During a recent conference meeting with a student in my Introduction to Poetry workshop, I experienced a rare (for me) fit of speechlessness. Actually, it happened twice.
I’d asked my students, all undergraduate non-English-majors, to compose a list of three questions about their work, urging them to share any concerns they were too hesitant to voice in front of their peers. The most talented and driven writer in class—let’s call her Tiffany—asked two questions that made me squirm, though, in retrospect, they shouldn’t have.
First, she grinned, glanced at the café table that separated us, and asked, “Is there always so much sex in poetry?”
“Sex?” I said.
“I mean, I’m not uncomfortable with it or anything. Just curious.”
“Yes,” I blurted, “Always. Lots of sex.”
A major preoccupation for Tiffany, sex informed most of what she wrote and said in class. She particularly enjoyed peppering our workshop conversations with innuendos. For example, as we workshopped a prose poem of hers about ants crawling over a “cleft” watermelon, she interrupted one of the less-promising male students with the quip: “Why do men say ‘vagina’ when they mean ‘vulva’?” The guy shrugged, blushing, and the class laughed nervously.
Back at our conference meeting, it was Tiffany’s second question, commonplace enough, that really threw me, probably because of the earnestness with which she asked it. Leaning back in her chair, she crossed her arms: “Should I keep writing, or am I wasting my time?”
I suspect those of us who teach introductory workshops like this harbor a secret fear that we’ll convert one or two impressionable undergraduates to the poetry life, as so many of us were converted. Who among our tribe doesn’t feel a slight pinch in the frontal lobe when that particularly eager student swings by the office with a new draft and the poem is actually good? What twisted neurosis compels us to encourage her, to say, “This is the real thing—keep writing,” instead of pointing out the grays around our temples, and warning her about the impossibility of surviving on the pittance she’ll make from publishing (if she’s lucky enough to publish); the competitiveness of the academic job market (if she wants to teach); and the general resistance our culture has to this craft or sullen art.
I don’t mean to gripe about the unprofitability of poetry, which, if nothing else, insures that only those driven (or crazy) enough to write poems do, only those few “fellow oddballs,” as William Matthews dubbed us, who choose to work so hard for such meager rewards. Nor am I arguing against the importance of poetry and poetry writing in what used to be called a liberal-arts education, the fundamental goal of which is surely to create not only knowledgeable but empathic citizens of the world.
Nor am I knocking the intellectual, emotional, and psychological benefits of an art that demands from its practitioners nothing less than absolute fidelity, compelling us to examine the outer and inner worlds with microscopic scrutiny. Nor the pleasures of writing poetry, which, though rare and often unquantifiable, at least feel substantial, especially when we place a poem in a reputable journal, or when the work itself seems to glide along on rails, and the poems arrive, in Keats’s words, “as naturally as leaves to a tree.”
I’m talking about the ethical problem poet-teachers face in every workshop we lead, successful completion of which requires that the student at least temporarily surrender to the art, and the consequent risk the student faces of—well, of falling in love with poetry, becoming so addicted to the practice of making poems that she changes her major from Urban Planning or Nursing or Bioengineering to English with a minor in Creative Writing.
Isn’t this the collateral damage of such a class? Don’t we, as responsible educators, have the duty at least to acknowledge both the pleasures and the difficulties of this life we’ve chosen (and to stress to our students that it is, after all, a choice)? If poet-teachers are expected to submit honest feedback to students about their writing, shouldn’t we be equally honest about what the writing life does and does not provide?
Back in the campus Starbucks where I met with Tiffany, I realized I’d been cracking my pen cap between my teeth.
“Sorry,” I said. “Did I answer your question?”
“No,” she said, smiling.
“Please, ask again.”
“Should I keep writing poetry or should I quit?”
“Don’t stop,” I said, “You’re too good to quit.”