For mid-terms, I had students turn in a small collection of poems and write a cover letter about where they were going with their poetry: what did they write about, how did they write it, why, etc. I was surprised at what I read – the female writers in my class were all very hard on themselves. Almost each female student wrote something in that letter about not being proud of these poems, about not liking how they had turned out, about how they needed to do more and change so much more before the poems were “good enough.” I didn’t have one male student who talked down on his own work – in fact, my male students took a more analytical approach. Often, they would discuss each poem and what was attempted in that poem and why it was “great.” Interestingly, my male students were the ones who most often failed to explain what emotional impact they hoped to achieve with the choices they made as writers, while my female students wrote many times about their failure in making a reader emotionally connect to their work.
I’m not sure what these cover letters mean, really. But I found it to change how I commented on some of the poems my students turned in after. While I maintain a highly critical classroom, I have come to realize that there is perhaps a “boot camp” cycle that needs to happen in the creative writing classroom. If the first half of the semester was about tearing them down, opening them up, making them vulnerable and raw, then the second half should be about building them up.
And I’ve come to think that perhaps that’s not the way to begin workshop – perhaps there is a way to be highly critical from the beginning and STILL build the students’ self-esteem. I’m particularly interested in the ways my female students respond to their own writing – as if it can never be good enough, often commenting that it’s only done “for fun” anyway, that nothing will come of it. But my male students are quite vocal about what they are trying to do in a poem, never really saying that their work is simply amazing, but in fact focusing on the “plan” of the poem and why that matters, perhaps more than the poem itself. Why do my female students feel this need for self-hate? Why can’t they just like their work a little bit more? After all, some of them have already published. And their work is lovely, raw, open. If I can do anything this semester, I hope that it’s to give someone the confidence to put her work out there, to believe in her work, to believe in herself as a whole person with much talent. To believe that what she has to say really does matter.
These letters remind me a lot about the discussions surrounding the VIDA Count. Is it true that women are less likely to submit for perhaps the same reasons I see surfacing even in beginning poets? Some of these writers have never been in a creative writing classroom at all. Is it my job to teach these young women how to gain that tough skin? Or is it my job to teach them how to write something beautiful? Which matters more – getting their work into the world, or the individual being happy with what she has on paper? It also makes me highly aware of how I work in the classroom, of how I respond to poets based on gender, if I am harder on females than males, do I reward both genders in the same way? How has my culture influenced me to react to writing from both genders? I don’t have all the answers, but I do know I’m not perfect and as I work to understand these cover letters, I hope I also come to understand something new about teaching creative writing to both males and females.
For National Poetry Month, I’ve been providing many prompts from this cool website for my students. They really latched on to the Day Six prompt and wrote some really amazing poems about where they come from. I decided that since they did this prompt, so would I and I will share that poem here. It’s a cool prompt because it literally is a “fill-in-the-blanks” but it also requires students to be specific and concrete, while also including resonant details that can carry meaning across readership. If you have creative writing students I recommend using this prompt. It’s pretty fun.
I am from ashtrays, from Pine-Sol and glass figurines.
I am from dust of Southern California back yards –
quartz-lined, burned, our hands dry as construction paper.
I am from the Japanese plum trees, the pink peony
whose ants knew how to sneak from petal to arm in whispers.
I am from Easter hats with matching Easter gloves,
from Hall and Stone.
I am from the last minute and the never on time.
From “Are you stupid” and “What do you mean, ‘I don’t know.’”
I am from Hail Mary’s, from nightly rosaries
and baby powder after baths.
I am from Forest City and Ramona, fried chicken and unseasoned potatoes.
From the crawdads left to rot in cousin Adam’s pockets,
the Missouri River and pick-up trucks, the lost breath
when Heather jumped from the rusty grain elevator,
and the grass she lay on pulling her lungs back to earth.
I am from censored photo albums, handwritten journals,
antique jewelry boxes, wooden footlockers
like the ones soldiers used in wars,
painted mysteriously bright colors.