My daughter the spy and other angles on poetry classes

I’m usually more giddy than blue at the end of a term. I like my students, even the slackers and con artists, and I love talking about poetry for a living, but I also like addressing a new set of problems with a new group every time the season turns. And you just need a break occasionally from the practice of intense alertness that discussion-based teaching requires, even if “rest” constitutes a stack of papers and facing some looming research deadline. But as this winter term closes, students keep moving me through office-hours confessions, poetry conversion testimonies, and spasms of insight and art. Over my shoulder, a three-course term that had seemed only moderately successful suddenly looks blossomy.

Introduction to Poetry can be difficult to teach—the students have wildly different academic backgrounds, aptitudes, attitudes, goals. While my section is full of amazing people, I make some strategic mistakes in assignments and the magic chemistry thing never quite happens. Yet when some students choose to write a portfolio of poems in traditional forms instead of a third essay, the results floor me.

  • A shy first-year interviews her brother with Asperger’s syndrome and turns his answers into a gorgeous pantoum.
  • Another first-year writes a series of pieces about a nude self-portrait she’d been required to do for studio art. During the required class reading, she projects the portrait on the document camera. How brave is that?
  • Another first-year, an enthusiastic, self-assured spoken word poet when he walked in the door, kills the group with an incantatory piece about what drives him to write.
  • A woman who never says hello, please, thank you, or goodbye—basically, I’ve never had a clue what she thought about anything—submits a strong piece about how much safer she feels in the language of numbers. She tells me she was inspired to write it by the aforementioned spoken word guy. I hear versions of this story a couple of times, about one student excited by another student’s poetry and trying to channel its power.
  • One late afternoon, a sweet and very smart young man comes in with a suite of love poems about his relationship with another guy. At another college, maybe business as usual for a creative writing teacher? Not here. Seniors do come in annually to tell me they’re gay, trying to come out, struggling with it. I have mixed feelings, honored to be in his or her confidence but sad it’s always so hard. Having that conversation, though, with a sophomore who’s calmly out, wildly in love, and mostly just worried about the poems—that’s pretty beautiful.

Introductory Poetry Workshop: I have to find a totally new way to prep this course to differentiate it from the Poetic Forms course I’ll be doing in our four-week May term, and again, I make some syllabus miscalculations and things don’t go as brilliantly as I’d hoped. And then they keep coming in, saying thank you, telling me how sorry they are the course is over. They show me the drafts they’re working on and suddenly the work looks a lot better.

My upper-level seminar on poetry and place is one of those rare classes you love unreservedly from beginning to end. I’m actually glad to see them three times a week instead of two (not my preferred schedule, ever). The students are wacky in a variety of ways, offering me their weird nicknames, Springsteen fetishes, and sundry odd takes on various assignments, like an electronica composition instead of a response paper. Some of their presentations and class comments are uproariously funny, and always smart and interesting; I’m working through ideas along with them and learning a great deal from their essays, questions, and frequent skepticism. Occasionally they snow me—pulling the conversation along strange tangents to distract me from discovering they haven’t done the reading—but I don’t even mind.

The last session’s on Good Friday and one of them takes charge, arranges for the seminar to meet in the basement room of Blue Sky Bakery. My 9th grader is off school so she sits in the corner with a pastry and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I see her scowl a couple of times and ask her later what that was about. “That dark-haired girl was texting the whole time and I wanted to slap her. Don’t you know what’s going on when someone has a sweater on her lap or her purse set down in front of her?” Uh, now I do. “And they all kept staring at me.” “No one was staring at you!” “Yes, they were. That one guy came over for a napkin and he just, liked, glared right at me. The hot guy, not the short hot guy, the one who’s tall-nerdy-hot.” So many ways not to answer that remark.

Maybe I’ll finish grading, read the course evaluations, find they’re snarky after all, and march into May term unsentimentally, a ruthless gleam in my eye. This soft-focus lens is nice for the moment, though. And I’m really excited about some of the experiments I’m planning to inflict on these spring term students.

6 responses to “My daughter the spy and other angles on poetry classes”

  1. How nice to read about your student’s growth and courage. That is the true magic of teaching! And obviously why you received the teaching award. Congrats!


  2. Lesley, would your student be willing to have you post the pantoum interviewing her brother on your blog? Or is there some other way I can read it? It sounds like it might be a good example of the form to show other creative writing students – if you and she didn’t mind. (Not this year, but I hope, next!) It’s a form where repetition can take on so many different affective values – it’s a fascinating one to see new writers tackle. When I was very young, I tried to write one based on the childhood experience of Sydenham’s Chorea – the stumbles and shakes and attempts to control them – and I’ve since seen students use it successfully to chronicle boredom, a kind of Prufrockian hesitation, first-date anxiety, frustrations with automated call centre replies (young NZ poet Poppy Haynes), and also, several who find themselves caught in a painful Groundhog Day of repetition – where they can’t work out how to make the repeats transformative, or mean something slightly different. There’s a eureka moment as a teacher, too, isn’t there, when a student realises that the repetitions themselves can take on diverse inflections.


    • I love the way it all comes together in the last stanza–and it’s about the repetitions, as you say.

      Us and Them
      by Catherine Elder

      I know I am not like everyone else,
      They all tease me and I hate it.
      Can’t they see that it hurts my feelings?
      Can’t they see that I’m not that different?

      They all tease me and I hate it.
      I don’t like to follow these stupid trends they like.
      Can’t they see that I’m not that different?
      All they want to do is watch stupid TV shows.

      I don’t like to follow these stupid trends they like,
      I would much rather be reading mythology.
      All they want to do is watch stupid TV shows,
      I spend time studying possible careers.

      I would much rather be reading mythology.
      Unintelligent people agitate me.
      I spend time studying possible careers.
      I know I am not like everyone else.


      • Thanks for posting this, Lesley – I tried to reply earlier, just to say the title seems well-chosen here – it draws the reader into the speaker’s orbit….


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