Amplifying Each Other’s Voice

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.

Poems, Questions, and Banana Pancakes

It is spring of 2017 CE, and, when I am not devastated by the national and international news, I am snared by questions.

I used to be a poet. I still am, but it’s different than it used to be. In the book of shadows and recipes I keep, I find this brief entry: “Poetry is no longer the thing. It is one important thing in this wild, good life.” Those words are dated January 2016. A recipe for Banana Pancakes on the facing page and on the next page after that I penned a note to myself that David Bowie died.

This quote from him stays close to me:

If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.

In other words, go to the place where you are snared by questions. I used to be a poet. I still am, but it’s different. The passion I feel for poems has not changed. I teach poetry classes here and there. I edit and shape manuscripts for people. In my work as the owner of Odonata, I run classes and retreats, and work one on one, helping people identify and live into their passion (whether for poems or for something else). As I am living mine. Currently I’m passionate about questions. Did I say that?

I know we each have our own best answers, locked away inside, and it only needs a little prodding (and a lot of courage) to unloose them into the world and effect change. The further I go, the more I feel my job is to create spaces for a person to discover her own knowledge and best instincts. We have largely lost the art of listening to our intuition. Who takes the time? Who silences the noise long enough? Maybe this is one of poetry’s gifts to us, in the 21st century.

Because poetry, my first love, my oldest home, is a wild thing, refusing to be tamed or framed. As much as any of the arts, poetry resists the marketplace, insisting on the primacy and unpredictability of gift. Through the experience of a poem, our sense of time is altered, our sense of breath and movement of the body temporarily shifts as we read the words of another. Poetry tunes us to metaphor, which is as close as most of us get these days to being attuned to messages from the non-human world. Poetry cracks us open. In a way that I don’t yet understand a poem is very like a question. More than the teacher, it is the poem that teaches us.

Sarah Sadie helps people connect to their creativity and to each other. She teaches classes, works with people one on one, and hosts occasional retreats. Combining interests in embodied spirituality, creativity, the wisdom of the body, and the power of art, she seeks out makers, dreamers, and anyone interested in a good cup of coffee and conversation.

http://atodonata.com

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.

Birds of a Feather

When my application materials for Wisconsin Poet Laureate were assembled, I was asked what my “project” might be. Many of the past poet laureates put forth a project: Kimberly Blaeser’s Recitation Project, for example. Bruce Dethlefsen reached out to libraries to help them build reading series.

Since I’d been asked to lead a Memory Café at an eldercare facility in the Fox Valley last November, my brain went into overdrive. Why not? I wondered.

For those who don’t know, a Memory Café is a social event for those with mild to moderate memory loss and their caregivers. There is usually a program of sorts. And refreshments. There are dozens of Memory Café projects operating in the state, many sponsored by care facilities and community groups.

Initially, I had a plan about how to proceed, but as with many plans, interesting things happen if you allow for them. I’d hoped some might remember poems they memorized in school, maybe recite a few words. Since I had little response, I shared a couple of my poems, ones based on my memories. Those poems opened the floodgates of their own memories. Soon we were talking about first dates, proposals, old dance halls in Outagamie County.

Poetry seemed to be the key that unlocked the door to what they, too, remembered. Maybe poetry acted as validation—their memories were still important and relevant. Someone might be interested in hearing them.

If you’ve ever had a discussion with a family member about an event from the past, you understand that memory is a fluid thing, an entity that takes the shape of the vessel in which it is contained. You and your sibling, for example, might remember a past event, but likely each of you remembers it differently. Did your brother get the red wagon you wanted for Christmas—and you got the lump of coal? Does he remember it differently?

What about the history of a community? Community memory is often something shared by a group—the history of an organization, for example, or the collective story of a small town or a large city.

My first “gig” as the Wisconsin Poet Laureate took me, not to a Memory Café, but through several small bergs on the east side of Lake Winnebago the first weekend in February. I was invited to participate in a library talk about a new old book about the history of the small city of Kiel, Wisconsin.

