Tag Archives: teaching

Book List for Creative Writing Classes

14 Sep

I’ve been teaching Intro to Creative Writing at my college for five years and I’m so fortunate that for the first time, I’ve been given the green light to choose my own texts beginning in 2014.  I just put in my book order and would like to share the selections that I made (and some that I didn’t, but that I still highly recommend).


My top picks

My top picks


I teach the Intro to Creative Writing section, which is a mixed genre class that is part workshop model and part lecture/in class work.  For reference, the majority of my students have very little experience with writing, but are interested in it.  Many of these students are also unfamiliar with contemporary work and have never picked up a literary journal or been to a reading (which is something that I have them do).  In deciding which books to use, I had to take all of this into account so as to not scare them off of literary writing nor overwhelm them straight out of the gate.  It is my sincere belief that if you, as an instructor, overwhelm students who are just getting their feet wet, you’re not doing the student any service and in fact, many may end up so overwhelmed, that they may never return to writing or reading.

Here are the books I chose to use in 2014 (starting in the Spring term):

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo: this is a classic resource used in CW courses nationwide, and my department has been using it for as long as I can remember.  It has wonderful essays on writing in it, and I always begin the semester by having my students read the one titled, “In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes” as this begins the discussion on why CW courses are important and what gain be gained from taking them.

The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland: I used this book in a CW course when I was an undergrad in English/CW at the University of Houston.  I found this book to be exceptionally helpful.  The book not only showcases traditional forms (sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, etc.), but also includes “open” forms as well.  Each section of the book focuses on one form and gives a page of information/”how to,” a page or two about the history of the form, a page or two about the contemporary use of the form, and then quite a few pages of examples from both canonical and contemporary poets.  I highly recommend this book for beginning-intermediate undergraduate CW classes.

A Short Story Writer’s Companion by Tom Bailey: As my class is a mixed genre class, I needed to find a book that would function in a similar manner to The Making of a Poem, and this book fits the bill.  It discusses and gives examples of the basic elements of fiction writing, which is something beginning CW students need.  It also discusses the importance of drafting and revision, which is something  that I teach in my class as well.  I have found that first time CW students are not in the habit of drafting and revision, so this was a great selling point to me for this text.


There are so many texts I would love to use, but I just can’t justify having my students plunk down loads of cash for a lot of books.  However, if I could use more books in a perfect world, here are the rest of my recommendations:

On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura: I went back and forth on this book, and I ultimately decided against using it (even though I love it so) because they style of writing might be a bit over my beginning CW students’ heads.  In past semesters, my CW have read one of the essays in the book, “Red,” and it was near-mutiny.  I’m all about challenging my students, but sometimes you have to ease them into the challenge for best results.  I do recommend this book for intermediate-advanced CW classes.  It’s a wonderful book on inspiration and looking at things from a writer’s eye.

An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes: I also used this book when I was in my CW classed at UH and found it helpful.  It’s very similar to the The Making of a Poem book, but is slightly more advanced in that it delves deeply in the specifics of form, meter, etc.  For an Intro to CW course where students are not very familiar with poetry at all, I think that introducing them to anapests, trochees, and syllabics might be a bit much.  We do discuss some forms in my class: sonnets, villanelles, and occasionally the ghazal in particular, as well as some contemporary forms (the found poems, contemporary ekphrasis, the cento), but this book is definitely for the more advanced student.  I recommend this book, however, for use in a forms class or an intermediate CW course.

American Women Poets in the 21st Century by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr:  Claudia Rankine had me read this book when she was my senior honors thesis advisor at UH and I loved it.  The reason I didn’t choose this book is because it didn’t offer the breadth of “lessons” that The Making of a Poem did.  This text is wonderful and offers a wide variety of voices from contemporary American women poets and annotations of their poems.  I would use this book for a class on American Women’s Lit, Contemporary American Poetry, or an intermediate-advanced CW course.

The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux: This is another great stand-by and I have been using it for the past 5 years, which is why I decided to switch it out for the The Making of a Poem text.  I love this book for how it discusses inspiration and breaking boundaries (death, love, etc.) and offers writing prompts/suggestions at the end of each chapter, but I think that the specifics that The Making of a Poem offers might help a beginning CW student a little more.  My previous students have enjoyed this book, but have also commented on how they would like a book that has more examples and “how-to” instruction than TPC gives.  I do highly recommend this book for any intro-intermediate CW course and I am very likely to use it again in the future.

