What I teach my students about poetry is that everything—every word, every sound, every line—is the result of a decision the poet has made. A poem is a collection of decisions. I introduce them to techniques, elements, and forms; I have them read successfully constructed poems (and some badly designed ones as well)—all tools that can help inform their poetry-making decisions. We write, read, respond, develop, and revise.
Decision making in writing poetry is something I believe can be taught, and I do my best to teach that to my students.
Despite this truth, I also believe that poem-making isn’t always so logical. Sometimes, it’s as if the decision has been made before the ink leaves the pen. I don’t know where it comes from: I can’t claim it’s a gift one is born with or a mystical muse randomly spreading inspiration. But I know there’s something. Something . . . that’s just a bit magical.
I can’t teach that. That magic can’t be taught.
I was already writing poetry when I walked onto my college campus. I’d already read Plath and Sexton and filled notebook after notebook with angst and beauty and love and pain. I’d declared my major on Day 1: I was going to learn the hell out of creative writing during my time there.
My introductory classes taught me techniques, elements, and forms. I read and read and read. I wrote, responded, developed, and revised.
And then I met James Reiss.
The room changed when James stepped into it. He radiated—his voice and his laughed filled the air and opened up the space. It was like the whole world was within those four walls. It wasn’t that James was the center; rather, he helped us see beyond our isolated campus, our limited experiences, our youthful narcissism. He helped us to see everything.
James Reiss taught me a lot about writing poetry. He was a good reader—harsh but fair. He once scribbled “disposable” on a poem, and I was really angry and hurt the entire walk home. Then I sat down and read it again and immediately saw my error. I’d assumed that a strong emotion would automatically make a great poem. I was wrong. That was a valuable lesson.
The most important thing I learned from James, though, didn’t come in a note on an assignment. It didn’t even come in class. It came from just being in his presence. James was poetry. He helped me find poets I needed as mentors and friends; he pointed them out to me in books and at the table around me. He helped me become the poet I wanted to be. He helped me to be me.
And part of who I am is a believer in the magic of poetry. Yes, I use the knowledge I’ve been taught (and now teach) to make good decisions when writing. But sometimes the magic comes and I do not turn it away.
I once took a walk off campus, down a hilly road. I saw a fence, and a poem came to me. I walked home and wrote it down. My class workshopped it; they asked questions about details, wanting to know why I’d chosen the name Deborah in the penultimate line. After class I admitted to James that I didn’t have the answer—it had just come to me and I didn’t want to change it.
James told me to leave the line as it was. James taught me to trust the magic.
On December 2, 2016, James Reiss died. I saw the news on Facebook, a post from a poet I did not know, mourning the death of his mentor, who was also my mentor.
The day before James died I’d held his books The Breathers and Express in my hands, studying the inscriptions he’d left for me throughout both, looking at each time he’d crossed out a woman’s name and written mine there instead, remembering the lessons he’d taught me over twenty-five years ago.
On December 14, 2016, Brain Mill Press announced that my book A Wife Is a Hope Chest would be published as the first full-length collection in its Mineral Point Poetry Series. The limited-run fine first edition will be signed by the poet. By me.
James will never hold my book in his hands. I will never inscribe his copy. But his name is already in there—between every line in every poem on every page.
Christine Brandel is a writer and photographer. Her work has recently appeared in Callisto, Public Pool, Under the Rader, Blue Fifth Review, and The Fem. She also writes a column on comedy for PopMatters and rights the world’s wrongs via her character Agatha Whitt-Wellington (Miss) at Everyone Needs An Algonquin. She currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where she teaches at a community college and serves as a hospice volunteer. More of her work can be found at clbwrites.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.