EDUCATING THE IMAGINATION
Photo (above) courtesy of Karen Keats
In high school, too many students learn to hate poetry at the very time they most want to express themselves and experiment with language. What a shame. I don’t want to blame teachers, and I have less desire to blame whatever chestnuts are being rehashed mechanically. There’s no reason an anthology piece by Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, or Langston Hughes can’t serve as the desirable gateway to poetry. Allow me to assume a few things that reflect even my own high school English classroom experiences. You get safe, digestible poems. You get little time to explore them but as arguments to take apart and paraphrase. Poetry is rarely considered as a sensual or creative enterprise. Instead, a snippet of King Lear on a practice AP exam is yet one more numbing exercise in service to the ubiquitous, and much-dreaded, Five-Paragraph Essay. More and more of my students each year report completing high school without ever encountering a single poem. Each semester I ask students to raise their hands to gauge how many of them recognize the names of T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Emily Dickinson. Shockingly, not too many arms go up. Fewer remain, however, when I ask how many have actually read, let alone remember, work by any of these poets.
Even so, the problem of students having little prior exposure to real-live literature is easily remediable. They come to college, they sign up for creative writing, maybe they figure if I missed something back there, now’s the time. Yet another obstacle presents itself. The larger culture has inundated students with expectations of making new experiences instantly relatable, somewhat facile, immediate, cognitively “typical.” So if they haven’t been exposed to much poetry in high school, or were, but wrongly, I don’t for a second expect them to be too eager to hear that American poetry today is the most exciting thing out there.
And to lose poetry in the greater context of contemporary culture is truly a missed opportunity on so many fronts. Most ironic is the fact that the very world students are plugged-into from the cradle now—the Internet, social media, streaming TV, pop music—is exactly where many of the most vital and challenging poets today are staging their experiments with language. Our culture is what poetry is grappling with by and large, reinventing, undermining, celebrating. From the YouTube sermons in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the Tumblr poetics of Trisha Low, to the “money shot” slangs of Rae Armantrout, Eileen Myles, and John Ashbery—contemporary American poetry’s as ambitious and vital as it’s ever been.
And so: my general philosophy of teaching poetry is to infiltrate and inculcate whenever possible the shared vocabulary of the classroom as I find it—increasingly a vernacular based in entertainment and technology industries. To teach anything new, to present it in with proper appeal and enthusiasm, I try first to assess what existing frame of reference, if any, not only glues the students together but also binds myself as a teacher to their lived lives and open-ended imaginations. Here again poetry is a great possibility.
Many of my students hail from all over the map. Their identities are incredibly wide ranging—ethnically, socio-economically, you name it. Happily, my classes represent the real diversity of America’s next generation. Still, many first-time creative writing students haven’t dedicated themselves to reading quite yet and my top priority is to make that happen. No one’s interested in writers who aren’t readers first, and by reading I don’t just point to texts, but, in the Barthesian sense, I mean being able to read across culture, information, semiotics. Sure I want them to be processors willing to identify terms and analyze rhetoric, but more importantly, I want their minds to play, fabricate, pretend, distort, impersonate, question, trouble, subvert.
The machinery of my poetry gospel increasingly takes its cues from the arts: from traditional disciplines like painting, classical music, sculpture, dance, to the popular media of sitcoms, pop music and hip hop, video games, and the vast array of linguistic practices and data-juggling skills suggested by our information-age platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text messaging, e-mails. The fine arts aren’t necessarily something most of my incoming students are versed in either. But students in a visual culture easily react to a Cindy Sherman self-portrait, a Ryan Trecartin video, a Catherine Opie profile in ways that Lyn Hejinian or Leslie Scalapino, comparably complex poets, can leave them cold at first. They might not be ready to articulate what’s happening; but they often sense and know at the stimulus-level something in these visual artists is happening, and they want in.
