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.