Things that threaten to swamp your craft

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photo by Aja Riggs

Every now and then my students amaze me. Okay, at least once a week my students amaze me.

This week’s tale goes something like this: We’ve been reading poems by Mark Doty, who’ll be visiting our school Wednesday. And of course you can’t really read too far into Mark’s work without coming upon poems about homosexuality. And when you teach teenage girls you never know how reading poems about gay men and AIDS and poems with words like butch and queen in them is going to go.

In fact, I spent almost all of my prep time devising strategies to diffuse, deflect, and even downplay the gay thing. I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work. It’s like trying to throw an afghan over the elephant sucking peanuts up off the living room carpet and hoping your dinner guests won’t notice that there’s a pachyderm standing there.

So, before I read “Embrace,” an absolutely beautiful poem in which the author receives a visitation from his deceased lover in a dream, I decided to put the cards on the table.

“I’vegotapoemherebyMarkDotywhohappenstobeagayman

whoseloverdiedofAIDSandImentionthatonlybecauseit’s

animportantthemeinMark’sworkand…”

Okay, so I kind of speed talked my way through the introduction, hoping, I guess, that if I didn’t leave any time for students to comment they wouldn’t have time to say anything homophobic. Then I launched into the poem. Which, by the way, you just can’t speed read your way through. Because at some point when you read it, your voice will get caught on all those tears that building up during the achingly loving descriptions of the narrator seeing his lover again, his face untouched by the pain and suffering and sickness.

When I was done reading there was silence. Then a ripple of sighs sifted through the room. “Wow,” S. said. “I wish I had a love like that.”

Another student immediately began writing a poem about her father who died of AIDS. Instead of love, she wrote mostly of the anger she felt toward him for neglecting her during his short lifetime. But, she wrote, she never would have expressed these long-hidden feelings, if Mark’s poem hadn’t invited her to explore them.

Then T., whose poems have up until now been stifled by that particular brand of teenage girl obsession with polish, shine, neatness and matching — which translates into sweet poems in perfect penmanship about nothing much — finally wrote about her father’s violent death.

And on it went. No one, needless to say, got caught up in the particulars of the poet’s sexuality.

Which brings me to something Mark told his workshop students back in 1996 at Columbia … a workshop I was taking as part of my graduate studies. He said: “Write about the things that threaten to swamp your craft.” That’s the kind of instruction I might have given my class, if I hadn’t been so busy anticipating homophobia that my students were obviously beyond.

 But in the end they got the message anyway. And sailed with grace through the tumultuous waters of their hearts.

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3 thoughts on “Things that threaten to swamp your craft

  1. Beautiful. I’m teaching a creative writing class at the moment and we are about to start a segment on poetry. I’m anticipating similar moments. Thanks for the reminder that it isn’t always necessary.

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