Teaching Poetry in a Time of Pandemic

April 2, 2020 § 12 Comments

bauerBy 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.

On Being Pointless: Wrestling with Geoff Dyer

October 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

Amy Bernhard reviews an essay classic, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage:

51-sw2ymycL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I met Geoff Dyer in the fall of 2012, when he was the visiting writer at my MFA program. On the first day of class he strode into the English building wearing jeans and a plaid button down shirt, still creased from the suitcase he’d unpacked only twelve hours before. It was late August, one of the hottest summers the Midwest had ever seen, and the campus was damp with sweat and first day jitters. We watched in silence as Geoff took his place at the front of the room, lowering his tall, rakish frame into one of the stiff plastic chairs. Rummaging in his pocket for a handkerchief, he lifted his eyes to peer out at our wet faces. “This place,” he said, in his deadpan English accent, “is a miserable hell.”

Nervous giggles. Geoff cocked his head, his lips curling into a wide, slow smile. “I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about the seminar and the work we’ll do,” he said, as around me notebooks fell open and pens clicked into action. Geoff arched his eyebrows, amused. He continued, “But since there’s nothing I hate more than work, we’ll be reading simply for the sake of reading—for the pure pleasure and experience of it.” He paused, a tiny grin playing across his mouth. “Consider the point of this seminar as endeavoring to have no point at all.”

It’s this same leisurely attitude that both frustrates and delights in his 1997 memoir, Out Of Sheer Rage. On the surface, the book is about Dyer’s thwarted attempts to write an academic study of D.H. Lawrence. First, he’s uncertain whether or not he should begin his project on Lawrence, or work on his novel: “Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence I had also made up my mind to write a novel, and while the decision to write the book about Lawrence was made later it had not entirely superseded that earlier decision. At first I’d had an overwhelming urge to write both books but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either.”

Then, there’s the question of where to write—or rather, fail to write—the book on Lawrence: “One of the reasons, in fact, that it was impossible to get started on either the Lawrence book or the novel was because I was so preoccupied with where to live. I could live anywhere, all I had to do was choose—but it was impossible to choose because I could live anywhere.”

Though Dyer, in other reviews, has been called “one of the whiniest writers on the planet,” I can’t help but be charmed by the prose’s lackadaisical frenzy—the lengthy diversions and maddeningly diffusive sentences—because D.H. Lawrence isn’t really who Dyer’s wrestling with; it’s himself. Without chapters or section breaks, we follow Dyer wherever he leads us as he circles his subject like a carefree teenager on a bike. Along the way, his frank, yet funny assessments of his various agitations—from Do-It-Yourself projects, literary criticism, and a shortage of doughnuts in the local bakery—are surprisingly insightful, and cross the borders of memoir into a more essayistic study of distraction, inertia, and disappointment. “I may hate disappointment,” Dyer writes, “but perhaps I also long for it. Perhaps it is not luxury doughnuts I want but the experience of being denied these things I think I want. Perhaps what I want, in other words, is actually not a luxury doughnut but the chance to consummate my disappointment, to experience what I most dread…which is, precisely, experiencing disappointment.” Like a nesting doll, one digression reveals another, and then another, until it becomes clear that diversion itself is the book—the essay within the essay, the point within the point.

Amy Bernhard

Amy Bernhard

While the lack of a concrete plot is sometimes frustrating, it’s also what has made Out Of Sheer Rage so important for me as a writer. In graduate school, we devoted hours each day to evaluating and debating an essay’s worth. “What’s the point?” one of my professors liked to ask before each workshop, his eyes searching the room as we ducked our heads, scribbling down themes and symbols in the margins of our notebooks. It wasn’t long before his question took on a constant refrain in my head. Sitting at my desk, fingers curled over my keyboard, I stared at the blank page before me and waited for the words to come. What’s the point? I asked the walls, the computer screen, the drained mug I’d been unknowingly gripping for hours in my hand. What’s the point? What’s the point?

It was only during my second year in graduate school, when I became a teacher myself that I realized how alienating this question can be for students. Opening my workshops the same way—“What’s the point of the essay?”—I watched brows furrow and shoulders slump. Mistaking silence for disinterest, I spent the remaining ninety minutes firing off question after question, watching the clock out of the corner of my eye until my students rose, silently gathered their books, and slouched out the door to their other classes.

I was frustrated. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong until Rachel, one of my brightest students, came to my office for her midterm conference. Together we sat and talked about her goals, her writing, the essays we were reading in class. As she stood to leave half an hour later, pulling a messenger bag across her shoulders, she turned to me and said, “Why do you always ask us what the point is?”

