How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part I

When I was at AWP talking about my new textbook, A Writer’s Craft, several people reacted with a question which usually amounted to the following: how can you possibly teach 4 genres in one semester? This usually came from someone who was used to teaching a 1- or 2-genre course, and I can relate to that initial shock. As I mentioned in my previous post, “Why 4 Genres?,” I started out teaching poetry and fiction together, and gradually added creative nonfiction and drama. In the beginning, I gave less time to those two step-children, but in recent years, I’ve tried to be more even-handed.

There is no one right approach to teaching creative writing for everyone, so what I do may not be perfect for you, but I thought I would try to lay out how I have learned to go about teaching 4 genres in one semester in case that will help. I figure it will take more than one blog post to do that justice, so this is Part I.

This part will be primarily about how A Writer’s Craft is structured, and how that helps me cover the material more efficiently. Part II will be about some alternative workshop strategies that help me handle larger class sizes (when I’ve had them) and get through the material more quickly while still giving students time to talk about their writing. Part III, if there is one, will be about anything I haven’t covered in the first two parts. So let’s see how it goes.

Cross-Genre Teaching

One of the main things that makes teaching creative writing in 4 genres interesting, fun, and more efficient than teaching the genres individually, is that you can see how each genre relates to and informs the others. In teaching multiple genres at the intro level, there is greater efficiency. Certain early chapters automatically relate to any genre. When we talk about the writing process, the process of finding inspiration, finding form, and revising until you have a final product, it doesn’t matter whether we are writing story (fiction or nonfiction), essay, poem, or drama. When we talk about image or the way creative writers use language differently than they do when writing essays, letters, or grocery lists, the genre of creative writing doesn’t matter. In fact, talking about the way poets do this helps fiction writers, and thinking of dramatists or novelists helps poets.

It’s not just that we don’t have to repeat those opening chapters in each successive course (Introduction to Fiction, Introduction to Poetry, etc.), but that seeing how different writers approach the same issues helps me cover all the genres in greater depth.

I didn’t come up with this approach on my own, of course. It was one of the qualities I most admired about The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley, the first textbook I used, and it was a quality I looked for in every textbook I used or considered thereafter, though I never found one that was quite as even-handed and truly cross-genre as theirs (though it didn’t include drama).

In A Writer’s Craft, I’ve tried to make it more cross-genre, not less. The opening chapters on the writing process and working with language, image, memory, and the imagination are all very open to cross-genre work. At that point, I stress that writers often don’t know what form the final product will take, and maybe they shouldn’t try to decide too early, since a predetermined form can get in the way of an idea, especially when we’re not fully comfortable with that form. With practice, form can actually lead to new ideas, but that usually works better when we know the form inside and out and can use it as a generative device, not when we’re learning the form and trying to come up with an idea at the same time.

This approach carries over into the first chapters on finding form. When discussing character and point of view, I try to apply the concepts to all genres, not just fiction. Poetry has a dramatic moment and a speaker of the poem. A creative essay has a character, even if that is only the narrator’s voice. Drama considers point of view in how it’s presented, though it doesn’t usually have a narrator. Considering point of view from these angles, for instance, helps students make sense of an abstract concept and apply it to fiction better, too. I try not to leave any of the genres out of the discussion in the opening chapters, in other words, and this helps me to find new ways to think about and explain these issues of form.

Because I am concentrating on a cross-genre approach, this also helps me introduce some topics specific to one genre in the early chapters. For instance, in the chapter about language, I introduce the concept of rhyme and rhythm. I say we’ll bring this up again when we get to poetry, so I don’t talk in terms of rhyme schemes or meter, only in terms of how writers pay attention to the sounds and rhythms of their language. This helps me when I get to poetry because I don’t have to fight as many battles about end-rhyme. We can talk about what it is and compare it to internal rhyme, but it isn’t the thing that defines poetry. Meter is easier to discuss if writers have started to notice the rhythms of stress in their sentences before they have to memorize technical terms.

Similarly, talking  about dialogue in general terms when discussing character and voice, helps me when I get to the chapters on fiction and drama, where we cover some of the more technical ways of dealing with it, like how to print it on the page. Discussing the persona of a poem, helps when talking about the narrative voice in a personal essay later.

Even in the chapters on specific genres, I always include a section on what the genre can teach writers of other genres. What do fiction writers learn from poets or playwrights, what do poets or fiction writers learn from memoir or essay? In this way, these chapters build on one another, reinforce lessons learned in a previous chapter, and challenge writers to try new techniques learned from another genre.

