Whether by necessity, tradition or desire, it is a fact of our present situation that the arts have become intimately tied to education. With TEACHING IN THE MARGINS Full Stop seeks to further explore the implications of this reality, the ways the writing happening now is influenced and influences the teaching of reading and writing. Further, at a cultural and historical moment when funding for arts non-profits is increasingly being cut and University presidents are dethroned for not moving fast enough, the question is no longer should the way artists and educators operate change, but how?
With this in mind, we sent our questionnaire to writers and curators, academics and educators, with an eye open to the interface between innovative artistic practice and progressive pedagogies, taking stock of the untapped potential of these unconventional ways of knowing, discovering how art pushing borders creates new spaces for teaching and learning at the margins.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, and Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize. A recipient of the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize from Poetry, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.
Why did you become an educator? How has your perspective on teaching changed as your career has developed?
My mother, prior to her retirement, was an art teacher, so I developed an admiration for teaching as a profession at a very early age. I used to go to my mother’s classroom after school some days; I would help her put up or take down hallway displays, clean and organize arts materials — or simply watch her interacting with students who were finishing up projects after school. But watching my mother work, and seeing her commitment to the well-being of others in an educational setting, is only one of the ways my parents instilled in me from a very young age the value — in fact the obligation — of service. I became a student-attorney public defender at the age of twenty-two, and a Bar-certified public defender at the age of twenty-four, and the belief in public service that led me down that road is a belief that has helped shaped my life in more ways than merely the professional. And my parents, in the very best sense, were and are the proximate cause of all of that. So I could no sooner be “merely a poet” — an author who sees his obligation as exclusively conceptual (“in service of art”), rather than also interpersonal and communal — as I could be something other than my parents’ son. I think poets should go about being poets, and writers should go about being writers, however they wish, and in keeping with whatever they believe about the purpose of all this (I mean life); for myself, the impetus to share any knowledge, experience, or wisdom I’ve gained with others is not an optional part of doing what I do, that is, being a poet. It is, for me, an integral part of being both a poet and a human. I think that, as poets and as humans, we do best — we do the most — when we share our passions and try to use our own resources on behalf of others whenever we can.
My perspective on teaching has changed dramatically since I first stood at the front of an English classroom in 2007, largely because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing that first semester — so I had nowhere to go but up. But I recognize, too, that teaching, like any profession, is a labor of love that takes longer than a lifetime to perfect: in other words, we can always do better, and the day we believe we’ve achieved our best is the day we should retire. Doing one’s best is an ongoing pursuit, of course, not an unmoving target. If my perspective on teaching has changed in the first five years of my teaching career, it’s primarily in these ways: first, to be constantly amazed and moved by the intelligence, energy, and commitment of my students, especially in those moments I know they’re being pushed well beyond their previous zones of comfort and experience; second, to be more circumspect now than I was five years ago about how we teach literature, particularly how we teach creative writing. Both my experiences in the creative writing classroom and my doctoral research into the history of creative writing have led me to a loss of faith in the workshop as a viable pedagogy. More bluntly: I believe the time of the workshop is over. As a pedagogy, the workshop was developed in the 1880s at Harvard and was never intended to be used outside the context of Advanced Composition classrooms. In my own view it is by no means the best, or even an appropriate way, to teach creative writing. It fails students by denying them the development of a “historical sense”; it fetishizes technical-compositional analysis of the work of individual students at the expense of raising such analyses to the level of discourse on poetics, aesthetics, pedagogy, the ethics of commitment, and the infelicities of literary communities; it runs afoul of the best thinking among contemporary educators by encouraging “peer orientation,” “clock orientation,” “success orientation,” and an unwillingness or inability to explore the uncomfortable or unknown. There is no single element of the workshop pedagogy that uniquely serves the contemporary writer, and much in the pedagogy that is destructive. I find considerably more generative the sort of poetics-oriented pedagogies promulgated by poet Charles Bernstein, or even the sort of de Manian rhetorical readings we see in literary studies doctoral programs. To me, these and like pedagogies are the ones most likely to expand the vision and capacities of young poets and writers.
Who or what has been the biggest influence in your approach to teaching?
The poets I read most frequently are the ones whose work changes me — not merely as a poet, but as a person, and consequently as an educator. Creeley’s maxim (“Form is never more than an extension of content”) has explicit pedagogical implications, as does the belief of many avant-garde or post-avant poets of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that poetry is always (at least) implicitly pedagogical. If I’d not come to understand the relative importance of compositional method and craft — namely, that there’s no short-cut or purpose to the latter without a comprehensive understanding of the history and possibilities endemic in the former — I think I would have continued to find the creative writing workshop an ideal forum for the development of young authors. Instead, I find, in any and all of those poets whose work is profoundly procedural (Duncan, Blaser, Guest, Harryman, Dorn, Berrigan, Ashbery, Palmer, Howe, Silliman, Scalapino, O’Hara, and countless others, including many of my contemporaries) the courage to reconsider pedagogy — which is itself, after all, “merely” a series of processes. I think this is one way in which those who separate the “educator” and “poet” functions are misguided; in fact, I don’t really see that distinction, as I think reading poetry with attention to its rhetorical and compositional structures makes me a more effective and more thoughtful educator, even as being an educator and caring deeply about my students maintains in me (I hope) the sort of humility and generosity of spirit that I believe informs the best poetry.
