A Conversation with Maya Pindyck

Maya Pindyck is co-author of A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers: Reorienting Classroom Literacy Practices, and a former T&W teaching artist. This exchange with T&W Editorial Board member Susan Karwoska took place over email in October 2022. Read an excerpt from A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers by Maya Pindyck and Ruth Vinz here.

Maya Pindyck
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Susan Karwoska (SK): Your book is dedicated to “the teachers.” How did your own experience as a teacher, both past and present, inform the writing of the book? What was the genesis of A Poetry Pedagogy?

Maya Pindyck (MP): The idea for the book began while sitting with Ruth [Vinz] in her office at Teachers College when I was a doctoral student there. We were talking about the teaching of poetry, and I remember another doctoral student, an English teacher, hearing our conversation and saying, “Oh poetry’s not my thing.” When she left, Ruth and I reflected on how common it is to hear that from English teachers, and how one rarely hears an English teacher say “Fiction’s not my thing.” What is it about poetry? We wanted to better understand and name the schooling practices that can ruin poetry for teachers and students alike: interpreting a poem to discover a “correct” meaning, believing that a poem needs special decoding skills, treating poems as esoteric or reserved only for “poetry month,” worrying that poems are too personal and therefore impossible to assess, and other heavy and/or distancing ideas about poetry. As we were writing the book, Ruth brought in Diana [Liu] and Ashlynn [Wittchow], two brilliant doctoral students and teachers, who started out as research assistants and ended up creating the book’s resource section.

My own teaching experiences as a public high school English teacher, a teaching artist in K-12 classrooms throughout New York City, an adjunct instructor at various universities, and now as an assistant professor at Moore College of Art & Design, interfaced with lots of different attitudes towards poetry in the classroom and forced me to confront my own relationship to poetry as an educator. When I was a classroom English teacher, I felt a sharp divide between my role as a teacher and my passion and compulsion to make work as a writer/artist. I found it challenging to bring the two together, especially given the standards-driven pressure I felt to be an “effective” teacher and the overwhelming sense of burnout.

I remember an inspiring teaching artist from BAM visiting my classroom one day, and I paused to wonder: if this is the poet/artist, then who am I in this classroom? That moment was uncomfortable, destabilizing, and generative for me. It led me to become a teaching artist and, later, while at Teachers College, to interview teaching artists (mostly from Teachers & Writers) about how they perceived their role in the classroom in relation to the role of the English teacher. There was something both logical and totally absurd to me about that distinction. When Ruth and I set out to write this book, we wanted to dissolve the boundary between teacher and artist/writer and offer teachers other ways into poetry that could affect classroom literacy practices. So, this is a book for the teachers. What teachers do with and through poetry, and how they see themselves in relation to poetry, can burst open how students grow to work language.

“What teachers do with and through poetry, and how they see themselves in relation to poetry, can burst open how students grow to work language.”

Maya Pindyck

SK: In the book’s introduction, you write about “the importance of teachers’ immersion into the reading and writing of poetry themselves” when teaching poetry. In your experience, how does this change the way poetry is taught? What does the poet/teacher or teacher/poet bring to the classroom?

MP: When you’re immersed in reading and writing poetry yourself, you’re immersed in a space of questions, wonder, and bewilderment, which can transfer to the classroom, which may suddenly feel less like a classroom and more like a collective space for experimentation and play. What I loved about being a teaching artist for Teachers & Writers Collaborative was the conditions it set up for me to dive into poetry with my students. I was guiding them through a lesson, sure, but we were also writing together, sometimes in parallel ways, sometimes through sharing lines and ideas. Just as I was there to lift and expand their writing, they lifted and expanded my own writing practice.

I’ll never forget a group of fourth graders I taught through a T&W residency. We were making metaphors based on an exercise that you, Susan, shared with me around Wallace Stevens’ “Someone Put a Pineapple Together” poem where, after reading the poem together and trying to “see” the poem’s metaphors in an actual pineapple, the teaching artist distributes random fruits/vegetables to students to create their own metaphors. One student described an onion as “The heavy balloon. / A teacup rolling away. / Tears. / The watching eye.” Another wrote this about a grapefruit: “The sun with many doorways to the middle.” A piece of ginger root for one student became “a bulb to light the candle of a daffodil.” Those lines still stun me. Who is the poet/teacher in the room? It must be the poems: that shared magic that happens when we attune ourselves to the possibilities in things and translate what we sense into strange, living language.

