Archive for Poetry

Flexible Course Debrief (Spring 2013): The Default Path

In both the college and high school classes, I had students who just couldn’t seem to figure out where to start.  These students generally did an early assignment or two, seemed to have a basic understanding of how the achievement system was going to work, and then took a break.  (Interestingly, every student who got behind still managed to turn in poems on the correct dates, so they had some grasp of what was happening in the class.)  Then, later in the semester, they approached me in a panic, and made furious attempts to produce insane amounts of work.  Most caught up, but for them, the class lacked a certain joy and discovery.

I suppose this lack of joy and discovery can happen in any educational setting, but it was clear with these students that instead of feeling empowered by the course, they felt overwhelmed by all of the choices. And most of them came to the class with a genuine interest in poetry, which made things all the more confusing for me.  Why weren’t they completing the class assignments?  Was there a fundamental mismatch between enjoying poetry and choosing which elements to work on?

What I’ve come to understand is that those students were extreme examples of a phenomenon that was a little more widespread: students felt overwhelmed by the choices.  They often didn’t know what to do next, and didn’t feel confident that they were selecting a path that would get them to the grade they wanted, even though they could see all of the options right there in front of them.

As a result, at the mid-point in the semester, I had several people who were more panicked than they were willing to admit.  In one class, the students began talking to each other, collaborating and trading poems with each other.  In the other, the students began commiserating, and seemed to magnify each others’ anxiety.

It occurred to me that students needed some more tools for transparency.  It wasn’t until midway through the course that I figured out that it would be useful to give students a copy of the grading spreadsheet that they could tally their own points in.  Once I did that, several students corrected course almost immediately… they just needed an easy way to track their progress, and even though I was sending a weekly cumulative score (as well as high, low scores, mean and median scores for them to benchmark themselves), they needed to see the points in a way they could tinker with.

But for some students, that additional tool didn’t help.

It occurred to me that one thing I could have done for the students who seemed overwhelmed was to give them a pacing guide.  With two semesters under my belt, I’ve been able to see which achievements were most attractive to highly successful students, and while the course was built so that students could avoid doing all six bookshops if they wanted to, most A students did bookshops.

A few years ago, I read Nudge by Sundstein and Thaler, and they made a compelling argument for default options.  Their research shows that if you let people choose from an overwhelming number of options, they’ll often pick the default or first options rather than sort through the array.  So, the default option should be the one that’s most highly desirable.

I’ve looked at the data of what students have done, and I’ve looked at my own preferences in terms of what I’d like students to accomplish, and have developed a “default path” through the course– basically a way of saying, “Hey, if you don’t want all this choice, here’s what you should do.”  Most of these options were taken by the majority of the students who got an A, but a few reflect new achievements or achievements whose point values were adjusted upwards in order to encourage students in this direction.  I’ll make this available in the course documents and tell students it’s there, but I won’t require them to follow it.  In addition to a list of achievements, I’ve also included a sort of pacing guide, which basically lets them know how they should be progressing.  They can see that after half of the course, they’re not nearly halfway to the point total, but can also see that there are items that they should be working towards.  The biggest bumps in scores usually come at two distinct times– just a bit after halfway, and then again in the final weeks.  Hopefully, students will see that and will trust the process a little more.

Click this link to get a Word doc of the default path:  Default Path Through Course


Flexible Course Debrief (Spring 2013): Elements of Craft

One of the exciting parts of developing the course was that I could let students determine which assignments they would undertake.  I spent hours developing small assessments that students could complete to demonstrate an understanding of the different elements of craft that go into the making of a poem, hoping that early in the course they would complete these small achievements and then use that knowledge as they wrote their own poems and their critical posts.


As it turns out, I’d entirely mis-weighted this section of the course, causing students to do far fewer of these achievements than I’d hoped.  23% of all students did not attempt any of these individual achievements at all, focusing instead on the big-ticket items.  And it appears that was an efficient strategy: every one of those students ended the course with an A, and many of those students were writing engaging, complex poems by the end of their respective terms.

(Oddly enough, I can think of plenty of instances in which those students were using those elements of craft.  Most turned in one or more poems that met the criteria for these assignments, but failed to identify that.  And my policy is that you have to ask for credit when you use an element of craft, to demonstrate that you were conscious of what you were writing.)

Of the achievements that they did do, I had a hard time seeing much rhyme or reason in the trends.  Some students were aggressive in their pursuit of these small achievements at the beginning of the term, others waited until the end.  A few did two or three and lost interest.

The point values don’t seem to have been high enough to encourage any significant trends.  The most commonly completed achievement was for end rhyme, which I suppose is in keeping with peoples’ idea that poetry must rhyme.  (93% of the high schoolers completed this achievement.)  After that, the most popular achievements dealt with hyperbole, irony, consonance, and simile.  I don’t think that’s the list I would have chosen in my fantasy draft.

Students avoided metrical achievements like the plague; not a single one completed Metrical Maestro.  They also tended to avoid syntax-based elements of craft, like parallelism.

Some Tweaks

The initial draft of the syllabus had the individual elements of craft worth 150 points, a pretty paltry sum in the end goal.  That’s now up in the neighborhood of 300, which still isn’t a ton, but should be a little more enticing as a means to reach that final point tally.

In addition to revising the point values on achievements to try to get students to attempt certain elements of craft more regularly, I’ve gone through and added some additional clarification on how a student can get these points.

I’ll be removing a few elements of craft from the list, including enjambment and onomatopoeia, because completing those achievements seldom seemed to lead to increased efficacy.  I’ve removed the mixed metaphor achievement because I think it led people to think that was desirable.  (It’ll reappear when we get to “bad poem day,” which was a huge hit with the students and is definitely worth expanding.)  I’ve revised the rhyme achievement to include perfect, slant and internal rhymes, which should at least give them a chance to think about the uses of rhyme.

I’ll be adding alliteration, anaphora, hypotaxis and parataxis, second person, and verb tense.

Flexible Course Debrief (Spring 2013): Attendance

In the syllabus this spring, I included achievements for perfect attendance and near-perfect attendance.  These achievements had high point values– I had high hopes that students would attend class regularly.

It’s not that I believe my presence is magical and that students will learn so, so much from me. No, quite the opposite; I wanted my students to show up so that the workshops would be robust and awesome.

Of course, showing up and being awesome in workshop aren’t necessarily one and the same, but I figured that we couldn’t get to the latter if we couldn’t get the former.  The results, however, were mixed.

I must admit that a lot of my thinking on classroom attendance has been shaped by a Freakonomics post.  While I thought the idea of a market system for absences was novel, I was more engaged by some of the comments on the original post.  A lot of commenters asked why you would bother with an incentive– if the class was engaging enough, the students would show up.  But my philosophy of the classroom relies heavily on students learning from each other, and I have found that more than a few students are uncomfortable with that strategy.  They believe that the instructor should be providing the knowledge, and have a hard time accepting that their peers’ feedback can be as or more valuable than mine.  Sometimes, though, we’re able to change their minds by the end of the term.


I’d call this a huge success.  67% of students had a perfect attendance record, and a number of students continued to show up every day even after having secured an A with a few weeks remaining in the semester.  93% of students missed two or fewer classes.  This was far and away the highest attendance I had ever had in a college course, despite having a “two absences or fewer” provision in my syllabus since I started teaching at Carolina.

Perfect attendance did not correlate with high grades in this small sample; I saw a greater distribution of low grades in this group than in the group that missed one or two classes.

Workshops had their ups and downs, but they definitely improved late in the semester when I had students breaking into small groups to discuss poems rather than working in the larger group.  Even though they had more poems to prepare in the small groups, this didn’t seem to hinder their enthusiasm– the trade-off seemed to be that they knew they would be getting feedback on their own poems those days.

This class also bonded more as a group as the spring went on.  I’d routinely come into the building and catch a glimpse of 7-8 of them out on the bench talking.  One day, 13 of them were out there and decided that they’d demand that class be held outside.  They seemed pretty intent on holding out until one student who hadn’t congregated with them came into the classroom and sat down.  I think they felt like the strike had been broken.

High School

Total flop.  Only 13% of students had perfect attendance in the course, and a little less than half (47%) missed two or fewer classes.  I had one student who had eight absences in ten weeks– given that we met three times a week, that was almost three full weeks of class that she missed, almost all of which was excused by the school administration.