Sir Ken Robinson makes the claim that the current American education system constructs the boundaries of learning in a way that makes true creativity impossible. In your experience, what is the relationship between arts and the education system or the academy? Symbiotic? Parasitic? Ambivalent? From your perspective, how does the American education system constrain the potential for innovative creative modes of thinking, creating, and writing?
I think, at least as far as the literary arts are concerned, we are still in the infancy of the Program Era — that is, that period in which literary arts instruction finds a home (one of its many homes) in academical-institutional settings. Those seeking to put a tagline or albatross on this burgeoning phenomenon are akin to a school psychologist tagging a six year-old with a developmental disorder because she has not yet formed a complex series of moral associations on the topic of global warming. It is simply too early for such diagnoses; the second terminal-degree graduate creative writing program in the world graduated its first class during the Summer of Love, and the pace of program creation in America was glacial up until the late 1980s. As to matters of pedagogy, the discussion amongst creative writers as to how best to teach creative writing wasn’t really well underway until the first decade of this century. So to my mind, claims like Robinson’s — at least as to this field of inquiry — miss their mark entirely.
The relationship between the arts and the academy is so complex, and so deserving of historicization and contextualization, that it is appropriately the topic of several dissertations; I can’t give a coherent answer here. Suffice to say, for the moment, that as to matters of pedagogy the academy has until recently been ambivalent, at least where the literary arts are concerned; and that, as to matters of canonization, the academy has consistently read the American poetry scene too narrowly and ideologically for us to trust their judgments with any particular zeal. So while I won’t use the terms “symbiotic” or “parasitic,” I think it’s fair to say that to date Contemporary Poetry Studies has done some commendable work but must ultimately be seen as a disappointment, at least from the perspective of the working writer. And the main reason for this is that the scholarship in that area has not, to date, made much use whatsoever of the working writer’s base of knowledge and experience. Subjecting writers and their output to quasi-scientific analysis is not the same thing as using them as a scholarly resource.
I think the American educational system is designed to privilege and promote a certain sort of “historical sense.” That’s not in itself a bad thing. But it does often mean reliance on already-prevailing modes of thinking, the better to instill in young thinkers a sense of context, relativity, and scope. The question is, at what point do we as educators allow the other shoe to drop? When do we say, okay, having provided you with this history, we now want to know what you can offer up — you specifically, you-as-individual — to challenge what most of us have come to believe? We never really challenge students to make a lasting personal contribution, as the idea that a young person can make their own mark without running the gauntlet of workaday misery first is somehow anathema to the American ethic. Except, then there’s Facebook, and Twitter, and Wikipedia. We now have endless examples of innovative thinking by younger individuals changing the world overnight. How do we infuse education with this sense of wonder, this fervent belief that any one student can think something great, something novel, can do something great and novel, at any moment? The creative writing classroom should be at the forefront of a national effort to realign American education toward this notion of — yes, studied; yes, historically-aware; yes, humble — wonder. We have to start by eliminating restrictions on students which are merely administrative or conventional (that is, promulgated merely on the grounds that they have been received from our predecessors). Of each element of our pedagogy we ought to be asking, how is this helping my student to explore her capacities and the capacities of language? It’s a hard question to ask, and I’ll readily concede that I myself don’t ask it as much as I should, but I’m working on that.
Is it possible to teach creativity within these constraints? Is it possible to teach creativity at all?
I believe in the Iowa Model in at least this much: I believe we encourage creativity, we don’t “teach” it. Motivation, commitment, and inspiration always comes from the student, though even these things can be encouraged by a sufficiently energetic and enthusiastic educator. But “teaching” suggests instilling in someone some new fact or inclination: I’ll teach you about the battle of Antietam, say; or I’ll teach you (if it’s an elementary school setting) how to respect your classmates while lining up to go to the cafeteria or to recess. That’s not what arts education at the graduate level, which has been my professional and scholarly focus, is all about. We’re looking, instead, for individuals who have sufficient talent and interest to permit the operations of a creative writing pedagogy — or a creative writing mentorship — to become fully invested and functional. So yes, we can encourage creativity, and offer it a host of possibly-generative channels to explore, in much the same way that an overactive imagination can (let’s say in an eight year-old) lead either to mischief and alienation or compelling contributions to one’s family and community life — contributions that enrich the experiences of both the individual herself and all those whose lives are interwoven with hers.
What, for you, constitutes a piece of writing as experimental or innovative? What, if anything, does this sort of experimental practice have to contribute to the classroom?
I think it’s important to distinguish between aesthetics and pedagogy. Yes, they’re related, but they’re not co-equal. What I mean is, pedagogically an experimental or innovative work may well be that work which is simply new, challenging, and perhaps a little scary and exposing to the student who produced it. I have seen students cautiously writing their first prose poem feel a concurrent sense of terror and excitement; it’d be perverse for me to disallow their feelings of experimentation and innovation just because, in historical terms, the prose poem is a well-established formal procedure on the landscape of contemporary American poetry. What does that mean, what should it mean, what can it mean to the individual student who develops (naturally) a poetics on the basis of her own relationship with language, and her own understanding of what poetry can be made to do in her own hands, and not — or not exclusively — how others approach that same question?
