How did you get your start in poetry? Who first inspired you to really want to write?
My first inspirations came mostly from music. I went through a crazy Bob Dylan phase in high school. I can also remember listening to the Guided By Voices record Bee Thousand on repeat, particularly the track Awful Bliss. It would pump me up for both basketball games and sitting at my desk under lamplight to scratch out poems.
Later, I became enthralled with all the early online journals. I read, often astonished, can we have our ball back, La Petite Zine, Octopus, Typo, RealPoetik, and No Tell Motel. There were some many amazing poets and poems shooting out of these publications. It opened up the world for me.
Tell us a little bit about Just Buffalo Literary Center. How does it work, and what’s your role there?
Just Buffalo is a non-profit literary arts center located in downtown Buffalo. It has been around for almost 40 years and is recognized as 1 of the 10 top literary organizations in the country. It hosts and promotes a variety of literary events, most notably BABEL and Big Night, which has featured such literary powerhouses as Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, Chinua Achebe, Amos Oz, C.A. Conrad, Eileen Myles, Joshua Clover, among many, many others.
Just Buffalo’s mission is to create and strengthen communities through the literary arts. And we do this in so many different ways. It’s kind of amazing. It is really the reason I came to Buffalo. It has allowed me to focus my career on the importance of creative writing in education. My role at Just Buffalo is working as Education Director. I get to collaborate with our amazing writer corps and classroom teachers to discover new ways of infusing creative writing into the classroom experience. I also help organize Spotlight On Youth, an open mic series that gives young people a chance to share their talents on stage in front of their peers. I am currently in the process of editing Wordplay, our annual anthology of student writing. Our education program interacts with over 2, 500 students annually, but I hope to expand that number in the coming years.
When I was in Buffalo, we talked about the need for poets to become more active in the lives of students at a younger age. How do you think that can happen?
Yes, poets need to come into the lives of students at an earlier age. Poetry, in general, needs to move out of the trunk and into, at the very least, the backseat. I would prefer the passenger seat, but that might be too ambitious. More and more, as we all know, the arts are being cut and left out of the equation. When, in fact, it should be the other way around. These kids need to be exposed more than ever to the act of idea making, the act of intellectual creation. And it is poets and writers who can grab hold of those students’ imaginations and allow them to experiment.
Poets and writers in general have this common desire to share their creative processes, but this is not something that is often discussed when teachers and curriculum directors get together for their summer professional develop meetings. They are overlooking this grand opportunity to tap into the local reservoir of artists and have them expose and share their processes with students.
Think about the times in school when you had people other than your teacher stand in front of the classroom and share what they do and why they care to continue doing it. It’s powerful, it’s life affirming, it’s one way of opening the door.
The teaching of creative writing so often makes me think of the Kenneth Koch quote, “the ability to write poetry is as natural to people as the ability to draw and sing and dance.” I truly believe this and over the years have seen actual results in a number of classrooms. There is poetry in everyone. The trouble is it is often locked away or presented in such a methodical way that no one cares to explore it. The bottom line is that poets need to be in the classrooms and more students need to be exposed to poetry in an ongoing, inventive manner.
You talk about students finding their own poetry. What are some creative ways you were taught to find your poetry? What techniques have you discovered that feel wholly yours?
When I was teaching fourth graders poetry, I always wanted them to think of the act of writing a poem as an experiment. To write against what they already know of poetry. This way it begins to stretch the possibilities. Can we really write a poem about how much my brother smells? Well, of course you can. The question then becomes how. The elementary crowd generally writes about things they understand in a concrete way. But there are ways to step beyond the concrete, even with reluctant writers.
I had a few terrific teachers, but none of them ever taught any creative ways to find my own poetry. I remember my mother running into an old teacher of mine at the grocery store, and she told him that I write poems. He said, “I always knew he was a dreamer.” I think my brother was the one true advocate who cared enough about poetry to share books with me and offer advice. He’s a traditional academic. But he helped me understand that I have to try to find work that interests me and not to worry about everyone else.
I don’t know if I feel that I have discovered any techniques that are wholly my own. I like to think I’m a dreamer, and that helps. But who isn’t a dreamer? I tend to think of my process as a constant collaging of life experiences. The everyday. I will think of something that has happened to me or someone I know and try to extract certain tensions within the language and from there try to reinvent it.
What is the relationship between education and discovery? What do you feel you learn from teaching?
Education is when you are learning the thoughts of others, and discovery is when you begin thinking and seeing things for yourself. Though there are times when education and discovery can be one and the same. All teachers want their students to become self-motivated discoverers, but that is not often a reality. The best teachers have a dynamic sense of life, and through teaching will instill a sort of egg that will hatch and change the way students see the world.
As a teacher you have this amazing opportunity to observe each student’s unique perspective of the world, to see their stories and be apart of them, which in turn can change your own perspective. I’ve always thought of teaching as a matter of improving. Improving both the student’s understanding and your own body of knowledge.