Opportunities of Approach: Notes from Teaching Poetry International

PI_20-21“This is where the skinned goat turned on the spit. / This is where we knelt on walnut leaves in the town of the word.”
—Carolyn Forché, “On the Island of Theologos.” Poetry International 20/21.


In collaboration, a skinning at times, a kneeling at others, at others still, a rising or a dance or a—hopefully beautiful—labor: metaphors for approaching “the town of the word,” whether through reading or writing craft, abound. Here, two working exercises for this approaching that can, perhaps, be described as immigrative in their pedagogy. The first is from an Introduction to Literature course, the second from Introduction to Creative Writing. 


A combined homework and in-class assignment using Poetry International 20/21  in Introduction to Literature involves dividing the class into groups to present on Individual Poet Features and Portfolios, with one poet chosen by or assigned to each group. It is worth noting that, for our class, the pairing of the group with the poet tended to overlap with literary and thematic issues they had already identified and been attending to in their reading of the prior assigned text, Texaco (a wonderful novel by Patrick Chamoiseau). In addition to providing close reads of poems, students are responsible for researching the poet, including providing additional biographical information and association with particular poetic lineages or influences where available. In an informal presentation format—groups sit together with the whole class in a circle—students teach each other what they have learned about and from their assigned poet, noticing repeated themes, images, forms and techniques and, where appropriate, relating these moments of observation to prior assigned texts and literary approaches. In the short discussions after each presentation, I invite other groups to anticipate or reflect on connections with or divergences from what they have learned about and from their assigned poet. The ideal result is a spirited, rigorous and intuitive discussion that combines multiple interpretive approaches, modes of reading and student perspectives to reach not only deeper knowledge and understanding but also deeper emotional resonance through shared investigation of poets’ choices.

In Introduction to Creative Writing, accretion of techniques and approaches is a major part of my pedagogy. I offer, near the beginning of the course, an exercise that provides the opportunity to briefly introduce in an experiential way many of the elements we will be exploring further throughout the poetry focus of the course and beyond by assigning a Regional Poetry Feature whose multiple poetics, aesthetics and experiences our class will later place in conversation with those drawn from additional Regional Features assigned from the journal (Issue 20/21 features African, Chinese, Scottish, and Swedish Poetry). I suggest offering this exercise with “African Poetry: New Directions, New Initiatives” which, along with providing an introduction to the poetry of an often overlooked region, allows students to engage with elements such as image, rhythm, syntax, lineation, voice, emotion, rhetorical devices, the construction of narrative and questions of themes and social issues. As part of their reading homework, students have identified specific lines and phrases that particularly move, trouble and/or inspire them. The students participate in an impromptu aural collage of these lines and phrases: one student reads out a first line and subsequent students, when they feel compelled to by a resonance with the prior line, read out a chosen line and so on. The short exercise offers the opportunity for students to bring their voices into the room without being singled out and often includes a moment of cohesion bordering on magic as the cipher progresses. The resulting conversation allows students to identify specific effective elements in lines they chose as well as between their chosen lines and other student’s favorite lines. An ongoing project within the course also commences from our discussion and recurred in relation to subsequent readings from Poetry International: I ask students to begin to identify emotions, concepts, themes and social issues that call their focus so they can begin to build, through a different exercise, an ongoing individual archive of related sensory images and poetic techniques that can be used in future generation and revision of poems while building, in tandem, knowledge of poetic approaches, movements and lineages. Students continue to generate drafts and fragments through further formal, processual and responsive exercises and, in my experience, several of the most moving final revisions in their portfolios tend to drawn from the accretion of learning that begins with the early assignment and exercise described above.


 I write a lettermy lips, a wax seal, steal to yesterday
when your eyelids lifted the kite in the wind, no beginning,
just eyelashes with each hair a different color.
Clifton Gachua, A Blue Precision, Poetry International 20/21.


Hari Alluri

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