Contemporary poetry, in its increasing embrace and supercharged collapse of culture and technology, as not just content-collection but formal innovation, is an ideal match to teaching the other arts, and vice versa. I don’t expect my students to know or really care about the subtleties of Petrarchan vs. Shakespearean sonnets. The niceties of these distinctions are not exactly relevant to their lives, the aims of their expression, per se. But even my students who aren’t hip-hop fanatics recognize the ingenuity and relevance of certain hip-hop and pop tropes: name-calling, shout outs, bling-worship. Most of them visit blogs daily. Good sonnets are as performative and as argumentative. It’s a powerful experience when you can hear a Kanye song sample Billie Holiday in a classroom and realize “Blood on the Leaves” is a great piece of art exactly because of its concrete postmodernity—its fragmentation, layering of sampling, polymorphic vocals. So I play it before we read excerpts from The Waste Land. We remember and project favorite clips of Family Guy and South Park before opening up the paranoid, hyper-pastiches universes of Pynchon, DeLillo, and Murakami.
The nimbleness required isn’t as pleading or facile as it might sound. The goal is not to patronize or condescend to popular forms of entertainment as easy kitsch. Nor is the point to make them seem more serious than they need be, only then to dispense with and replace them with the superiority of literary art. Rather, it’s about metabolizing students’ awareness; they are already carrying more experiences, the same necessary equipment, and budding sensibilities across media and genre, than most new writers have ever before had available to them. They have vast databanks and established preferences thanks to a product-saturated culture that demands everyone forge their identity through branding, consumption, the current flavors of choice. What mass media often loses in subtlety—forsaking a certain liberated individuality, necessary transgressive dissonances, virtues I cherish and return to in poetry especially—it also gains by a high degree of consummate technical ability, formulaic virtuosity, structural succinctness, and calculated delivery. And those are all things young poets can embrace and master, when possible, when desirable.
Today, as Internet culture often dominates with too much content and not enough editing, teachers need to both radically welcome this forum and to provide robust counterpoint. Students should be encouraged to be more permissible with their tastes and instincts. If they want to write fast, sloppy, all over the place, let them. If they respond intuitively to cartoon two-dimensionality, to cheap voyeurism and generic narratives, stereotypical premises and characters, let’s not rid them of these poisons before asking them to perform them from the inside out. Along the way, they might find footholds into the domains of writers as incendiary as Lydia Davis, James Tate, Kathy Acker. And when they want to access the transgressive in new media, Ariana Reines, Artaud, Dorothea Lasky, and Catullus await them. The very shallowness in our virtual culture we may sometimes bemoan or hear lambasted from culture critics (in black-and-white clickbait rants, no less) is something to be exploited and extended, not just subverted. The Internet culture can and should be as powerful a tool for creativity as any traditional mode of thought or learning.
My role as a teacher, however, isn’t to please students with what they know, or ask them to perform what they already do in their free time unthinkingly for an assignment. It’s to raise the stakes. To show that there are stakes, in fact. And that yes, those stakes are everything.
Culture, both popular entertainment and fine arts, is still the best ally in fostering the plastic sensibilities of poets and writers. It’s not about which particular preference they possess. It’s that they have one: active, engaged, simultaneous, contradictory, liberated from routine and mere sideline participation. And contemporary poets are leading the way in demonstrating how agile and challenging and urgent this kind of art-poetry combustion, this new media / old media fusion is.
Douglas Kearney’s concrete visual poems. Kate Durbin’s reality TV show transcriptions. Ariana Reines’ e-mail-hacking, sexually-explicit confessionalism. Frank O’Hara as social media inventor: status updater, lunch Instagrammer, compulsive name-dropping celebrity retweeter. John Ashbery’s Google-sized vernacular encyclopedia. Claudia Rankine’s audio-visual elegies, slow-motion capture of the vulnerable body. Anne Carson’s teenage coming-out story channeling antiquity. Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno translation stomaching Fisher Price, Rolling Stones, and Freud. Maggie Nelson’s factoid, OCD, sound-bite-sized, lush litanies of blueness. Cathy Park Hong’s manic accented ventriloquy of futuristic, sci-fi proportions. Dodie Bellamy’s pornographic demolition of the Norton anthology. There are hundreds of other examples.
