Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Do You Teach Poetry?

If so, you need to know about the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching!

The conference is much shorter than either Helen Vendler's NEH seminar or my own--five days, not three to five weeks--but it, too, offers teachers the opportunity to study poetry intensively with master teachers and poets, the people who know it best. The conference director, poet Baron Wormser, is co-author of the single most inspiring book I know about teaching poetry: the immensely useful and readable A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day By Day.

Here's the scoop:
For the past seven years, THE FROST PLACE, a Museum and Poetry Center in Franconia, New Hampshire, has hosted a Conference on Poetry and Teaching; this year's conference will run from June 25–29, 2007.

A unique opportunity for teachers to work closely with their peers and with a team of illustrious poets who have particular expertise and enthusiasm for sharing poetry with young people, featuring Director Baron Wormser and Resident Poet/Teacher Renée Olander plus poets Patricia Fargnoli, Dzvinia Orlowsky, Tim Seibles and BJ Ward.

Tuition: $500 ($400 N.H. teachers), plus $80 for meals (optional but recommended).

3 graduate credits available through the University of New Hampshire system.

Applications accepted from December 1, 2007.

Each summer, the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching brings together hard-working classroom teachers and highly skilled poet/teachers to share their experiences of how poetry is most effectively presented in the classroom — not as a fossilized system of literary tropes, but as a living art.

As one teacher participant said, “This week I learned more about the craft of poetry than I ever did as an undergraduate.”

“Poets talk about how poems work. Students and teachers can do that, too. That’s why we bring poets and teachers together at The Frost Place—so the teachers can hear how poets look at poems.” —Baron Wormser, Iron Horse Literary Review (Spring 2004)

Conference director Baron Wormser is the author of seven acclaimed collections of poetry and co-author of two influential books on teaching poetry. Baron’s co-facilitator for the 2007 Conference on Poetry and Teaching will be Renée Olander, who for five years has led annual seminars for K–12 teachers in poetry pedagogy for The Tidewater Writing Project, an affiliate of The National Writing Project.

In addition, four nationally recognized poets, over the course of five days, will present very specific ideas about teaching poetry, including sample exercises and prompts that teachers will be invited to try out then discuss. We’ll talk in depth about poems and writing. Each day will offer sessions devoted to the participants sharing of their own teaching ideas, a popular element in past conferences. The final morning session will provide an opportunity to discuss what’s been learned and ways to implement new approaches.

And both faculty poets and participants will have the chance to read their poems in Robert Frost’s historic barn, now a rustic auditorium/classroom.

“After one morning, heck, after one hour in the barn, I was cured. By today, I am recharged, rededicated, and bolstered by the company of amazing educators whose kindred spirits I will call upon in the year to come. It may sound ridiculous, but there are moments when I thought, 'This is so good to be here. It's nearly too good to be true.' And listening to poets read at night made the week sublime.”

“I continue to see so many ways I can use poetry in the classroom and I plan to do so. There's no end in sight—soon it may be all poetry, all the time.”

Application Process and Fees

To apply, send a brief letter describing your current teaching position, background, and interest in poetry and teaching to:

The Frost Place Teacher Conference
Box 74
Franconia, NH 03580

Applications for the conference are accepted after December 1, 2006, and are read and reviewed as they are received. Space is strictly limited to preserve the opportunity for participants to interact with the poets in an informal setting.

Tuition for the conference is $500 ($400 for New Hampshire teachers). Daily lunch and two dinners (optional but recommended, as alternatives are some distance away) are available for $80.

Three graduate credits are available for conference participants through the University System of New Hampshire at an additional fee ($636 in 2006: Please inquire about 2007 rates). Certification of contact hours is also provided.

Reasonably priced accommodations can be found locally (see suggestions on the Frost Place website, or let us know if you’d like to receive a list in the mail). Public school teachers are urged to inquire if their principals have Title 5 and Rural Education Program funds for professional development to disperse, which teachers have found can partially or fully cover tuition expenses for this conference.


Baron Wormser, founder and director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, is the author of seven collections of poetry and co-author of two guides for teachers, Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves and A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day. Baron has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Maine, Augusta. He served as Poet Laureate of Maine from 2000 to 2006. He is currently on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA Program and works as an independent poetry teacher and mentor. He lives with his wife in Hallowell, Maine.

