Haunted and weird poetry: a lesson plan

My visiting writer gig at Randolph College started yesterday. As the Pearl S. Buck Writer in Residence (virtually), I’m teaching a 4-session workshop each Thursday night in February, 7-9pm. There are only 4 members, all advanced poetry students, so it’s a pretty nice gig. The topic is “Haunted and Weird,” since the organizer told me these students were also jazzed about speculative fiction–but also because strangeness and surprise make for complicated, interesting, powerful poems.

Designing the syllabus, I gave each session a title/ theme. Yesterday’s was “Pleased to Meet You” and it worked like a charm. In case the topic appeals, here’s how it played out. I asked each poet to post a poem the Tuesday before our session, following this prompt (it’s keyed to a care package sent in advance):

If you dare, light the votive candle in your care package, without burning your house down, please. Prepare to tell a story of an encounter with something potentially supernatural in five sentences. It should be based on an incident you have experienced, OR you can ask a friend or a family member for a story and use your imagination to fill in the details. Instructions for each sentence:

  1. Write a sentence beginning, “The weirdest part was.” (You may revise that phrase out later, but start with the eeriest moment of your tale.)
  2. Describe what the setting or the apparition smelled like.
  3. Ask any question that you don’t know the answer to. It can be unrelated to the scene.
  4. Describe, with at least one sensory detail (involving sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch), how your body felt when the apparition left or you left it.
  5. Describe, with at least one sensory detail, how the apparition felt after the encounter.

Here are some poems they had to read for class, as well as each other’s drafts. I also asked them to be ready to explain which poem unsettled them most and why.

I started us off with “Monsters,” which triggers all my parent-fear. One student named Mariani’s “Ghost” as the most unsettling–that’s another poem full of guilt, and very crafty in how it sets up situations and then dissolves them. For everyone else it was “The Mango,” in which the speaker hears voices–and yet it’s more political than supernatural. One way all of these poems are shifty: what’s “real” is up for grabs, although there’s plenty of realistic detail within them.

I ran out of time to run a three-staged prompt I’d invented. At the end of class, they had to open a sealed envelope, also in the care package. I had put an antique postcard in each, having ordered a batch from Etsy (some of them are dated as early as 1906). Here’s one I didn’t send; I’m planning to use the extras in a fall workshop on the same theme.

The prompt to go with their postcard:

  • First study the picture side and write for 3 minutes about what messages the picture conveys all by itself
  • Then read the message—think about ink, the handwriting, writing style; also look at the postmark, stamp, and address; write for 3 minutes about what you see
  • Now imagine the sender is a ghost and write back to them.

They can build on that idea for next week’s poem, or research the meanings of the tarot card I also put in each envelope (I figured some students might not like to mess with them, so that’s just an option). Next week’s assignment:

  • Choosing a night when you’ll have 20 minutes to write the next morning, sleep with something unusual beneath your pillow (one of the cards from the care package, or anything else that feels like it has some mystery about it). Have pen and paper by your bed—real writing tools, not your phone. As soon as you wake up, write for a while about anything that’s on your mind. Put the paper away, forget about it, and later on come back and write a poem about possible relationships between the object and your free-write.
  • Write an epistolary poem (a letter poem) to someone or something that can’t answer.
  • Write any other poem based on a religious ritual or uncanny procedure. If tarot interests you, study the card I gave you and research its meanings, or you can do a free online reading here.

The energy in the class felt good, I think? Only teaching two hours a week, P/F so nobody’s worked up about grades–pretty sweet. In September I’ll be back to a full teaching load, a million advisees and meetings and committees, but now I get to just swoop in and be the Spirit of Poetry Fun, here to distract you.

Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a friend who had come over to watch the election returns, she said, “Oh, that happened to me, too,” describing hiding in a basement when a shooter attacked the university where she was earning her PhD. She always has a plan, now, for how to hide if another shooter comes through.

Nor is our remote small town any kind of a protective factor. We have offices in Washington and Lee’s historic colonnade, which is very much the heart of the embattled Confederacy for certain die-hard white nationalists, who are angry about the slightest possible changes to their sacred sites. Some of whom distributed KKK fliers on campus just a couple of weeks ago. Any place in the US is vulnerable to violence from well-armed disturbed people, but we have an extra source of risk without the security resources of larger universities.

In short, teachers now have dangerous jobs, students are always vulnerable to random violence, and nowhere is safe. So all together, now: let’s write pantoums! Seriously, teaching poetry during any of the crises we’ve been negotiating lately could seem frivolous, but I’ve been feeling the opposite. My poetry classes keep turning into spaces for analyzing and reflecting on disaster in ways that feel more emotionally useful than, say, reading the news.

words ofSome of that is chance resonance between syllabi and world events. Well, sort of chance. For a different course, my mid-20th-century US poetry seminar, we’re studying the usual characters–O’Hara, Brooks, Rich, and others–but I replaced a session I used to devote to Vietnam war protest poetry with several readings from an anthology I’ve really come to admire: Words of Protest, Words of Freedom, edited by Jeffrey Lamar Coleman. It’s been clear especially since Trump’s rise that we remain in the middle of Civil Rights battles that defined the country fifty years ago, or perhaps in a never-ending backlash against them, so I knew it was time to represent Civil Rights poetry more robustly on my syllabus. Coleman clearly did his research, because while the book contains many famous poems by our best US poets, it also features more obscure work culled from little magazines of the era, and the friction is riveting. I’ve been so impressed by how eagerly and intelligently my students are working through material that is even more relevant than I intended. The KKK leaflets were distributed here on a Friday, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred the next morning, and for Monday, the assignment was to discuss poems about the KKK bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young girls in Birmingham in 1963. That synchronicity has definitely brought urgency to our discussions.

