Lost & Found Kicks Off National Poetry Month at LSSU

Happy National Poetry Month!

I’m super proud of my intermediate creative writing class and the project we just finished, which culminated in a show in the Kenneth J. Shouldice Library Art Gallery at Lake Superior State University. While I was at Vermont Studio Center over winter break, I collaborated with collage artist Jay Phillips, whose process reminded me of erasure. The process of finding poems in the pages of his art criticism magazines was super satisfying. There is a forbidden sort of pleasure in taking a permanent marker to a published text, and erasure requires an intense form of concentration, like solving a difficult puzzle or playing Tetris.

After I came home, I found myself wanting to experiment more with the visual elements of erasure. How could visual elements enhance or complicate the found poem’s message? Since I was teaching an intermediate creative writing course intended to encourage student experimentation, I thought we could experiment with visual erasures as a class project.

Before the semester began, I researched erasure poems with visual elements to find some inspiring examples to show my students. It seems Doris Cross may have created the first visual erasure poem when she painted over the pages of a dictionary in 1965, or Tom Phillips, when he began to treat the Victorian novel, A Human Document, with painting and collage in 1966. Whatever its origin, the form has been quite popular lately, with examples appearing in recent issues of Poetry and Thrush and Diagram. One of my favorite recent examples is Poet Niina Pollari’s erasure of immigration Form N-400 last year.

My class and I began the semester by closely reading a number of erasure poems with visual elements together, including Sarah J. Sloat’s startling Misery poems in Thrush and Diagram and Sonja Johanson’s gorgeously textured poems in Menacing Hedgewhich use bamboo segments and florets to cover text instead of erasing it. We watched and discussed Mary Ruefle’s inspiring craft talk on erasure from the Tenth Annual Palm Beach Poetry Festival, trying to put our fingers on what makes a good erasure poem compelling. Then we spent a whole class day making erasures using old reference books scheduled to be destroyed by the university library and copies of pages from classic and popular novels. At the end of the class, we shared our first attempts and discussed the obstacles we encountered during our first experiments with the form.

After that, everyone went out and chose a source text, from which we made copies of pages that we proceeded to plan erasures in. We learned to run copies first, to search for words and circle in pencil with a practice draft, so that first-draft mistakes wouldn’t be fatal. Once we had each found a draft poem, we set out to find the appropriate visual elements to enhance or complicate its message. What has stunned me about this project is how different each of the students’ pieces are! There is an erasure buried under soil; an illuminated erasure of a page from A Room of One’s Own; an erasure of an Edgar Allan Poe story juxtaposed with an image from a Wonder Woman comic; an erasure of a hymnal; an erasure from a book of quotes and covered with bloody-looking handprints; an erasure found in Hamlet; erasures found in novels by Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Arthur C. Clarke, and J. K. Rowling. I got to participate in the project as well, collaging a page from a guidebook for medieval anchoresses into an illuminated astronomy manuscript…

Once everyone had drafts, we used Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process to develop the pieces and our own understanding of our aesthetics. What did each of us expect from this sort of poem? How did our expectations differ? Liz Lerman’s process was magical as usual. Most of the pieces went through three or more drastically different drafts. Students listened carefully to one another’s feedback, then experimented with visuals, compression, titles, erasing words and adding them back in, and the results were marvelous!

The culminating show at the library gallery, which my students aptly named LOST & FOUND, kicked off National Poetry Month at Lake Superior State University. I’m so thankful to everyone who came out to support the students and the Creative Writing Program. I’m also grateful to my Dean for her support, and everyone who helped with setup and publicity, from the university librarians to Don Bentley at The Art Store who is scary good with an X-Acto knife!


The Alchemy of Teaching Writing

It’s been a whirlwind semester, so far. In addition to reading and editing fiction submissions for Border Crossing with two wonderful internsI’ve been teaching two courses for the first time: a course on Responding to Writing for future teachers, and an intermediate creative writing course for majors and minors that is specifically designed to help students take risks in their writing, to encourage them to experiment in order to help them discover their voices.

Teaching the combination of these two courses for the first time together has brought some interesting insights. Much of the theory we’ve been reading for the writing response course discusses the importance of encouraging students to make their own decisions about their writing. Not only with regard to topic selection, but also with regard to choosing the best form to express their ideas, and even deciding what that best form is. English education scholars like Katie Van Sluys and Katie Wood Ray encourage teachers not to enforce their own aesthetics on students, but rather to ask students what they think makes good writing so that the students work on building their own aesthetics. In essence, good writing instruction is the ultimate panacea for the age-old complaint of the creative writing graduate: “What will I do when there are no more workshops?”

Ideally, we tell students, they should make friends with the other students in their program, so they can share their writing journeys and work. But post-graduation, the working writer most often makes decisions alone, in front of a glowing computer screen. And if what Walter Benjamin said about genre is true, that–

All great works of literature invent a genre or dissolve one.

Isn’t the core work of the creative writing teacher to foster a culture of experimentation, in which students are encouraged to take risks, so that they can work on developing and discovering their own voices?