Resident Poet/Teacher Renée Olander’s poems, interviews and essays have appeared in many journals, including The Writer’s Chronicle, Verse and Universe, and MARGIE. Nominee for a Pushcart Prize and recipient of the Kate Smith Award for Poetry, for the past five years Renée has led annual seminars in poetry pedagogy for K–12 teachers through The Tidewater Writing Project, an affiliate of The National Writing Project. A graduate of Mary Baldwin College (BA, 1984) Old Dominion University (MA, 1987), and the University of Southern Maine (MFA., 2005), she now serves as director of Old Dominion University’s Virginia Beach Higher Education Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Patricia Fargnoli is the author of three collections of poetry and two chapbooks. Her first book, Necessary Light (Utah State University Press, 1999) was awarded the May Swenson Poetry Award, judged by Mary Oliver. Her newest book is Duties of the Spirit. Pat, a retired social worker, is a graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work. She currently teaches in the Lifelong Learning program of Keene State College and privately. A Touring Artist for the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, in 2006 Pat was named New Hampshire State Poet. She resides in Walpole, New Hampshire.

2006 Pushcart Prize-winning poet Dzvinia Orlowsky is a founding editor of Four Way Books and a contributing editor to Agni, Marlboro Review, and Shade. She is the author of three poetry collections, — A Handful of Bees, Edge of House, and Except for One Obscene Brushstroke — with a fourth, Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones, due in early 2008. Dzvinia has taught at Emerson College and the Stonecoast MFA Program, and she currently teaches in the Solstice MFA Creative Writing program of Pine Manor College.

Tim Seibles was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Hurdy-Gurdy, Hammerlock, and Buffalo Head Solos. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and also received an Open Voice Award from the 63rd Street Y in New York City. He has been a workshop leader for Cave Canem (a retreat for African American writers) and for the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. He lives in Norfolk, Virginia, and is a member of Old Dominion University's English Department and MFA in Writing faculties.

BJ Ward’s three books of poetry are 17 Love Poems with No Despair, Landing in New Jersey with Soft Hands, and Gravedigger’s Birthday (finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize). BJ’s poetry has been featured on National Public Radio, New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts,” and Poetry Daily, as well as in journals such as TriQuarterly, Poetry, Painted Bride Quarterly, Puerto Del Sol, and The Sun. In 2002, one of his poems (“For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims”) was cast in bronze and acquired by Grounds for Sculpture, an outdoor museum in Hamilton, New Jersey. He has received fellowships from the Dodge Foundation and the Artists/Teachers Institute, been named Teaching Artist of the Year by Playwrights Theatre for his work in the N.J. Writers Project, and has received the New Jersey Governor’s Award in Arts Education. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Warren County Community College, and he lives on a bank of the Musconetcong River in Changewater, N.J.

Friday, January 12, 2007

"Emily Dickinson Stuff"

One of my former graduate students has a website under construction all about Teaching Emily Dickinson, with explications, exercises, musical settings, lesson plans geared to various grade levels, and a nifty "exploring the variants" program that lets you swap in variant words and read the poem accordingly. I think my favorite page, though--and the one I can see students liking the most as well, at many ages--is one about "Dickinson as Cartoonist." Who knew?

Hats off to C--! Swing by and give her my regards. One of these days I'd love to teach a full class of English 220 (see below) with nothing but Donne and Dickinson--or maybe one more author, to teach them about free verse. But you could learn just about everything you need to know, at least where poetry is concerned, just from those two, no?

Tips for 220

As most of you know, "220" is English 220 (Reading Poetry), my bread-and-butter course here at DePaul. It's required for all English majors, and I teach it three or four times a year, each time differently. This makes for rockier evaluations sometimes--I dread what mine look like from last quarter--but at least it keeps me learning, keeps me on my toes.

I realized yesterday that I'm always throwing out bits of advice to my students which I, perhaps foolishly, want them to notice and follow, even if they're not in the textbook. This quarter I'm going to post them up here as they occur to me, and I'd love to get feedback on them from all readers. If you think I should amend or discard or tweak them, let me know--and if you have tips of your own, please pass them along!

The three I annouced in yesterday's class were:
  • Never talk about the poem's "message." Poems rarely have a nice, neat "message," a "bottom line," or a "moral" they want to convey, and even when they do, to use the word "message" (or "moral," or "bottom line") makes you sound like a junior high school student. You're in college; you're an English major; it's time to sound like one.
  • Don't worry about figuring out "what the author intended." You'd have to read his or her mind to do that, and even then, the poem as written might not say or do what the author wanted. Your job is to figure out what the words and phrases and sentences in front of you are up to: what they say, what they do, and how they fit together.
  • When you read or discuss a poem, use Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts is the one to choose. (This means, of course, that you have to look for all the facts, but that's just a matter of paying attention, and of being honest.)
By the end of this I may sound like Lazarus Long, but I think the effort will be worth it.