Contemporary American Poetry edited by A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters: I used this book when I was in Jericho Brown’s advanced CW workshop at UH.  It’s a great book, but is actually more of an anthology (similar in the manner of Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, which I also highly recommend).  It’s a great assortment of contemporary poets, such as James Dickey, Kimiko Hahn, Robert Haas, Louise Gluck, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Naomi Shihab Nye, David St. John, and others), but there isn’t any discussion of the poems, the forms, etc. that I wanted for my beginning students.  That said, I think this would be a great book to use for an intermediate-advanced CW and would be great even for grad students in poetry to use as a model and launching point for discussion and critical analysis of contemporary poetics.

I hope these recommendations help you if you are building a CW course or looking to purchase books on writing, whether fiction or poetry.  What are your must haves when it comes to books on writing?  What texts have worked for you in previous courses that you’ve taught?  I’d love to know!

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.

Lessons & “The Secret”

22 Jan
from tumblr

from tumblr

Another semester has begun and I can’t believe that I’m about to start my second week already!  This term I’m teaching two Comp II classes and one Comp I class (last semester I taught two Comp I classes and one Creative Writing class).  How do I get through the first week (aside from the requisite syllabus chat), you ask?  I have a wonderful little lesson that I begin my second class meetings with that not only introduces my students to poetry, but gets them thinking on a critical level.  Here is my favorite intro week lesson plan:

1) I start by assigning the students to read “The Secret” by Denise Levertov.  You can find the text here if it’s not in your textbook.

2) At class time, I begin by playing this You Tube clip of Levertov reading “The Secret” and having my students follow along in their books.  My students love hearing any author read their own work and from the feedback I’ve received, it really helps them to understand the work better.



3) I then break the students up into groups of three or four.  On the board, I pose the following questions: a) As a group, take turns reading “The Secret” aloud to one another.  b) Each student will list the personal qualities and/or personal experiences that are relevant to the poem on their own paper.  c) As a group, decide what you think this “secret” is.  How do you think can a poem reveal a “secret of life?” d)  As a group, answer the following:  “Based on our reading, we think the poem means __________ because ____________.”


4) I give the groups about fifteen or twenty minutes to complete the above questions/exercise.  After that time, we come back together as a class.


5)  I then have a few students read the poems, giving each student one stanza.


6)  After, we go around the room and each group discusses their answers to the questions.


7) Finally, we discuss as a class what we think “the secret” is and the poem’s overall importance to the process of learning, reading, and understanding poetry.


As I said, I love this little lesson for the first week of classes because it’s different and not boring.  It gets the students introduced to one another through brief group work and it gets them discussing poetry.  I feel that by teaching them a poem like “The Secret,” students who have little exposure to poetry (other than old white men) begin to understand the possibilities of poetry and that poetry itself is not difficult.  The beauty of literature, I tell them, is that there are no true “right” or “wrong” answers as in a subject such as math.  The beauty of literature is that it holds “the secret” of one thing to one person and another, completely different “secret” to another.  Poetry is the language we use to uncover the world, and more importantly, ourselves.

Hot Object: A Lesson Plan w/ Samples

17 Sep

“Hot Objects” inside the bag!


I have been teaching college-level Intro to Creative Writing for 4 years now, and taught Creative Writing for about a year (2007-2008) with Houston’s Writers in the Schools (WITS) program.  I always try to come up with innovative, fun ideas to teach objectives to my students, most of whom are 18-20 years old and have had little to no experience with creative writing.


My “Hot Object” exercise (the actual title of this lesson comes from–gasp–an epidose of “Felicity” where Ben was taking a theatre class and had to bring in a “hot object” (as the professor called it) that would say something about who he was or where he has been) is always a show-stopper and I think could be used for almost every grade level (K-12 and Intro to CW at the college level).


Objective: To have students become familiar with elements of point of view and perspective in creative writing.


