It’s the first week of the poetry unit in my introductory creative writing class. “Raise your hand if you wrote poems in high school,” I say. Over half the class holds up an arm. “Keep your hands up if you wrote because you were angry. I’m talking poems about unfair expectations, poems about mean friends and unrequited crushes, poems about injustice.”
Without exception, the hands stay up.
“Poetry was like ventilation for me,” one girl confesses.
A few students in the class shake their heads. They are here for the prose. They took this class despite the poetry. Poetry, they long ago decided, is not for them. I want these students to give it another shot.
“Fury,” I say, “burns through much of American poetry.” I pass out packets.
“It’s your turn,” I say. “I want each of you to write an angry poem.”
This assignment makes many students uncomfortable. They’re not used to expressing anger on purpose, much less for a class. Still, I push. I want them to confront their impulse to self-censor.
Sometimes, to break the ice, I read my students I tell them that when I wrote the poem, I’d just been dumped. Rather than rationalizing my feelings, I conjured the most overblown, coffee shop, break-up poem I possibly could. I gave in to melodrama. I expunged rage. The result was so hyperbolic that it ballooned into humor. When I finish reading, my students are usually laughing. Professors don’t typically express anger, not on purpose, not in the classroom.
“You dropped so much shade,” a girl says, shaking her head, “but that’s not really who you are.”
“It’s who the poem is,” I tell her.
Often, students view poems as units of self-representation, portraits in words and not experiments with language and mood and structure and persona. With this assignment, I try to give permission to dissociate one’s self from one’s writing, to let the poems “act out.” Until a poet recognizes that a poem is not an extension of herself but something utterly distinct, her allegiance often privileges propriety over poetic impact. This is a trap.
“Be irrational,” I say. “Put your feelings in a funny mirror. Let them bloat and distend. It’s only a poem.”
I never require students to share their angry poems, but I always give them the option. They can read theirs aloud to the class, or, if they choose, they can workshop them.
“If the material is still raw,” I warn, “you might not be ready hear a critique. That’s okay. Wait until you have more distance.”
Through poetry, my students have raged against exes, bad drivers, literary criticism, and oboe players. Once, a student wrote a sonnet about her dislike for Tom Cruise: “Each perfectly placed hair, / I want to glue in the opposite direction.”
A subset uses this assignment to document violence. They write about violence they’ve seen and violence they’ve felt, sexual and domestic violence—the kinds of gendered violence that are typically silenced. Often, these students—nearly always women—tell methey’re writing from their lives.
I don’t believe in avoiding difficult topics, not in the classroom. Still, I can be a worst-case-scenario-thinker, and, when students share work that makes them particularly vulnerable, I fret. So much can erupt in a classroom. Someone might challenge the validity of an experience. The writer could get defensive. Fellow classmates could get offensive. The conversation might trigger a panic attack. A class isn’t a single organism—it’s fifteen or twenty or, even, thirty distinct human beings. Classroom control is crucial. It’s also an illusion.
Early one semester, at the very end of class, a student volunteered to read aloud her poem, titled “Nothing Was Wrong.”
Glass shattered on the floor.
Mom’s eyes closed tightly. Dad was coming.
I was there, I saw it all.
Knob Creek leaked from his lips.
His eyes nailed her forcefully in the gut.
Mom stood there waiting, waiting for his deliberate disapproval.
He traced her body with his halfway eyes.
His boots dragged on the uneven floor as he left
He turned and said,
“What’s for dinner?”
The violence in this poem is implied rather than stated, but the fear is palpable. The whole class felt it, and, though I trusted my students, I worried for the poet. She was brave to share such revealing work, and, although her language didn’t flinch, I thought her classmates might.
Instead, what ensued was a teaching moment, only I wasn’t the one doing the teaching. My student was. The shift in power from the domestic danger described in the poem to her confident presence in the classroom was instructive. She demonstrated the power of poetic risk-taking. When she was done reading, class was over, yet no one stood up to leave. Her classmates honored her lesson with an impromptu moment of silence, before they gathered their books.
When students like a poem, I always ask them to tell me why. Often, this changes the conversation from noting approval to discussing craft. One benefit of the angry poem assignment is that students begin to identify the ways that poetic craft enhance emotional impact.
In the poem “New Year’s Day,” which another student wrote for the angry poem assignment, a father and daughter are stuck with each other “in a stalled car / In a vacant parking lot” when the father announces:
The way you avoid me is as if I had
Raped my only daughter
And I was not aware of doing it.
It’s a shocking stanza, simultaneously asserting and negating sexual violence. The father cannot imagine a non-sexual cause for what he perceives as a violation in his relationship with his daughter. As the poem continues, power seesaws between father and daughter, though no explanation of their strife is given. For both the father and the daughter, emotional pain gains traction in the language of sexual violence. Finally the daughter “triumphs” by claiming her suffering:
With every seriousness.
As if a penis can penetrate and hurt
Worse than words do.
As if abhorrent actions
Need to be in the context of sex
In order to be called abuse.
Poetry rewards effort. The well is deep, and, the more immersed students become, the more satisfaction they derive.
“Tell me about this poem,” I ask, after the poet finishes reading.
“The setting is claustrophobic. The reader is stuck in the car with these people.”
“We’re voyeurs,” someone else chimes in, “whether we want to be or not.”
One student points out the careful use of metaphor and direct statement, and another notes the author’s choice to write in negations—not what happened, but what didn’t. The poem’s conclusion, he says, references not only the speaker’s pain but also her desire to manifest that pain verbally.