Rather than viewing the four genres as separate beasts or even the only options for creative writers, I try to see how they are interrelated, and how they can be remixed and reconfigured in new, hybrid forms like the prose poem, flash fiction, kinetic poetry, or hypertext fiction, the mapped essay, creative gaming, etc. Genres are choices, and as you begin to make those choices, it affects the final form of what you write, but there are great advantages to knowing and learning from the forms of other genres, even if they aren’t the forms you gravitate to. Studying them together makes for a richer and more efficient discussion of them all, and that’s one way I’m able to teach all four in one semester.

Why 4 Genres?

In A Writer’s Craft, my textbook for introduction to creative writing

Talking to people at AWP about my forthcoming textbook, one question I get is why I teach an intro class with 4 genres. The other question is how I do it, which is a more involved answer, and something I hope to write about soon. “Why?” is a little easier to answer. It is something that has developed for me over time.

When I first started teaching at The W, there was one creative writing class, EN 312 Creative Writing. We still have this as our intro class today. There was also a rarely taught Seminar for Playwrights in theatre and a course with the lovely title Advanced Prose. I was happy to keep Creative Writing as a mixed genre course, and soon developed advanced workshops in poetry and fiction. This allowed me to justify teaching just poetry and fiction in the intro class. i felt nonfiction and playwriting could be handled elsewhere, even if the situation wasn’t ideal.

My textbook at the time, The Creative Process by Carole Burke and a Molly Best Tinsley, covered 3 genres. But I left out Creative Nonfiction and told students to take Advanced Prose, which we soon renamed Nonfiction Writing. Still, it began to bother me that I wasn’t covering one chapter in the book, and eventually I found ways to incorporate some Nonfiction as well. When I finally moved on to a new textbook, I had the same transition with drama, initially ignoring it because we had another class, and eventually experimenting with including some playwriting in my class. Now, though the emphasis isn’t exactly equal, I try to spend about as much time on all four genres, and I’ve found that it really helps my students.

Everyone in my class writes at least a short, early draft in each genre, and then develops finished pieces in the genres they choose. I do require some lyric and some story forms. Fiction writers learn from playwriting, as much as I always thought they would from poetry. Poets learn from drama and nonfiction, too. Having to think about how a scene or poem might be staged or spoken aloud affects how you see it in revision, even if the final product is poetry or fiction. Writing from life in creative nonfiction, or exploring the personal essay informs the fictional story or suggests structures and imagery for a poem.

And students have the opportunity to explore modes of writing that they never considered before. I’ve had very good, albeit beginning, playscripts, and I’ve had drama scenes that turn into a story or memoir or dramatic poem. Some fiction writers or poets have been turned on to memoir or essay. We now are revitalizing our playwriting class, in part because we have someone who can teach it more regularly, and in part because there is more interest. We can treat Nonfiction as more of a workshop class and less of an intro class. And each of the genres feed off each other more when they are introduced together. I’m happy that when we focus on poetry or Nonfiction, my fiction writers don’t feel left out because I treat it as part of a study of all genres that helps us learn from each the tools that can help us with our chosen genre, and I want students to not limit themselves to one.
I don’t feel that we have less time for fiction or poetry now that we include two more genres, in other words. I try to think in cross-genre ways and have more time for all the genres because we don’t study them as isolated things. When we do this, there are a lot of topics we can cover together about the writing process and even basic issues like character, voice, or point of víew. This is much more efficient than separate intro classes by genre, and it helps students find the genres they are actually good at instead of the ones they think they are good at (and I hope they add genres they like, not replace one with another).

Why 4 genres? Because it is challenging, rewarding, and fun to teach them together and learn things from each that can be applied to any genre.

Good News Today

This morning, I heard from my publisher, Palgrave/Macmillan, about my introductory creative writing textbook A Writer’s Craft, so I updated my book page with information, including the projected pub date (August) and price ($24.00 / £14.99).

Why I Support the Mississippi Arts Commission

This week we learned that there is a bill in the Mississippi Senate to close the Mississippi Arts Commission and consolidate it under the Mississippi Development Authority. The Arts Commission director was blind-sided by this news, and obviously there was no planning with the commission that led to the proposal. According to the Clarion Ledger, the reason given for the proposal is to increase efficiency.

If it were only a matter of sharing office space or supplies, that might make sense, but the proposal is to close down the commission and recreate it at the Development Authority. The current Commissioners would remain as an advisory board, but it is unclear what role they would play, nor is it clear whether any of the current staff would be brought over.

At best, this would mean a major disruption for arts funding in the state. At worst, the arts would be subsumed under other development issues, and arts funding would become more commercialized and more politicized.

The Mississippi Arts Commission is a fine example of a state organization that is fair and equitable in its processes and awards. The commission funds everything from individual artists to local arts organizations. They fund all kinds of art, from painting, to literature, to music, to folk arts, and more. They fund projects like the Artist Roster that brings artists to schools and community organizations around the state. They promote the arts within the state and around the country.