Materials:  A bag (or box) of random, classroom-friendly objects such as a balloon, a cary key, an apple, a paintbrush, an eraser, a lipstick, a rock, and a pinecone.


Method: 1) Have students choose one item from the bag at random.  As the students are choosing the item, tell students to think about their item in terms of color, sensory detail, and the history of the item.  Encourage them to jot down notes about the item (this will later become their character sketch).  2)  Next, ask students guiding questions about point of view/perspective to gauge their knowledge of these terms, their uses, and of personal pronouns (first, second, third (limited and omniscient).  3) Next, go over these terms with examples on board or overhead, giving definitions of each.  Explain to students why POV/perspective is essential in creative writing.  Discuss the three main pronouns and discuss how each one can change the perspective of a story.  Discuss with students how to “think outside of the box” when determining the POV they will use in future creative works.  Encourage them to not choose a POV that’s obvious, but one that would be less expected.  Give examples, if possible.  4) After the lesson on POV/perspective has concluded, introduce the second part of the lesson: the students will write a brief introduction, usually 2-4 brief paragraphs, in the voice (from the POV/perspective) of their chosen object using elements from their character sketch.  Stress that they will want to use as much detail as possible to bring the character to life for the reader.  5) Have students complete their character sketches and work on their narratives on their own (20-30 minutes).  6) Finally, have a students volunteer (or choose them if you have a timid class) to share their narratives with the class.  7)  Close the lesson with a revisit of the importance of POV and discuss how students should think about POV in their own writing.  Encourage students to keep their narrative for potential use in another assignment (such as a persona poem).




Item: Door Stop/Door Jam:  “I was made in China in the late 80s.  I’m almost invisible to human beings, especially ones in my same room.  I was created to be behind doors of this cold room and to take care of a boring white wall who doesn’t like to be touched by the door handles.  I really don’t like my function on this planet — everyone hits me at any moment agressively and my migraines are unstoppable. ”


Item: old digital camera: “Hello, guys, my name is Hypster Power.  That’s what the HP on me stands for.  I was born in China in 2003.  I have been all around the world before I made my home at the Wal-Mart in the United States of America.  I have taken  a lot of pictures of a lifetime with my 4.0 megapixel lens.  I have a patch over my eye when I am not being used.”


Item: car key: “Being people’s pass everywhere certainly has its advantages.  My name is Kurt.  I’m 10 years old and I am a Toyota car key.  I’ve seen things in purses, backpacks, keychains, and human hands you wouldn’t see in a lifetime.  I’m a slim guy who has a few jagged edges, but who doesn’t?  I fear entering any other small place besides my designated car keyhole.  People don’t seem to realize that even though we are made with tough, shiny, silver metal, we are fragile.”


Item: Pinecone: “My name is Kong and I fell away from home.  I used to live under the branch of a majestic pine tree.  I fell away from home because I had come of age and now I have to strike it out on my own.”


Item: Watercolor set:  “My name is Rainbow.  I got that name because I have all of the colors of the rainbow around me.  My best friend, who’s always with me, is Slim.  He always has his hair wet and straight up.  I’m usually happy in class when the child that’s using me is gentle and smooth with Slim.  When a child is rough, my colors start to mix together and Slim’s hair gets messed up and then we don’t talk for awhile until we both get cleaned up (usually the teacher makes this happen.)


I can’t tell you how much I love doing this lesson.  I know it’s not “serious,” but it’s such a great, fun way to discuss POV/perspective.  The routine of workshop, lecture, and free writing can get old and it’s nice to be able to introduce a very important topic in a way that will grab the students’ attention.  The students will be more likely to remember POV when its introduced in this manner (or similar) than if it was introduced in yet another lecture or power point.  One thing I’ve learned (among many) in teaching is you have to keep it fresh, modern, and engaging or you’ll lose the students.  Some older students might think this lesson is silly, but I haven’t found an objector, yet.  If you try this lesson, I’d love to hear your feedback and what objects you chose to use!




Hot Objects

21 Sep

I have been kept busy by excitement this month: my friend Becca’s wedding in Marfa, TX, the launch (and reading at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN) of my first book, The Glass Crib from Zone 3 Press, finishing the manuscript of my second book, and coming up with fun lesson plans for any one of the 5 (yes, 5) classes that I’m teaching this semester.


