EXCHANGE WITH JOANNA FUHRMAN ON TEACHING POETRY WRITING

by Thomas Fink

Thomas Fink: What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduates? What do you enjoy most about teaching students who are not aligned with a particular institution?

Joanna Fuhrman: I enjoy teaching my students at Rutgers because they are usually excited about the opportunity to try something creative. Because the introductory courses I teach fulfill a requirement, I often get students who have never been interested in poetry before. I love being able to show them how pleasurable writing creatively can be. I also teach an intermediate level poetry class. What I like best about it is figuring out ways for students to find contemporary poets they can be excited about. I assign all the students an individualized list of poets for them to research. They then pick one poet to read a book by. This week my students are presenting writing exercises they have created based on the book they chose. I love it because it allows me to see poets I love through new eyes.

In my private workshops, I have the same students for decades, so I get to know them well, and see how their work evolves over a long period of time. I also enjoy the challenge of having to come up with new ideas for writing exercises.  

Fink: Can you give an example of a writing exercise that a student derived from a book they read? How was it generative?

Fuhrman:Today a student, Rachna Vemireddy, gave a great mini-presentation on

Rosmarie Waldrop’s book The Reproduction of Profiles.

Here’s her wonderful exercise:

Pick a memorable person from your childhood, teenage years, or now. Think about the specific experiences you had with the person and what feelings that evokes. Write down concrete nouns that come to mind when you think of the person (free association). 

Pick a philosophy quote. Replace the nouns from the quote with nouns you free associated with the person. Feel free to pick more quotes.

Note: She then gave the class a list of Wittgenstein quotes to pick from.

I really liked how she combined the personal imagery with the borrowed language.

Fink:  What have you learned about poetry writing pedagogy that you didn’t know early in your teaching career?

Fuhrman: I think as I get older I am more willing to accept that I don’t know what’s happening in students’ lives. I am not going to give students credit for work that they didn’t do, but I am more open to helping students find other ways of making up work if they miss an assignment. I am also always working on not taking it personally when students slack off or don’t do work. I think I’ve made progress in this area. I used to be a little too personally invested in students leaning and doing the work. But I also think part of the change is that I am less stressed out now that I am no longer adjuncting and freelancing. Part of the reason, it was difficult for me to be flexible with students in the past was I was juggling so many jobs and always hustling to make sure I had enough work. Having one job that pays enough to live has made me a better teacher because I am less anxious, and I think this enables me to create a better atmosphere for the students.

Fink: What are some aspects of poetry writing that are especially tough to teach?

Fuhrman: The hardest thing about teaching poetry is kind of outside of poetry. There are sometimes students who have trouble hearing constructive criticism. It doesn’t happen often, but when I do get these students I find it difficult to disarm defensiveness. I remember once, many years ago, I had a student who said that he thought the clichés in his poetry were what “made them good” because the familiar language made the poems “easier to relate to.” If someone really feels this way, I don’t think anything I say is going to change their mind. All I can say is that “I am asking you to try to subvert cliches as an exercise you are experimenting with for the sake of the class—as a means of stretching your thinking and imagination, but that if you wish, when the class is over or outside of class—you are free to write as many clichés as you wish.” I want them to at least have the experience of stretching their imagination, even if, at some later day, they choose the reject that way of writing and thinking.  I can argue that clichés are not representative of the complexity of human experience, but I can’t make someone necessarily agree with me. The reality is that there are people who enjoy the comfort of the familiar, and who am I to argue that their feeling is wrong?

Fink: What happens when you urge students to tweak a cliché, as Ashbery often did? Of course, it becomes other than a cliché. Do some students gain insights about the poetic process from that?

Fuhrman: In my Introduction to Creative Writing class, we often read Harryette Mullen’s poem “Black Nikes”(a prose poem that alludes to the Heaven’s Gate cult.) I have my students notice the ways she twists and plays with common figures of speech. I then give my students a long list of idioms, and tell them to write a poem in 5 or 6 minutes that twists as many idioms as possible. I think the experience helps the students develop a playful approach to language, and takes the focus off “making meaning” in a conventional sense.

Fink:   Mullen is surely a champion of revivified clichés; she offers great models for those who do your idiom exercise.

Some creative writing professors believe in encouraging students to find their “voice”; I get the sense from your poetry and criticism on David Shapiro that you are skeptical of “voice” and welcome a multiplicity of “voices” within a single poet/poem. If my hunch is correct, what kinds of pedagogical goals replace the cultivation of “voice”? If I’m wrong, what makes “voice” continue to be important?

Fuhrman:

I don’t think consistency is necessarily a good thing in a poet, but it’s not a bad thing either. I try not to use the phrase “finding your voice,” but sometimes I do. When I use the expression, I am referring to the process of figuring out one’s aesthetic preferences.  I require my students to read a lot of contemporary poetry because I want them to find their “tribe” to find the poets whose way of seeing the world and language appeals to their own. I try to encourage students to go in a certain direction if that way of writing feels truer to me than what they are writing. I remember when I was in college, there was a semester where my work was really leaning into the lyric. (I think I was reading too much Merwin or something.) My friend said he really liked what I was writing, but it was odd because talking to me I was so sardonic but my poems were so purely beautiful. For me that was an aha moment, I didn’t want to write poems that didn’t sound like me, so I think from then on I made more of a consciousness effort to write poems that sounded more like my own speaking voice, to include jokes and other little bits of my kind of goofy personality. This kind of messy aesthetic was what drew me to the New York School, but I think for a while in undergrad I was experimenting with other ways of writing, so then I had to come back to it. Similarly, there are certain students who write in a way that doesn’t seem true to who they are. Some students are natural storytellers—they love narrative—, but I see them struggling to write poems that are all symbols and metaphors. It doesn’t work, because it’s not true to their experience of the world. Even though it’s very different from how I write, I try to encourage them to read poets who focus more on literal images and grounded, naturalistic stories. Other students are clearly half dreaming all the time, natural surrealists. I try to encourage them to be even more wild, to see how far they can push their imagination. Tongo Eisen-Martin visited my workshop this Spring, and he talked about when he writes he’s always asking himself questions and looking to his imagination for the answers. I have been quoting him a lot in the comments on my student poems this year because in whatever style my students are writing, I want them to be asking themselves questions , to always be looking for ways to add detail or to open up and expand their ideas.

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