Today’s post is an interview with author and professor Jennifer McClanaghan. Her book of poetry, River Legs, is now available from Kore Press. Her poem “Born Again” appeared in the September 15th issue of the The New Yorker.
Did anything in your undergraduate university experience prepare you to do the writing you’ve done after graduation, or to teach writing?
I first studied writing at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, a liberal oasis in southwestern Ohio. Antioch had big ideas—shared governance, a strict (often parodied) sexual offense policy. There was always one issue a semester that we debated endlessly. There was an attentiveness and energy that’s necessary for writing. I also remember reading Richard Brautigan for the first time and something—Revenge of the Lawn—clicked for me. I can’t tell you how many poems I’ve written since with lawns in them.
What is the mechanical process that you use when teaching prose and poetry writing? What are students doing in your courses that you can point to and say “that’s effective”?
When teaching poetry, I emphasize craft while also underscoring the importance of originality, imagination, and the “big picture” of a single poem. I’ve discovered that students like a lot of rules when writing. Rules seem to make them relax and allow for more imaginative thinking. Frost said that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. The net, the white lines, the scorekeeping, once that’s established, the writing often goes to interesting places. So, for instance, my students write free verse, but I use an exercise by Jim Simmerman called “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” from The Practice of Poetry. This is a list of directives, for example the last four: “17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense; 18. Use a phrase from a language other than English; 19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification); 20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that echoes an image from earlier in the poem.” The poems from this exercise are always wonderfully strange and full of movement. Students love exercises, and they love to read each other’s work. My classes are loud and talkative and make room for the banal to become the sublime.
How do students get feedback about their writing? What do you think is the most effective way to do this, if you think it’s an important part of learning about writing?
I write extensively all over my students’ stories and poems. I want to show them my engagement with the piece and the time I spend honoring their work. I also type up a note that summarizes some ideas for revision. I give each piece a good portion of classroom time to be discussed out loud, which is helpful to the writer but almost more helpful for the other students to articulate their understanding of the craft. I’m always negotiating my own silence v. input, trying to strike the right balance so the writer feels attended to while the other students feel like they’ve shaped the critique.
Let’s take a hypothetical undergraduate student at a university where the tuition is $40,000 per year. We’ll assume that the university’s discount rate is 50 percent, so the student actually pays only $20,000 per year and is taking five courses a semester. That means the student pays $2,000 per course per year. Outside of college, I see writing instruction – workshops, etc. – offered for less than $500 to people who are quite serious about learning how to write better. In contrast, we often see college students who are emotionally and intellectually uninvested in learning about writing despite paying much more money. Why is that? What’s the solution, if you think it’s a problem?
I know you’ve simplified the math for the sake of the question, but it’s too simple and doesn’t account for the whole college experience. Undergraduates are learning how to become citizens of the world: articulating their politics, their sense of justice, compassion, their extracurricular pursuits—what they like apart from or in addition to how they grew up. The classroom is a small part of their education, and some of what they learn from us professors takes on meaning years later. My creative writing students are ever experimenting with fictions and personas as they determine who they are and how they want to spend their lives. This requires time and space, which is part of the price tag.
As for online education generally, which is increasingly more interesting because of free courses, I think of an article I read about MIT’s Building 20—the odd assortment of departments housed there, and the innovations born out of chance encounters and conversations between people in different fields. Writing classes thrive on the surprises yielded by the present moment: the tangential anecdotes and serendipitous remarks that lead one down new rabbit holes. This sort of thing can only really happen in person.