That’s why Ruth and I began our book with “Let the Poem Do the Teaching.” The poem has so much to teach us, if we just slow down as readers, listen to it, and let it do its thing without immediately projecting our answers, interpretations, and assumptions onto it. A poem invites us to ask: What are we sensing by being with this poem, and returning to this poem? What can we grow to know by way of lingering with what we notice about the poem?

“The poem has so much to teach us, if we just slow down as readers, listen to it, and let it do its thing…”

Maya Pindyck

SK: The book includes images of intriguing mixed media works you created from found sources. How do you see these visual images relating to the text of the book? 

MP: The visual images came out of a parallel art practice: small mixed-media works, 3×3 inches, that I started making in 2020. I translate images from the news into mostly abstract compositions. Ruth encouraged me to incorporate my visual art into the book, so I started playing with pairing some of those mixed media works with the stanzas from Stevens’ poem. Surprisingly, the visual works became a sideways door for us to continue theorizing a poetry pedagogy—we saw them offering their own mode of attunement to the language of Stevens’ poem. So, we decided to pair each stanza with an image, printed in the book in black & white, as a way of opening up loose modes of thinking, questioning, and connecting to the text. We also liked that each visual image invites some pause before reading the stanza. As an ongoing practice, they also feel to me like mini stanzas of a poem I am still writing.

SK: In your preface you talk about the importance of recognizing “the political implications of how and what we imagine as possible,” quoting Jahan Ramazani’s statement that “decolonization is not only a political and military process but also an imaginative one.” In this time of book banning and school library “audits,” that sometimes seem to target imagination itself, do your aims for A Poetry Pedagogy feel more urgent than ever?

MP: Yes. They really do. Book banning and library “audits” are about fear of imagining, fear of change. When we shake up language to feel/think something differently than the status quo maintains, we are doing something dangerous and inevitably political. Poetry shakes up how we think and feel and know. Put two words near each other that you’d never imagine together before and something transforms, a kind of magic happens. I remember Jason Reynolds talking about this in an interview with Krista Tippet—he called it an alchemic process. Kids do this all the time. Poetry helps us not to lose that magic—to keep the play and joy and wildness alive—which is also a keeping alive of our minds and hearts from colonialist structures of thinking/feeling that reproduce binaries, conformity, rigid and stale ways of being in the world, clichés, flat images, stereotypes. A Poetry Pedagogy incites a reorientation of how we read and write and make and collaborate.

“When we shake up language to feel/think something differently than the status quo maintains, we are doing something dangerous and inevitably political.”

Maya Pindyck

SK: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you’d like to answer? 

MP: Maybe a question about the book’s mentor texts/sample poems, since that process feels so much a part of what the book is about.

We sent out a wide call to poets we know, inviting them to contribute a poem to the book. We offered a range of writing prompts connected to the book’s pedagogical principles, and also the option to send us existing, unpublished poems. As a result, many of the sample poems in the book came out of that process, with poets responding to writing prompts in similar ways that the book asks teachers to try out in invitational exercises. That act of going with the prompt and seeing what comes from it is so much in the spirit of the book, and we were able to form an unexpected community of poems around each principle while rewriting parts of the book around the gifted poems.

Maya Pindyck is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and scholar. Her most recent poetry collection, Impossible Belonging, won the 2021 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from Anhinga Press in 2023. In collaboration with Ruth Vinz, Diana Liu, and Ashlynn Wittchow, she co-authored A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers: Reorienting Classroom Literacy Practices (Bloomsbury, 2022). Pindyck taught in classrooms throughout New York City for over ten years and earned her PhD in English Education from Teachers College. Currently, she is assistant professor and director of Writing at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.

Susan Karwoska is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship in Fiction; a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace residency for emerging artists; and residencies at the Ucross Foundation and at Cummington Community of the Arts. From 2005-2014 she was the editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine and currently serves on its editorial board.

Featured image courtesy of Maya Pindyck.

Teachers & Writers Magazine

Teachers & Writers Collaborative: www.twc.org