How does not having a physical school benefit your students and classes?
The online classes simply allow us to invite students into our community no matter where they’re living. With a laptop, students could take a class at home, in a café, or sitting in a car. Anywhere with Wi-Fi really. We’ve had students from Canada, Morocco, and the Philippines in addition to students right here in Chicago.
What have you noticed that has changed in Chicago’s poetry scene over the years?
There are more reading series, more journals. It’s a destination for poetry now. There has been a genuine influx of poets. I recently covered the Chicago literary scene for Ploughshares and mentioned the wide variety of events and institutions.
What event(s) would you recommend to a poet just starting out in Chicago?
Go to the readings. There are sometimes multiple events in one night but really try to get out and experience poetry. From Hyde Park to Wicker Park to Rogers Park, there is poetry to be heard somewhere nearly every night of the week.
How does Chicago’s poetry community differentiate itself from others like NY and LA?
I’m sure there are similarities but the Chicago poetry community is probably more varied. At some point there was some discussion as to whether the poets here constituted a "new Chicago school" but I think stylistically every type of poetry can be found here.
There is a long history of poetry in Chicago of course. Going back to Carl Sandburg or Gwendolyn Brooks. In 1920, H.L. Menken famously commented that Chicago was the literary capital of the United States. Other than Sandburg and Brooks, the city has been almost more well-known as a home to novelists but that seems to be changing. In the past 7 or 8 years, more and more poets seem to have moved to Chicago.
What’s going on in American poetry now that excites you?
Read the work of Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, Dana Ward, Tom Clark or Tracey K. Smith. I always like to see what Johannes Göransson and Bob Archambeau are writing about. The recent bickering about conceptualism has been sometimes interesting. Goldsmith is probably having a good laugh at the ire he’s produced in poets.
Lately we were happy to add Sharon Mesmer to the faculty at The Chicago School of Poetics. (Welcome, Sharon!)
Also, the events here in Chicago are great. I’m still excited by the readings at Myopic Books. I’ve been curating the reading series there for over 8 years now. I recently hosted my 200th poetry reading there.
Also, a few months ago I participated in and helped plan a wake for the famous Irish poet Fallon McPhael. OK, so he never existed.
I’m excited to see the late poet Joe Ceravolo being recognized now for his work with a big collected poems. Also, it’s been exciting to see Chicago in the past 10 years become a destination for poetry. I was just talking about this with the poet and Columbia College professor Tony Trigilio for his podcast, Radio Free Albion.
Next month, I plan to lead a situationist-style dérive around Rogers Park for the Absinthe and Zygote reading series. There’s just always so much going on. Chicago is amazing.
The founding of the school really resulted from a conversation with fellow poets Francesco Levato and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, and also Francesco’s fiancé Laura Skokan one night during dinner. What began to emerge was a sense that there was a need for a different kind of school. One that offered poetics instruction but outside the strictures of the MFA culture. Many of the poets I’d come into contact with since moving to Chicago had described to me an MFA experience that sounded hyper-competitive and left students saddled with enormous debt with little promise of securing a viable teaching job upon graduation.
Looking back 15 years ago the MFA system didn’t seem to be quite the stronghold that it is now. Rather than try to poke holes in that system our discussion involved founding a school as a community beyond and alternative to that system, which we felt had become very cost prohibitive. A two-year MFA program can put a student from $28,000 to $74,000 in debt. Our 8-week courses are $399 but we also now have a new tiered pricing structure as well as a student discount. Our work study program lowers tuition even further by $100. We also used Indie Go Go recently to raise funds to provide scholarships to students in need.
In addition to cost, it had also begun to seem that MFA programs were the cause of a rather homogenous environment in American poetry. We wanted to found a school with a focus on collaboration, rather than competition—One with less of a focus on creativity and more on craft because we agreed that creativity can’t really be taught.
We offer instruction that has the rigorous nature of MFA studies at a more flexible and affordable price. And by creating an online community for those outside of urban centers, the School provides the kind of community you might find in an MFA program but one that goes "beyond" geographical limitations.
We critique work based on its own merits. Literary theory isn’t avoided, but the craft of writing poetry is always the primary focus and intense focus on selected readings and the poems the students have written.
How alliteration, assonance, caesura, extended metaphor, hyperbole, inverted syntax, onomatopoeia, synecdoche, varying levels of tone or diction, and use of irony produces meaning and doesn’t merely convey meaning. The word produce in that last sentence should be emphasized heavily. That’s the key. Teaching methods involve critique of poems written in the class with a goal of actually publishing the work. Instructors bring all of their publishing experience to the class and freely share advice with the students. The focus is always intently on the poems that are being discussed by the class and the craft elements that could make them resonate more fully. Students can really get inside the writing process of the instructor.
We wanted to be able to discuss writing strategies with students that went beyond the confessional, narrative, or merely descriptive. So our goal was to transcend borders in the writing itself but also to actually transcend physical boundaries. We wanted to provide a resource for poets to find community outside of urban centers, so we wanted to provide visual face-to-face conferencing online. We aren’t merely trading files via email or engaging in group reading assignments. The face-to-face, real-time, interaction allows a remarkable interactive experience and group discussion. Our fall class schedules are now online.
How do the online classes work?
Students simply need a computer with a Macintosh, Windows, or Linux operating system; a microphone (most have one built in) for voice conferencing; a webcam for video conferencing (most newer computers already have one built in); and a high-speed internet connection. The software is really easy to use. During online sessions instructors and students can share links to videos online, sound files, documents such as PDFs of specific poems, and everyone involved can communicate visually in real time. There is also a chat feature so side discussions can occur while the instructor lectures without any disruption. It leads to some really interesting discussion. Students can gather to learn about writing poetry across time zones and even across continents. Our instruction method is truly different. We aren’t merely offering online poetics instruction.
Eileen Myles taught one of our master classes and recently commented: “Time to pull down the time space limitations of what and where poetry exchange is occurring in our broken and beautiful 21st Century. Chicago School of Poetics is the only institution I know that’s experimenting so widely and freely with making the occasion of writing and community and pedagogy be at all our fingertips and in our eyes. I myself was both elated and terrified to teach a master class through CSoP because I’d previously counted on the presence of bodies as my teaching familiar. Yet I’m turned around now after conducting my master class because my students were funny and dazzling and awkward and engaged and we were also like cats seeing each other in our very own lairs and now I only want to go further and totally relish the feel of this new working and playing field. The glowing space is ours. CSoP showed the way.”