Author Bio

From Classroom to Creative Work: How do You Get There?

posted: 1.11.10 by archived

What did we do in class today?

Oh, nothing.

Early on in my experiences as a poet-in-the-classroom, I went to hear John Ashbery, who read some poems but who also had a few words to say about the teaching of poetry. Someone asked him what his “secret” was as a teacher of poetry—what exercises did he use, how did he structure assignments so that his students produced poems, what were his secrets.

He said that as a teacher of poetry, he believed there was only one thing he could do, one thing it was all about: “creating an environment.”

And that was it.

That was John Ashbery’s big secret.

At the time, I had a picture in my head of John Ashbery in one of the dingy, overcrowded, sweat-stinking NY public school classrooms where I encountered my fledgling poets. He would come tiptoeing in, he would close the door, he would reach up high and pull down the shades or at least turn off the dimmerless overhead lights, and he would switch on an old-fashioned dial radio he had with him. Some bewitching scratchy music of an uncharted station would fill the room, from the linoleum to the flaking ceiling. The radio would screech or hum as he fiddled with the dials and bent the antenna.

And “environment” would have been at last created.

Poetry would fill the room and the students in it would turn to their sheets of paper and begin writing.

That was my first impression of “creating an environment.”

It hasn’t changed much.

From my experiences teaching high school and middle school poets, those standard issue classrooms are not usually the most creative spaces in which to work, add or subtract carpet, linoleum, windows that open or don’t, desks that are welded or unwelded to their chairs, bulletin boards with pushpins, or walls with masking tape.

But creativity seems to abound there, in that range of most uncreative environments.

I read through the anthologies of student poems from past years, looking for traces of what my lesson plans were, as if I were John Ashbery and an earnest teacher had asked me how I teach my students to write poems. And I read through my diligent teacher notebooks. My instructions to myself—and to them—are sketchy. Or rather, sketches. As if the poetry “lesson” were so ephemeral, it never really made it to the paper.

It’s not as if nothing made it to paper: I did write things down, by way of lesson plan, things like the words “Neruda today,” with an accompanying worksheet that has “Ode to My Socks” magnified and Xeroxed onto giant 11×17 paper. This particular worksheet also has, at the top right, a space for the student’s name, with the word “name” written in curlicue cursive, and then a prompt as unhelpful as:  “Now think of some ordinary object and write your own ode, right here next to Lorca’s!”

How could that have possibly lead to poems?

But it did.

As I try to write a few paragraphs about how there is so little “on the page” after all my experience teaching poetry, I think the answer does lie with John Ashbery. What those half-worksheets and rich anthologies attest to is how much of teaching poetry is about creating an environment, in this case a rich classroom environment.

That is how poems get made—you have to conjure them up, call them down, court the Muse or the spirit of poetry, all in the standard issue classroom.


How do you create an environment?

The main way is nothing fancy. It requires no radio, no costumes, no appliances—it is simply by bringing in poems. A poem. And by reading it aloud in a way that brings it to life in that room.

Neruda was an old friend in this regard: His poems seem to fit so well in the classroom because they are about ordinary things, which can make us remember the magic of being in that ordinary space.

You can read a poem aloud by having students, one after the other, in the order of how they are seated, be it in rows or in a circle, read a line from the poem. That can be fun with Neruda, for example, and his Elemental Odes because sometimes his lines are only a few words. You can read it once as quickly as possible, once as slowly as possible. The third time, you can have a few students chime in at random on a line they like. Clumps of students can read clumps of the poem out loud in unison. Little by little, the sounds of the poem, when rendered this way, make the meaning come alive.  And as the students get used to the sounds of the poem, and the way those sounds feel, the poem becomes more and more theirs.

There are mysteries for students to solve which seem to make sense as the poem is brought to life by reading it aloud: in “Ode to My Socks,” who is Maru-Mori? What are green deer? Is the tuna in “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” just a tuna? Or is it someone he loved—someone who worked hard and dies beloved? Is this a serious poem or a silly one? Reading out loud allows for a lot of permission to play, to play with tone, not just sound.

A poem’s mysteries can open up more mysteries, and more ways for students to approach their own odes. There are so many points of entry for the students when they write their own odes—they can invoke their own Maru-Mori, their own green deer, their own line lengths, their own roller coasters of feeling and tone.

But even this starts to sound vague as I write it.

How does the mention of “green deer” lead to another poem, an ode?

How does a poem about a dead tuna lead a 14-year-old boy to write an ode to his father?

I don’t know, exactly, except that I was there and it happened, over and over again.

The reading out loud of the poem, in these cases, was the key to “creating an environment” where poetry could take place.

Even as I write this now, I can remember how urgent it can feel, in a classroom, after experiencing the energy that reading (and rendering) a poem aloud, together, in different ways, releases.

It’s transformative.

In that moment, when the poem is most present in the “environment,” it is at last time to ask the students to flip the page over and write—write their own odes, write until you tell them they can stop.

And they will and do.

There are other ways to create environments, ways involving stopping at greengrocer and buying a Chinese persimmon, or procuring some postcards, or bringing in a scratchy record of your own, or no doubt wearing flowy scarves, but for now, this feels like enough. To create an environment, you must create an energetic focus. You must choose the poem. And you yourself in some real way have to show up in the environment, too; you have to be there, risking something. It’s a collaborative environment, after all, and as a teacher you are using your own link to poetry to help others find their own.

For now: To create poetry in the classroom, create an environment in which poets can work. To create that environment, use poems.

No wonder so little is written down in my lesson plans except the names of the poems themselves. It’s not a class you can make up, really.


Mary Dilucia, has worked as a teacher of literature and an editor, and has also taught in the Expository Writing Program at NYU. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and an MFA in poetry from NYU, and now lives and writes in Manhattan.

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature, Teaching Advice, Uncategorized, Writing Process
You might also like: Send Us Your Turkey-Day Assignments!
Read All archived

Comments are closed.