This past week, UNCW hosted writer’s week, a special yearly event where writers from all over are invited to give craft talks, panels, and readings for the Wilmington community. Professors of creative writing give their students time off from regular classes in order to encourage students to attend the events. For me, it was a nice break from the usual slog of grading, teaching, and homework and helped remind me why I’m here–not to fulfill requirements, but to try out being a writer, see if it fits.
My favorite event was the poetry craft talk given by Patrick Phillips. I had actually not come across Mr. Phillips work before that day, but I’m thrilled he was brought to my attention. His forthcoming collection, Elegy for a Broken Machine, is one I’m excited to get my hands on–and I’m apparently not the only one, as I noticed Amazon smacked an editor’s pick award on it.
His talk was giddy, goofy, self-mocking, and joyfully, unabashedly smart. He spoke of what makes a poem end–of closure, stating that he was partial to poems that, as Yeats said, “clicked shut.” He mentioned several poems that follow a rhythm or pattern, deviate, and then bring the poem home, using both meter and rhyme in order to signal to the reader that a finish is coming. He likened certain metrical variations to the way a drummer cues the audience to the coming close of a song with a big flourish, that creates a sense of anticipation in the listener.
I always appreciate poets who can skillfully liken their craft to music. Music somehow seems more approachable to people, young students, especially. It can be a way in to an art form most often considered too elite (which I hate! Poems should be for everyone).
Additionally, after, when I went up to him to chat/thank him, Phillips encouraged me to keep a PhD in mind for a next step in my career. Even though I’ll have three master’s by the time I’m 29, which, someone pointed out, is like the equivalent of a PhD, and even though I’m weary of the hoops of academia, I do still dream about being Dr. Shubert. Always have, ever since I knew what a PhD was. But I’m glad I’m getting my MFA, if only to rest on the other side of the creator/academic coin. Phillips pointed out often PhDs get taken more seriously as teachers, and, well, my goal is to keep teaching at the college level. He also affirmed my belief that an academic understanding of literature can be inspiring, though the flip side of that is to watch out for an overly analytical tone in one’s poetry, something I’m struggling with right now, to the point where maybe a PhD isn’t the best idea right now. But I appreciated that he believed enough in my story to encourage me to go for it.
In other news, my students are starting to write their own poems this week, and I already had a panicked email from a student telling me she was lost and too scared her poems weren’t as a poem “should be.” I directed her to Billy Collin’s “Introduction to Poetry” and Ruth Forman’s “Poetry Should Ride the Bus” and asked her what she thought those poets were saying about people who thought poetry “should” be a certain way. I then gave her a bunch of prompts, told her poetry was possibility and encouraged her to have fun with experimenting and to stop being so hard on herself. To find something she cared about to bring to life on the page, while still adhering to our core tenants of clear, precise, image-driven, non cliched language.
It makes me sad when students, especially college students, like her come to me in this state of panic, this state of “poetry cannot be for me, I must somehow inherently suck at it” in a way they do not do with non-fiction or fiction. I’m not sure what kind of horrible experience they had with it in high school or middle school. Right now, my middle schoolers take to it much more easily and without self-judgment or hesitation. I try to call them poets early. To urge them not to let any stodgy professorial type bar them from something that is as odd as civilization and should be as accessible as music. To that end, I almost find teaching middle school creative writing easier. They have not quite yet learned to filter out their inner muse, to question it’s validity and worth.
I wish I still wrote like a middle schooler: much less self-conscious, more driven by the thrill of it. I’ll try to keep that in mind when, next semester, as a poet, I tackle fiction, a genre I devour, but have not tried to write since high school!