Serious Lightness

A profile of teaching artist Joanna Fuhrman.

…Some pigeons

have bright yellow wheels that flash like traffic lights.

Others hide their mobility under unflappable wings.

One day students threw chairs across the room.

I hid behind an industrial stapler near a half-built bird.

When the commotion ended, the room smelled like salt

and moist armpits. Some students asked, Why are we

building the birds? Will people actually use them

as their homes or will they be primarily for travel?

This surreal bundle of imagery springs from Joanna Fuhrman’s poem, “The Happiness Factory,” found in her sixth and most recent volume, To A New Era (Hanging Loose Press, 2021). The poem took root during an online class she taught for adults during the pandemic. Finding the germ of a poem in her work with students is not uncommon for Fuhrman, who has been teaching poetry in New York City to students of all ages, from first graders to senior citizens, since she moved back to the city after graduate school in 1999.

“We were talking about how sometimes in dreams you are doing something you don’t know how to do, or something that wouldn’t exist in any other world,” Fuhrman says of that online class. “I had heard that David Hollander teaches a lesson where you have an occupation, but you don’t how to do it, or an occupation that might exist in a dream but not in real life. Based on this, I had my students read a poem by John Yau, “Carfax Abbey,” about finding oneself as a parking attendant without knowing anything about being a parking attendant, and another poem, “Ghost School,” by Kim Hyesoon. Both were very dreamlike.  The assignment I gave my students that day was to write about a dream job—not the job of their dreams—but an occupation in a dream.” For the assignment she asked the students to compile and draw from categories of words associated with animals and food. One student contributed the word “pigeon,” which eventually made its way into “The Happiness Factory.” In fact, many of the poems in To a New Era came out of writing exercises such as this one, which draws from multiple and diverse sources and exemplifies Fuhrman’s approach to teaching poetry. 

Joanna Fuhrman with classroom teacher Mary Agramonte and students. Photo courtesy of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

In the last two decades Fuhrman has honed her teaching practice in various locales throughout the city, including NYC Public Schools, Sarah Lawrence College, Poets House, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Brooklyn Poets, and other nonprofit arts organizations. For years she has a run a private poetry workshop out of her apartment, and since 2007 she has taught at Rutgers University, where she currently holds the title of Teaching Instructor and Coordinator of the Introduction to Creative Writing. 

Fuhrman credits her early mentors for shaping her approach in the classroom. One of her first classroom mentors was the poet Linda Bierds, her MFA instructor at the University of Washington. “[Bierds’] assignments were open enough that we could write about whatever we wanted,” Fuhrman says. “She’d create assignments for us on elements of craft that allowed us to learn while keeping our own style and voice.”

The poet Robert Hass, with whom she studied one summer at Skidmore, was another early influence on her teaching style. Like Bierds, Fuhrman says, Hass had an open approach to teaching about the poetic line and she appreciated his refusal to approach subject “as a static objective reality.”

“I want my students to be aware of all the choices poets make about line breaks, sonics, figurative language, and imaging,” Fuhrman says, “but I don’t want them to think of their poems as functional objects with a correct method of construction.”

In her own poetry workshops, Fuhrman encourages her students to take risks, but also to approach their work with an attitude of playfulness, which is very much the way she approaches her own work. Her classes are guided by a principle that could best be described as ‘serious lightness.’

There is, Fuhrman says, a common point at which she begins a lesson with students of any age. “I always start with some variation on an image. When you are teaching creative writing, you always get students to start with the idea that a poem creates a picture with words. It doesn’t only have to be a picture you see; it also can be something you smell and hear and taste. A poem is an experience of the world. That is true no matter what grade a student is in.”

Fuhrman’s teaching method is akin to that of legendary poet/teacher Kenneth Koch, who she describes as her “mentor’s mentor.” (Koch was a mentor to her mentor, the poet David Shapiro). Like Koch, who intrepidly taught his grade school students poems by Blake, Whitman, Williams, and Stevens, among others, Fuhrman asks her students to read poets they have likely never heard of before, and to write poems many of them never imagined writing. 

The poets and poems she brings to her classes offer a window into her approach to teaching. When choosing poems to teach, Fuhrman says she looks for work that will allow students to make connections between different types of poems, and for poems with structural characteristics that students can incorporate into their own poems.

