Volume 80, Number 42 | March 17 - 23, 2011
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Photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer

Author and teacher Kevin Young taught a two-day master class in March.

Learning to create, and critique, at Poets House
Instructors offer variety of strengths, teaching styles

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER

“We’ll dive into some reading, writing, thinking and talking with each other,” instructor Jill Magi says. She is sitting at the head of a long table in the conference room of Poets House with students on either side of her. They have signed up for her six-week course: “Text, Image, Theme and Between.” Author of a text-image hybrid book called “Threads,” Magi runs Sona Books, a small chapbook press (sonabooks.blogspot.com).

“Our course will be about opening up the page,” she says, “imagining a poem as a folder, a space to contain many things, not just words.”

Poets House, founded in 1985 by poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray, is now in its second year in its Battery Park City home overlooking the Hudson River. Among its other offerings — a beautiful, peaceful and WiFi-equipped place to work, the use of a free 50,000-volume poetry library, and changing exhibits of artwork and poetry books — the Poets House calendar includes a large number of lectures about poetry, poetry programs for children and poetry classes such as Magi’s.

Magi’s is an open-enrollment class — one of three workshops in the Poets House winter session where no previous experience in poetry was required. Other classes at Poets House are Master Classes, where students must submit samples of their writing to be admitted.

Most in Magi’s class had never taken a class at Poets House before. “I didn’t know this place existed,” says one student, a graphic designer who noted she’d been working “pretty much in isolation” for the last few years — and chose this particular class because it was concerned with text and image (all of the students had or have careers or avocations in graphic design, painting, filmmaking, sculpting or photography).

Magi brought in a sheaf of poems to read and discuss, all having to do with a particular place. The assignment for the first class is for the students to write about a place that’s important to them. “It could be a block, a river, a house, your home town,” says Magi. “Write 10 sentences about what you know, 10 sentences about what you don’t know and if possible, physically go to the place and write five sentences about you approaching this place.”

She also asks the students to “try to find or take two or three pictures of this place. Try to re-create some sort of photograph that symbolizes the place.” She says that the next step would be to combine text and image.

“If you’re taking photos this week, when you frame your shot, go up, down, to the right or left,” she advises.

The assignment and the work in class prove to be exhilarating and as unsettling as Magi’s photography advice. For some people, the class opens rivers of memory and emotion. It’s like a therapy session. “Try to stay in the place as long as you can, recording, not necessarily judging,” Magi suggests.

After two and a half hours that seem to have flown by, the class concludes. “We’ll work on your ‘place’ poem in class,” Magi says. “Thank you very much for your attention tonight. I look forward to this adventure.”

Teachers for Poets House classes are diverse, according to Jane Preston (managing director of Poets House). They are selected on the basis of their publication strength and to provide a range of writing background and teaching styles.

Kevin Young, who taught a Master Class during the Poets House winter session, is the author of seven poetry collections and editor of five others. He teaches at Emory University. To be admitted to his class, each student had to submit three poems. The four-hour classes took place on a Saturday and Sunday early in March.

Young started his class with a reading and discussion of the Elizabeth Bishop poem “Filling Station.” He asked the students to consider the poem’s formal structure and voice. “Who is speaking? Where does the poem shift from one perspective to another?”

Other readings followed, including “No Forgiveness Ode” by Dean Young. Kevin Young commented on the poet’s choice of words and on the poem’s form. “The line is the lifeblood of the poem,” he said. “I think the line is so important as the driving force.” He made special mention of the end words. “Don’t waste the end words on a force that doesn’t turn the line.”

The class went on to read and discuss poems that the students had submitted, with attention to the words they chose, the punctuation, the images, the line breaks and the “music.”

Then Young returned to reading the work of other poets such as Lucille Clifton’s “wishes for sons.” This poem is a curse, he said, as opposed to some of the poems previously read, which were poems of praise. Of Clifton’s poem he commented, “Milton gave Satan the best lines!”

The assignment was to write an ode or a curse. “Try to praise something small,” said Young.  “Don’t let yourself be limited to one kind of language. Think of form when you’re doing this.”

Young’s class was fully enrolled. With 16 students, there wasn’t room for another person around the table. “I came because I love Young’s work,” said Charles Lynch — who teaches English at the college level and was attending a Poets House class for the first time.

One of the students in Magi’s class had been to Poets House classes before. “Five or six years ago, I was taking any class I could get into,” she said. “By the end of a class, everybody seemed more brilliant than they had when they first walked in.”

Classes at Poets House (10 River Terrace in Battery Park City) continue in the spring, with three six-week open enrollment workshops that begin in early April and end in mid-May. A Master Class with Dorianne Laux will be held on Saturday, May 21 and Sunday, May 22. The application for that class is due April 29. Open enrollment classes cost $295. Master Classes cost $375. For more information, visit poetshouse.org or call 212-431-7920.

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