Investigating Text with Writers

In a previous post, I stressed the importance of listening to published and successful writers to guide the formal teaching of reading (texts) and writing.

While Neil Gaiman, for example, provides English teachers a wealth of writing about books, bookstores, libraries, and writing, many writers talk and write about their lives as readers and writers, and as English teachers, we should be seeking to build a toolbox of writers on texts and writing for our classrooms and students.

Poet Matt Olzman offers such an opportunity.

In an interview, Olzman discusses aspects of his writer’s life of a poet that speak to key aspects of formal writing instruction. Inviting students to compare what Olzman explains to their own understanding of key concepts about text and writing helps avoid overly simplistic and school-only versions of reading and writing.

On daily writing, inspiration, the writing process, and revision:

It’s very rarely a matter of inspiration. I try to write a little every day, and that quickly wipes out your reservoir of backup ideas. Often I sit down, unsure what I’m going to write. I like writing just for the process of writing. I like the way it makes me slow down and think something through. Sometimes it’s just writing out thoughts, writing a scene, writing a sentence, and then if something sparks or seems promising when I return to it, then that’s when the real work often begins: revising and developing the idea. I think C. Dale Young once said that drafting a poem is like an artist gathering materials, but revising a poem is an artist shaping the materials. So the poem truly begins in revision, when I have something that I want to try to expand and develop.

More on revision:

In revision, one of two things usually happens. I can tinker at a poem, just making small changes—a word here or there, line ending, inverting the order of two different clauses—or a complete reimagining of the entire poem. I might like the first stanza, but I not anything else that follows, so I restart using that stanza. Or there might have been an idea that I was trying to convey, but I’m not excited about any of the ways I actually said it. Small adjustments, or a massive overhaul. It seems to vary between those two extremes.

On form (connect to genre and mode):

If I’m writing a received form like a sonnet or a villanelle, those never happen by accident, so you have to just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a villanelle or a sonnet,” but with free verse, the form can sometimes come more organically, and the shaping starts to happen later in the drafting process. But I think that all poems, in some way, have some sort of formal structure, whether it’s rhetorical, tonal, etc. I don’t know what a formless poem would look like.

On audience, readers:

It’s hard to even guess. I think that the biggest challenge for a writer is to be able to anticipate what the reader is feeling, to look at your own work through a stranger’s eyes and imagine what they’ll experience when reading it. Are they going to be surprised? Are they going to be confused? You’re constantly trying to walk a very fine line between things being spelled out too much and the poem becoming boring and predictable or the opposite: being too elliptical and the poem becoming confusing. You’re always having to guess how the reader is going to be responding. I think the thing you strive for most as a writer is tension or interest. You just want the reader to want to make it from one line to the next and to feel like they’re not necessarily laboring or confused or left behind or fading out. So engagement is something you’re always pushing toward as a writer.

On the influence of other poets (writers):

There are many poets I admire. The list is somewhat infinite. But for a book that has a single subject that binds the whole collection together, I was just rereading Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, which talks about Lead Belly’s life and the world he lived in, and all the poems are about that one title character. My wife, Vievee Francis, is a poet who can return to a single subject and mine it for material in a way that I’m not able to do. If she wrote about a glass of water, there’d be a poem about the person who made the glass, a poem about the river where the water came from, a poem about human thirst in general, and suddenly she’d have ten poems on that one subject. It’s a way of seeing the world that I really admire….

I think every book I read probably influences me in some way, but some of the poets I’ve recently been returning to are poets like Wislawa Szymborska, Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, some of my teachers such as Steve Orlen, Stephen Dobyns, Heather McHugh, Martha Rhodes, Brooks Haxton—they’re poets who taught me, both as my teachers and through their writing. Also, a lot of contemporary poets like Jamaal May, Tarfia Faizullah, Cathy Linh Che, Patrick Rosal, and Jennifer Chang. And, of course, Vievee. The list is kind of endless. I think most writers are always in conversation with the writing of the world around them.

Collecting powerful and complex discussions of texts, reading, and writing from professional poets allows our formal instruction in reading/text and writing to gain a higher level of authenticity, complicating and enriching the aspects of responding to text and classroom writing that too often push students away from reading and writing.

Connecting Olzman’s comments above to his poetry, then, can be an effective series of classroom activities that allow students to discover and create their own developing understanding of how to read and re-read, write and re-write the world.

Some of Olman’s poems available online include:

Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz 

The Millihelen and Wreckage Gallery

Notes Regarding Happiness

Four Letters: Letter to a Dead Goldfish, Letter to the Flying Dutchman, Letter to Jennifer Chang and Evan Rhodes Regarding a Variation in the Fabric of Time, Letter to The New Year

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