Full disclaimer: I have been the recipient of two grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission: a mini-grant in 2005 for $500 that helped me participate in two artist residencies, where I wrote the initial poems for what would become Barrier Island Suite and some of the concluding poems in Time Capsules, and an artist fellowship of $4500 this year, which has already helped me to travel the state to give readings and will help fund other professional development opportunities.

The fellowship is an excellent opportunity and an honor to receive. It has opened many doors for me as an artist. Yet, if you think about it, since I’ve been a writer living and working in Mississippi for more than 20 years, I’ve received on average, about $250 a year to support my work. Before the fellowship, that average was a lot less! I’m not complaining, only pointing out that the awards given to individual artists are seed money that help us to develop as artists and get the word about our art out to a much larger audience. No one is getting rich off of artist fellowships.

The bigger value of the Arts Commission is in the community it builds. As an award recipient, I feel a responsibility to that community. My work is not only my own, but is connected to something larger, and my goal is to help other artists achieve the same successes that I have.

I also see the value of the Arts Commission in my local community. It awards funds to the Columbus Arts Council (and others around the state), which in turn gives grants to local groups like the Suzuki Strings of Columbus. Community festivals receive Arts Commission funding as well, and state-wide festivals like the Mississippi Book Festival rely on funding as well. I have benefitted greatly from many of these organizations and events, both as an artist and as a consumer of art.

The Mississippi Arts Commission has a vast network of individual artists and arts organizations. They have a history of effectively working with these individuals and groups, and to close their doors and attempt to recreate it under new leadership seems foolhardy and rash. It could hardly be more efficient than the well-oiled machine that is the Mississippi Arts Commission. Mississippi has a vibrant arts community, and we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Commission for fostering it. The last thing we need to do is to try to reinvent this wheel.

20 Reasons to Write or Read a Poem (besides commemorating a life event or making a buck)

This is a follow-up to my last post, “Indeed, Why Poetry?” which was a response to Daniel Halpern’s essay, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” that began with the mother of all questions: “Why poetry?” I don’t mean to start an argument, but I thought I ought to offer a few more answers to that question and give a few examples. So here goes:

  1. Just for fun: consider the ludic forms like the limerick or light verse
  2. To poke fun at all the serious poets who worry that poetry is becoming extinct: read some Dada
  3. To get laid: if you can’t make a buck, write a sonnet
  4. To rant: sometimes poets just need to complain
  5. To struggle with your soul: try Dante, Petrarch, Milton to name a few
  6. To complain about not getting laid and then struggle with your soul: definitely Petrarch, maybe John Berryman, and about a million others
  7. To focus your mind: any meditative poetry (any poetry)
  8. To focus attention on something that usually goes unnoticed: haiku
  9. To explore language in new combinations and push meaning: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Surrealists, among many others.
  10. To make a political point: see e. e. cummings, Amiri Baraka, Poets Against the Vietnam War, etc.
  11. To praise a person, idea, or object: odes or elegies
  12. To save the planet: eco-poetry
  13. To come to terms with a work of art: ekphrastic poetry
  14. To celebrate being alive
  15. To contemplate death
  16. To celebrate and explore your culture or identity
  17. For the challenge of saying exactly what you meant to say in as few words as possible
  18. For the discovery of saying what you never expected to say
  19. Because you’re tired of inane tweets
  20. Because you have a typewriter, fresh ribbon, paper, and time on your hands

Thanks for that last one to the guy in the coffee shop in Orange City, Iowa, who wrote me an impromptu poem one morning a couple of summers ago. I’m cheating a little with that, since he did make a buck or two tip out of that deal, but I suspect he did it less for the money than to while away the time and to rise to the challenge of composing a decent poem on the spur of the moment. He also ran a poetry series, though we couldn’t stay in town for that, and if I remember right, he was involved with a small literary magazine or two. Once poets get the bug, the main answer to the question “Why poetry?” often seems to be “Because poetry.”

The list above is hardly exhaustive, and I suspect there are many more reasons to write or read a poem: as many as there are moments in a day, days in a life, and different experiences that fill those moments. There’s nothing wrong with using a poem to commemorate an important life event or even with trying to earn a few dollars writing poems. My point has been that to describe poetry only in those terms is to limit it, and that commercial success is the wrong criterion to use to judge its worth. Poetry is like eating or breathing. Most people don’t earn a living doing either activity, yet we could not live without them.

Poetry is serious and poetry is frivolous. It can be both simultaneously, and it can be so many other things. It can be written for any of the reasons listed above and more, or for any combination of reasons. So I will end with Halpern’s question: “Why poetry?”

I’ve given twenty answers — what are yours?