But therein lies some of the issue: the high school already has good attendance policies.  Students must get absences excused if they miss class, and there are punishments in place for unexcused absences.  So an additional attendance policy was confusing and unnecessary.  In a residential setting like this, sickness spreads quickly, and I had a couple students come to class miserable because they’d already burned their allowed absences on college and scholarship trips.  And the fact is, at a high school, it’s far more important that they attend those scholarship interviews than a single class.

When students at the high school excuse an absence in advance, they have to indicate how they will make up the class or get the appropriate content.  I asked students to be sure to get notes from a classmate, but rarely followed up on whether or not they did.  And that came back to haunt me, as they would make statements in papers and posts that indicated fundamental lack of understanding of concepts that we covered in class and that those present had clearly mastered.

As a result, I had students whose understanding and “classroom capital” was all over the map, which made common vocabulary difficult and made some students feel that they were struggling mightily when they weren’t.  While I don’t plan to use the attendance achievements at the high school level again, I am still working on the best way to take care of this issue.  Additional readings don’t seem to be the answer, because a lot of the issues were things covered in the readings but then supplemented with classroom discussion or activities.

Workshops were, by and large, quite good. I clearly had some students who were e-mailing or chatting on their computers, which happened very infrequently in the college class.  But instead of being a distraction, it was actually somewhat useful for determining who was disengaged, and I didn’t spend much time trying to squeeze blood from a stone by calling on them.  The students who were interested in workshopping tended to stay very engaged and I was very happy with the quality of the discussion in most cases.

However, I worry that by not attending to students who were chatting and e-mailing, I may have sent the inadvertent message that some students were getting preferential treatment– high schoolers are very attuned to this.  Those who were working hard out of a sense of obligation may have been upset that I didn’t come down on those who were “breaking the rules.”  I just didn’t see it like that.  I saw it as some students putting their energies in different places.

Office Hours

The syllabus also allowed for a few points if students came to visit in the first three weeks of class.  87% of the high schoolers and 93% of the college students took advantage of this opportunity.  There was no correlation between this achievement and overall grade.  Of the three students who didn’t visit, two were fine the whole time and clearly didn’t need much individual planning assistance.  The third got behind and struggled mightily for a short while, but then had an amazing one-week turnaround after we met and built a recovery plan.


If you’d told me that the high school students would show up far, far less than the college student, I would have been greatly surprised.  But that is exactly what happened.  The high school students were far more likely to have other things scheduled during class time– athletic events, college interviews, dance competitions, service trips.  The college students would occasionally ask about leaving early or coming late for similar items, and I would explain the policies and consequences and let them decide what their priorities were.  Most chose the class.

Flexible Course Debrief (Spring 2013): Overview

This spring, I had the chance to use the achievement-based course syllabus in two environments: an intro-level course at the college level, and an intro-level course at the high school level.  (Though, admittedly, since the high school is a residential school for gifted kids, it was in many ways a college course.)

Here’s the syllabus, if you want to take a look:  131 Syllabus Spring 2013

In the coming days, I’ll be making some notes and debriefing a little bit about the experience.

First Assignments for Spring 2013

I’m pretty excited about the books my students chose for the first round of reading assignments in the class.  It’s a nice mix of voices, and a few asked for books that surprised me.  I had read most of them, but had the opportunity to read Jane Hirshfield’s Come, Thief for the first time this morning.

  • Yehuda Amachai, Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with With Fingers  
  • Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III
  • Billy Collins, Questions About Angels
  • Carl Dennis, Practical Gods
  • Stephen Dobyns, Mystery, So Long
  • Vievee Francis, Blue-Tail Fly
  • Ross Gay, Against Which
  • Jane Hirshfield, Come, Thief
  • Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me
  • Mark Jarman, Unholy Sonnets
  • Ethna McKiernan, The One Who Swears You Can’t Start Over
  • John Murillo, Up Jump the Boogie
  • Aimee Nezhukumatathil, At the Drive-In Volcano
  • Thomas Lux, The Street of Clocks
  • Kay Ryan, Say Uncle
  • Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard

My great disappointment this time was that someone asked for Rose McLarney’s The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, and I couldn’t assign it because it’s checked out of the library.

Rose McLarney's book


Intro to Poetry Writing: Forms

Some more thoughts on a flexible, achievement-oriented assessment system for an Intro to Poetry class.  For more context on this post, you may first wish to read:

A few of these items showed up on First Group of Assessments: The Basic Stuff.


Abecedarian | 5 achievement points – Write an abecedarian.

Anagrammatic Anarchy | 5 achievement points – Write a poem in which each line is an anagram of the other lines.  For examples, read Kevin McFadden’s Hardscrabble.

Dirty Limerick | 5 achievement points – Write a limerick.  It doesn’t have to be dirty.  Seriously.  Not all limericks are dirty.  This poem will not count toward scheduled poem checkpoints.

Epigram: Shorter is Sweeter | 10 achievement points – Find three examples of epigrams that amuse you.  Then, write your own epigram.  This poem will not count toward scheduled poem checkpoints.

Erasure E as  e | 5 achievement points – Perform an erasure on a poem you wrote about for bookshop.  This poem will not count toward scheduled poem checkpoints.

Found Without Being Lost | 5 achievement points – Write a found poem.

Four-malist | 60 achievement points – Hand in poems written in established forms at four scheduled poem checkpoints.  Forms must be ten lines or longer, which excludes short forms like haiku and limerick.  These may include abecedarians, villanelles, sonnets, pantoums, sestinas, rondeaus, terza rima, or ghazals.

Ghazal Guru | 10 achievement points – Write a ghazal.

Inventor | 25 achievement points – Write a poem that invents a new form.  Include a description of that form which details the devices that must be used.

Influential Inventor | 5 achievement points – Have a classmate use your invented form at a scheduled poem checkpoint.  The classmate will earn credit toward the Four-malist achievement.

Pantoum, Please | 5 achievement points – Write a pantoum.

Help Me, Rondeau| 5 achievement points | 5 achievement points – Write a rondeau.

Sestina Sherpa | 5 achievement points – Write a sestina.

Sonnet Surveyor | 25 achievement points – Write a sonnet.  Note whether the sonnet is Shakespearean, Petrarchan, or Italian.

Terza Rima Tycoon | 5 achievement points – Write a metrical poem in terza rima.

Villanelle Viceroy | 5 achievement points – Write a villanelle.


Intro to Poetry: Some Other Achievements

Some more thoughts on a flexible, achievement-oriented assessment system for an Intro to Poetry class.  For more context on this post, you may first wish to read:

Travis made the note this week that the sheer number of items that could be done will likely be overwhelming to students, who may freak out and think that they have to do everything.  Doing everything would basically be insane.  So I’ll probably look in the next couple days for a volunteer who might build an interesting path to an A that I can use as a sample for students.


Significant Revision | 25 achievement points – Complete a revision that gives a complete overhaul to a poem, while maintaining at least three elements of its original composition.

Starred Revision | 25 achievement points – Complete a revision that dramatically improves a poem, earning a star.

Tireless Reviser | 75 achievement points – Hand in five starred revisions.

Put It Away | 5 achievement points – Let a poem sit for over a month before revising it.

Dogged Pursuit | 5 achievement points – Revise a poem within a week of getting your first comments on it.

Mind Meld | 5 achievement points – Combine elements from two unsuccessful scheduled poems into one successful revision.

Truth | 5 achievement points – Revise a poem by stating its essential truth in the first line of the second stanza.

Lie | 5 achievement points – Revise a poem by adding a lie to it.

The End is the Beginning | 5 achievement points – Revise a poem by making its original ending the first stanza.

Revise into Form | 5 achievement points – Revise by transforming a free-verse poem into form.

Kill the Abstractions | 5 achievement points – Revise by removing all the abstract language in your poem.

Eavesdropper | 5 achievement points – Revise a poem by inserting language overhead on campus or borrowed from a stranger’s tweet.  (Cite the tweet if you use that strategy.)

Fire and Ice | 5 achievement points – Revise a poem by making one area “hot” (highly emotionally charged) and one area “cold” (little emotional charge).

Juried Stuff

I have a few friends lined up who have agreed that they would be willing to serve as judges for 18-36 poems sometime during the semester, giving students an opportunity to try to impress an external judge.