For instance, in the weekly homework she recently assigned for her private class, she asked her students to write a poem that starts with an image that appeals to the sense of touch, and, for inspiration, had them read O’Hara’s “Walking”, which starts: I get a cinder/ in my eye, along with a translation of Brecht’s “Grass and Peppermint,” “which is about rolling around in stinging nettles.” 

One poem she uses with students of all ages is an excerpt from Victor Hernandez Cruz’s “Potpourri,” which she came across in a collection put together by Teachers & Writers Collaborative for New York City’s Special Education classes.  She says she was drawn to lines like these:

How cool I am not a subway token
that has been lost and is sitting
Quietly and lonely by the edge of
a building on 47th Street.   

“I have taught that poem from 4th grade to seniors,” she says. “It is always a hit.” With her high school students, Fuhrman often teaches Shapiro’s “To A Swan,” about the birth of his son, Daniel. The poem starts with these lines:

Then you were born, bit by bit, seeing silent and exciting.
You wanted to etch mental pain in the dust
then you were born out of buildings and pleasure and windows.   

Fuhrman is still captivated by the poem’s freshness and strangeness. Its lines, she says, bring to mind something the French poet Paul Reverdy once wrote: The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.

In her college classes, Fuhrman might bring in a poem by Denise Duhamel. “They enjoy the feminist rage and all the funny details in her work.” And inevitably she finds herself teaching the kinds of poems she herself writes, shot through with delicious mischief. Jeffrey McDaniel’s “Compulsively Allergic to the Truth” is one such poem. It is about being late, “a list poem about fake apologies,” as Fuhrman puts it: 

I am sorry I was late.

I was pulled over by a cop

for driving blindfolded  

After reading the poem in class, she will invite her students to write their own “fake apology” poems.

For very young students Fuhrman says she might bring in a poem like Kenneth Patchen’s, “The Magic Mouse”and have them imagine themselves as magical pizzas or magical trees. She will ask them some questions—What would it mean to be magical? How would it affect the way you slept, played, ate, the very clothes you wore?—and also have them generate their own questions about what they would want to know about a magical being. She writes all of their questions on the board, so that they can use their answers in the poems they create.

Fuhrman professes a special fondness for her younger students. “They always write amazing things. You don’t really have to teach them. They already know a lot.” ‘Overthinking’ is often more of a problem with her older students, she says, especially the college students. Her way of addressing this is to get students to write and write so they can avoid this pitfall. 

“I was lucky I was able to teach little kids for so many years,” she says. “It had a big effect on my own work, because little kids come up with images that have strange juxtapositions. “Children are not afraid to laugh at poetry, to be silly, and to enjoy the pleasure of not completely making sense. I try to remember this sort of joy when I am writing.”

It is not hard to see the student influence she speaks of in lines like these from To a New Era:

  A young girl in neon orange is not an iced doughnut,

 despite a shared resemblance to sprinkles.

Whatever age students she is teaching, Fuhrman says her primary emphasis is creating access to imaginative possibilities. To do this she relies intuitively on her outside-the-box alchemy, asking questions such as, “What do you think is weird about this poem?” 

“What I say in class is that just because something doesn’t exist in the world, it doesn’t mean you can’t put it in your poem. I think there is a real power and freedom in that. Poetry provides ways of making meaning that is different from the kinds of meaning you find in other sorts of communication. It reveals the spaces in our minds that are between thinking and feeling.”

A kind of secular mysticism is let loose in Fuhrman when she speaks of the creative communion that gathers in the coming together of writing, reading, and teaching poetry. “In Kenneth Koch’s poems, so much is in response to other people’s poems. That’s a really important model of what poetry is,” she says. Many beginning writers have the idea that if they read too much it will ruin the authenticity of their voice. I don’t believe that at all. Poetry is a conversation with other poets. That’s why I want my students to read a lot and find poets who really speak to them. When I share poems with students,” she adds, “I am practicing myself.”

Looking for inspiration for your creative writing classroom? Read “It Was the Year of Quiet Cities: Writing Poems About Pandemic Times“––a lesson plan based on Joanna Fuhrman’s poem, “The Year of Yellow Butterflies.”   

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based poet and nonfiction writer. Much of his nonfiction work are feature pieces on poets such as Chana Bloch, William Stafford, Tuvia Ruebner, Muriel Rukeyser, and Robert Hass. His work has appeared in SalamanderThe Jewish Review of BooksTricycleSojourners, and The Writer.

One response to “Serious Lightness”

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    Joanna rocks!