Early last January, I found myself with eight other grad students waiting for Frank X. Walker to introduce himself to his Advanced Poetry class. Within a few minutes, I found myself wondering what the hell I had just gotten myself into.
“This is a graduate-level poetry class. I assume you’re all advanced poets, and I expect nothing short of your best writing.”
Before this semester, I had never written poetry, except for the occasionally dabbling in creative writing I fancied as pseudo-poetry. For our first assignment, Prof. Walker asked us to gather together ten pages of our best poems so he could use them as a before class/after class gauge of our poetry-writing skills. So I pored over blog entries and equivalated the homework from my creative non-fiction writing.
The next week, eight of us (one apparently dropped the class) presented our poems to our professor, tasked with choosing one to read aloud, along with a reading of our favorite poem. (Mine was a transcription of Alvin Lau’s Full Moon. “Usually,” Frank said, “people choose poets who are similar to them. You? You broke that mold today.”)
For the next several weeks, we were taught about various poetic forms and charged with writing one of our own (hence the reason this blog has become a temporary home for experimental poetry). Personification. Mirror/Imitation. Double-Jointed and/or Hinge. Historical. Haiku. Recipe. ‘Where I’m From.” We also had to choose poetry books from our instructor’s expansive library and review/present them to the class, books that had nothing in common with who we are or what we write.
But the meat of any creative writing class is the workshop aspect of it. You either love it or hate it. There’s nothing quite like the experience of presenting what you consider to be your very best creative writing, only to have it politely ripped to shreds by your peers. Artists understand constructive critiquing of their craft is a necessary evil and ultimately a Good Thing. Alternating with wanting to run right out of that class is knowing you will become a better writer for this experience.
And then it happens–it always does–this subtle shift in the air of the classroom experience. You notice, hey, this guy’s not the asshole I thought he was, and, wow, she’s really just trying to be helpful. And everyone around you seems to be noticing the same thing, and out the door goes hurt feelings and rejection, replaced by camaraderie, collegiality and friendship.
Knee-deep in revisions, I only have one more poem to write and a final workshop. Our “final” for this class is an essay detailing everything we have learned from reading the aforementioned poetry books. I’ve learned more than enough to fill the requisite six pages, yet my mind wanders more toward what I’ve learned from this professor and this particular group of seven other students.
Because of them, I am a better writer.
I was reminded of the utility of the craft last weekend while watching a skateboard competition on TV with my son. “It looks so easy, but I know it’s not.” And that is the crux of good writing, economy of words on a page carefully crafted with just the right words, expressing just the right sentiment. Only the writer knows how many hours and revisions it takes to find the perfect word combination to express and share thoughts and musings.
This semester is almost behind us. I would love to take another class from Prof. Walker but, alas, that is probably not to be. A rising star, he will find success wherever he lands, but our university will have lost one of its finest writer/teachers, and English students here will miss out on a rare opportunity to learn from one of the best.
Write on, Frank, and Muhammad and CB and Amber and Tanya and Ryan and Kelley and Mary Anne. I know I will.
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