September 29th, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Craft Notes

Starting With No

My creative writing pedagogy story starts in the Introduction to Poetry writing workshop I took as a nontraditional student at Florida International University. I signed up for the course because I was convinced that I was the baddest poet that had ever lived. I’d won both of the poetry slams I’d entered. I could rhyme like no one else. I prided myself on being able to write complete sentences where every word rhymed and still made sense. In the first class session, the professor told us that poems don’t have to rhyme and that most contemporary poetry didn’t rhyme at all. She even went so far to say that a good portion of bad poetry written by amateur poets today rhymed. She said rhyming is easy, rhyming well is hard. I was shattered. She hadn’t yet read any of my work, but I took her words personally. Everything I thought I knew about poetry and my ability to write it was destroyed.

Now when I teach my own intro to poetry writing workshops, I am aware of the extra inhabitants in the room—the students’ misconceptions. These misconceptions keep students from attempting to write poetry when they don’t believe they can make a poem do what they believe poetry is required to do. These misconceptions keep them from reading poetry because if they already believe they know what poetry is (and they don’t necessarily like it), why should they read anymore of it? That’s why I feel that my first job as a creative writing instructor is to overcome their false impressions.

Common misconceptions are that poetry must rhyme, must be extremely sentimental, must use formal speech or archaic language. Another of my own mistaken beliefs regarded the content of poems. I was terrified that there was a stereotypical black poem or woman poem or mom poem and that if I attempted to write about any of those aspects of myself, my poetry would be cast into a box that I would never be able to escape. I thought that readers would apply any stereotypes assigned to those groups to me and be unable to receive my work if I dared to touch on those subjects. What saved me and what saves our students from their own delusions about what is possible in their own work is reading.

It’s no secret that the key to becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Reading for the purposes of writing is different from reading as a casual reader. When I teach students how to read a poem, I am teaching them how to recognize new possibilities for writing their own work (and then to steal them).  When I expressed my fear of writing a black poem to my poetry professor, Denise Duhamel, she gave me Muscular Music by Terrance Hayes. I was afraid to write about love and heartbreak until I heard Claudia Emerson read from her poetry collection, Late Wife. If Sylvia Plath could write poems about motherhood and still be Sylvia Plath, then I certainly was free to give my take on it. The best poems are the ones that make me say, “I had no idea a poem could do that!” That is the experience I hope to facilitate for my students when I assign them poems to read.

Creative writing instructors in academic settings have a unique advantage over the students—grades. When I felt that I had no idea how to write a poem anymore after my professor’s first lecture, a desire to get a good grade in the course opened me up to the professor’s ideas on how to craft a poem. She went beyond simply stating, “show, don’t tell!” What I learned was that imagery, sound, and structure could add depth to a poem by creating and highlighting literal and figurative meanings. If I wanted an “A” in the course, then I was going to have to try using those craft elements she mentioned in class.

Some people believe that creative writing courses are all fluff or that only a select few of us can write. Writing can be taught.  It’s possible to teach people how to craft writing that appeals to a reader’s senses and that does interesting things with sound, for example. What sets some writers apart from others is devotion. I’m almost convinced that talent is perseverance when it comes to creative writing. A creative writing course can give a student the tools to run with if she chooses. This all matters because once we defeat students’ misconceptions about what they can and cannot do on the page, we open them up to explore the complexities of their own existences and that of humanity as a whole.

I know when I list off all of my don’ts in that first class session, some egos may shatter, some writing hands may stiffen.  I consider teaching this way a gentle undoing that is necessary to open students up to follow their impulses as they arise, especially if those impulses don’t follow any of their rules.



Jonterri Gadson is Debra’s daughter. Her poetry has appeared in PANK, Sugarhouse Review, Vinyl, Tidal Basin Review, and other publications. A Cave Canem fellow, she is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Drake University in Des Moines, IA.


  1. Mettamss

      Great post! Wish you’d shared that all rhyme all the time poem!~

  2. Jonterri Gadson

      I have one of my favorite rhyming poems memorized from slamming with it back in the day lol:

      From the Front Pew

      She struggles
      not to lend your face to her fantasies,
      not to hold you as the centerpiece
      of her less than innocent desires–
      your sermon implies
      hope must be denied.

      She fails
      so your bare-chested figure
      first hovers, then enters
      ‘tween sweat and dry whispers
      she won’t be dismissed, this
      forbidden mind-mistress, this
      telepathic temptress with
      spiritual intent, which she’s unfamiliar
      with so it manifests what she’s been known
      to desire. See you hold the key
      to all that she seeks,
      she just loves the god in you.

  3. Ryan Sanford Smith

      Is perseverance all that stands between you and the building of a nuclear reactor?

  4. Jonterri Gadson

      Perseverance is all that stands between me and writing a memorable poem about a nuclear reactor. 

  5. Kent Johnson
  6. Ryan Sanford Smith

      Holy thread hijack, Kent.

      Wait your turn.

  7. Ryan Sanford Smith

      If you’re going to dodge, at least add so real acrobatics to it!