More as they come to me--

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Another Poem I'll be Using this Quarter

Here for safe-keeping, and for distribution. It's by Luis Urrea, and can be found in a lovely book of photographs--one line or two accompanying each picture--by Jose Galvez, superb for classroom use. The book is simply called Vatos; the poem is a litany in trochaic pentameter (a rare meter, in my experience) called

Hymn to Vatos Who Will Never Be in a Poem

All the vatos sleeping in the hillsides
All the vatos say goodnight forever
All the vatos loving their menudo
All the vatos faith in la tortilla
All the vatos fearing the alarm clock
All the vatos Wino Jefe Peewee
All the vatos even the cabrones
All the vatos down por vida homeboys
All the vatos using words like ranfla
All the vatos who woke up abandoned
All the vatos not afraid of daughers
All the vatos arms around their sisters
All the vatos talking to their women
All the vatos granting their forgiveness
All the vatos plotting wicked paybacks
All the vatos sleeping under mota
All the vatos with tequila visions
All the vatos they call maricones
All the vatos bleeding in the alley
All the vatos chased by helicopters
All the vatos dissed by pinches white boys
All the vatos bent to pick tomatoes
All the vatos smoked by Agent Orange
All the vatos brave in deadly classrooms
All the vatos pacing in the prisons
All the vatos pierced by needle lightning
All the vatos who were once our fathers
All the vatos even veteranos
All the vatos and their abuelitos
All the vatos proud of tatuajes
All the vatos carrying a lunch pail
All the vatos graduating law school
All the vatos grown up to be curas
All the vatos never been to misa
All the vatos Jimmy Spider Tito
All the vatos lost their tongues in Spanish
All the vatos can’t say shit in English
All the vatos looking at her photo
All the vatos making love till morning
All the vatos stroking their own hunger
All the vatos faded clear as windows
All the vatos needing something better
All the vatos bold in strange horizons
All the vatos waiting for tomorrow
All the vatos sure that no one loves them
All the vatos sure that no one sees them
All the vatos sure that no one hears them
All the vatos never in a poem
All the vatos told that they don’t belong here
All the vatos beautiful young Aztecs
All the vatos warrior Apaches
All the vatos sons of Guadalupe
All the vatos bad as la chingada
All the vatos call themselves Chicanos
All the vatos praying for their children
All the vatos even all you feos
All the vatos filled with life eternal
All the vatos sacred as the Sun God
All the vatos Flaco Pepe Gordo
All the vatos rising from their mothers

All you vatos you are not forgotten.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An Old Friend

W. H. Auden, “That Night When Joy Began”

That night when joy began
Our narrowest veins to flush,
We waited for the flash
Of morning’s leveled gun.

But morning let us pass,
And day by day relief
Outgrows his nervous laugh,
Grown credulous of peace,

As mile by mile is seen
No trespasser’s reproach,
And love’s best glasses reach
No fields but are his own.

I love the stanza here; always have. This quarter, among other short verse-writing assignments, I'm going to have my students try to figure out the rules that generate it, and write one stanza themselves. A lot of such assignments this quarter, for a change. I'll let you know how it goes!

Musings Pedagogical

What do I want to do in my Reading Poetry couse this quarter?

I want to start by introducing them to two aspects of what it means to be a reader of poetry: the side of freedom, and the side of mastery.

Viewed from the side of freedom, poetry is the genre in which anything that can happen in language does happen. Language has no reality principle; it can speak impossible desires, make nonsense sound perfectly reasonable, perfectly true; it can please us, delight us, even when we don’t know what it’s saying. From this perspective, poetry is the genre that’s all about what Keats called “Negative Capability”: the ability to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It lets us muse, it lets us be outrageous and extravagant and surprised, it sakes off cliches and lets us play with words as no other adult setting ever allows. It is free, and it sets us free.

There is, however, another side to being a reader of poetry: one that is, I think, equally potent, equally compelling, equally attractive, and equally important. I call this the aspect of mastery.

