JMW: How has your apprenticeship with Johnson filtered into your own teaching practices at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago? What are the central concerns and methods in the courses you teach there?
PO'L: Until very recently, I haven’t really taught creative writing classes. (In addition to teaching one workshop a year at SAIC, I’ve begun teaching at the University of Chicago as well.) My academic training is in religious studies, with an emphasis in Religion & Literature (which is a single discipline incorporating elements of both religious and literary studies). Mainly, then, I teach courses in the history of religions, mythology, and poetry, oftentimes all together. Two years ago, I taught a course in which we read Paradise Lost, followed by Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and then Radi os, to finish with a reading of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials: so, Milton’s poem first and then Milton’s poem as rewritten by three of its most astute readers. It was a dream course. This past year, as a complement to the Milton course, I taught Blake. We simply read through the poetry, from start to finish, occasionally peppering our readings with poets Blake influenced: Yeats, Lawrence, Sitwell, Duncan, RJ, Ginsberg, Jarnot. In these classes, my primary goal is to provide students an opportunity to read these poets along with me, sharing insights, questions, and problems, all the while persuading them of the value of reading such work with passion and responsibility, in terms of Duncan’s famous formulation: “Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond.” So far, so good: these have been exceptionally enjoyable classes to teach. They’ve also been unexpectedly fruitful for me as a reader: revisiting Milton, Blake, Dante or Whitman is one of the true blessings of teaching. Rereading Blake this past year, for instance, was revelatory: as much as his work was imprinted on me when I first read him as a young man, I kept having the feeling this past year that I hadn’t ever really read him that well. Re-engaging Blake was a revelation of the concrete: his poetry is so insistent on the actual. Reading him for class made me everyday want to be a better poet.
Workshops: As I’ve begun to teach poetry workshops, I’ve tried to incorporate responsible reading practices into writing. When Ron Johnson wrote that poetry is not written in workshops, it’s something I took to heart. I do not have a creative writing degree; before I started teaching these poetry workshops, I had only participated in one before, when I was in college. As a result, I don’t really know proper workshop comportment. Which seems okay, since most students, in my experience, are relieved not to have to come up with critical things to say about each other’s work. Instead, I think they’re looking to poetry for what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.” That is, they’re looking for reassurances about the worth of their writing, they’re looking for some examples of what to do, and they’re trying to connect these with their experiences.
It was my good fortune to come of age in poetry before the internet defined most of the ways poets communicate with each other. When I sent that first letter to Ron Johnson, I brought myself into contact with a larger world, on the one hand, but one more closely circumscribed on the other. Creeley, Gunn, and Duncan had been his friends and mentors, as had Jonathan Williams, who was also his companion for many years. With Williams, he met Pound, he met Franz Kline, he met Stevie Smith, he met Lorine Niedecker, he met Bunting. When I first met him, he showed me the holograph book he kept with him during the years he was with Williams. In it, whenever he would meet someone, he would ask them to inscribe something: a signature, a drawing, a poem. In that book, I saw a page illuminated by Robert Duncan. Another with Pound’s signature. Another with a sketch by R.B. Kitaj. Another by Kline.
So, here I was writing letters to this poet. It was like plugging into a hub connected to a world I admired as outside my own but with which I was then directly participating. Ron wrote his letters to me on an IBM Selectric typewriter; in those early years, I wrote back to him on an old Underwood manual typewriter I picked up at a garage sale.
Last year, I incorporated this practice into a workshop I taught at SAIC, called “The Poet-Critic.” We read works by Pound, Eliot, Olson, Susan Howe, and Mackey to gather material. But I made all the students acquire manual typewriters and pair up. Instead of doing writing assignments for me, I had them write letters to each other, with the hope that the poetry, as with these predecessors, would arise organically within the process of correspondence, with its discoveries and exchanges. I also wanted to assert to them the vitality of material exchange: one letter for another. The physical epistle changes the nature of the exchange. It becomes more valuable. The class was a real success, I think, though hard for me to process in that I had trouble figuring out exactly how to evaluate the students’ work, which was so intelligent, intimate, funny, and engaged.
A direct outcome of this course, not incidentally, has been the reassertion of physical letter writing in my own life. Fifteen years ago, I corresponded with dozens of poets by mail. It was the core of my education in poetry. Nowadays, I do almost all of my correspondence electronically. And even now, exchanges seem to be drifting into new media – things like Facebook, for instance (which I don’t use). Not as an act of protest, but instead as a recommitment to soul-forging, I’ve been writing letters again, sending them out in envelopes with stamps.