But is it synchronicity, now, or just the permanent daily texture of the world? Since I started drafting this post, there’s been another mass shooting. The election cheered me, but the administration immediately punched back with more ways of undermining the law. Poetry gives me access to other minds confronting related crises thoughtfully–it’s personally useful to read Giovanni, Hayden, Brooks, and many others as they work through anger and hope and grief–but it’s also providing small collections of us with a nonpartisan angle of discussion on the human toll of violence, the way it ripples out in space and time, and I’m grateful for that, too. It makes me feel warmly connected to other anxious human beings working through serious questions, and I hope it does the same for them.

Here’s a Lucille Clifton poem from the anthology, from a group of responses to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My students led a brilliant discussion about it: who is included in the “we” who held the “meeting” for which this poem offers a riff on the usually less-than-gripping literary genre of minutes? How are the “we” and the “you” related? What does it mean to be saved? Is the tone of the last few lines wry, disparaging, or sympathetic?clifton poem

We all had slightly different answers, and listening to Clifton reading the poem here (minute 7:14) can change your mind yet again. It’s centering to think about it when your heart needs rest after other kinds of activism. Who are we, anyway? Where are we headed?

Zombie spring term

Summoning enthusiasm for our super-intense four-week spring term after a long year and a too-short break always feels just about impossible. I watch my spouse bounce along with superheroic energy and think, Good lord, can I do this? The same skepticism is showing on some student faces, too, especially among seniors with honors thesis hangovers.

So for the first meeting of English 205: Poetic Forms yesterday I mostly just followed the script I’d left after a previous round. The prompt I’d used for introductions two years ago: Tell us your name, year, where you’re from. Then describe a really good class you’ve taken in the past, at any level, and tell us what made it great—some element or policy that made it all click.

The answers were astonishingly similar. Every single person cited a class in which the professor strategically ceded control, students took charge of learning, and the stakes of that learning were clear. A couple of them praised free-wheeling discussions led by Eduardo Velasquez, a colleague hired with me twenty years ago who suddenly resigned early this month (well, it was sudden to me, but I’m probably just oblivious). One student cited the small capstone seminar run by the aforementioned energetic spouse, Chris Gavaler, for which senior majors build a syllabus based on their own obsessions. Others mentioned the open conversations of their first-year writing courses, peer workshops, and computer labs in which students tested and implemented programs. Not one class sounded easy. What the students valued was real work that was really up to them.

Auspicious for a workshop, isn’t it? Inspired by their reflections, I asked them to think about poetic forms I didn’t put on the syllabus and offered to rearrange my plans based on their interests. What the heck. I’m looking forward to hearing their ideas this afternoon and seeing the poems they bring in (yes, the first writing assignment is due on the second day!). We’re ramping up quickly this week from litanies to counted and syllabic verse to haiku and renku to iambics—phew. Today we’re discussing Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” so for fun, I’m attaching a poem that appeared in Subtropics last spring that duplicates Moore’s syllable and rhyme scheme: “Inside the bright.” I’ve been teaching “the Fish” forever so it’s not surprising it came to me when watching my kids ride waves in Kauai. I think my poem’s a lot simpler, though; I still don’t truly understand “The Fish,” even after twenty-something years of feeling attracted to its puzzles.

And since we’re counting backwards, here are a couple more student projects I’ve learned from. Remember the internship I ran with Max and Drew that resulted in a special Shenandoah portfolio of poems from New Zealand? Three of the poems we selected were just reprinted in Best New Zealand Poems 2013: Hinemoana Baker’s “Rope,” Cliff Fell’s “Chagall in Vitebsk,” and Anna Jackson’s “Sabina, and the Chain of Friendship.”

The latter publication occurred at the tail end of a set of New Zealand-based readings for my winter seminar on twenty-first century poetry and place. That class did a baby digital humanities project for which students had to pin place references from NZ poems on a world map: see the results here. The students reported pleasure and surprise just navigating the geography—most of them of course, have no idea what’s where in the Pacific, plus the sheer vastness of that ocean is generally a shocker to east-coast Americans. The project also confirmed my sense of the worldliness of NZ writers. While I asked them to focus on Aotearoa, plenty of pins speckle the Pacific islands, the Americas, Europe, even Antarctica. Lots of poetic teleportation going on…

Back now to staggering through the cruelest month, when dead Washington and Lee professors must somehow reanimate.