Five-Star Poem | 100 achievement points – An outside judge selected your poem as a five-star poem.  You may submit up to two poems for consideration to each judge when judging deadlines are announced.  Judges are given the following criteria: “Forget that the poems you’re about to read may have been written by beginners.  Judge each of the poems you are given on a scale of one to five stars.  One star should be given to poems that are average or below. Two stars should indicate that a poem is a bit above average.  Three stars should indicate that the poem is good, a poem you’d be pleased to see in a book or literary magazine.  Four stars means that you’d send the poem to a friend, and five stars means you’d write the editors and thank them for having published that poem. In any given batch of poems, you may encounter no poems that rate above two stars.”  Poems submitted must be revisions of poems handed in at scheduled poem checkpoints.  Judges will be publishing poets, including authors of some bookshop assignments.

Three-Star Poem | 50 achievement points – An outside judge selected your poem as a five-star poem.  You may submit up to two poems for consideration to each judge when judging deadlines are announced.  Judges are given the following criteria: “Forget that the poems you’re about to read may have been written by beginners.  Judge each of the poems you are given on a scale of one to five stars.  One star should be given to poems that are average or below. Two stars should indicate that a poem is a bit above average.  Three stars should indicate that the poem is good, a poem you’d be pleased to see in a book or literary magazine.  Four stars means that you’d send the poem to a friend, and five stars means you’d write the editors and thank them for having published that poem. In any given batch of poems, you may encounter no poems that rate above two stars.”  Poems submitted must be revisions of poems handed in at scheduled poem checkpoints, including authors of some bookshop assignments.

Submit! | 5 achievement points – Bring in an acceptance letter or rejection letter from Cellar Door or Should Does.

Juried Video | 25 achievement points – Create a video version of a poem assigned by the instructor, achieving a juried score of “excellent” or
“outstanding” in every category.  (Judges will be given this rubric:


Flawless Recitation | 25 achievement points – On a scheduled recitation day, recite a poem assigned by the instructor, achieving an instructor score of “excellent” or
“outstanding” in every category. (See this rubric:

Strong Recitation | 25 achievement points – On a scheduled recitation day, recite a poem assigned by the instructor, achieving an average class score of 4 or above in every category from classmates. (See this rubric, and convert “Very Weak” to 1 and “Outstanding” to 6.

Poem into Video | 25 achievement points – Create a video version of a poem assigned by the instructor, achieving an instructor score of “excellent” or
“outstanding” in every category.  Debut it on a scheduled recitation day, instead of reciting. (See this rubric:

Saw a Reading |  25 achievement points – You must attend at least one public poetry reading during the semester by a publishing poet.  Your report, a minimum of one double-spaced page, should note details about poems read (and any observations on craft you make), poet, audience, and setting.  The more details you include the better, as the objective of this assignment is for you to consider the elements you must pay attention to when the time comes for you to read.  Your paper should address what you think an ideal poetry reading might look like and which elements of the reading you attend meet those criteria.  This can be handed in any time before April 1.

Class Stuff

Certain class activities may award achievements.

Discussion Leader | 10 achievement points – Served as discussion leader while a classmate’s poem was being workshopped.

Peer Award | 10 achievement points –  Won a Peer Award by being voted “most helpful commenter” at the end of a class session.

Close Second | 5 achievement points – Finished second in Peer Award voting for “most helpful commenter” at the end of a class session.

Three Peer Awards | 25 achievement points – Won three Peer Awards.

Five Peer Awards | 50 achievement points – Won five Peer Awards.

Midterm | 50 achievement points – Took the midterm and scored an 85 or better.

Perfect Attendance | 50 achievement points – Attended every class, and was never late.

Showed Up | 25 achievement points – Finished the class with no more than two absences.  Two late arrivals will count as one absence.

Office Hours | 10 achievement points – Visited the instructor’s office hours at least once in the first four weeks of class.

New Poems! | 25 achievement points – Handed in poems at each of the scheduled poem checkpoints.

Other Fun Stuff

Anthology | 25 achievement points – Assemble an anthology which includes at least fifteen different poets.  Write a short preface to the collection, and a short introduction to each poem.  The anthology should have some governing logic, both in terms of the poems selected (a theme, a specific geography, a unique form, a specific image) and the order in which they appear.

Chapbook | 250 achievement points – Complete the final chapbook assignment.  Directions for completion will be given in April; the final chapbook is due in place of our final exam.

Conference | 10 achievement points – Attend a poetry or literary conference.  Submit a short summary of key points that you learned.

Interview with a Poet | 25 achievement points – Study interviews from three different literary magazines, then interview a published poet.  (Poets who teach at UNC may not be interviewed for this achievement.)

Meme | 5 achievement points – Create a meme based on a poem that the whole class has read.

Quotes | 5 achievement points – Tweet the best quotes about poetry you find or hear (or tweet a link to a Tumblr or blog where you collect these quotes).

Tweets | 10 achievement points – Tweet your thoughts on poetry (at least one tweet per week for five weeks).

Intro to Poetry: The Bookshop

Some more thoughts on a flexible, achievement-oriented assessment system for an Intro to Poetry class.  For more context on this post, you may first wish to read:

This post focuses on Bookshop, which is the term I’ve picked for short craft annotations on a book selected by the student in conjunction with the instructor.  Here are the details I have given in the syllabus.  I also usually provide a few samples of excellent bookshop entries from semesters past.

The Bookshop:  Reading Journals

A maturing poet can write all he or she wishes, but will never improve without a commitment to reading as much poetry as possible.  We’ll perform close readings of poems on a regular basis, so that we can exercise our critical faculties and explore the poems on several levels.

In addition to readings from An Introduction to Poetry, Thirteenth Edition, you will be assigned a book of poems every other week for the duration of this course.  Because you are each individual poets with different styles, preferences, and lessons to learn, the readings will not be uniform.

Five times during the course, you will be asked to submit a bookshop proposal. Each proposal will consist of five individual volumes of poetry that you would be interested in reading.  At the next class, I will assign you one of those five volumes, or perhaps another book that isn’t on your list but is well-suited to the kind of work you would like to be doing. In the proposal, include some reasons for your choices.

You’ll then work with that volume for the next two weeks.  As you read, I expect you to write one bookshop post per week in your personal forum in our Sakai course.  Each post will focus on a single poem, though students should make mention of how that poem relates to others in the volume. (Is this poem similar to most of the others? Does it make a surprising deviation from the rest? Does it signal a shift in the book’s subject matter, tone, or narrative arc?)

In some instances, I may ask you to perform a close reading of a specific poem as a part of your journal. When this occurs, you will need to examine one element of craft that we have discussed in the class and how the poet uses it to achieve or reinforce the intention of the poem.  Close readings will generally be equivalent to 3-4 pages, double-spaced, in a word processor.

In general, however, you’ll have freedom to write about whatever you please, so long as it is related to the volume at hand.  Posts must communicate that you have read and thought about the book you were assigned.  Some of the best entries from previous classes covered topics such as:

  • How the tone shifts as the relationship dissolves in Kara Candito’s “He Was Only Half as Beautiful.”
  • The role of stage directions in A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A.
  • The effects of repeating “bye-bye” in Thomas Lux’s “Baby, Still Crying, Swallowed by a Snake.”
  • An incomplete metaphor in Natasha Trethewey’s “After Your Death.”

Due dates for these posts are listed below.  Bookshop posts will be approved for credit if all of the following criteria are met:

  • The post focuses on a single poem in the collection, but makes mention of how that poem relates to others in the volume.
  • The post demonstrates that significant attention has been paid to the whole poem, rather than a section.
  • The post traces the poet’s use of a single element of craft throughout the poem, citing specific lines.
  • The post gives specific and detailed explanation of how the craft element is employed and what effect that has on the reader of the poem.
  • The post focuses on how the poet achieves certain effects rather than explicating the meaning of the poem.
  • The post is clear and well-written.
  • The post is the student’s original work, and does not refer to critical work about the poem being discussed.  The goal of the bookshop is for you to have an individual relationship with these poems, not to build your understanding of poetry by reading other peoples’ criticism or analysis.  (We’ll do that in other areas of the course.)
  • The student shows a clear and sophisticated understanding of the craft element selected, or undertakes sufficiently ambitious analysis of a difficult topic.
  • The student includes a rationale for selecting the poem and element of craft studied, preferably noting a specific way in which the post relates to his/her own creative work.
  • All cited lines are included in the appropriate citation format.

