Saturday, February 23, 2008

Poets and Teaching

I’m just back from New York, where I was teaching this past week, filling in for Marilyn Hacker who was away. I haven’t taught regularly since the spring of 2003, when I decided to put the classroom aside and just write. But before that I taught almost uninterruptedly, beginning in 1977 with a poetry-writing course done in the college seminar program at Yale. In that class were Langdon Hammer, now chair of the English Department at Yale, author of a critical book on Crane and Tate, editor of the Crane letters, a brilliant reviewer of contemporary poetry, and now the editor of the new American Library edition of Crane’s writings. Another class member was Susan Schultz, poet, professor at the Univ. of Hawaii, and editor of =Tinfish=. A third member was Tony Sanders, author of two well-received books of poetry. So clearly I had a good launch and since that first class have taught at a lot of different places, though mainly in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia. I’m going to brag and say that it was at my suggestion that Henri Cole enroll in the Writing Division (though this was while I was still living in New Haven; he completed his degree the year before I began teaching there), and it has been exciting over the years to read poems he sent to me and see him make his way, in the process becoming one of the best known poets on the scene. And here are some other poets who were students in one or more classes at Columbia or other places I taught: Marie Howe, Sarah Arvio, Vijay Seshadri, Sophie Cabot-Black, Daniel Hall, Claudia Rankine, Ben Downing, David Yezzi, Gwynneth Lewis, Mary Jo Bang, John Foy, Dave King, Mary Stewart Hammond, John Barr, Elizabeth Frost, Erin Belieu, Julie Sheehan, Gaby Calvocoressi, Emily Fragos, Laurie Wagner-Buyer, Tim Bradford, and Anna Robinson. And there are other former students I’m in touch with who haven’t quite surfaced yet (like Doretta Wildes) but who no doubt soon will.

When I first began teaching, the reason I gave myself was that I had to earn my living, and I knew I’d be no good as an office worker or salesman. I didn’t know that it would be a new source of ideas and energy for me as a writer. Yes, it was time-consuming; yes, only a few of the students had what it takes (not only talent, but the willingness to persist); yes, it involved a lot of busy-work where Administration was concerned. But it was also part of the impact, an unanticipated reward. I probably gave up teaching too soon. But I'm aware that many poets--the majority, probably--regard teaching as a huge burden, a serious drain on creative energy. Clearly, it's not for everyone. If not by teaching, how are poets to support themselves? Everything from waiting tables to editing an important magazine to freelance journalism. But for me teaching was the answer.

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