Poet, teacher, and founder of Brooklyn Poets Jason Koo emailed me a few days ago to tell me more about its new venture, The Bridge, which he describes as “the world's first poetry networking site connecting student and mentor poets.” After a few exchanges, it turned into a real interview, which appears below. Brooklyn Poets launched a campaign to develop The Bridge; their Indiegogo page has a video and more details.
I enjoyed exchanging thoughts with Jason about poetry and mentoring, as well as new ways of teaching and learning--“delivery models,” as we say in the education business--and, of course, The Bridge.
I guess the first question I have would be: Is this a social media poetry site?
Essentially, yes. The Bridge would be a social network for poets, though something like "craft network" would be closer to what we have in mind. There are a few examples of poetry networks out there, such as poetry.com, but the design leaves a lot to be desired and there's a lack of seriousness about craft--it looks like a site for amateurs.
Ah, the BBS and message boards. I remember them well. So The Bridge will take a different approach, I take it?
What we're hoping to build is a space where amateurs can interact with professional, teaching poets--poets who wouldn't be caught dead on a site like poetry.com. You see this on Instagram, where professional photographers share work in the same community as amateurs. But in our community, poets wouldn't just be sharing and commenting on each other's work, liking it, etc.; student poets--a better term than "amateurs"--would have an opportunity to get serious critiques of their work from mentor poets they admire.
On poetry.com, a "review" of a work consists of a little comment and some stars and everyone tries to accumulate points and badges. That sounds like a lot of fun, but no one's going to learn how to become a better poet that way.
Well, you also have an actual faculty, a super line-up of poets, from Melissa Broder to Jenny Zhang.
Now, mentors will have the choice on The Bridge to add on services, if they choose to; they might offer off-site video or phone conferencing or even make themselves available to meet in person, should the student requesting a critique live in the same city. And they'd be able to set their prices based on those extra services.
But Brooklyn Poets would be setting a minimum quality standard for critiques and pricing per poem-bundle, something we think is fair for both teacher and student. Tentatively, we imagine pricing like this for written critiques of student work:
- 1 poem (1 pg) $15
- 1-2 poems (2 pgs) $20
- 3-5 poems (3-6 pgs) $40
- Writing sample (10-12 pgs) $70
- Chapbook (24-32 pgs) $100
- Full-length book (48-64 pgs) $145
I like the honesty and straightforwardness of the approach.
There would also be a vetting process where prospective mentors would have to submit a CV and offer a sample critique of a student poem--and here's the cool part: prospective mentors would critique poems that students had submitted for a free critique. So say a student simply does not have the money to pay for even a 1-pg critique, he or she could submit a poem for a free critique that would get a random prospective mentor. The student just wouldn't know the mentor's work or how long it would take to get the critique back; paying a specific mentor would mean you'd know that mentor's work and skills/influences and the timetable for receiving the critique.
So, up until the free critique bit, I was imagining The Bridge to be a cross between a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and a low-res MFA program. Am I still on the right track?
In a way, it would be like a cross between a MOOC and a low-res MFA, but without any kind of grades or certification involved. We're not looking to replace undergraduate or graduate programs in writing--those things offer valuable services that I myself have benefited from, such as live, in-the-flesh interaction with mentors and peers, teaching experience and degrees that you might use to get a job.
Some students might look at The Bridge as an alternative to the MFA and use it as such--students interested solely in the craft of poetry who aren't interested in spending the time or money on an MFA and aren't interested in teaching. I meet a lot of these people in my work for Brooklyn Poets; they range from students in high school-college to retirees. But I imagine students in MFA or PhD programs for creative writing using The Bridge as an addendum to what they're already doing; perhaps they're not satisfied with the two or three mentors they have in their program and want to get feedback from other poets out there whose work they're admire. Good students tend to outgrow what one mentor can teach them; and if a mentor is any good, he or she will be pushing students to push past them. As Whitman once wrote, "He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher."
So I guess you're of the mind that writing can be taught? I mean, I am as well, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.
I am, yes. I mean, of course it can--like anything else. I'm amused by this idea that writing poems can't be taught, but things like yoga and tango can. Imagine signing up for a yoga or tango class with no previous experience, paying for it, then showing up the first day and hearing the teacher say, Okay, show me what you can do. And pointing at the floor. You'd be mortified--and pissed, because that's not what you're paying for. You're paying the teacher to show you the basics, to introduce you to the discipline. You're not expecting to become a master overnight or possibly ever. You're interested in discovering what the discipline is about and seeing how you like it, how it might change you. And you pay experts for instruction because without them you would literally--yes, I'm going to use that adverb--not know how to make the first move.
