Adventures in poetry teaching, part two: Gaileyland!

In psychology, it’s called “literary transportation,” although you may know the phenomenon by the metaphor “getting lost in a book.” Immersive readers do this all the time. We become so absorbed by a story that we forget we’re tracking lines of print. Physically, you’re sitting in an easy chair by the window, in a cozy room. Imaginatively, you’re shivering in a wintry landscape with a compelling character, half-visualizing the dark verticals of tree trunks glazed with ice. Your actual heart rate climbs when a faint, thin wolf howl rises in the literary distance.

Although I earned a PhD by treating poems in the usual ways—as Billy Collins alleges, you tie them up and begin the cross-examination—I’m fascinated by other ways books become meaningful to us, and hence I keep concocting peculiar assignments for my literature students. A few days ago I posted about some students’ translations of modernist poetry into other media (“Dancing to Loy”). My other class this term was a first-year composition course on the topic of speculative fiction. All fall they’ve been learning about developing arguments, reasoning through evidence, and handling that wild beast, the semicolon. They’ve been perpetrating all this critical prose about science fiction and fantasy: comparing Terry Bisson’s eerie “Bears Discover Fire,” for example, to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists”; or looking for what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe” in tales by Kij Johnson or Octavia Butler; or juxtaposing Grimm and Gaiman.

We wrangled with speculative poetry, too. They just completed final projects inspired by Jeannine Hall Gailey’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. First we read and discussed the book, with a visit-by-Skype from the generous poet. Then we began to take that “literary transportation” business seriously. We read Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a treatise about genre brilliantly disguised as a satirical travel handbook. Lonely Planet author and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited class to discuss real travel writing: how she pitches projects and receives assignment, the lengths of essays and how she structures them, the words she uses and the stock phrases she avoids. I also brought in piles of old travel manuals and we skimmed them for style and structure, then brainstormed. Reread Gailey’s book, I said, as a set of clues about a real place. What can you glean from the poems about the climate of Gaileyland, or the dining options, or the major attractions?

Everyone had to devise an entry and, with the help of our digital services guru Brandon Bucy, upload it to a joint WordPress site. Then the students chose different follow-up projects: some wrote analytical essays about Gailey’s verse; some wrote fantastic poems and tales accompanied by critical statements; and three volunteered to edit, expand, and redesign our collaborative web venture, Gaileyland: A Travel Guide to Becoming the Villainess. The result is a very strange and funny species of literary criticism. These students had to trace and analyze patterns of language and reference just as they would for an essay, but in a different style and very much in public. If there’s an implicit argument about the text in their project, it might involve Gaileyland’s essential darkness. The poems are rooted in trauma, although becoming a villainess is one way to seize back power from a world that would constrict a woman’s options and mute her dissent. All the weirder, then, to address poems about Persephone and Cinderella and Dark Phoenix in the perpetually sunny prose of tourism-boosting: eat at Philomel’s Athenian Restaurant! “Locals whisper that once the cook served human meat in a stew, but we think that’s just myth.”

I love the results and find it so gratifying to hereby celebrate the intelligence and creativity of my students, especially right now. It’s been a rough week at my home institution: very early last Tuesday morning, a car carrying ten students on their way back from an off-campus party crashed. A young woman in her senior year died and others were badly injured. The rest I don’t know for sure, but credible rumors involve an intoxicated driver who had already made multiple runs, returning partygoers to campus. All that vitality, lost or hurt. The latest wave of sorrow about it hit me as I was decorating the Christmas tree with my own teenagers yesterday, noting who was sentimental about what ornament, thinking that when each kid has a home of his or her own, I’ll pack up the little santas and boats and shells and kindergarten photo-crafts for them to put on their own trees. Then I freaked my family out by bursting into noisy tears, thinking about the idle plans we make all the time, and how for one set of parents, that whole speculative future is just gone.

Really, all assignments and grading are trivial in the end, though sometimes they add up to helping people learn a little. But writing and reading are important ways of seeking illumination and consolation. So are sharing them in good company: if you’re in Rockbridge tonight, and not too upset by today’s memorial service, come hear a bunch of area writers read at the Studio Eleven Gallery at 11. S. Jefferson Street in Lexington at 7 p.m. We’ll be collecting nonperishable goods and monetary donations for the local food bank. And sharing what moves us with others, and being moved—more nontrivial activities that need to keep happening in and beyond the just-slightly-magical space of the classroom.

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