You will also have the chance to read your classmates’ reading journals during the week and make comment on at least two individual entries.  You may find yourself commenting on similar revelations in your own readings, observations on craft elements, or your experiences with the poet or text that your classmate is discussing.  You may make as many comments as you like, but a good rule of thumb is to aim to have two comments accepted for credit each week.  To encourage you to read and write, you can have only one comment accepted for credit each day, so if you want to get the commenting achievements, you will need to comment at least two days each week.  This encourages you to read broadly and think about poems often during the week.

Comments accepted for credit will:

  • Demonstrate understanding of both the poem and the bookshop entry that analyzes it.
  • Add significant new information to the analysis, either by highlighting points that the original post’s author or other commenters did not mention, or by tracing an element of craft that the initial author did not focus on.
  • Include citations in the correct format.
  • Be respectful at all times of the initial post’s author and of other commenters.

Starred posts or starred comments will meet each of the above criteria, but will also significantly increase your instructor’s understanding of a poem or element of craft.  Usually, I have my mind blown eight to ten times a semester by posts that bring me a whole new understanding.  I live for those.

My hope is that as you read your classmates’ journals, two things will happen:

  1. You will become interested in poets and poems to which you’ve not yet been exposed, perhaps informing your choices on later bookshop proposals.
  2. You will use your classmates’ observations on form, style, and craft to identify elements in your own work that can be sharpened.

I will make comments on some bookshop posts as well, but the primary reason for doing this assignment is to learn from your classmates and the poems that struck them as important.

One Request | 5 achievement points – Made one request for a bookshop title before titles were assigned.

Five Requests | 10 achievement points – Made all five title requests before titles were assigned.

One Post Accepted | 75 achievement points – Had one bookshop post accepted for credit.

Five Posts Accepted | 175 achievement points – Had five bookshop posts accepted for credit.

Bi-Weekly | 100 achievement points – Had at least one bookshop post accepted for credit on each of your five assigned titles.

Eight Posts Accepted | 750 achievement points – Had eight bookshop posts accepted for credit.

Ten Posts Accepted | 1,000 achievement points – Had all ten bookshop posts accepted for credit.

Star Post | 100 achievement points – Wrote at least one starred post.

Commenter | 25 achievement points – Had two comments accepted  on different days in the same week.

Halfway There! | 125 achievement points – Had two comments accepted on different days in five of the ten weeks of the bookshop.

Consistent Commenter | 125 achievement points- Had a comment accepted in each of the ten weeks of the bookshop.

Constant Commenter | 250 achievement points – Had two comments accepted on different days in each of the ten weeks of the bookshop.

Star Commentary | 25 achievement points – Made a starred comment at least once.




Intro to Poetry Writing: The Gimmes

To make sense of this post detailing achievements for a student-centered or game-based Introduction to Poetry Writing course, you may want to first read the post which makes a case for a new system of assessment.

Before I jump into achievements, I’m going to refer a couple times to this term, which will be included in the syllabus:

Scheduled Poem Checkpoints

The goal of a creative writing class is to get you writing.  And write you shall!  In fact, you should carve out some time to write each day, whether you’re writing new drafts of poems, revising existing poems, writing craft papers about poems you really enjoy to better understand how they work, or journaling and taking notes which can be used in your poems later.

However, just writing a lot of poems in rapid succession does not ensure that you’ll get better as a writer.  Therefore, for the purposes of credit, you’ll only turn in <<a set number of>> poems during the semester.  To ensure that I can get you useful and timely feedback, there will be set due dates for receipt of poems, called scheduled poem checkpoints.  At each checkpoint, you may hand in one (and only one) poem.

The poems you hand in at each checkpoint a) become eligible to be workshopped during in-class discussion, and b) may be annotated by the author to be considered for other achievements.  For example, if your poem contains a metaphor, a heroic couplet, and a fair amount of consonance, you might ask for that poem to stand for the Metaphor Master, Heroic Couplet Hero, and Consonance Commander achievements.

You are not required to turn in poems at each scheduled poem checkpoint, but come on, you’re in this class to do some creative writing, so take advantage of all of these!

<<then I’ll list the dates of schedule poem checkpoints>>

I’ll also refer to an assignment called bookshop, which is a series of short craft papers that chart the use of a single element of craft throughout a poem or collection.  My students have to read a volume of poems and select a poem from that collection to write about.

This set of achievements is intended to be the gimmes: the easy stuff that students could use to start to build their scores early in the semester.  To avoid a flood of late-term, basic work, teachers may wish to set a cut-off date for submission of these artifacts, probably 2/3 through the course.  Most are designed to carry low achievement score values, and demonstrate student understanding of poetic terms through creation of original phrases.


This set of achievements may be earned in one of two ways:

  1. A separate document which includes the student’s name, the achievement(s) sought, and examples.  Students who seek credit for these achievements in a separate document must complete the achievement by <<date 2/3 through the course>>.
  2. Integrated into one of your poems handed in during the semester.  These may be handed in at any scheduled poem checkpoint.  However, remember that attempting all of these in a single poem may lead to a pretty bad poem.  Note which achievement(s) you seek as a footnote to the poem, including any additional notes required to earn the achievement.

If a Google search reveals that your example has been used before, you will not receive credit for the achievement.

Blank Verse Boss | 5 achievement points – Write at least three lines of blank verse.  Include marks of scansion.

Concrete Image Commander | 5 achievement points – Write at least three original concrete images.  Note what makes them concrete, rather than abstract.

Consonance Chief | 5 achievement points – Write five lines which use heavy consonance.  Change the consonant sound being used at least three times.

Dimeter Doctor | 5 achievement points – Write at least three lines of dimeter. Include marks of scansion.

End Rhyme Recognition | 5 achievement points – Write at least five lines of that utilize end rhyme.

Enjambment Expert | 5 achievement points – Enjamb four lines. Explain why enjambing these lines is more effective than end-stopping them.

Epigraph Appropriator | 5 achievement points – Write a poem which includes an epigraph from another poem or piece of prose, or provide an example from your bookshop reading.

Heroic Couplet Hero | 5 achievement points – Write an original heroic couplet.

Hyper-Hyperbole | 5 achievement points – Write something that’s extremely hyperbolic.

Mary Had a Little Iamb | 5 achievement points – Write at least ten lines of iambic verse.  Include marks of scansion.

Isn’t It Ironic? | 5 achievement points – Write something ironic, and then explain in a footnote how irony is being employed, including an example of how you could have pursued a non-ironic solution.

Metaphor Master | 10 achievement points – Write five original metaphors.

Metrical Maestro | 5 achievement points – Write at least three lines each of iambic, dactyllic, anapestic, and trochaic verse, and three lines which include at least one spondee.  Each line must contain at least three feet.  Include marks of scansion.

Metonymy Maven | 5 achievement points – Write three original examples of metonymy.

Mixed Metaphor | 5 achievement points – Write a badly mixed metaphor.

Onomatopoeia | 5 achievement points – Write at least three original examples of onomatopoeia.

Parallelism Pro | 5 achievement points – Write at least three lines or sentences which include heavy parallelism.

Pentameter Prima Donna | 5 achievement points – Write at least six lines of pentameter.  Include marks of scansion.

Run On! | 5 achievement points – Write a ridiculously long sentence which spans twenty or more lines of a poem.

Scan Me Up, Scotty | 5 achievement points – Scan a poem of twenty lines or more.

A-simile-ate | 10 achievement points – Write five original similes.

Synecdoche Swami | 5 achievement points – Write three original examples of synecdoche.

Tetrameter Tutor | 5 achievement points – Write at least six lines of tetrameter. Include marks of scansion.

Virtuoso of Vulgate | 5 achievement points – Write several lines that use vulgate diction.  Include, below the poem, alternate versions of those lines in elevated and colloquial diction.


Some other achievements I’ve already gotten to work on:

Conceit Captain | 10 achievement points – Find an example of a published poem in a bookshop assignment that uses a central conceit.  Hand in a copy of the poem (including the author’s name and the source of the poem), with a three-sentence description of the conceit of the poem.  If I can Google the title of the poem and the term “conceit” to find your example, you haven’t earned this achievement.

