asphalt and the leaf-clogged gutter—these specific, sensory, evocative, wonderfully common things—can be the most compelling parts of the world. The lesson I want them to take from the exercise and subsequent discussion is this: Don’t let the idea of writing a poem get in the way of writing a poem.

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 11/22/11.]]

This post originally appeared on February 21, 2014.

 

A while ago, a Joss Whedon quote was being passed around the Internet. He’d been telling an audience about his frustration with repeatedly being asked, “Why do you write these strong woman characters?” His response (now immortalized in a million Facebook posts): “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

 

There’s another frustrating question that’s made the rounds both in and out of academia for some time: “Why teach or study literature?” And its sister question: “Why teach or study creative writing?” In other words, what’s the point of a subject that doesn’t automatically provide its students with a clear, established path to financial security or career? We like answers to our problems: the next step in one’s career trajectory is X. The best school district in the area is Y. In order to heal the sore throat, take A, gargle B, drink C. It’s uncomfortable not having answers, and no one likes being uncomfortable.

 

So the key difficulty here—the key reason, I think, that the question gets asked—is that the point of studying creative writing isn’t to generate answers. It’s to generate questions. It’s to work continually to understand that the world is not a set of dichotomies—that most situations, to be understood fully, require a willingness to see nuance. To be a good writer, you must be willing to be uncomfortable, to empathize with both protagonist and antagonist, to write the poem that acknowledges the messy side of an experience.

 

Creative writing classes center around questions. Why might this author have used this point of view? What does this detail reveal about this character’s desire? What connotations are packed into this word? What does this syntax suggest about this speaker? What is he trying to prove? Why a train ride instead of a road trip? Why an elm instead of a pine? With whom do you sympathize? Why?

 

Asking these questions, we continually strengthen and deepen our craft. And these skills are transferable: if you can effectively structure a poem, then you can probably effectively structure a presentation, a work email, a letter to shareholders. But more importantly, if you can effectively structure a poem, then you have effectively structured a poem.

 

There are other benefits to studying creative writing, though, that transcend the classroom and the workspace and even the page. The study of creative writing is also the study of human nature—both others’ and our own. If you’re asking questions of your characters, your word choice, your writerly allegiances, then you’re probably also asking those questions of the world around you. Why might my mother have said this? Do I truly believe all people who are X are also Y? Can I champion this one ideal and simultaneously reject this one? What does this detail reveal about my desire? With whom do I sympathize? Why?

 

So why study creative writing? Because we need more people who understand that the world is made up of shadings and gradations, complex characters, and mysteries. Because we need more poems and stories and essays and novels and plays to guide us through those mysteries. Because someone out there is still asking that question. And anyone asking that question probably isn’t asking enough other ones.

This post first appeared on March 21, 2013.

 

Early on in my introductory poetry workshop, we discuss the difference between sentiment (emotion) and sentimentality (mawkishness, Hallmark cards, Lifetime holiday movies). First we talk about the ways in which sentimentality undercuts our ability to imbue our poems with real sentiment—it leads us toward cliché, it looks for the easy or more palatable way into an experience, it doesn’t require the level of intellectual and creative engagement we expect from good poems.

 

Then we start making fun of poets.

 

Okay, I say, imagine that you’re writing a parody of a poem and you want to make it wonderfully bad—full of clichés and cringe-worthy sentimentality. What are some key words you might use? “Heart,” someone always offers. We look for a little more specificity. “What should a heart not do in a poem?” I ask. “Skip a beat,” says one student. “Break,” says another. “End up in your throat,” offers someone else. Once we exhaust the heart possibilities, we move on, looking for the big offenders. What are some other words or tropes that might lead to sentimentality? I can usually get someone to come up with “soul,” which affords me an opportunity to write the word “soul” on the board, then draw a giant X through it—something I always like leaving on the board for the next class to see and fret over what sorts of things are being taught in creative writing classrooms. Usually someone mentions roses. Someone mentions the single tear. All of these go on the board (and I always offer the disclaimer that none of these rules is absolute—certainly, fantastic poems can be written using any number of potentially problematic words or images, provided the poet is savvy about how he or she uses them). Finally we move on to animals—butterflies as symbols of innocence, a bird as a vision of freedom. And, of course, there’s cuteness to be reckoned with—puppies, kittens, any three-legged quadruped. Sometimes I tell my students that they can only use a kitten in a poem if the kitten is dead.

 

I’ve found that letting students poke fun at hypothetical poems before writing their own helps them to a) stay attuned to the siren song of schlock so that they can better resist it and b) maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing so that when someone does write a poem featuring that single tear or an alarmingly mobile heart, we can talk about it without the writer feeling defensive. After all, the battle against sentimentality is one we’re all fighting.

 

Oh—and the dead kitten thing? A grad student took on that challenge, and wrote a beautiful, spare, weird poem that opened with a dead kitten in a shoebox. The poem surprised at every turn and was just accepted for publication. Of course a dead kitten could be even more sentimental than a live one, depending on how it’s rendered—the moral here, I think, is that if we as poets choose our words and our images with an eye toward circumventing the expected, we stand a much better chance of writing poems that are resonant, moving, and completely inappropriate for Hallmark.