Aesthetically, I’d say that experimental or innovative practices are generally those which are self-reflexive as to process, and which simultaneously acknowledge the incapacities of language and the generative possibilities of rupture. Or which seek to find capacity in linguistic incapacities, or generative possibilities in the attempt to repair a rupture. But one has to see the process, the incapacities, the ruptures. As long as one is grappling with these — as long as one is grappling with our intellectual inheritance as individuals living in the age of poststructuralism, late capitalism, the Internet, et cetera — I’m inclined to see experimentation and innovation, even if the end result at times bears, superficially, those marks of conventional form that produce solace and comfort in the average reader.
What role do you see new technologies and non-academic spaces playing in transforming the way we learn in everyday life?
I hesitate to speak on new technologies, as the very nature of the beast here is that anything I say will seem terribly outdated mere minutes from now. Suffice to say that one of the primary roles of the poet or writer is to struggle, even if only in a conceptual way, with at least a few facts that are directly relevant to human existence as it’s now manifested. Poetry’s refusal to do this during certain periods in America’s long march through modernization and industrialization — the period from 1850 to 1900 comes to mind — almost killed off poetry altogether, so surely one major role of new technologies in poetry is to keep poetry alive and relevant for both present and future generations.
I balk a bit at the phrases “non-academic spaces” because I think we ought define “academic spaces” very narrowly indeed. To me, the phrase connotes a room (with desks and chairs and some sort of writing-space on the wall) in which a conspicuous hierarchy reigns — questions of authority are prefabricated — and the sort of knowledge being imparted is largely the result of historical reception. In 1837, Emerson coined the terms “creative writing” and “creative reading” specifically as a way to distinguish “creative learning” from learning of the “academic” variety, as Emerson associated the latter with simply memorizing and regurgitating what others had thought and said and done previously. So I think we can do “non-academic,” that is to say “creative” work, in spaces which superficially appear to be “academic” as a matter of geography and interior design.
Asking what use we can make of bohemian spaces — spaces that are non-academic as to both their geography and interior design — is like asking what use we can make of light, or honesty, or jealousy. Such spaces generally develop organically, which is not to say that they can’t become, in time, troublingly “academic” spaces in the sense Emerson used the word. I think, indeed, such spaces do become sites of orthodoxy and cults of personality in time. But I wouldn’t deign to summarize or condition or delimit them here.
Really, the most interesting sort of space to speak of is one that looks “academic” in terms of its geography and interior design but can be made to be “creative” if the right people and philosophy are permitted inside it. One thing graduate creative writing programs do is use the financial and human resources of an “academic” environment in a revolutionary and indeed subversive way: namely, they render such “academic” environments entirely non-academic in tone, structure, and possibility. What role do these transformed/transformational spaces play in the development of, say, contemporary poets and poetry? I’d argue these will be the dominant spaces in American poetry going forward, so we’d best be attentive to how they’re being used — more than we have been thus far, certainly (as demagoguery is not conversation) — but also hopeful that the uses of such spaces are as many and varied as the sorts of poets and poetry that find comfort and liberation within them.
Is literature (or art in general) inherently didactic? What do you hope to teach through your writing?
Well, no — inasmuch as “didactic” is a pejorative. But does literature (even “bad” literature) carry within it the inherent ability to instruct readers in a generative way? And/or does art carry within it that ability as to both its practitioners and audience? I’d say absolutely. And a good teacher focuses her attention primarily on deriving these instructional benefits from literature and art — or, more specifically, on developing methodologies (pedagogies) that permit students to come to many of these discoveries on their own.
I don’t see my own poetics as one of negation — quite the opposite — but I’d hope that, if my poetry is instructive at all, the quality that is most illuminating is one defined primarily by what it is not: that is, by what is absent in the writing rather than what is present. There’s a reason my poems almost entirely eschew description, temporality, linearity, resolution, adornment, sentimentalism, nostalgia, epiphany, polyvocality (as opposed to polytonality) and other stalwarts of contemporary poetics. I elide these things because I find them obfuscatory and therefore a cause and justification for impatience. Donald Revell once wrote, “When a man talks reason, he postpones something.” I agree. And I think you could replace “reason” with the word “sentimentally,” or “epiphanically,” or “descriptively,” or “temporally.” What I want to discover, in poetry, is what’s left when the pure play of the mind and spirit is given voice through language: Do we find ourselves speaking of Pepsi and McDonald’s, or employing a hipster patois, or speaking in High Romantic metaphors, or acting as though life is merely a string of instructive anecdotes? Or are we left with atemporal and allegorical narratives whose lack of resolution both troubles and enthralls us? So why are we troubled? Why are we enthralled? I think that when we remove all our usual obsessions from view we experience, in that absence, the gradual “return” of certain of these obsessions — the ones we live by, the ones that guide us home, the ones that save us from despair. The necessary ones.