Dirty Limerick | 5 achievement points – Write a limerick.  It doesn’t have to be dirty.  Seriously.  Not all limericks are dirty.  This poem will not count toward scheduled poem checkpoints.

Elegaic Eye | 10 achievement points – Find an example of a published poem in a bookshop assignment that serves as an elegy.  Write a bookshop entry on elegy, or hand in a copy of the poem (including the author’s name and the source of the poem), with a three-sentence description of how you determined this is an elegy.  If I can Google the title of the poem and the term “elegy” to find your example, you haven’t earned this achievement.

Epigram: Shorter is Sweeter | 10 achievement points – Find three examples of epigrams that amuse you.  Then, write your own epigram.  This poem will not count toward scheduled poem checkpoints.

Erasure E as  e | 5 achievement points – Perform an erasure on a poem you wrote about for bookshop.  This poem will not count toward scheduled poem checkpoints.

Found Without Being Lost | 5 achievement points – Write a found poem.

Four-malist | 60 achievement points – Hand in poems written in established forms at four scheduled poem checkpoints.  Forms must be ten lines or longer, which excludes short forms like haiku and limerick.  These may include abecedarians, villanelles, sonnets, pantoums, sestinas, rondeaus, terza rima, or ghazals.

Inventor | 25 achievement points – Write a poem that invents a new form.  Include a description of that form which details the devices that must be used

Influential Inventor | 5 achievement points – Have a classmate use your invented form at a scheduled poem checkpoint.  The classmate will earn credit toward the Four-malist achievement.

I’ll probably create lower-value achievements for each individual form.

Personification In Action | 10 achievement points – Find an example of a published poem in a bookshop assignment where the poet uses personfication.  Write a bookshop entry on personification, or hand in a copy of the poem (including the author’s name and the source of the poem), with a three-sentence description of how you determined this was an example of personification.  If I can Google the title of the poem and the term “personification” to find your example, you haven’t earned this achievement.

Refrain from Smoking | 10 achievement points – Find an example of a published poem in a bookshop assignment where the poet uses a refrain.  Write a bookshop entry on refrain, or hand in a copy of the poem (including the author’s name and the source of the poem), with refrain lines highlighted and a short description of the effect of the refrain.  If I can Google the title of the poem and the term “refrain” to find your example, you haven’t earned this achievement.

Did I forget certain poetic devices that it would be easy to demonstrate some mastery of?  Let me know in the comments!  Any other kind of feedback would be welcome.

Intro to Poetry Writing: The Flexible Course

This spring, I’ll have the opportunity to teach two introductory poetry writing classes, one at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.  I’ve taught this course five times now, and every time I’ve loved it.  But one thing I have always struggled with is the idea that while the course purports to teach students to write poems, the assessments for the course haven’t really borne that idea out.  I’ve been wary of assigning a grade to creative work.  It’s never seemed fully right that the grade a student would make would be contingent upon their poems somehow appealing to my taste.

Of course, my grading system ends up being pretty darn subjective, regardless.  I’ve assigned grades to written papers about the work of published authors, and I’ve assigned grades to the quality and thoughtfulness (and perceived preparation) of comments in class discussions and workshops.  These are outrageously subjective measures.  There just isn’t a ton of objectivity in a truly great humanities classroom.

So I’ve been thinking: what if I could write an assessment system for a poetry course that would include plenty of subjective assessments, but instead of requiring students to meet the same subjective criteria, I could let them choose where they want to aim their efforts.  And better yet, what if I could recruit other working poets to help me do some evaluation?  What if I could make their commitment to the course feasible, a service that I might provide for them if they taught an intro poetry writing course?

Once I started thinking about a number of criteria and ample student choice over which paths to take, I started thinking about gamification.  And once I realized that there may be some power in distributing the assessment, I realized that at a minimum, I’d have to open-source the syllabus and assessment system, and if this thing really evolved, I might be looking at a MOOC. (I’m committed to the minimum.  The MOOC stuff still seems a looooong way off.)

On gamification:

Here’s one thing that bothers me about traditional assessment systems: they start with the assumption that everyone has a 100 and they lose points from there.  I don’t know of anyone who grades a paper, starting with the assumption that the student has zero points and is going to earn their way up to a 100 by meeting criteria.  If a rubric is provided at all (more rare than it should be, and I’ll admit to being a part of that problem), it generally shows the students how deficiencies will detract from the perfect score of 100.  It seems to me that if we have a set of course objectives, we should be able to assign points when those objectives are met, and those points should add up to 100 if they’re all achieved.

I want to try that.

But an introduction to poetry writing course hardly seems the place to aim for a 100.  The course has a particularly broad set of criteria for “excellence” at the introductory level.  Students should have working knowledge of a number of concepts (easy to assess) but the students’ ability to put those concepts together in meaningful ways will manifest itself in vastly different ways.  The student who learns to write truly accomplished metaphors but has zero proficiency with meter could be said to be ahead of the student who is competent at both but distinguished at neither.

So my aim in the coming weeks is to develop and weight a system that allows students multiple opportunities at multiple assessment options to demonstrate some fluency with the elements of poetic craft.  I aim to develop (or appropriate from friends and readers), then share, as comprehensive a list of fully fleshed-out assessment activities for the intro to poetry writing student.  My thinking is that if I can make these assessment opportunities available as flexibly as possible (with certain limitations imposed by my ability to keep up, which is admittedly a weakness in this system), students will have multiple paths to an A in the course, rather than the single path I’ve provided in the past (10% completion of new work, 20% revision, 15% exams, 15% participation, 40% craft papers).  Students will be able to set a lot of their own goals, and when they show mastery in an area, they can move on.  Student X and Student Y might both get an A in the class but might have only done one or two of the same assignments.

I expect that this sounds cooler to people who’ve already passed this level of their schooing careers than it will to many of my students.  I’ve found that students at the introductory level want clear paths to the A (particularly because so much of schooling is based on the assumption that they’ve started with one and lost points along the way).  I don’t think they’ll love having so much choice, especially because a third of the way through the course, they’ll look at their grade and probably won’t be a third of the way to where they need to be to get the A.  That will drive some students absolutely nuts.

I think I can live with that.  The world doesn’t assume that you started rich and lost your retirement dollars to your mortgage and power bill along the way.

What if we start with the idea that students show up with zero points in the class, and a list of 50-100 possible assessments that they can choose to pursue?  Each assessment has a point value attached: because I’m an Xbox junkie, let’s call this the student’s achievement score.  If you total all the possible achievement scores together, you might get 7,5000 or even 10,000 achievement points.  That would represent mastering a pretty advanced curriculum– a body of work that would be well beyond the expectations of the introductory level. At some arbitrary number that represents a significant body of work, let’s say 2,500 achievement points for now, a student would get an A.  At some lesser number, say 2,200, the student earns a B.  And there are thresholds below that.

Certain achievements should be easy to get, but as in games, those should be worth fewer points.  Write one poem (with no other criteria in place): 5 achievement points.  A student could have points after two minutes.  Provide an original example of metonymy: 10 achievement points.  A student could do a ton of these and still not reach 2,500 achievement points.  But doing a lot of these could start to add up, and reduce the student’s obligation to go for the big stuff.  Some students won’t care: put the big stuff in front of them, and they’ll go for it.

So, what’s the big stuff?  Write a poem that’s juried by a working poet (not the instructor) and assigned a five-star rating: 100 achievement points; or, a three-star poem: 25 points.  Be voted “most helpful commenter” by your peers in an instant run-off election: 100 achievement points; or, rank second or third in that voting: 25 achievement points.  Have twelve craft papers on individual poems by published authors approved: 800 achievement points; or have six papers accepted: 250 achievement points.

Admittedly, I’ve pulled these point figures out of the air; I provide them now as examples rather than as actual values I aim to use.  I expect that the point values will need to be carefully balanced when the array of options is available and there are reasonable criteria for evaluating each established.  So they may be constantly shifting.  I also expect that without some controls, students will hand in whole volumes on the last day and the all-too-human instructors won’t be able to keep up.  Or, the last minute stuff won’t be any good, because students haven’t had reasonable feedback loops all along, and students will be disappointed because they felt like they never had a reasonable shot.