Brad Vogel and Ed Majkrzak introduced the historical novel Yellowbird. Both Kiel natives, Vogel is a practicing attorney in New York City. Majkrzak is Kiel’s historical conscience. They call each other sidekicks; though their age difference spans nearly sixty years, they are truly of one mind. Both love their small city and the stories swirling around its inception.

Thus the mythical Indian princess Yellowbird is reborn. Part fiction, part historical fact, Yellowbird: A True Tale of the Early Settlement of Town Schleswig was written by Henry Goeres in the late 1800s and translated from the German in 1900 by Paul Dachsel.

Majkrzak and Vogel collaborated to reintroduce the book, researched to verify locations and facts. Annotated and painstakingly edited, this is the first new edition to be published in over a hundred years.

Yellowbird herself is an enigma, a woman who, so the story goes, leads the remaining Native Americans in the area to save a new settlement of German immigrants from a flood. Not all of it is folklore. There is proof of a near dam break and a concerted effort by community members and Native Americans to save it and the city from certain destruction. What is real or what is formed to become myth and part of the collective memory of this community?

Perhaps as important as this wondrous story is that more than eighty people packed the library, with standing room only in the aisles of the stacks, to hear Majkrzak and Vogel talk of their collaboration—with plenty of references to buildings and businesses still standing, references to famous founding fathers and mothers.

There was plenty of laughter and camaraderie. It left many listeners nodding their heads in homage to what they shared—stories passed from generation to generation becoming the fabric of their folklore.

After pictures were passed, after questions were posed, and with many residents clutching their books close, Vogel asked if there were other memories, other stories that might be added or if there were corrections. The process of revision continues, the memory fluid and moving as the Sheboygan River on which the city is built.

Vogel and Majkrzak will continue to serve as willing listeners and intrepid documenters to the tale of their city. If enough people remember, if enough agree on what happened, if enough facts can be verified, the collective memory becomes part of the story of Kiel.

And I will begin the process of working with the Memory Café projects in the Fox Valley and beyond. We’ll recite poems, share memories, and maybe write together. It’s out of individual memory that community memory is built. Together, we’ll tell their stories.

Karla Huston,  Wisconsin Poet Laureate (2017-2018), is the author of A Theory of Lipstick (Main Street Rag: 2013) as well as 8 chapbooks of poetry including Grief Bone, recently released from Five-Oaks Press. Her poems, reviews, and interviews have been published widely, including the 2012 Pushcart Best of the Small Presses anthology. She teaches poetry at The Mill: A Place for Writers in Appleton, Wisconsin.

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.

A Poet’s Place

At the close of AWP a few years ago, I took a bus ride to the airport with several writers and had the luck of sitting beside a poet I admire and with whom, over the years, I had formed some acquaintance. By that I mean, when we see each other, there’s an acknowledgement of sorts. And, for me, it’s a thing of detail that he can never remember or even pronounce my name.

On the bus ride, we engaged in the kind of trivial banter people have in elevators with one- or two-word answers. “How are you?” “Fine.” “Fine weather we’re having.” “Great weather.”

But somehow in that twenty-minute bus ride, we pushed past niceties. And, for a minute or so, talked honestly about work. He made the transition by asking about my studies.

“Where are you now?”

At the time, I was trying to take my PhD at the University of Kansas. So I said, “Kansas.”

“And, what are you working on now?”

“Oh, I don’t know! I have a manuscript that feels ready. But, I don’t know. When it comes to these things, I’m never sure. I felt good about it a year or so ago. And here I am still…”

“This is your second collection, right?”

“Yes.”

“What’s it called again?”

“I’m not sure, I’m torn between Sailing for Ithaca and Leaving…”

He didn’t even let me finish. He burst into a long laugh. Teared. Wiped his face. Begged apologies. Tried containing himself. Swelled. And broke open laughing again.

Looking around the bus, I could see a young woman in glasses looking out the window and wearing headphones. Of the other two people from the conference in the bus, one—an older man—kept his gaze straight, but looked tired. Only the last person looked on in interest at the drama of the unfolding conversation.

