In thinking about poetry and teaching, I immediately thought of my teacher and mentor, Bruce Bennett. I met Bruce the first semester of college, when I had mistakenly been allowed to register for his 300-level Modern & Contemporary Poetry class. That first day, looking around the room at upper-class junior and senior English majors, I knew I was way out of my league. Professor Bennett asked me to stay after class, perhaps noticing a first-year student on his roster, perhaps noticing the stricken look on my face. I don’t remember what exactly we discussed, but he did agree to let me stay in the class.
When I met Bruce, he’d already been teaching at Wells College for more than twenty years. He became an important mentor for me there, and for many other students. Over his career, he has taught at Oberlin and Wells, published ten books of poetry and numerous chapbooks. He was awarded the first Writing the Rockies Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Creative Writing in 2015, as well as the first Alumni Award for Achievement in the Arts from The Episcopal Academy in 2013. Since retiring, he’s continued writing, editing, traveling and keeping in touch. What I remember most about Bruce as a teacher was his tireless enthusiasm for his students’ creative enterprises, his kindness, and his very particular scrawl that littered page after page of my attempts at poetry.
I asked Bruce to reflect on his teaching, questions I’ve pondered as I’ve become a poet and teacher myself. One thing I always want to ensure is that I provide my students models of strong poetry, but don’t overwhelm their aesthetic with my own. When I asked Bruce about this, he replied:
I never consciously tried to “balance my aesthetic” with encouraging students to find their own. Maybe this is another way of saying I never approached the issue intellectually, or even really as an issue. In the case of beginning writers, who were coming into an introductory poetry writing class with little or almost no experience of poetry – apart from what they studied in high school, perhaps in one college Introduction to Literature class, and their own writing – I felt it was my responsibility to expose them to a variety of older and contemporary poems of all sorts and make some basic points about how poetry functions through concreteness, precision, economy of words, rhythm, sound, connotation, and so forth. And I started with short poems – often extremely short – of two, three, or four lines. I also asked students to write poems of their own from the very first class, as well as to select poems from the handouts and reserve reading that they particularly responded to and then articulate why they found them moving or effective. I found that working directly with the students’ own poems allowed them to see how the essential elements of poetry were present – or absent – in those, instead of my talking more abstractly about these matters, though I had to do a certain amount of that.
I recall a very particular moment during my senior year of college when Prof. Bennett handed back some new poetry, with very few comments, other than “See me.” When I stopped in for office hours, he wanted to talk about where I was applying to graduate school. When I asked about the poems, he brushed me off a bit, and conveyed he didn’t have much to say; that I was doing what I was doing and it was time I moved on to a new writing teacher. At the time, I didn’t fully register what he was doing, but I’ve thought of that conversation many times since then – I think he was acknowledging my voice, suggesting that we’d come to the end of our current relationship. It was a great kindness. I didn’t need to run all my first drafts by him anymore – it was the gift of freedom, his articulation that I was a poet. Maybe even a capital “P” Poet.
I’ve gone back and visited Wells, my beloved alma mater and former women’s college, a couple of times in the last few years – once as it was transitioning to a co-ed institution and Bruce was in his final year before retirement, and more recently as the place seems wholly changed; new faces everywhere I look. I’ve visited classes and read from my work in the same gallery where I used to sit and listen to visiting writers. It’s bittersweet (and yes, it makes me feel old). Something I’ve always wondered is how gender dynamics came into the writing classroom for Bruce.
According to Bruce, as Wells began to ready itself for matriculating male students, conversations in the creative writing classroom often addressed how things might change. “I remember one time a student did say that she could share what she was about to share only because there were no men in the room, and I felt I had to say, ‘Ahem.’ Everyone looked at me with surprise, and a few students laughed, but I think we all understood and were comfortable with the convention that, as their trusted professor, I was not a ‘man.’” I do remember a time or two when a visiting writer perhaps didn’t understand the very special environment that was Wells. One in particular, with some off-hand comment about how the students’ topics were “women’s issues” and wouldn’t be interesting to a general readership, angered me a great deal. It was only later, in graduate school, when I realized I would encounter this sort of attitude more and more, that I realized what Wells, and Bruce, had given me. In making room for my voice to explore whatever it wished, it also strengthened my voice. As Bruce’s poem “Blessing” refers to those students as “seeker[s]” – so we were. We left the space of his writing classes, with the long seminar table and audience of our own seeking selves, and went out into the world, our voices muscled and strident and strong.
Finally, as I think about all Bruce taught me as a poet (helping me to place my first published poem, my first manuscript), as a person (with his gentleness – something in which I’m woefully deficient), and as a teacher, I asked him about “success” as a writing teacher. As a teacher at a school with a very small writing program, many of the students in my creative writing classes aren’t there to learn to be professional writers, but for other reasons – how can I best serve those students? Bruce responded effusively, “This is a subject I care deeply about.”
I was always very forthright in my insistence that the value of writing workshops in all genres is to help each individual student to write better and to know her self (his self) better. Wells was a Liberal Arts school, and a central tenet of the Liberal Arts is that one must live with the self one creates while young (and especially while in college) for the rest of one’s life, so one had best pay close attention to that.
So workshops were exciting communal experiences where students explored through their writing what was vitally important and meaningful to them, examining whatever they chose to focus on as freely and honestly as they could, and sharing works-in-progress with their peers in a critical but constructive environment where everyone understood that the purpose was to articulate what they wished to communicate as effectively as possible. Everyone had fun. Everyone improved. In some cases this workshop experience changed people’s lives, presumably permanently.
As Bruce and I have been emailing back and forth lately, talking poetry, teaching and politics, working together on this article, and exchanging new work, it’s a pleasure to continue to evolve our relationship. He’s assured me that neither of the poems he’s shared are about me, but I feel like they could be – he made me feel brave, and supported, that he wanted to hear more of my voice. And my poem speaks to how my students affect me, inspiring me with their own bravery, their own voices and stories. I hope that I can live up to the model set by my mentor; I hope that my students know I listen when their voices fight to be heard.
C. Kubasta lives and writes in central Wisconsin. Her poetry and prose celebrates the rural: the strange and beautiful, the awkward and forgiving. Despite the lower population density, she can always find plenty to write about. She is the author of two chapbooks, A Lovely Box and &s, and the book All Beautiful & Useless. A second book of poetry, Of Covenants, is forthcoming in 2017. Find her at www.ckubasta.com.
Bruce Bennett is the author of ten full-length collections of poetry and more than two dozen poetry chapbooks. His most recent book is Just Another Day in Just Our Town: Poems; New and Selected, 2000-2016 (Orchises Press), which was published in January 2017. His first New And Selected, Navigating the Distances, also from Orchises Press, was chosen by Booklist as “One Of The Top Ten Poetry Books Of 1999.” After receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1967, he taught at Oberlin College from 1967-70, where he co-founded and served as an editor of Field: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. In 1970 he co-founded and served as an editor of the journal Ploughshares. In 1973 he began teaching at Wells College in Aurora, NY. He retired from teaching at Wells in 2014, and is now Professor Emeritus of English. In 2015 he was the recipient of the first annual Writing the Rockies Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Creative Writing.
The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.