1. Marfa


The Wedding Site


The wedding was one of the sweetest weddings I’ve ever attended!  It was held at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute (above).  The bride wore an amazing gown re-purposed from a WWII parachute.  After, we headed over to El Cosmico in Marfa for a fun reception complete with a tower of cupcakes!  I loved re-connecting with a few of my former Bucknell Younger Poets (2005 alums):


L-R: Me, Becca Wadlinger (the bride), & Sarah Smith

Marfa was such an amazing little town!  The pre-party was at the Pizza Foundation, which is a great pizza shop in a converted gas station.  They make the best pizza I’ve had in a long time!  Jeff and I stayed at the historical Hotel Paisano in “downtown” Marfa and spent our afternoon walking around, visiting the cute little bookshop, and lunching at Squeeze (which is run by a Swiss family and offers, among other things, gourmet chocolate and smoothies).  After the wedding, we went out to see the “Marfa lights” to no avail, but we did enjoy looking at the desert in the moonlight.  Very romantic!


2.  The Book


The Cover!


The book is here!  It was released officially on September 15 and to say I’m excited in quite an understatement!  You can order your own copy from Zone 3 Press or Small Press Distribution.


To celebrate the book’s launch, I was invited to travel to TN, where I gave a craft talk to an intimate class of poetry students (along with Rigoberto González, who selected my book for the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award in Poetry) followed by a reading at the Gentry Auditorium on the Austin Peay State University Campus (where Zone 3 Press is housed).  Rigoberto gave such a moving introduction and I was literally almost in tears.  He gave me a copy of his introduction after for me to keep, for which I’m incredibly thankful.


Me & Rigoberto González


After the reading, Rigoberto and I signed copies of our books.  This was such a surreal experience.  Each time someone came up to me to ask me to sign their book, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.  Was it really just a few  years ago that I was a giddy creative writing undergrad at UH holding out my book to Kevin Young/Nick Flynn/Matthea Harvey/Natasha Trethewey/you name it and asking them to sign a copy?  So weird.  I was really grateful that so many APSU students/faculty/administrators came out and that my writing moved them in some small way.  One woman told me that after hearing my poems about my sister, that she needed to go home and have a glass of wine (“or two,” she said).  Thank you?  I’m sorry?  Wow.


In case you missed the reading, someone from APSU has a video up here and there’s a write-up here.


Blas Falconer of Zone 3 Press was such an amazing host, I must say.  He put Jeff and me up in a hotel, drove us back and forth from Nashville (where we were staying) to Clarksville, and took us out to dinner in Nashville at mÄmbu and the Germantown Cafe.  I had the best time!


3.  Hot Objects


Hot Objects


One thing that has kept me busy lately are the 5 classes that I’m teaching this semester.  I was asked to go full-time for this term and I thought it would be a great experience.  I’m teaching 2 sections of Comp I, 2 sections of Comp II, and a Creative Writing Workshop.  I love making lesson plans (nerd, I know) and I wanted to share a sample one with you that I’m doing tomorrow with my CW students:


Hot Objects


Time: 1 80 minute class period

Materials: a bag filled with enough random objects for each student to have one (in this case: a balloon, a voodoo doll, a pinecone, an apple, a watercolor set, a doorjam, tanning goggles, a hot pink tiara, a map, a key, nailpolish, etc.)

Method: Begin the class by talking about the principles of persona and point of view in creative writing.  For the activity to accompany the lecture, have each student choose 1 item from the bag.  When all students have their items, explain to them that they will be focusing their writing for the day on POV/Persona.  Have them brainstorm for 5-10 minutes about their object using the 5 senses: what does it see? smell? taste? touch? hear?  After brainstorming, have student spend 30-40 minutes writing a piece (a poem or brief narrative story) in the voice of their object.  Explain that since it is in the voice of the (apple, key, nailpolish), that they should use the first-person pronoun.  Tell them that what they have the object do/see/etc. is up to them, but they should try to get “inside” the object and bring that object to life in someway through their writing.   In the last 10 minutes of class, have students volunteer to share their work and encourage other students to comment on the work as well as the exercise itself.