The intermediate creative writing course I’m teaching this semester incorporates a collaborative–and rather experimental–performance project. I approached Lloyd Eddy, my colleague, the art professor at Lake State, before the beginning of the semester, looking for an opportunity for my students to collaborate with art students, and he invited me to come talk to him and Joshua Legg, our new dance professor, about a collaboration they were already planning. The three of us had an exciting discussion about the possibilities of a collaboration among students in all three disciplines, and I was really excited about the opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues. For years, I had made most of my decisions alone at my computer, and I’d never collaborated outside of my discipline.

At the beginning of the semester, we divided students into interdisciplinary groups, in which they had to decide not only the subjects for their collaborations, but what forms those collaborations would take. We formed a faculty group and met for weekly discussions, like our students, to deliberate about our own piece. This past weekend was the first dry run of the emerging collaborations, and I’m excited by the varied forms the groups have chosen. I got chills and tears in my eyes, more than once, as I watched the performances. There’s a dance in which a narrative poem torn into strips will be part of the costume of the dancer, draped over her dress and tied in ribbons throughout her hair; the final gesture of the dance is mirrored in a sculpture that will be projected onto the stage. Another dancer is using a spoken-word poem as her sound score; the artists in that group will exhibit a triptych of mixed media paintings. Joshua and Lloyd and I are making a film that explores the creative process through the visual imagery, gestures, and language of alchemy. It’s been so much fun to discover the similarities between all three art forms, to explore the creative process not only with words but also with art and dance. I’d forgotten how invigorating it can be to experiment together in the classroom and with my colleagues–who are brilliant and inspiring–and I can’t wait for rehearsals to start!

flyer by LSSU art student Rachael Hendges
flyer by LSSU art student Rachael Hendges

Reading Oct. 9 at Bayliss in Sault Sainte Marie

I’ll be the featured poet at this week’s Superior Poetry Cafe, tomorrow, Thursday, October 9, 2014, at 7 pm at Bayliss in the Sault. Wolf Skin will be available for sale and signing. The open mic after the reading is always interesting! U.P. poetry folks and fairy tale aficionados, see you there.

Mutations of Otherness at Woman Made Gallery

Sunday, I had the pleasure of reading with five other woman poets at the Woman Made Gallery in Chicago–I’m so grateful to Nina Corwin and the Gallery for organizing this reading in this amazing space. It was a wonderful experience to listen to and read with these other inspiring poets!

Pre-reading invocation with Nina Corwin (photo courtesy of Richard Rastall)
Pre-reading invocation with Nina Corwin (photo courtesy of Richard Rastall)
Reading from Wolf Skin (photo courtesy of Richard Rastall)
Reading from Wolf Skin (photo courtesy of Richard Rastall)
Poets Erika Sanchez, Janeen Rastall, Vandana Khanna, me, Yunuen Rodriguez, and Renny Golden (photo courtesy of Sandy Marchetti)

I had never been to the Woman Made Gallery before this weekend, but I will definitely make an effort to go back. I was blown away by the permanent collection, as well as the current exhibits, which will remain on display through June 26, 2014.

Upstairs right now is a solo show entitled “potbelly pin-ups: out of many one” by Shoshanna Weinberger (BFA Chicago Institute of Art, ’95; MFA, Yale ’03). A resident of New Jersey and native Jamaican, Weinberger displays here a series of pop surrealist images that interrogate pop culture definitions of beauty by juxtaposing icons traditionally associated with feminine beauty–such as lipstick, high heels, bras, and thongs–with grotesque mutations of the female form. Below is one of my favorite images from the series:

Smoker (2014) by Shoshanna Weinberger

Downstairs in the space where the reading was held is an amazing group show on “Mutations of Otherness,” for which Weinberger served as juror. From Michelle Acuff’s tangle-horned stag that greets you as soon as you walk downstairs:

Surrogate by Michelle Acuff
Surrogate by Michelle Acuff (polystyrene, steel, porcelain, caution tape, lawn ornaments, cones)

to Cheryl Hochberg’s monstrous bird-goat-woman hybrid:

"Bertha's Monster" by Cheryl Hochberg
Bertha’s Monster by Cheryl Hochberg (pastel, painted fabric on paper)

to Lauren Levato Coyne’s wunderkammer or cabinet-of-curiosities images of female bodies (one of which pictures a fox peeking out of a woman’s belly):

Self Portrait as Thief in the Night by Lauren Levato Coyne (graphite and colored pencil on Bristol)

each of these pieces provokes the viewer to reflect on her notions of beauty, femininity, the monstrous, fable, and myth. You don’t want to miss either of these shows if you’ll be in or around Chicago through the 26th!

June 1 Reading in Chicago

WOLFSKIN_coverart_fullsizeI’ll be reading from Wolf Skin in Chicago on June 1 from 1:30-3:30 pm at the Woman Made Gallery Literary Series on the theme of “The Other,” as part of the group art show that is ongoing through June 26. Fellow Dancing Girl Press poet, Janeen Rastall, whose work is wonderful, will also be reading, and I’m a huge fan of many of the poets–like Kristy Bowen and Kelly Davio–who have read at WMG before, so I’m looking forward to this reading very much!

Update (May 5): The list of participating readers has been updated on the WMG Gallery site. The full list of poets reading also includes Renny Golden, Vandana Khanna, Janeen Rastall, Yunuen Rodriguez, and Erika Sanchez!