Teaching Poetry in a Time of Pandemic
April 2, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Grace Bauer
There was no way to lie that didn’t hurt. I’d already tossed and turned from left to right and back a dozen times, but the pain in my hips was not going to let me sleep. I tried my back, tried pillows under my knees, between my knees, my knees scrunched against my chest. Wasn’t happening. Being kept awake by pain was nothing out of the ordinary, but pretty much everything else in life was, so at 3:00 a.m. I succumbed to worry.
I got up to stretch and take another Advil, then fell into a slow steady pacing around the house—thinking about the virus they sometimes called novel and its possible effects—on me, my family and friends, my colleagues and students, my community and country, the world; about how I was going to finish up a semester teaching on-line when my tech skills are limited; about the economy—my 401K account taking a nose dive a few months before I’m about to retire. I continued pacing—getting in more steps, as my friends with Fitbits say. I paused now and then to stare out a window at the empty street, thankful for neighbors who had kept up the Christmas lights that cast a bit of shine into the darkness.
It was only a week ago that I said goodbye to what I knew from the start would be my last-ever class of creative writing students. Knowing this was, undoubtedly, part of why I’d grown especially fond of them, but it was also the students themselves—some were dealing with issues far beyond anything I had ever faced at their age, yet they were bright, funny, forthright in their responses to poetry, each other, and me. The more extroverted among them had announced themselves from day one; some of the quieter or more tentative had been opening up more each week. There was some of the compulsive phone checking that drives every teacher crazy these days, a few late assignments here and there, but mostly the class was lively and engaged. They had bonded in a way that does not always happen, formed the kind of community of writers we always hope for in a workshop, but don’t always get. They took to heart my advice to not just push the envelope in their poems, but turn the envelope into an origami swan. Or a dump truck. They were finding that balance between being too hard or too easy on themselves and each other in critiques.
On what had just been announced as our last day of class, they insisted we spend the hour focused on poems—and they stayed, despite the looming uncertainty, laser focused till it was time for class to end. Then they lingered in the hall almost teary-eyed, lamenting that we would not get to hang out face-to-face anymore. “I know it’s kind of weird,” one young woman said, “but I feel like I should say I love you to you guys.” This, I thought, is how I’m wrapping up 30-plus years of teaching.
Since I was in the process of cleaning out my office, I had already given the students many of my books, which I hoped would keep them reading long after the class ended, even if it had not ended on such a sudden note. Now, as I paced the dark house, I wished I had given them more. I worried about how the switch to on-line teaching would affect them, that one of them might catch this nasty bug. That I might catch it myself. Or that my ninety-year-old mother would. That all of us would. Or could. Worry is as contagious as a virus—one what if/could be leads to another and another, until your entire brain is infected with possible catastrophes you can’t stop from spreading further. Worry is often a matter of blowing things out of proportion, but in this case, it seemed all proportion had already been blown. I paced some more. Stepped out onto the back porch to stare up at a sky too overcast to allow the glint of stars. Shivered, and came back in.
Some of my students were from Lincoln. Others had headed home to Omaha or small towns out in the sandhills, or to South Dakota, Colorado, Chicago. We were on the verge of what would have been Spring Break, but now the break would be more like a rupture. One I will do my best to build a bridge over. I’m confident most of these students will do their best to walk across it. I will encourage and cajole—hound, if I have to—anyone who hesitates, being careful not to push them closer to an edge we’re all feeling pretty close to these days.
Some of us remember that infamous Dana Gioia article from back in the 90’s that asked Can Poetry Matter? While various poets and critics tore each other apart over the question and Gioia’s analysis of the poetic moment, I stuck with the answer I came up with before I even read past the title: of course, it can. I’m still sticking with that story. While much of higher education is focused on outcomes and assessments, and STEM is the acronym of the hour, creative writing programs flourish and students, even some of those STEM students, fill our classes because, as one techie told me, “Sometimes you just need a class where you get to use your words.”
This, for me, will be the last of such classes. It would have been memorable for that reason, even if things had gone on as normal—a word whose definition may have permanently changed. My students will be sending me new poems tomorrow. I’ll respond, trying to tell them what matters most in their words.
My mind was spinning, but my bones were tired. I got back into bed to see if body or brain would win this night’s battle for rest. There was still no way to lie that didn’t hurt.
Grace Bauer’s poems, essays and stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including recent issues of Ascent, Tin House, Rattle, and others. She has also published five books of poems—most recently MEAN/TIME and a 20th anniversary re-issue of The Women At The Well. She is currently the Aaron Douglas Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.