By this time, my poet friend had contained himself, but was still smiling a knowing smile. The kind that says, been there done that. Or, if only you’d listen to me.

I tried guessing at what was so funny, and before I could ask, he said through more measured laughs, “Okay Odysseus. Okay Odysseus.”

Then, it occurred to me that he felt my reference to Ithaca was my attempt, as a young poet, to puff up my work and make myself sound important.

“I understand that the use of classical references, especially in a young writer’s work, is at best dangerous,” I said. “He risks being sophomoric by making noise…”

“Yes, you can’t do that, Odysseus.”

At this point, the bus pulled into his terminal, and he got down.

I thanked him for his suggestions, and I said I hoped he had a fine time at AWP. As the bus moved slowly from the curb, he yelled loud enough for me to hear, “Bye Odysseus! Bye Odysseus!”

By the time I got to my terminal and boarded my plane, I was deflated. And I couldn’t stop thinking that I should have kept my big mouth shut.

I nursed my wound for days. I watched bad television. And drank cheap wine.

My wife, used to my mood swings over poetry, let it play out.

In “Uncertain in the Wild Frontier,” I talked about my approach to poetry during my MFA years and the long road it took for me to arrive at unknowing as a chief mechanism of my imagination.

I look back on those years now and realize that one of the ways I displayed certainty was in classrooms, during workshops, where I would try my darndest not to laugh at poems that were abstract, inaccessible, or non-representational.

At the time, I felt those poems were the height of pretentiousness.

And, during classes or at the bar with friends, I wasn’t shy about making clear that the sooner the poets in question got their heads out of their high-falutin’ asses the sooner they could begin the true work of poetry.

I expressed this sentiment openly and often without regard for how the poets in question might feel, without asking what they were trying to do, who their influences were, with whom they were trying to have conversations, and how they were trying to have those conversations.

That was years ago!

I have since completed MFA and PhD programs. And, I am a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, where I teach both graduate students and undergrads.

And, as a teacher, I have come to realize that it is not my place to trample upon anyone’s poems, attempts at poetry, or choice of movement within it.

Moreover, it is my job to show students, who are impatient and overly sure of themselves, the necessary compassion I was shown, when I was a student and held strong beliefs on subjects of which I knew little, often confusing passion with knowledge on the issues.

Which brings me back to my second collection.

I knew after I had compiled Sailing for Ithaca that I would get it in some quarters. I knew some would grumble or dismiss the book—”Oh big shot he thinks he is, he is drawing from Homer!”

In the end, I had to decide if I was writing to please or writing to partake of a conversation larger than myself, in order to better understand myself. The decision was easy.

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.

Say Yes

Tiresias swipes right, left, right, there on the bench,under fairy lights cold in their promises.His blindness is ours, his thresholdsand transports his own.

No scholars of Greek, my friendscompare Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts.I say none of those. These doors, right here.My own adventure.

I will paint in the palette of dreams you forgot,not some land far far but as close as your eyelid.

Keep awake, keep aware for the gift freely given:the key, or the goatskin, or sometimesthe body itself (swipe right). Imagine the friendyou haven’t yet met

playing guitar on the couch. Everything thawing,out of the cold, and people of laughter and patchworkentering in and out doors that are squarely real.You can hear them from here.

Sarah Sadie helps people connect to their creativity and to each other. She teaches classes, works with people one on one, and hosts occasional retreats. Combining interests in embodied spirituality, creativity, the wisdom of the body, and the power of art, she seeks out makers, dreamers, and anyone interested in a good cup of coffee and conversation.

http://atodonata.com

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

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.

Intrepid & A Blessing

Intrepid

Brave girl! You faced the worst and wrote.You did just what you had to do.You grabbed obsession by the throatand forced it to say something new

In a new way. Your voice is cleanand clear and fresh. It’s just a start,but that’s how things become and mean.So here’s to your intrepid heart:

May it remain as stubborn-strong,committed to however faryour journey leads, however long.May you become the thing you are.

A Blessing

You make yourself, again, again,and then remake what you made new.Dear seeker, may the time come whenyou find and hold and know what’s you.

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.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

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.