Poetry’s a lot different than that.
For some reason, in the discipline of writing poetry, people assume they do know. Or maybe they're not so arrogant to assume this, but they think maybe their poetic efforts are best served without the nuisance of instruction, the self-conscious shock of it. This is the legacy of bad Romanticism--people taking all the Wordsworth and Keats out of Wordsworth and Keats and leaving--themselves. Poetry as self-expression rather than art, a "practice"--that is what I love about yoga, how teachers and students refer to what they do as a "practice."
The assumption being that they're never going to perfect it. Hell, even lawyers seem to understand this about what they do! But not poets. Teachers still go into creative writing classrooms today and tell students just to bring in a poem and then they'll workshop it--for the entire semester. I mean, really? Why does a teacher have to be paid to do that? That's like the tango teacher going into a dance studio and saying, Show me what you can do. And the sad thing is that there are so many poet-teachers I know out there without full-time jobs who could teach the hell out of those classes where those students are being failed by their teachers.
I love that notion. “I could teach the hell out of that poet!”
Anyone who thinks poetry can't be taught should simply look at a pile of undergraduate submissions for a poetry contest. I saw this at Quinnipiac, where I teach and helped judge a contest last year. It was immediately obvious which poems were written by someone who'd taken a poetry class and which were not--you could toss the latter after glancing at the title and the splay of the poem all over the page, usually i i i staggering everywhere with no end in sight. The former were not necessarily good poems, and some were too obviously written on assignment (i.e. write a Shakespeare sonnet, boys and girls), but they at least showed consciousness of poem as craft.
One thing that people don't seem to consider when they bemoan the culture of MFA programs and poem-sameness blah blah blah is how much worse poems might be without those programs. I mean, yeah, I don't want to read 800 sestinas a day--I just threw that in for you, Daniel--but I'd rather read those than the kind of stuff I see in those undergraduate submission piles. Or that I've seen in slush piles for various magazines I've worked for. Yikes.
Reading 800 sestinas a day is something that would test even the strongest MFAers among us. Lately I've been thinking about mentors I've had. Actually, I never thought I had any until I myself became a full-time teacher and realized how much time teachers give students, and lo and behold, I realized I had had mentors in my life. This was because I felt that I was, in many ways, un-mentorable and un-teachable. I was this prideful autodidact who was destined to be a misunderstood semi-genius. Perhaps a community like The Bridge would be a place where writers like my younger self are gently, tangentially, and economically, disabused of this notion?
I hope so. But, well, actually, I think some of that prideful autodidacticism is a good thing, that feeling you're being misunderstood--you might argue that sort of scornful self-regard is what allows a poet to develop. Because there is such a thing as being too open to instruction, too eager to obey what any mentor tells you to do. Usually the way poets learn is to hear something, scorn it for a bit or even a long while, then eventually come around to it, either agreeing with it or just respecting some grain of truth in it. How many times have you heard someone praise another poet and be like, Aw, that guy sucks, even though you haven't read him? And then you read him on the sly and gain a real sense for yourself. Or perhaps you hear 2, 3, then 5 people mention a poet's name until finally you get irritated enough to sit down and read her. We want to believe so much in our own awesomeness that it's hard to admit there are other people being awesome out there. But if you're worth a damn as a poet, you will admit this. Eventually. And you'll get better because of it.
I remember liking Chaucer, Spenser and Donne my freshman year of college, mainly because this upperclassman down the hall approved of them; but he hated Milton, Wordsworth and Pope so I hated those guys too. I wrote "I AM NOT A POET" on Pope's forehead on the cover of the Riverside edition of his work; after I finished Paradise Lost, I threw it across the room, even though I remember thinking I liked it. Does anyone out there seriously want to tell me that I'd be a better poet today had I not gone back to Pope and Milton and realized they were amazing? You need teachers, aka people who know more shit than you do, to tell you you're an idiot.
I remember talking to Sandy McClatchy in his office and telling him how crazy I thought he was to say that Pope was one of the greatest poets. He didn't even get mad; he just turned around and picked through some papers then gave me this assignment he'd written up called "Between the Lines," in which you take somebody else's poem, separate the lines, then write your own lines between them. He told me to do this exercise using some of Pope's couplets. I, of course, being the scornful little genius that I was, didn't do that--but I did take one of McClatchy's poems and do it--trying to impress him and flatter him, I guess, at the same time. Anyway, I didn't write some great poem out of that assignment or anything, but because of McClatchy's blithe disregard for my scorn, I eventually went back to Pope and loved him. I never wanted to write like him, but now I see how he's secretly behind a poet like Kenneth Koch, whom I have tried to write like.