Viewed through the lens of mastery, poetry is the genre in which language can achieve something close to absolute perfection. The poem is a made thing, a “little world made cunningly,” to borrow a phrase from John Donne, but more than that, it is a radically coherent little world, a world where every part connects with some other part, and every word, every phrase, every gesture of language makes sense in light of the whole. From this perspective, the pleasure of reading poetry lies in our ability to understand that inner logic of the poem, to see how shifts in language (no matter how tiny) enact shifts in mood or idea, to figure out every nuance of the speaker’s character. The pleasure of reading poetry here is precisely the pleasure of an activity, of coming to know the poem; it’s the pleasure you feel in answering questions like “what are all the systems of the poem—of sound, of diction, of mood, of idea, of character—that this particular word fits into?”

Lately I've emphasized the second of these in my classes, to the exclusion of the first. In my own reading life, though, the second came second, far later than the first, and was for many years the way I read poems only in classroom situations. This quarter, I think I'll try to slip it in somewhat later in the term--or, if not, flag it for students as a second, alternative way to read poems, and one that will (for many of them) come harder, and probably later.

An experiment.

Now, what poems to teach, and when?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy new year, everyone--or new calendar year, as I suppose I'll call it over at my Big Jewish Blog. What I'll call it at Teach Me Tonight, I don't know--but a quick glance shows me that Laura Vivanco, my esteemed co-conspirator there (heck, the woman who writes it, mostly, now) has already posted a greeting, so I'll leave it be.

Having cleverly waited until January 1 to post, I'm free of the resolution duty. Last year my resolution was to keep up the good work; as far as the blogosophere goes, however, I've been a bit slow to post, and scattered in my topics, so a resolution to show up here and keep writing wouldn't be bad. I feel so scattered, sometimes, from role to role, blog to blog, topic to topic, that it's easiest just to retreat into silence for long periods, plugging away at one or more of my projects and trusting that you'll take a gander now and then to see whether I'm back. But this year, I'll try harder. Really. Hold me to that.


My winter quarter classes start this Thursday, I suddenly realize. Dang! I thought I had another week to plan and prep them. This officially opens the "What Was I Thinking?" door in my brain--the week of self-doubt as I look over the books I've ordered and try to remember why on earth I wanted to use them. In my Reading Poetry class I've ditched Camille Paglia and the whole literary-historical approach I took last quarter, and have retreated to Kenneth Koch's studiously genial Making Your Own Days: the Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, along with The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, a promising new (well, newish) "anthology of anthologies," organized in chronological clusters by genre, theme, and form. (It starts, for example, with scraps of epics: the Odyssey, Book 9, some Beowulf, some Milton, the whole of The Rape of the Lock, some Whitman, Pound, H.D., the full Waste Land, and a section or two from Omeros.) I have today and tomorrow to decide how to deploy these two texts--in retrospect, I probably should have stuck with only one--and how to teach this class in some fresh, engaging new way, so that it doesn't madden me as it did last quarter.


One reason I chose the Koch, as I recall, had to do with his emphasis, early in the book, on the centrality of sound to poetry. Indeed, he defines poetry right from the start as "a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax." Quoth the poet, who ought to know, "Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say, and in fact it's often impossible to distinguish one from the other" (20).

Now, that's a definition that gives me qualms as a professor. My students struggle so often to make out the simplest, plainest, most prosaic sense of a poem that I worry what will happen if I tell this on the first or second day of class. On the other hand, as a reader of poetry, I'd have to say that Koch is right on target--and, come to think of it, that my students' difficulties with the plain prose sense have almost nothing to do with the fact that they are reading poetry per se. (They've been raised by wolves, alas! College-level vocabulary, complex sentence structure, quickness of wit, broad range of reference: these are what they face in poetry, as in fiction, but with poems, they can't fake their way past puzzlement, or at least not so easily.)

In any case, this morning the kind folks at the Poetry Foundation offered me this to read, by Robert Hass, and I must admit that the pleasures I take in it are largely--not entirely, but often and initially--pleasures of sound. How, I wonder, can I teach my students to hear the trochaic "rhyme" that holds the opening stanza together so cleverly, or the other sonic pleasures in these lines? That's the first task, perhaps, of this quarter's ENG 220. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.
After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa

by Robert Hass

New Year’s morning—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

A huge frog and I
staring at each other,
neither of us moves.

This moth saw brightness
in a woman’s chamber—
burned to a crisp.

Asked how old he was
the boy in the new kimono
stretched out all five fingers.

Blossoms at night,
like people
moved by music

Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

Fiftieth birthday:

From now on,
It’s all clear profit,
every sky.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

These sea slugs,
they just don’t seem


Bright autumn moon;
pond snails crying
in the saucepan.
Wish me luck! And if you have any advice, including advice I've given you myself, and since forgotten, please do send it my way.