As I was on my way out to Boston on Wednesday, I received a note from the editor of Salamander, who wanted to let me know that she was featuring my poem "Lingua Franca" on the journal's website. That poem, which circles around the ways in which people perseverate on their notions, expectations, and terrors, always makes me a little bit afraid, partly because it begins on a note of comic exasperation and ends on a distressed one. The poem propels itself down the page into nightmare. It is a piece about the way in which imagination takes over our lives, in a bad way, and it is not a safe poem for a person with intermittent highway anxiety to revisit before a long lonely drive.
I think I'm writing about the link between myself and the experience of writing and rereading my own poem because I found myself asking students to consider those kinds of questions, to examine their own writerly tendencies, during the lyric essay class I taught at Solstice on Wednesday. I've presented versions of this class to several different kinds of students: high school juniors, adults without much creative-writing experience, and now a class of graduate-level students (most of them nonfiction majors) that also included several of their faculty members. In each version of this class, the readings and the basic discussion and writing prompts have been similar, but the conversational flowering around those prompts has been very different.
At Solstice, I felt the urge to ask the students to consider their own language patterns, what kinds of patterns pressed them forward into the unknown, what seemed to hold them back from such exploration, what writings they returned to later with a sense of awe or even fear. Suddenly it seemed so important to me to let them talk about the vitality of the way in which their own individual minds interacted with the rigors of the page.
And hearing them begin to talk to each other about these matters, to listen to themselves, was an immense satisfaction. This is my favorite thing about teaching: these unplanned conversations that become the portal . . . not only for the students but for me. Attention to one's own writerly patterns, consideration of how they lead an individual into new terrain or into dead ends or just into a confused mess, is a vital element of both creation and revision. Studying other writers' patterns, considering how those writers got where they were going, is a door into studying one's own. It's also a way of reminding ourselves that the unfolding act of writing is the heart of the matter, the art itself.