  8. Kent Johnson

      Ryan, I’ve tried to get someone to post on this at HTML Giant (is this NOT newsworthy and of concern to writers?), but without luck so far. Thus my comment.

  9. Daniel Bailey

      maybe someone should take initiative and start a creative writing pedagogy magazine blog of the future.

  10. Ryan Sanford Smith

      If the NYT doesn’t run your op-ed do you spraypaint it on the front of their kiosks?

  11. Jonterri Gadson

      Not dodging, just staying relevant to what I said in the post. I understand what point you’re challenging, which is why I said “when it comes to creative writing.” If I cared to build a nuclear reactor, I would maintain a pursuit of the education and resources needed to do so. That maintaining of a pursuit is how I define perseverance. 

  12. Trey

      yes. duh.

  13. JScap

      Great post!  If I’m reading you right, what you’re talking about is affirmative “don’ts.”  I love this idea.  If you’re going to set restrictions, it’s so important to frame them in the most “enabling” way possible.  It seems to me that that’s a pretty good way to get those sometimes-too-cool-to-talk “extra inhabitants” (the students’ misconceptions) to start talking. 

  14. Emily Anderson

      Great post, JayTee!

      And JScap, I like the idea of getting the students’ misconceptions to talk – I try to do that with my creative writing students (and my comp students for that matter).  Just talking about they think writing “is” or “is supposed to be” can A) allow the instructor to debunk the misconceptions and B) create some really fun disagreements and conversation.

  15. marshall

      da baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadest poet

  16. Khalilah

      Jonterri, this came at just the right time for me as my confidence as a CW instructor was compromised

  17. KKB

      What do you think of the idea that most of us today love poetry but the poetry we love is rap music, and that in rap music rhyming is essential to the telling of the story?  In creative writing classes I also always heard that modern poetry usually doesn’t rhyme.  I guess comparing rap to poetry is maybe like comparing movie storytelling to novel storytelling?  But still.  Almost everyone’s got poems memorized today, if we count the ones we dance to.  And goddamn, they call them skills for a reason – – rhyming seems hard to do well.

  18. Jonterri Gadson

      I hear you. The rap that connects with me doesn’t just rhyme, but rhymes well. One of my favorite rhymes is in Outkast’s Elevators: Yes, we done come a long way like them slim ass cigarettes from Virginia, this ain’t gon stop so we just gon continue (except he throws a southern accent on it and makes the rhyme “continya”). Let the content and the rhyme be special and you can’t tell me that verse isn’t poetry.  I plan to use examples from rap when I teach about rhyming this semester. Some students come to classes thinking that the simple fact that they made words rhyme is an accomplishment. That’s easy, we’ve all been doing that since we were toddlers. I took a forms class in my MFA program that talked about ways to make interesting rhymes. It’s more interesting to rhyme “barbecue” with “residue” than it is to rhyme “can” and “fan,” for example.

  19. Student misconceptions as “extra inhabitants” | "It was a flash that came and went, full of strangeness." – Russell Hoban

      […] an excerpt from “Starting with No,” Jonterri Gadson’s guest post at HTMLGIANT: Now when I teach my own intro to poetry writing […]

  20. JScap

      Agreed.  I always ask my freshmen comp students, “What were you told you aren’t supposed to do, writing-wise”? and put their responses on the board.  The most common restriction they come up with: no “I.”  Some of them depict their high school English teachers as zealously anti-“I,” as frenzied “I”-slaying crusaders.

  21. KKB

      And those barbecues are always so filthy, aren’t they?

  22. KKB
  23. Daniel Wallace

      Great post. I studied my “My Last Duchess” for quietening rhymes–how to make end-rhymes almost inaudible through irregular enjambment and caesura, and by rhyming different parts of speech with each other. 

  24. Guest

      I’d have to say one of the misconceptions belonged to your professor. She said most contemporary poetry doesn’t rhyme. Rap is poetry. Slam is poetry. Plenty of rhyme there. And plenty of rhyme in the kind of poetry most people write when they don’t consider themselves “serious” poets. Add up all those contemporary poems and you’ve got way more material than that produced by the small group of writers attempting to produce “literary” poetry. Why privilege one tradition over the others? 

  25. Anonymous

      I hear you. Rhyming is really satisfying to the person doing it. It’s nice to make those sonic connections, isn’t it? Some people think that if something rhymes, it’s a poem and that’s all it takes. The point she made was that published poetry somehow connected with the reader and she opened me up to the idea of a reader and ways, such as appealing to the senses in my writing, to connect to that reader. The idea that there could be more to poetry than satisfying rhymes about personal experiences was revolutionary to me. I had to let go of the focus I had on rhyming to see the many other ways of crafting a poem. The rap and slam poems that rhyme (not all slam poems rhyme) and connect with me master rhyme and have depth of meaning. Students often come into class already “privileging one tradition over another,” so my idea is that we can broaden their horizons by exposing them to some of that “literary poetry” that connected with a reader enough to be published.