Poetry Month: Ideas for Non-Creative Writing Students

2 Apr

I’ll be the first to admit it: getting non-creative writing students to read, much less love, poetry is quite the challenge.  Most of my students think poetry is written by old white men from the 1500s or by guys with berets beating on bongos.  When they say this, my heart dies a little because this is so often how poetry is portrayed in the larger American culture.  We in the profession know, however, this is absolutely not the case.

image c/o the Poetry Society of America

image c/o the Poetry Society of America

So how do instructors get non-creative writing students to appreciate poetry?  By nudging, prodding, showing our own enthusiasm, and yes, by educating.  Here are my jackpot, tried-and-true ways of introducing poetry into the non-creative writing classroom:

1. Introduce students to National Poetry Month.  Explain the significance of NPM and show them a few great websites (some even have apps!) and examples of poems at each site.  The ones I use are: the Poetry Foundation website (here) and the Academy of American Poets site (here).  Play around with the sites with your students in class.  Show them different types of contemporary poetry on varying subjects that a non-writer can relate to (love! baseball! pets! holidays! music!)

2. Put a face to a name.  If there is time in the syllabus, I show my students the wonderful documentary put together by The Academy of American Poets, The Poet’s View, which showcases notable contemporary poets such as John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht, W. S. Merwin and Kay Ryan.  The video goes behind the poems to show who these poets are — real people (shocking, I know) — who love the business of language and books.  It also features a few poems being read by each poet.  If there is not enough time, I offer it as extra-credit by letting students check it out from me, watch it, return it the very next class meeting (I also suggest that students have viewing parties on their own time as I have found that this video is quite popular), and write a 1-2 page review.  The video has proven so popular, in fact, that I recently purchased a second copy.  The DVD is available here for $22.95.

3.  Host a Reading Challenge.  Prepare a list of 15-25 books of poetry that you think a non-creative writing student would not only enjoy, but should read.  Present the challenge to the class (either as a graded assignment or as extra-credit).  I have extended extra credit to any student who checks out one of the books (either from my personal library or the college’s), reads it, and writes a 1-2 page review/annotation by the end of National Poetry Month.  The response has been tremendous!  Out of my list of 22 books, so far nearly 50% of the titles have been claimed in the past few days since introducing the challenge.  On my my recommended list: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Clauda Rankine, Elegy by Mary Jo Bang, Crush by Richard Siken,  Dearest Creature by Amy Gerstler, The Dirty Side of the Storm by Martha Serpas, Please by Jericho Brown, Cusp by Jennifer Grotz, Queen for a Day by Denise Duhamel, Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, Black Blossoms by Rigoberto Gonzalez, Cocktails by D.A. Powell, Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky, The Wild Iris by Louise Glück, Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs, What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland, The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds, Mosquito by Alex Lemon, Rose by Li-Young Lee, On Love by Edward Hirsch, In the Middle Distance by Linda Gregg, What is this thing called love by Kim Addonizio, All My Pretty Ones by Anne Sexton, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, and Indeed I Was Pleased with the World by Mary Ruefle.

4. Get Involved and Get Them Involved.  Each year, my college hosts a college and community-wide Poetry Slam (I have been a faculty judge for the past five years).  I am not a performance poet, but younger adults love the energy that Slams bring and it gets them thinking creatively, which is the goal, isn’t it?  Every year this event boasts a large audience turnout with about 20-25 competitors.  A few weeks before the event, I bring the flyer in and pass it around to my non-CW classes and explain what a Slam is and how it works.  Every year, I’ve had scads of my students show up and even a few sign up to perform!  I think that by getting involved at the local/college level, starting a NPM event or program, and getting your students involved can go a long way to influence their thinking about poetry and creative writing — in all of its forms.  More details about the Lone Star College-CyFair Annual Poetry Slam here.

What do you do to bring poetry into a classroom of non-creative writers?


As day two of National Poetry Month draws to a close, don’t forget to enter the BIG Poetry Giveaway 2013 here! You can win a signed copy of my newest book, The Wishing Tomb, or Katie Ford’s first collection (unsigned), Deposition.

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