As the students discuss “New Year’s Day,” their comments leap from the technical to the emotional and back. They make connections. They land on both feet.
The feedback is useful for the poet as well. In her final portfolio, the author of “New Year’s Day” reflected on the trying and, ultimately, gratifying experience of revising her poem:
I decided to include the pieces where I felt the most emotionally intense while writing. Even when I went back to revise them, I could feel fire in my body and a sinking heart. Unfortunately, the emotion that I am most familiar with is sadness; I feel it in my stomach every day . . . The good news is that after completing them, I feel stronger and not as weighed down by that sadness.
In a learning environment increasingly focused on professionalization, feelings aren’t often welcomed in the college classroom. Writing workshops can be an exception to this trend. Poetry requires intellectual and emotional rigor. In 2012, the author Steve Almond published an essay in The New York Times titled in which he suggests that “the literary endeavor has supplanted therapy as our dominant mode of personal investigation.”
Almond’s thesis is personal. He describes entering an MFA program in creative writing thinking he had “urgent and profound things to say about the world,” and discovering, instead, that his impulse was therapeutic: “We were writing to confront what Faulkner called ‘the human heart in conflict with itself.’ And not just any hearts. Our hearts.”
Of course, writing instructors aren’t therapists. Counselors and social workers undergo years of training for that difficult work. Workshops, Almond points out, are designed “to help a writer improve her prose, not her psyche.” And yet, a sterile workshop, one that engages craft without considering emotional depth, thwarts the endeavor of literature altogether. Satisfying reading startles the heart. Satisfying writing takes empathy, curiosity, and risk.
Last year, I was surprised by a student’s insistence that she workshop a poem about childhood sexual abuse.
“Are you sure you’re ready to hear feedback?” I asked. “It can be harder when the subject matter is traumatic.”
“This is my best work,” she said. “I want to make it stronger.”
I understood her urgency. When a writer chooses to describe personal violence, she takes ownership of the narrative. Even so, “the event” of a poem can be hard to convey with the impact the poet desires. In a culture saturated with violence, readers may find themselves inured to a poem’s drama, while the poet finds the writing experience to be revelatory or cathartic. The therapeutic potential of a poem, its ability to transform the poet’s psyche, does not necessarily align with the poem’s capacity to reach others. The more honed her craft, the greater her ability to communicate beyond the self. After all, as the poet Carolyn Forché points out, poems about violence “are as much ‘about’ language as are poems that have no subject other than language itself.” This language, like the language in any poem, benefits from close attention. While it can be especially difficult to workshop a poem about trauma, the outcome is often especially rewarding.
And the Places on Her Body Have No Names
Those early Saturday morning
He would come to teach me music.
He would touch the tip of my fingers
As I strummed my sitar loud and clear.
Sometimes he would place his hands on my back,
Stroking my back like I was his sitar.
His cold, wrinkly fingers gave me tremors.
I was silent. I was scared. I was seven.
One Saturday morning there was no one home.
I saw how his smiled reached at its peak.
He pushed his white dull hair off his face
And asked me to sit on his lap.
He put his hands on my chest,
And said, “You are such a good girl.”
He touched my body up and down,
The parts that had no names.
I couldn’t scream.
I didn’t want to scream.
He took my clothes off.
He touched my ear,
And said, “Don’t make a sound.”
He tried to get inside me.
My whole body was burning.
My body was flames.
I am twenty-one now. Everything is blurry,
But I can still feel his cold fingers.
I remember his cruel smirk.
He follows me, like a dry grey cloud.
At its best, writing workshops elicit radical listening. Peers, who are otherwise quite busy, slow down and concentrate. The students in this class were shaken and impressed. They were also, understandably, hesitant to comment. Not only is the subject matter sensitive, after reading a first-person poem about violation, my students feared causing additional injury.
With a poem this personal and this risky, students need help responding. They need guidance. Instead of asking for critique, I asked my students to begin workshop by telling me why the poem was so powerful. Only after praising its emotional and narrative intensity, after sharing out loud what the poem taught them, did they feel comfortable giving the poet the technical feedback she sought.
Workshop leaders function as both cheerleaders and gatekeepers, determining in subtle ways the kinds of expression valued in a classroom. Because of cultural taboos, instructors need to pay special attention to those (often female) students who choose to write about sexual and domestic trauma. The balance between affirming expression and offering critique can be tricky. If emotions are raw, workshop isn’t always the appropriate format for discussing poems about trauma. On the other hand, guided revision can enable individuals to take control of a traumatic narrative, through retelling or even rewriting. After all, when writing about violence, the high stakes of the content often correlate with a serious desire to “get it right.” At it’s best, workshop can help the writer and the readers understand, and, most importantly, communicate.
When I first started teaching, I was afraid of losing control of the classroom. I didn’t want my students to open up too much because I worried they’d get hurt. I steered discussions away from moments of vulnerability. Later, I realized that this approach was backwards. If I wanted my students to “own” the classroom, I needed to step back so they had room to step up. Again and again, I’ve found that they do.
Note: The author is grateful to her students who gave her permission to quote their poems and commentary.
ANYA GRONER‘s fiction, poetry, and essays can be read in journals including The Atlantic, Guernica, Ninth Letter, and Ecotone. She teaches writing at Loyola University in New Orleans. To learn more, check out www.AnyaGroner.com.