What I’m after is how to heighten and share these intersections; the cross-pollination, the infiltration, the fold, the juxtaposed, the virality of imagination.
Listen. I know what this pedagogy represents is in a way vulgar, wedded to the vulgate, not unlike those earliest Catholic missionaries who wrapped their dogmas inside the local superstitions of places they entered. I’m not advocating this as the only method or even the best. But I have spent years inside classrooms seeing this strategy work wonders. It turns neurons on! I think the more animated, interwoven we can make poetry with culture, with contemporaneity, with our capitalistic banality, the more chances we’ll offer students to increase the stakes; to open onto even newer, harder pleasures; to grow in their capacity to internalize dissonance, ambiguity, ambivalence, and unmediated thought. Those don’t have to be the end goals, either, but it would be nice if they were catalyzed along the way.
Each semester I watch students skyrocket with the titillating absurdity of Lydia Davis (cf. “Mildred and the Oboe,” which opens: “Last night, Mildred, my neighbor on the floor below me, masturbated with an oboe”) but I’ve also realized the slow, quieter portraiture of Chekhov is something that tends to evade their interests. Chekhov is a favorite. Perhaps our greatest short story writer, and I bet he was quite aware of how that form responded to his age and time; i.e., using the dry format of print journalism to contain the suppler interiors of the baggy 19th-century novel, a jumble in just the way I hope students will realize some writers are innovatively responding to our era. But students don’t immediately assimilate the delicate nuances in stories like “The Student,” “The Lady With the Dog,” “The Kiss”; that’s not their fault or Chekhov’s, per se. Far be it from me to advocate we just indulge fast-food attention spans. But let’s not ignore that phenomenon, let’s not assume it’s not as worthy of investigation and crucial to the imaginative weight and possibilities of what writers (and what we all) face today.
This thinking is something I’ve explored with undergraduates, often beginning writers. It’s also something I adopt with well-seasoned graduate poets. It’s only natural to expect graduate students to have greater literacy given their specialization and advancement in time. You can count on their love of certain popular poets; you can assume most will be versed in the trending names of recent memory, both living and dead. And yet here more than ever, taking the poem out of its preset academic finish, its glossy formalism or studied amateurism, can revolutionize teaching. We need to advocate less, not more, specialization. All writers should be exposed to and studying how other artists, other disciplines, modes, genres, styles realize their materials and operate.
Two summers ago, with poet-teacher Dorothea Lasky, the most committed person to foundationally changing the nature of professional teaching of anyone I know, I embarked on a plan to launch a new poetry/arts school. Due to my longtime teaching and admiration of John Ashbery, we began Ashbery Home School, a one-week writing conference each summer in Hudson, New York. We built a program informed by many traditional approaches of the places we’ve studied at, visited, and taught at ourselves. But we also shifted the focus radically: Home School would be a place where artists take equal rank and equal air-play in matters of poetic craft and attention. Each day we feature an “Artist Talk” to allow visiting artists to perform or lecture, as well as answer questions about their practice, process, materials, assimilations and inspirations. The first year brought us visual artist Kiki Smith, multimedia artist Aki Sasamoto, and experimental composer Mark So. This year we’ll have the underground cult-classic experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin, among others.
Inside my workshop group, inevitably, I will make plenty of conventional critiques and suggestions that rely on the examples of poets past and present. But the workshop and school’s continual focus is the arts. The ever-changing poetry of John Ashbery—as well as his prodigious life as an art critic, art collector, teacher, translator, editor is a radiant example.
