if I could wriggle my nose, I might do it all over differently and change everything from the past in order to teach my students to be more like Bishop. To live first. To live as a way to discover writing. To write only what matters to you. To write only what interests you in the most compulsive and impulsive and formal ways. To resist the didactic and to embrace the art. Do that, and you’ll be the best writer you can be — by living and studying not writing but life. And then write like you could be dead tomorrow. ~David Biespiel
David Biespiel is sainted in my eyes because when I first moved here (and had no idea what in the holy fuck I was doing) I reached out to him through a family friend who happens to be his cousin. The family friend knew nothing about poetry… and I knew nothing about David Biespiel. I emailed him.
He responded. No questions asked, Biespiel hooked me up with letters of introduction to the poetry folks around Seattle. That’s how I got my gig with Poetry Northwest. Turns out David Biespiel is friends with the other David poet (Mason), my adviser. Anyway, David Biespiel is the president of The Attic Institute in Portland…which is a sort of poetry cultural center/school/workshop/etc alternative to doing MFA programs. He runs the sort of place that I can only dream of one day opening. I do dream of it. But I don’t dream of Portland!
Anyway, I just can’t shed enough praise on this man. He is a phenomenal human being and poet. Nevermind the piece he wrote for The Rumpus which features TWO GREAT FABULOSITIES OF THE MODERN ERA!!! My little brain can’t hardly stand it!
All of a sudden my inbox is filling up with links from friends to two essays related to poetry that have almost everything and nothing in common at once, and whose implications say a lot about how the art of poetry gets re- or de- artified.
One is a link to an essay by Dorothea Lasky in The Atlantic about using poetry to teach children how to write persuasive essays. The other is a link to a 1983 New Yorker memoir by Elizabeth Bishop about teaching in the U. S. A. School of Writing under the pseudonym of Mr. Margolies.
Lasky’s writing is efficient, heartfelt, and professional. It identifies with a movement in American education dating back to John Dewey that one learns by doing. It praises poetry to the skies, and so I give praise to Lasky for praising poetry in so prominent a venue as The Atlantic.
Bishop’s writing is blowsy, sarcastic, precise as thread through a needle, warmly familiar to anyone who knows her poetry, and disarmingly common-esque, like a handsome frock. It identifies with a tradition in American literary experience dating back at least to Walt Whitman that one writes by living, by extracting language from experience and experience into language. Her essay embodies the idea that formalizing experience into a literary entity transforms lived life into a universe of new meaning and into what we call a poem.…
I love poetry because it is beautiful and it makes me understand things better, playing on all my senses, sharing the small and the ineffable. Perhaps a common truth. I want to teach because I think it takes that bit of sharing to a new level. Lord knows half the reason I want to teach is because I want to be taught. At the same time, I can’t help but be aware of this vertical disconnect: live like a writer, or live like a person who wants to give herself up to others. Teach or live? Write or have kids? …
The essay focuses on poetry and education (education through poetry, and learning to be a poet). Lasky’s take. Bishop’s take. and Biespiel’s take on their takes (which inevitably includes something to do with his take).
Wonderful because Biespiel is walking the walk more than any genius. BUT IF YOU’RE BUSY WALKING THE WALK, do you miss out on the meandering journey?
Perhaps that sly Christian Bok achieves both Lasky’s and Bishop’s ends. Christian Bok lives and breathes teaching without even making mention of it. You don’t even really need him for a professor or a colleague. You could just follow him on twitter. His twitter is a series of eccentric observations and findings made on and off the internet. He considers his poetry scientific, and a true scientist doesn’t present his findings solely for bragging rights. If nothing else, Christian Bok is a serious man. He mindfucks you SERIOUSLY. “Poetry is language out of work, seriously at play”.
His findings are for teaching and sharing. His poetry is a linguistics class. If you read one of his essays, it’s like being apprenticed with the Nicolo Bussotti of language.
I like that about him. I have great admiration for his “teaching style”…But I am one of the few. 🙂
When I teach classes on the argumentative essay, one of my favorite books to bring in is Jay-Z’s Decoded. It is a gift for teachers, because Jay-Z provides very clear, close readings of his own poems. (This is something few poets throughout history have provided.) I have had many successful lessons in which I have played his song “99 Problems” for students and then showed them how he breaks down its construction in Decoded. Once students can see that Jay-Z wrote each line with such purpose, crafted many complex ideas into powerful verse, it paves the way for meaningful discussions about how to create any argument in language. Students can see that their ideas are important, and that style helps their impact come through.~ D Lasky