Indeed, Why Poetry?

A Response to Daniel Halpern’s “A Few Questions for Poetry”

On Dec. 30, 2016, Halpern published a defense of poetry in the New York Times. As often seems to be the case with these kinds of defenses, he raises some valid points while making a few troubling claims, not the smallest of which is the stance that poetry needs defending.

Halpern’s evidence for this is that poetry books don’t sell, though of course they do, just not enough to make most collections commercially viable. That’s not to say that every book of poems loses money, just that the profits in publishing poetry are extremely modest. Breaking even on a book of poems is an accomplishment. I should know. 2016 is the first year in a very long time that I will have earned a royalty check on a book—both my 3rd and my 2nd collections earned enough to warrant a small check this year.

Yet writing poetry is about much more than turning a profit, and it might be argued the absence of commercial success is part of what makes poetry so valuable. It’s hard to accuse a poet of selling out to make a buck, after all. Poets write because they love the form or because they have something to say, not because they can make a living at it. In fact, there are many poets from all walks of life who write in a myriad of styles. There may be more poetry produced today than ever before. So far from being near extinction, poetry may be thriving now more than ever.

This fact was driven home to me this year, when I took over editorship (along with my MFA students) of Poetry South. We were amazed, not only by the number, but the quality of the submissions, and by the experience of the poets who sent to our small rag. Many were poets with multiple books, and most were previously unknown to us. Because of this, one goal for the magazine in 2017 is to publish a list of recent and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. We’ve started a bookshelf at LibraryThing that also shows up on our site.

Halpern is at his best when he argues that poetry is still important because it fights against extinction, though the danger is not that poetry itself will become extinct, but rather that careful, precise, musical, ludic, thoughtful use of language might go the way of the dodo without poetry to keep it alive. The act of writing or reading a poem exercises the mind in ways even the best prose can only approximate (which is not to say there is less value in prose, only that it’s different). Poems are made of patterns of sound and sense. They focus our attention or confound our senses. They can be profound or ludicrous, yet they always challenge.

So I beg to differ when Halpern appears to relegate poetry to the task of commemoration at a funeral, wedding, or other important moment in our lives. To be fair, he does acknowledge other roles for poetry, but keeps coming back to commemoration as his touchstone. The existence of sites like Poetry Daily is evidence that poetry is for more than commemorating the important moments. It is also for the everyday moments.

One of my students has started a poetry open mic series in our small Southern town that has proven quite popular and spilled over into the neighboring town as well. I remember the early days of the Poetry Slam in Chicago when there was a similar energy for poetry (and still is). Poetry is not only published in books, but it is found in coffee shops, bars, magazines, on buses, bulletin boards, or online. So book sales should not be the primary evidence of poetry’s current state of health. Look at who’s writing and reading and listening to poetry, and you’ll find that it’s doing all right.

But certainly there’s nothing wrong with a good defense of poetry such as Halpern’s. I would agree that poetry could use even more readers and listeners. However, if in defending it, you box poetry into a corner and relegate it to a limited role like commemoration, then there might be something wrong with the defense. Or if you make it out to be near extinction, that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I doubt either was Halpern’s intent, yet reading the defense made me wonder whether it is better to defend poetry or to celebrate it, to decry the lack of sales or to acknowledge the sheer number of practicing poets and readers of poetry, who clearly aren’t in it for the money.

Catch, Knox College Magazine

This week, I had a blast from the past, an email from Knox College asking about the times the undergraduate literary magazine, Catch, had won the CCLM national prize. The acronym is for the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, which around 1990 changed its name to CLMP —Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.

The three covers above are from 1985/86, the year I was the lead editor (with Patricia Bereck for the first issue). As I recall, we submitted the winter issue (middle one) for the prize. It was fun to go back to my back issues and see what we had published. And it brought back memories of working on my first magazine — appropriately, since this week, I sent the 8th issue of Poetry South (the first one produced by MUW).

We were not the first or the last. Sean Bronzell and Ann Suchomski won the award in 1983, and we think there was at least one more in the 1990s, and Knox has won AWP’s undergraduate prize, which took over the mantel of CLMP in recent years.

Back when Sean and Ann won, and when I did our first two issues in 1986, we were still working with photographic paper and wax, when cutting and pasting really meant what it says. For the Spring issue, we got to move to a computerize typesetting machine, which still used photo paper and wax, but you could see what you were typing and could edit on screen. That way we did most of our editing digitally and didn’t have to cut and paste nearly as much. We still worked on a light table to get the layout the way we wanted, but life was much easier. Nowadays, things have come a long way, and we don’t even use paper much, just pdf files created by InDesign, so everything is digital. But there’s still a lot that hasn’t changed — especially proofreading!