So a sample syllabus that accompanies the assessment system will be a product.  (The sample will become my live syllabus for spring 2013, if I can get it done in time.)  Some assessments will be open to students at any point in the semester, others time out.  If a student attempts the craft papers, they can’t submit more than one per week.  If the student attempts the “wrote five different forms” assessment (50 achievement points), they have to do so incrementally, because I only accept one new poem every two weeks.  If I get someone to agree to jury the poems independently, students can only submit two.  If a student attempts the recitation assessment (25 achievement points), it would have to be done on certain days when class time was available for it, and only a certain number of slots are available (on a first-come, first-served basis) for attempts on each of those days.

But students could conceivably submit one product for multiple purposes.  I don’t see why a student couldn’t turn in a pantoum towards the “five different forms” assessment that also includes personification, or an imitation of a famous poet that also includes inverted syntax and an extended metaphor.

On sharing:

This seems like a lot of work to design.  This seems like a lot of work to implement.

I still want to try it.

I’ve been the recipient of an enormous amount of good advice, a lot of materials, and no shortage of excellent models in my short teaching career.  I’ve begged, borrowed, and built a class that’s a lunatic amount of work for both the students and for me.  I like it that way.  Not everyone will.

But seriously, most of the poets I know think that teaching poetry to students is the bee’s knees, and few of them are making it as easy on themselves as possible.  They’ve got skin in the game because they’re passionate readers and they really do want to help young and developing poets get good quickly because it will make the reading and grading so much more pleasurable.  I’m hopeful that a lot of people will drop by after finals are done and offer ideas for potential assessments, or criticisms of the syllabus, and that we can sharpen it together.  Maybe we end up with a few divergent products, and share the results. People may change the point values to reflect their priorities and student learning goals, which won’t necessarily be the same as mine. Maybe a few will share those learning goals, which could become part of the product.  Maybe a few will volunteer to jury a small set of poems for my students, and I’ll do the same for theirs.

I just think there’s a lot of potential benefit that we could realize– and perhaps out students could realize– from sharing.  And if no one wants to share, that’s cool, too.  I still want to try this, and I’m willing to do it in public.

So, in the next couple weeks, this blog will probably have a couple entries, sometimes half-baked, about this process and about the product itself.  The product may end up elsewhere, like a wiki.  But wherever it is, you’ll have access to it.  I promise.


Creative Entrepreneurship

I had the chance to teach in a creative entrepreneurship class at UNC-Greensboro on Monday. Visiting students who are putting together business plans for their arts and creative business ideas always thrills me, even though I know that most of the businesses remain just that: ideas.

Last year, one of the best ideas was for a small nature magazine, sized for easy carrying and intended to be used and enjoyed in the field. This business actually did launch, and is now The Friendly Naturalist. So I was particularly excited to re-visit this class, because it’s really exciting to me to see people feeling empowered to start their own arts-based businesses.

Terry Kennedy, who teaches the class, tweeted a couple of the points that he picked up on, and I kind of want to revisit some of those here.

What are the things you’ll have to do every day?  Will you love doing them?  Will you hate doing them?  One barrier to creative entrepreneurship is that we want to spend all of our time on the creative and not so much on the entrepreneurship. In the early going, it’s super-exciting to be making the books but not so much fun to be stuffing the envelopes and cranking through the postage meter.  One thing I ask students is to think of the things that they’ll need to do every day and the things they’ll need to do every week, in order to make the business work.  (The example I give is from my comedy theater days: like it or not, somebody’s gotta clean the bathrooms.)  We talk about distress, a negative form of stress, and eustress, that positive form that motivates you on to great things.  When students list out the things they’ll do every day, I ask them to think about which will be distressing and which will be productively stressful, because most everything on that list is in some ways a stressor.  When the negative stresses outweigh the positive, I encourage students to reconceptualize in some way.  What can they outsource?  How can they form productive partnerships to minimize those distresses?

When one piece of your idea sticks but the others don’t, be willing to restructure around the idea that’s working.  Isn’t that what we do in our art?  The poem changes, the story changes, the painting changes to accommodate its successes.  I don’t see an evolution in a creative business– even if it means that the business moves away from its initial creative roots– as a bad thing at all.  Sticking with what’s not working will only devolve your business… and your creativity.

Challenge your basic assumptions about how creative businesses are supposed to work.  I generally try to cover this because artists often have ideas about how business is “supposed to work,” and those assumptions limit creativity and are often inhibitors to success.  That’s not to say that you can ignore reality, but with great planning, a compelling vision, and a great product or service, you can be very successful challenging some of those basic assumptions.


Thoughts on Imitation

A student asked me to look at an imitation of Walt Whitman for another class this morning, and I began composing thoughts about imitations in my response to her.  Here they are:

To my mind, an imitation can take a few forms.  The first is that you can adopt a voice similar to the poet, which allows you to show an understanding of the formal, stylistic, and content choices that a poet makes.  The upside to this is that you’re demonstrating deep understanding of the poet, the downside is that the poem doesn’t feel at all like yours.  You’re essentially addressing subjects that the poet might have addressed.  (The most common form of this kind of imitation is anachronism– you tackle a subject that didn’t exist in the poet’s day, but that he/she likely would have addressed if he/she were living today.)

Another is to emulate just the stylistic choices that a poet might make, but looking at a subject of your choosing.  This form asks the writer to read the source material widely and make extensive notes on the kinds of choices a poet would make at given times.  In the case of Whitman, you’d probably be looking at rhetoric, image and syntax most heavily.  Whitman tended toward long, long lines and sentences, with lots of parallelism and some stilted syntax.  He was heavily argumentative in his tactics, and a lot of scholars have noted that he tended to borrow from the Bible his rhetorical constructions, but generally reserved those constructions for non-Biblical subjects, lending them a new tension.  The images didn’t necessarily fit with the historical context of the rhetorical strategies.

The third kind of imitation, which I think is the one you have chosen, essentially serves as a word substitution.  Using a single poem as source material, the poet adopts the construction of the poem almost verbatim, substituting in his/her own words as needed.  If there’s a metaphor in line 5 of the source material, there will almost certainly be a metaphor in line 5 of the imitation.  This kind of imitation does not require that the imitator be deeply familiar with the source poet, only the source poem.  But to be successful there must be a pretty intimate study of the source poem.

It seems to me that for the purposes of classwork, any of these forms of imitation might be reasonable.  I doubt, however, that the first will be terribly successful for writers to undertake for any period of time; writing as someone else may generate some interesting ideas but will ultimately lend a certain inauthenticity to the work.  Likewise, the third may be successful once in a blue moon, particularly as a tongue-in-cheek response to a particular poem, but it is not a sustainable strategy for a life’s work.  The second, however, seems to me to be rich with possibilities, because it is the only one that seems capable of accommodating infinite variation. Like received forms, this kind of imitation seems not only worthy but an indispensable tool for learning the craft of poetry.

Why We Grind, Part Two

Another post about the Grind Daily Writing Series.  Here are others:

We Grind to push ourselves past what we knew we could do. Most people enter a month of the Grind ready and willing to do the work, and they generally have some ideas or notes that they think will carry them through the month. And occasionally, they do just that. Several chapbook-length products have come from a month of the Grind, and a few folks have finished large swaths of their novels during a month. But for most of us, those ideas and notes carry us through about five days, after which time we’re on our own, producing without an agenda. And I won’t lie: that aimlessness leads to a lot of bad drafts. A whole lot. But it also leads to restlessness followed by bouts of intense experimentation. It leads to self-imposed formal challenges. It leads to topics we wouldn’t have dared tackle if we’d had more time to think things over. It leads the eye to light on the unexpected. It leads to work so raw that it cuts, but sometimes that cutting is what survives into the second or eighth or final draft.

We Grind to be part of a community. The original Grind was just four of us, and I knew all the participants, so it didn’t occur to me that what was gestating in that first month was a community that would evolve into something unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The Grind requires a writer to be willing to be vulnerable for a group of folks, perhaps some friends but, more than likely, mostly strangers. The rules of the Grind ask a writer to finish something every day, but everyone involved knows that the products created in the Grind are seldom finished. They’re usually sloppy, unwieldy, awkward and ugly drafts. The kind of thing that you wouldn’t ever want to see the light of day. And then, because the Grind recognizes that every aspect of the creative process is a risk, you send it to that group that includes a bunch of people you’ve never met. And they don’t speak about that work. They don’t make comments, they don’t share it. It wouldn’t seem to be a great community-builder, but what happens over the course of the month is that the pieces themselves begin to speak to each other over the month. Writers borrow from each other. Writers study each others’ habits, structures, images, and obsessions. Writers’ come to know each others’ minds. When you put it that way, how could you not develop some community?