This is another very long answer, but yes, I think on The Bridge writers can find their way in a similar fashion and perhaps learn even more quickly, because if they don't like what one mentor says about one of their poems and then another mentor says something similar, and another-- well, eventually you've got to stop kidding yourself, right? It's easier to dismiss what a mentor says and build up a whole self-justifying vendetta against him when you're working only with that one person for a long time.
That reminds me of what Rick Moody was saying when he visited the reading series I run at The College of Saint Rose. He questions the validity of the classic workshop model, as it were, preferring instead imitative models and a one-on-one mentor interaction. Who else helped in the design of The Bridge's pedagogical model?
A number of people were involved, not all of them poets. In the early stages last October, I was meeting with developers in Manhattan to discuss the possibility of a new Brooklyn Poets website that would incorporate some kind of geomapping directory of all the poets living in Brooklyn. This is back when our site was on Tumblr and I was learning just how limited that site was--how Tumblr was not the community I wanted for poetry.
Eventually we paid these developers for a couple of consulting sessions where they took my original, very basic idea for a website incorporating a poet's directory, and figured out a way to drive traffic to that kind of site--essentially, how to make the site "profitable," according to a social networking model. My worry about a website with a directory was how do you get poets to sign up and create a profile? There are other examples of directories out there, namely at Poets & Writers, but no one I know really looks at those things--it's a static model.
The more I talked to these guys the more I saw that, holy shit, we could create a networking site for poets. I didn't even think that was possible, but when you're in the room with creative developers, they're just like, Sure, why not? Through our early discussions they kept asking me about different kinds of poets and what they were looking for, and what I kept saying was that professional poets need teaching jobs and student poets need cheaper, alternative ways of finding instruction outside of academia--because there are no jobs, so why would you go get a degree just so you can not teach?
At first we thought of setting prices for all the critiquing bundles, but the more I talked to poets, the more it became clear that not everyone agreed on what was a fair price for their services. Dorothea Lasky was teaching a workshop for Brooklyn Poets at the time and offered a lot of great advice on this and sat in on some of the meetings; I also surveyed many poet-friends of mine, either in person or via email, about what they thought would be the best method, people like Steve Gehrke, Tim Donnelly, Nicky Beer, Simone Muench, Jason Bredle, Melissa Broder, Jeff Simpson, David Hernandez and others, poets in different teaching situations and at different stages of their careers (Jason, for instance, doesn't teach for a living).
Ultimately it became clear that in order to provide the most flexible pedagogical model possible, we simply had to open it up to the mentors--essentially, to create a free marketplace where mentors offered their services according to certain guidelines and then come what may. A lot of planning and thinking has gone into the design of this site, but I'll be the first to point out that it's still an experiment--nothing like this has ever been done before, so we don't know exactly how it's going to turn out. I'm curious to see how it evolves! For instance, how poets will "value" their teaching services, how often student poets will request critiques, from how many different mentors, etc. There's a lot to learn about ourselves as a poetry community here.
How does this relate to your own experience as a poet, a writer? Is The Bridge in any way a reaction to how you've been taught or "trained," as we might say?
To the extent that as an undergraduate I was taught that poetry is an art, a discipline, and not a forum for self-expression, by people like Sandy McClatchy and the late John Hollander, neither of whom did "workshop" in their writing classes but made you read poems and write poems on assignment every week, The Bridge might be an outgrowth of my training. But as I mentioned before, I never actually got in-depth written critiques of my work from any of my teachers, including the great ones I had at Houston and Missouri (where I did my MFA and PhD); I'd get maybe a comment or two scribbled on the page, sometimes not even that. I'm not complaining: these were great poets, great teachers, and they were saying a lot and teaching me in other ways.
But perhaps my emphasis on providing written critique of student's work comes out of the puzzling absence of that in my own experience as a student. A written critique is a much deeper response to a poem: you're writing out of your own silence back to the writer in his or her silence.
My job would be a lot easier if I simply cold-read poems in workshop and offered my thoughts then. But I think you can offer a student more than that. I think what you offer a student verbally in workshop is different from what you offer that student through a written response; often you'll think of things to suggest in conversation that didn't occur to you in writing, and vice versa. I imagine a beautiful community on The Bridge where poets are regularly sitting down with each other's work every day and writing sustained, thoughtful responses to each other--how could we not all get better as writers and readers because of this?