If you look at the exercises of Bernadette Mayer and the somatic prompts and poems of CAConrad, if you look to Maggie Nelson’s new book The Argonauts,with its blending of autobiography and theory, its meditative focus on queer contemporary artists; if you look to Fred Moten and Nathaniel Mackey for how two very talented poets re-engineered what a poem is or can be based on the blues or jazz; if you think of the textual sculpturing of Susan Howe and its Duchampian hermeticism; if you just stay awake and open yourself, really burrow into the creative modes of other living artists, you’ll see, as Morton Feldman said in a car ride back from seeing David Tudor perform John Cage, that there really is so much work to be done.
Below is a sampling of prompt-quotations among hundreds drawn upon at the Ashbery Home School. Whether they know these artists, like them or hate them, is beside the point—though I brighten at the idea that someone might discover their work for the first time through the motive of invigorating their poetry. The quotes are meant to create an infinite horizon-line of possible techniques, thought-experiments, contrary wisdoms. There’s nothing precious or permanent about these examples. I happen to admire all (and worship a few) of these artists. There are millions to choose from. Art and poetry in the age of new media is the great electric hymn to possibility we have nearly universal access to. So ask your students to keep digesting artists and artworks then tell them to make something from what they encounter. It can be anything.
1. Nina Simone: “You’re pushing it, you’re pushing it. Just relax. It’ll go up by itself. Don’t put nothing in it unless you feel it.”
2. Rimbaud: “What I liked were: absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, bright-colored prints, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books full of misspellings, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly old songs, the naïve rhythms of country rimes.”
3. Cindy Sherman: “We’re all products of what we want to project to the world. Even people who don’t spend any time, or think they don’t, on preparing themselves for the world out there—I think that ultimately they have for their whole lives groomed themselves to be a certain way, to present a face to the world.”
4. Kanye West: “I’ll say things that are serious and put them in a joke form so people can enjoy them. We laugh to keep from crying.”
5. Trevor Winkfield on Joseph Cornell’s secret knowledge of New York City: “Cornell’s history revolved around the last bakery in Midtown making poppy-seed cakes, the location of underground springs, the apartment where Oscar Wilde spent a night, bookshops specializing in nautical charts, the routes of defunct ferries, a wig store incorporating the façade from a demolished opera house, the busy intersection frequented by the ghost of a murdered fiddler.”
6. Marina Abramovic: “The hardest thing to do is the thing that is close to nothing.”
7. Jim Jarmusch: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to’.”
8. Matisse’s paper cut-out “Le Bateau” hung upside-down at the Museum of Modern Art for 46 days without anyone noticing.
9. Write a list of ten things that don’t belong in good poems then put into one. Retro appliances, franchises only found in mini-malls, app ads, medieval church treatises, Republican hate speech, biochemistry textbooks, Dave Matthews Band lyrics, quotes from Lifetime Original Movies, etc.
10. Wayne Koestenbaum on Ryan Trecartin: “Imagine slasher films without blood; porn without nudity; the Sistine Chapel without God; the New York Stock Exchange without capital. Pretend that Hieronymus Bosch’s intermeshed figures could text. Ryan Trecartin’s videos depict a vertiginous world I’m barely stable enough to describe. Watching them, I face the identity-flux of Internet existence: surfing-as-dwelling. Images evaporate, bleed, spill, metamorphose, and explode. Through frenetic pacing, rapid cuts, and destabilizing overlaps between representational planes (3-D turns into 2-D and then into 5-D), Trecartin violently repositions our chakras. Digitally virtuoso, his work excites me but also causes stomach cramps. I’m somatizing. But I’m also trying to concentrate.”
About the author:
Adam Fitzgerald is the author of The Late Parade (Liveright, 2013). He edits the poetry journal Maggy and teaches creative writing at Rutgers and New York University. In 2013, he founded the Ashbery Home School of Hudson, New York—an experimental program that brings poets and artists together one week each summer. He lives in Alphabet City in New York City’s East Village.