We Grind for inspiration. Watching another writer reach deep, watching another writer push through the dry spell or conjure the draft that has perhaps been waiting for them for some time… these moments are magnificent. The Grind gives us the opportunity not only to see the work but to see how it is created, to see it in its nascent stages.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have seen writers circle an idea without knowing it, only to have the thought crystallize after a few days or even a few months, and a terrific draft is born.  I think anyone privy to that process feels privileged.  Watching your Grind-group succeed is confirmation that writing– however difficult, however tortured– is a process we cannot give up on.


Why We Grind, Part One

We Grind to write every day.  When I was an undergraduate, my favorite professor’s syllabus included a plethora of quotes about writing regularly or even daily.  The one that stuck with me is the one that stuck with many of you, too; I see it in a lot of different places. “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair,” said Isak Denisen, and her advice was mostly sound.  But I’ve come to accept that both the hope and the despair are necessary conditions of the writing process, and if we wait for the days when we can acquit ourselves of either or both, we’ll never get much writing done at all.  If the Grind could modify what Denisen said to read, “Write something every day, despite hope, despite despair,” that’d be about right.

We Grind to be held accountable.  I will be the first to admit: I am lazy. My friend Jessica gave voice to a philosophy I never truly knew I had today on Twitter.  She said, “I believe whole-heartedly in procrastination when it doesn’t fuck anyone over.” And let’s face it– in a writer’s mind, there is no more victimless a crime than the crime of not writing.  But by its construction, the Grind removes that excuse, and all excuses for procrastinating.  When a group of writers is out there in cyberspace, toiling through difficult and sometimes hopeless drafts, and they’re faithfully sending them your way by midnight, how can you not reciprocate?  When they rely on your commitment to the process, is there any more of a dick move than not sending something, sending anything?

We Grind to fool our own minds. So maybe you already felt accountable to yourself, and you find yourself writing every day.  But you’re still not getting anything done.  Our minds are fickle things, but they are so easily swayed by new incentives. Entering the Grind, making the commitment to finish something every day and send it to a small group (which sometimes includes– gasp!– strangers) would scare the dickens out of most mortals, but for a few of us, it provides us with something we desperately needed: permission to fail.  Plenty of writers are writing every day but find themselves in ruts because they are unwilling to move on before the sentence is perfect, the stanza is polished, the dialog sparkles, and the image is immaculate.  But writing doesn’t work that way, people.  It’s an ugly process and it’s filled with missteps and mistakes that you have to be willing to make.  If your brain is telling you you’re no longer allowed to make mistakes, the Grind can be a godsend, because it not only gives you permission, the “finish something every day” dictum practically demands it.

We Grind to puncture the subconscious.  When you’re desperate to write something, anything, before midnight, you’ll unlock pieces of yourself you didn’t know were there.


How NaPoWriMo Inspired The Grind

It’s April now, which some people know as the cruelest month, and others know as National Poetry Month, and handful of others know as NaPoWriMo.  Back in maybe 2003– the very infancy of the Interwebs!– poet Maureen Thorson adapted National Novel Writing Month to be an exercise worthy of us poets.  Instead of taking a month to finish one thing, we had to finish one thing a day!

Inspired by our sublime dinner at an Atlanta-area Steak & Ale, poet Emma Bolden and I undertook our first NaPoWriMo in 2007 using the aliases Steak and Ale.  We used aliases so we could deny to anyone that the poems being thrown up on the blog were ours.  We took the poems down after a day or two, leaving just the titles and a couple of lines, because we didn’t want them to be considered previously published and figured that if Google’s bots didn’t have a chance to pick them up, we’d be in pretty good shape.

It was an exhilarating month.  Emma and I routinely wrote poems which answered a thought that had shown up in the other’s poem that day, or the day before, and we had one of the most productive creative exchanges I’d ever been part of.  We veered in surprising directions.  We had days where the poems flowed freely, and days where we each professed that the exercise had been akin to prying meat from the jaws of a wolverine.  We went multimedia, posting photos and silly links along with the day’s poem, and created in Steak and Ale a set of characters that were sloppily hedonistic famous poets.  Steak would write about visiting her chalet or being featured in the National Enquirer, Ale would write about writing poems in the sauna or receiving a $10,000 haircut.  The personae became as much fun as the poems themselves some days.

But the poems… wow. My initial recollection was that I didn’t get many decent poems out of the month.  But that was entirely wrong; when I reviewed the blog this week, I counted three that have been published and another three that I saw through to completion and began sending out eventually.

I tried the exercise again in June 2007 with Ruba Ahmed, only instead of posting the poems in a blog, we simply traded by e-mail.  And we didn’t do lavish explanations, we simply sent a poem a day, every day, for a month.  The idea was that we each wanted to feel accountable to the other to produce new work.  We didn’t make comments on the work, though at our July residency at Warren Wilson, we each picked a handful of poems and sat down and discussed them with each other.  But the point was to be relentless about producing something every day, and we did, and it felt good.

So in October 2007, I was ready to try it again, and this time, Ruba, Matthew Olzmann, Zena Cardman and I made a small group out of it.  Knowing from our previous experiences with the exercise how brutal it could feel at times, Ruba and I described it to Matthew and Zena as “a grind.”

On October 1, 2007, I sent an e-mail to that group, with short bios that I had written by Googling my friends, and here were the “rules” that I outlined then:

  • Write one poem every day. No skipping a day and making it up later. Zena has called the one exemption — for her birthday on the 26th.
  • Poems must be sent to all participants by midnight.
  • No restrictions on form and no minimum line length. A one-line poem will suffice just as nicely as a 28-page masterpiece.
  • Some days will be rotten, and so will some poems; no excuses. Write something– anything– every day or suffer the mockery, derision, and eternal scorn of the other three poets.
  • Feedback isn’t part of the equation– if we get all self-congratulatory for good first drafts, the silence surrounding the bad stuff will start to sting. So, if you really love a poem, feel free to say something, but don’t feel like you need to (or should) comment on poems daily. We’re not sending to each other to congratulate, but to feel (and be) accountable to the process and try something we might not have otherwise tried.
  • Poems about Desperate Housewives are strictly forbidden, unless written by Matthew. Otherwise, no content restrictions apply.

And we were off.  If writing with one other person was exhilarating, writing with three was an incredible shock to the system.  I’ve read about the Polar Bear Club, where people race into the frigid Atlantic waters at Coney Island on New Year’s Day, and how participants say that getting into ice-cold water makes you feel more alive than you have ever felt.  I suppose October 2007 was like my poetic Polar Bear Club.  I loved it. Imagine how delighted I was when Matthew announced he’d be doing it again in November with his wife, Vievee Francis, and we recruited Megan Levad, Carly Harschlip, and Rosalynde Vas Dias along for the ride.

The Grind Daily Writing Series has been running without interruption for four and a half years.  The “rules” have evolved a little bit, but they’re still basically the same: write a poem a day.   It’s expanded to include fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and even notes on craft and structure. The Grind has had over 200 participants (sometimes more than 40 at a time), has gone international, and poems drafted in the Grind have showed up in the best journals in the country, in books from amazing publishers, and in anthologies recognizing some of the best poetry in the country.  In June, we’ll publish Another and Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series, an anthology that captures the first two years of the Grind and showcases some of the best poems drafted using this process.

In the next few weeks– hopefully before NaPoWriMo is over– I’ll add a few more thoughts on the genesis of the Grind and where it’s taken us.

Comments welcome, especially from you Grinders.

Advice from an editor: cover letters

When I brought this blog back with a couple of selected posts made public, I was surprised to get a comment from a friend asking for another post with some advice from an editor, specifically around cover letters.

What follows is my thoughts on cover letters.  Keep in mind that I’m just one editor, and everyone is going to have different views on the subject. But I’ve heard this conversation quite a bit over the years, and I don’t think you’ll find my views are too far from the mainstream.

