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‘I really wanted that student to feel censored’: A poetry class confronts slurs, and finds grace

Jennifer L. Knox is the author of four books of poems. Her work has appeared four times in the Best American Poetry series as well as in the New York Times, the New Yorker and American Poetry Review. She teaches poetry writing and communications at Iowa State University and is at work on a culinary memoir.

Squeezing Feelings into the Poetry Syllabus

I’d considered myself exceptionally lucky.

After teaching poetry writing for several years, I’d never stumbled across a racial, sexual, homophobic, religious or other type of slur in a student poem.

But since I’d heard horror stories from colleagues, I thought I was prepared for the eventuality of a young white man yelling at me as he stormed out of class, “Why can’t I use the n-word like Patricia Smith does in ‘Skinhead’?!”

Somehow, I’d managed to avoid such confrontations.

I secretly wondered if the paragraph in my syllabus addressing “Word Choice” was, in reality, a military-grade slur deterrent.

The writing had always felt a little loosey-goosey, but so far it had done the trick: “Words that hurt people — like slurs against races, religions, ability levels and sexual orientations — can stop all forward momentum in a poem. Writing a poem is like cooking a dish, and words are your ingredients. Some words will render your dish sickening — even inedible.”

I teach at a large public university in Iowa — not the one that’s known for creative writing — the other one that’s renowned for its agriculture and engineering departments. My students are primarily from Iowa, and many grew up on farms and in rural areas.

My greatest challenge is getting them to take creative risks, which can be profane, but differ from profanity for profanity’s sake.

I promise them that poetry is already in their lives — they just have to re-see their unique experiences as worthy — and that things they would never dream of discussing in public can make great poems.

Like a hog’s butt for example.

“How does one judge a hog?” I asked a student who’d written a lovely poem about growing up on a farm, in which she too quickly mentioned a hog judging contest. I wanted more details.

“Mostly . . . by their butts,” she blushed and made circular, squeezing motions in the air with her hands. “You want a really big, round butt.”

“Who wants to see a really big round hog butt in this poem?” I asked the class. Every hand shot into the air.

Oh, there’d been loads of profanity. Also graphic depictions of child birth, sex, rape, physical abuse, eating disorders, self-harming, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, mental illness, death, war atrocities from the vets, a slaughterhouse and a school shooting. I suppose our degrees of separation from school shooting survivors lessen with every horrific event.

My own poetry is known for its transgressiveness (the review of my last book in the New York Times was titled, “The Naughty Angel” after Wallace Stevens’s “The Necessary Angel“). Not that my students are ever going to read my work, but if they did, I’d hate to be hypocritical. Bottom line: The last thing I ever wanted my students to feel was that they were being censored.

That is, until recently, when a student — a strong writer with strong politics — chose to spice up a rant with the r-word, mocking people with Down syndrome. It appeared like a glowing toxic weed in the middle of a pile of F-bombs.

When I read it — hoo boy — I really wanted that student to feel censored. I wanted his fingers to curl up with shame and his hands to crawl backward up his shirt sleeves like tapped turtle heads the next time he even thought about writing a poem.

But instead of censoring and shaming during our in-class workshop, the class had a very productive conversation about the poem. We did not all agree (that’s a big deal for conflict-adverse Iowans), but our disagreements led to a discussion of why we want to write poems and our responsibility to the reader.

Then, some students gave some great structural advice for a revision. “There’s a lot of good stuff in here that would read well on longer lines,” someone suggested.

I was so proud of us! We’d turned that r-word frown upside down.

Or, at least, I thought we did — until the next day in the online discussion thread when I read another student’s passionate, honest and also F-bomb-ladened response to the r-word poem, and her response to my response in the discussion thread.

I’ll paraphrase. “This is my favorite class, but poetry is all about you and what you’re feeling. We should be able to do anything we want. Jennifer, shouldn’t you be teaching students to do that?”

She asked me a direct, honest question that required a direct, honest answer. It took me an entire afternoon, but here it is. You’ll find most of it already pasted into my syllabus, where the loosey-goosey verbiage once stood.

Dear X, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the class, and I wanted to address some of the points you’ve brought up.

The first thing I want students to learn is empathy. Poetry is communication, which requires at least two people. Poetry that is first and foremost for yourself and your feelings, without regard to who’s listening or their feelings as they read your poem, is a one-way street.

Poets feel strong feelings, but how we communicate those feelings determines whether people will listen to us. Readers’ feelings and reactions to words are automatic, especially feelings that stem from trauma and cruelty, like slurs against races, religions, ability levels, gender and sexual orientation.

This poem was written for our Intro to Poetry Writing class, so we know who’s going to read it. And we want to read it! We want to listen! That’s why we’re here! Students take this class because they want readers. They want eyes and minds looking at their work and feeling along with them.

Without readers, we’re just typing. I’ve written many poems that I would NEVER workshop because, if I workshop a poem, it means I want to hear how my words make people feel.

If I don’t want to know, it’s not a workshop poem. Workshops give you access to people’s reactions.

We can say, “I’m not writing it for you, I’m writing it for myself.”

Why take a class?

We can say, “My reader for this poem is not the class.”

Why bring it to us? Give the poem to its intended readers.

We can say, “I don’t care how you feel.”

Poetry is the most feelingest substance in the entire universe. It requires the highest level of vulnerability from both its readers and writers. If you don’t care about other people’s feelings, you’re in the wrong game.

‘At the core, none of us were meant to be common’: A new teacher’s graduation speech, pure poetry, urges all to lift off

On the Internet, there are online communities dedicated to certain aesthetics, so you can publish any poem you want and never have to worry about offending anyone. That’s not this class.

The strength of us — all 25 of us — is that our perceptions and aesthetics are so different! Where else are you going to find that level of attention, from such widely differing perspectives? If you can grab this class’s attention, you’re writing at the top of human empathetic capacity.

Let’s shoot for that.

As I write this, there are two thumbs-up for my post in the thread. There are also two thumbs-up for the student’s post. I’ll take that tie as a win.