I didn’t know what to say. A new teacher, I’d simply been modeling the classroom techniques used by my own professors.

“It makes me feel like I don’t have anything to write about,” she confessed, a faint blush rising in her cheeks. “Like if I don’t say something profound, then no one will care.”

Her words resonated with me. I began encouraging students to focus first on the micro details of an essay—sights, sounds, smells—before worrying about macro-level concerns like theme and meaning. As a result, one wrote a devastating piece about the contents of her refrigerator for her final portfolio, while another reflected on a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon spent in traffic. Both writers, in their embrace of what might at first seem to be mundane or ordinary subjects produced essays that celebrate the human condition in all its neuroses and trivialities, arriving at deep, difficult truths. Maybe this is what D.H. Lawrence meant when he wrote, “Let a man go to the bottom of what he is, and believe in that.” Like my students, I feared that my experiences weren’t big or loud enough to really matter, to fulfill that capital-P point we were always fretting over in graduate school. But now I wonder if it’s actually in our smaller moments—in all of the traffic jams, half-eaten sandwiches, and luxury donut shortages that make up our days—when, as D.H. Lawrence suggests, we are most deeply human, and maybe most profound.

Which brings me to the end—the point, if you will—of this essay: to tell you what Geoff Dyer has taught me about writing. I could praise again his unbridled sense of humor (a four-page seduction fantasy about his girlfriend’s best friend), or his loose, improvisational prose style, both of which draw us closer to our hidden desires and anxieties. I could marvel at his keen psychological insight (as when he observes that “To be interested in something is to be involved in what is essentially a stressful relationship with that thing, to suffer anxiety on its behalf”), confronting us with our own neuroses, peeling back the deepest layers of our humanity. Or I could emphasize his belief—which I now share—that idleness gives birth to insight; that as essayists, we should follow our digressions wherever they lead us, and trust that the point will be waiting there.

I could try to tell you how much I’ve learned from Geoff Dyer, and yet I have a confession to make: I only attended one of his classes. The very first one, in fact. I was too worried about my own class that I had to teach later that same evening, distracted by deadlines, grading, and unfinished essays for workshop. Besides, I assumed Geoff wouldn’t care—“Consider the point of this seminar as endeavoring to have no point at all,” he’d declared that first day, dismissing us without even a syllabus. Why bother? I’d think when Thursday mornings rolled around, hitting the snooze button and burrowing deeper into my blankets.   

It’s only now, two months out of graduate school and a professor myself that I think I understand what Geoff was trying to teach us. It’s the same lesson I hope to impart to my own students: we can only arrive at an essay’s point later, when we’re ready. As writers, we need to trust that meaning will creep up on us even—or maybe especially—during our idle hours, as Geoff Dyer and Out Of Sheer Rage have, post-MFA, snuck up on me. Dog-eared and worn, his book is lying open on my desk as I write this, the only item in my otherwise empty study that has not yet been packed into boxes. I’m moving in a few weeks, unsure what comes next, but rather than fixate on the future I think I’m going to try to force myself to enjoy experience of getting there for once—to endeavor, as I’ve learned from Geoff Dyer, to have no plan at all.


Amy Bernhard is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays appear or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Colorado Review, The South Loop Review, and The Toast, among others. She lives and teaches in Iowa City.





What Exactly Happened: Four (Excellent) Essays on the Craft of Memoir

July 8, 2011 § 5 Comments

Thomas Larson, author of the  indispensable The Memoir and the Memoirist, arguably one of the two or three best references for those who teach and write nonfiction, has just released a new book, and there are a few interesting details.

1.) The new book  costs only $2.99.  2.) Delivery is free  3.) You can only read it on your Kindle, or on the Kindle software you can download to your PC, iPad, or other device, and 4.) It offers more of Tom Larson’s intelligent, accessible insight and close-reading of essayists and memoirists.  It is the latter that makes Larson’s writing so valuable.  No platitudes or pronouncements, but instead practical, meticulous examination of what works on the page.

The new book, What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir includes (of course) four essays, exclusively available in the eBook format: “The Narrative Elements of Memoir,” “Four Writers’ Openings,”  “The Plot of the Memoir, The Emotion of the Author:  On Kathleen Finneran’s The Tender Land,” and “A New Kind of Narrative Truth.”

We’ve asked Tom to visit our blog in a month or so and discuss how this eBook publication process works, what sorts of success he has with it, how the reader feedback develops, and other issues.  Let’s hope he accepts the invitation, because these are new days, and despite the various forms of hand-wringing about the demise of all that Gutenberg wrought, up here in the Brevity corporate penthouse, we’re interested and excited about how the eBook format might open up new markets, new genres, new forms, and new opportunities.


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