The first thing you should know is that cover letters don’t mean much.  They were something of a necessity in the days of submissions by mail, but electronic submissions capture the needed information in other ways.  Nonetheless, I still find myself

A lot of editors don’t even read cover letters unless something in the submission really grabs their fancy.  I generally do read the cover letters, because I’m intrigued about who’s sending to my magazine– I learn a lot about our readers and our marketing strategy by reading them.  But I don’t read the cover letter until I’ve read the submission and am ready to act on it.

So sending something other than the cover letter is unnecessary.  I’ve had one writer send watercolors, another has sent collages.  Several writers have sent glitter or those little shiny stars in the envelope, which, while it was certainly well-intentioned, made a mess and was kind of annoying.

Be professional.  Or, don’t be crazy.  I doubt seriously if a good cover letter ever convinced an editor to publish a poem or story, but I can tell you with some conviction that a horrible, crazy-sounding cover letter can convince someone that you’re more trouble than you’re worth.

Cover letters don’t need to include a whole lot of information; you’re really just trying to give the editor some basic stuff they will need to respond to you.

I find it useful to include the following:

Contact information.  I include my snail mail address, e-mail address, and cell phone number.  Only a few editors will call with acceptances, but if you’ve ever gotten one of those calls, it’s a thrilling moment and classy touch.  Give the editor the tools to contact you using the method that’s most comfortable for them.  Make sure it’s an e-mail address you check regularly!

Simultaneous submission notification.  If the journal you’re sending to allows sim-subs, let them know that you’re submitting your work elsewhere if that’s the case.  Don’t bully or threaten; a statement like “These poems have been simultaneously submitted to other journals” will suffice.  I don’t do sim-subs, personally, because I’ve had writers withdraw poems just as I was about to accept them, and it broke my heart.  (It was worse when they said the poems had been accepted elsewhere, since my magazine has a “no simultaneous submissions” policy for poems.)  So I tell editors, “These poems are unpublished and will not be submitted elsewhere.”

List of the titles of the work being submitted.  This is especially true if the journal asks that you not include your contact information on the work itself.  It’s less important on electronic submissions, which don’t usually become decoupled from your contact information at any point in the process.

Short bio.  Not all editors care about this at all, but if your submission is accepted, it’s nice when they have your bio to include in the magazine and don’t need to come back and ask for additional information.  Most will still ask for a bio upon acceptance, since you’ve probably won awards and published books since you sent your submission in.  Right?

One note on bios: It’s OK if you haven’t published work before. You don’t need to make it sound like you’re a well-published author if you’re not.  A lot of magazines are thrilled to be the one to discover a new voice.  If your poems or stories are incredible and fit the journal’s aesthetic, the editor will want them regardless of who you are or where you came from.

A word of thanks.  Thanking people for their time or consideration is cool.  Editors work hard, and they really do want you to be successful!

Now, it’s worth noting that any of the above may be wrong for a particular editor.  The best thing you can do when submitting is read the submissions guidelines.  If an editor doesn’t want a cover letter, please don’t send one!

I hope this information is useful, and happy submitting!  Please feel free to leave comments with your thoughts on cover letters.

Advice from an editor: submissions

A friend wrote me and asked the following:

“Hope you don’t mind a submitter-type question. There are a couple of journals that I’ve been rejected by more than once. I’d like to keep submitting there because these are journals I admire and where I think my work (in general) kind of fits, but I wonder if journals have an “oh no not her again pile” for folks who submit more than once with no success. I mean my submissions are normal — I don’t put anything about the story in the cover letter and I don’t send peanut butter sandwiches — but I still wonder if there is an “auto reject” pile that someone might go in, at say, The ____ Review, after a couple of rejections. What are your thoughts? Thanks for your perspective on this….”

I asked her if I could post her question, since I hear variations on this a lot.  Here’s my response:

“In short: I wouldn’t worry too hard. We get so many submissions that we mostly only remember the crazies. I do know a couple of names of frequent submitters who aren’t crazy; those are people who have new stories or poems in within 48 hours of their most recent rejection. I think that constitutes “a bit much” (though, being the softie I am, I’m still rooting for them to land one).

Journals that use electronic submissions can track all your old submissions when you send them stuff, and can even go back and read comments on your previous stories to see if you’re coming along or if your stories are getting worse.

I’d say a good rule of thumb is that unless the magazine has a policy to the contrary, waiting 3-4 months after your most recent rejection to send again is the most appropriate course of action. (Unless they’re sending personal rejections encouraging another submission.)”

So, what do you think?  Comments welcome.

The reading list grows

My students had their midterm exams today, so I am anxious to see what sunk in and what still needs work.

We’ve just finished A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, though we’ll come back to it toward the end of class, when students begin thinking about how collections of poems work.  Response to the book was terrific… though a couple students were skeptical when they first finished it, I think most had come around by the time they’d written papers on it.  A couple listed it as the best thing they’ve read in class on their midterm evaluations.  (Brigit Pegeen Kelly showed up on that list a lot, as did Zbigniew Herbert and Mark Jarman.)

Reading list #4 came out today; here’s what’s on it.

Thomas Lux, The Cradle Place
Charles Simic, Charon’s Cosmology
Kara Candito, Taste of Cherry
Dan Albergotti, The Boatloads
Donald Hall, Without
Mary Oliver, American Primitive
Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me
Pablo Neruda, Winter Garden
William Matthews, Time & Money
Nickole Brown, Sister
Carl Dennis, Practical Gods
Donald Justice, The Sunset Maker
Ross Gay, Against Which
Mark Jarman, Unholy Sonnets
Geri Doran, Resin
Thomas Lux, God Particles
William Matthews, Flood

My students continue to make really interesting and bold choices.  (They request five books they’re interested in; I assign one.) A couple of these books didn’t appear on request lists but will be really helpful to the students who got them, but most were directly requested by students.  I was really pleased to see Ross Gay’s name pop back up.  After reading one of his essays and his poem “Jet” in class, Tony Hoagland’s name was on many of the lists this time around.  Hey, UNC faculty member who has had all of Tony’s work checked out since the beginning of the semester and doesn’t have to return them until 2-23-10, get over yourself and return these books to the library so I can assign them! One student had to resort to saying, “I’ll buy the book if you’ll just assign it to me.”

Second round of independent readings

So, my students are nearing the end of their first book, and have made their requests for a second book.  Some went directly for the books that they commented on in the first two weeks, some went back to the list they used for the first requests, and some went in new and surprising directions.  All three strategies seem like worthy ones to me!

Some of the old favorites have made it to the list this time.  It always seems to work out that I’m able to include one book that I have not yet read; this time, it was one by an author with whom I was pretty familiar.

Here’s the list:

Linda Pastan, The Last Uncle
Theodore Roethke, The Lost Son & Other Poems
Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel
Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Song
Wallace Stevens, Harmonium
Jennifer Grotz, Cusp
Kay Ryan, The Niagara River
Thomas Lux, God Particles
Carl Dennis, Practical Gods
Mark Jarman, Unholy Sonnets
Vievee Francis, Blue-Tail Fly
Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived
Billy Collins, Questions About Angels
Donald Justice, Departures
Eavan Boland, Domestic Violence
Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III
Update: I left one out!  Paul Otremba, The Currency

The Art of Syntax

I began Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax last night, and though I haven’t yet attempted to apply what I have learned to my readings of poems, I’ve actually found that her translation of some of Robert Jourdain’s thoughts on music (in Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy) had a deep, profound effect on the way I was listening to music this morning.  As someone who has never had any real musical talent, I have always been deeply envious of musical craftsmen and people who have an intimate and seemingly natural (or unrehearsed, though I know that is not the case) gift for the language of music.  Seeing musical terms translated into the terms I understand– or rather, the terms I am only beginning to understand– finally gave me enough context to map the way my brain works with language to the way I am able to hear music.

Obviously, I have more work to do, much more work to do.  I’ve got to finish the book, and I’ve got a lot more listening to do– both to the music collection with which I have a new tool to work, and to a million and a half poems.  But it was an exciting morning, because I was hearing new things in familiar songs, or rather, recontextualizing things I’ve already heard many times before.

Next up today: Beatles Rock Band (and how participation also changes the way one hears the familiar) and my first read of student poems.