Sunday, December 5, 2010



Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, Ed. Joshua Marie Wilkinson
(University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA, 2010)

“Determined to mitigate the lack of resources for more wide-ranging approaches to teaching poetry, I worked to gather these essays for poets, critics, and scholars who teach, and for the students themselves wishing to learn about the disparate ways poets think about how a poem comes alive, from within—and beyond—a classroom” (xix), explains editor Joshua Marie Wilkinson in his introduction to Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook. Since all of our poetry-teaching bookshelves are likely filled with books both a little too-familiar and a little outdated (littered as they are with tried-and-true texts like Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (1982), Ron Padgett’s The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms (1987), Kim Addonizio & Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997), and The Verse Book of Interviews: 27 Poets on Language, Craft & Culture, edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki (2005)), it’s high time a new collection made its way into our homes and offices. Faced with this kind of company, Wilkinson’s book has a lot to live up to, but by looking at these other anthologies and handbooks it becomes clear that a good deal could still be added to the poetic conversation.

Poets on Teaching is organized into four sections—1) Reflections/Poetics, 2) Exercises/Praxis, 3) New Approaches to Poetry Courses and Methodology, and 4) Talks/Directives—but these distinctions aren’t all that distinct, and it’s more fun to flip through the book haphazardly anyway. The collection contains a truly diverse assortment of short essays, one-to-three page musings, lists, rants, meditations, and recommendations. In it, I find straightforward advice: “For beginning students, sometimes praise for what is working in a poem is just as important as criticism of what is not,” explains Lily Brown (50). I find teaching-moment anecdotes: “When you think the poem’s no good, I tell them, don’t ask what’s wrong with the poem: what’s wrong with you that you think the poem’s no good?” shares Eric Hayot (259). I find admissions: “Part of what one does in a job is pretending to do the job,” discloses Aaron Kunin (47), while Jaswinder Bolina confesses, “I’d like to tell them there are too many poets. I’d like to tell them we don’t need any more and don’t need any more competition” (267). I find considered reflections: “At its best, teaching enables, and is a collection of practices of the rights of and the obligations toward the self of the student. At its worst, poetry is a display of skills which separate poetry from reader by enforcing an arrogant authoritarian ownership of language” writes Bin Ramke (79). And I find thought-provoking manifestos, like Lisa Jarnot’s “Why I Hate MFA Programs, or an Argument to Prove That the Abolishing of the MFA Program in American Universities May, as Things Now Stand, Be Attended with Very Few Inconveniences” (181-183). The content included here is indeed wide-ranging, sometimes startlingly so, and easily lives up to Wilkinson’s goals.

Like similar sourcebooks, Poets on Teaching includes essays by emerging writers in addition to well-known and established poet-teachers, but Wilkinson’s list of contributors has a decidedly experimental bent. There are no Billy Collinses or Mary Olivers here. The contributors to Poets on Teaching are, on the whole (and perhaps not surprisingly), quite well educated: they have advanced degrees; they fling about names like Derrida (37), Hegel (73, 140, 225), or Aristotle (73, 85); they write in italicized Latin; and they include footnotes and lists of works cited along with their brief essays. They are also decidedly unconventional. In addition to the practical suggestions and exercises offered by teachers like Laynie Browne (“On the Elasticity of the Sonnet and the Usefulness of Collective Experimentation” (95)), Sawako Nakayasu (“Competitive Poetry” (131)), K. Silem Mohammad (“Impersonal Universe Deck” (153)), Rachel Zucker (“Poetry as Translation and Radical Revision” (120)), or Jen Hofer (“Two Dozen English-to-English Translation Techniques” (114)), readers also learn about poetic strategies the average workshop leader would be unlikely to attempt. In her essay “Sidelong and Uncodifiable,” Eleni Sikelianos, shares how she “recently tried hypnotizing students and asked them to write a correspondence with the dead in that state” (13). And more alarmingly, in “The Box,” Forrest Gander describes folding his body inside a “two-and-one-half-foot pellucid cube” (87) to demonstrate for his students how to get “inside the work” (88).

This anthology is both very odd and very appealing. From its varied contributors and its open-ended ideas to its detailed introduction and its index, the struggle between formality and informality (or between Poetry and The Academy—a tension that is difficult to exactly pinpoint, let alone to adequately address) is revealed. Wilkinson’s anthology is as much interested in “Creative Unknowing” (15) and “Unlearning to Write” (40) as it is in offering “Thirty-three Rules of Poetry for Poets Twenty-three and Under” (270). Also telling is what we can discover by looking at the index itself, which exposes what these poets must collectively feel is most important to discuss in relation to the practice of poetry today. Sure, “Workshop” is mentioned 64 times in the book, and “writing exercises” and “revision” 30 times each (according to the index). But more notably, “politics” gets 28 references, “translation” 26, “lyric” 20, “experimentation” or “experimental” 19, and “rhyme” 12. The most frequently referred to poet in the book is Emily Dickinson, with 16 citations, followed by William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein with 10 references each, Wallace Stevens with 9, and William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Duncan tying for fourth place with 8. Wilkinson may have wanted “a new set of approaches to teaching poetry” (xviii), but what he has collected here amounts to a fascinating overview of the craft of poetics and the state of poetry today. Poets on Teaching is a book that makes me want to talk to people about what it means to teach someone to write a poem and, beyond that, what it means to write a poem at all in the first place.


Genevieve Kaplan's poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Jacket, Gulf Coast, and jubilat. Her first book of poems, In the ice house, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press, and she edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, which publishes literary translations.

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