Aisha Sabatini Sloan
In this course we will look at nonfiction writing about blackness and art. We will read prose that takes the shape of the art it describes, essays that emerge out of drawings, art criticism that delves into the personal, and autobiographical writing by artists accustomed to expressing themselves through performance. We will also look at contemporary art that uses space or story in a way that essayists can emulate. Through these texts we will ask: Can image and space be translated onto the page? How might non-linear prose honor multiple cultural influences in a way that a traditional narrative might not? We will read authors like Tisa Bryant, Gabrielle Civil, Renee Gladman and Christina Sharpe.
Latin American Poets
This course proposes that the circumstances often presumed to shape the work of Latin American poets – forging or resisting new national identities, reckoning with anti-blackness and colonial practices, navigating “New world” and European influences, writing and innovating amidst extreme state violence – are in fact common to poets in all of the Americas. Though our sampling of major Spanish language Latin American poets (in translation) will necessarily be incomplete, we will survey a range of distinct and compelling bodies of work composed in response to these shared circumstances. We will also attempt to ground our reading in the particulars of each author’s culture, nation, and period by referencing standard works in political and sociological history of the region. Adding to the backdrop of our study will be Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, an anthology capacious enough to range from indigenous responses to European conquest to the experimental poetries emerging across Latin America now in the early 21st century. Our focus, however, will be on single volumes by authors such as Vicente Huidobro, César Vallejo, Eunice Odio, Alejandra Pizarnik, José Lezama Lima, Marosa di Giorgio, Roque Dalton, and Raúl Zurita. Students will use these readings, along with periodic one-on-one consultations with the instructor, to develop a semester-long writing and research practice tailored to their individual needs. These may include translation projects, imitations, and studies of trans-national influence that explore how our primary authors affected contemporary writers working in Spanish and English such as Coral Bracho, Roberto Tejada, Estela Lamat, Nathaniel Tarn, Myriam Moscona, Daniel Borzutzky, and Dolores Dorantes.
The Interior Journey (Multi-genre craft seminar with emphasis on creative nonfiction)
In a world beset by global warming, refugees fleeing war, economic, and environmental upheaval, the vast and growing gap between the rich and the poor, the growth of the police state and the prison economy, the reassertion of racism, sexism, homophobia, the rekindling of religious and class wars we thought we could address through education and progressive legislation, the worldwide promotion of greed at the expense of compassion, the sometimes open hostility between science and religion—at this time of crisis, why study solitude and silence?
Because these problems are symptoms, not causes. Because healthy, sustainable relationships to each other and the planet require examining and developing our interior lives. Because the most challenging journey is not exterior but interior. Because science and technology, so successful at filling our world with noise and speed, themselves thrive in silence and slow study. Because the difference between knowledge unaided and knowledge tempered by wisdom is the difference between war and diplomacy, between suffering and contentment, between the gun and the pen. (Or screen.)
This course will look at creative nonfiction and fiction (with poetry making guest appearances) in the rich mode of interior journey: spiritual, philosophical, metaphorical. Students will be encouraged to work on using reading and writing as a means to shaping and interacting with their particular understanding of the great existential questions, and to continue and develop reading and writing as lifelong disciplines to shape our encounters with the planet, with each other, with ourselves.
As a literary form, the memoir began with an interior journey – St. Augustine’s Confessions, with which we will open the course. We’ll then travel through history, reading excerpts from the following reading list. This is a craft course, so our emphasis will consistently be on how we can apply lessons from the craft of these writers to our own work. At the level of the sentence or line, my goal is that students would enrich their understanding and practice of metaphors of grace, beauty, spirit. At a thematic level, I hope that students would develop and deepen their understanding of the inseparability, for the dedicated writer, of life and literature.
Students will be asked to write short response papers to the weekly readings. I am also considering how to incorporate an element of practice, that may involve visiting teachers from various contemplative traditions, e.g., Jewish, Native, Sufi, Christian, Buddhist, with teachers from Zen and Vipassana traditions; this last is the practice adopted by many agnostics and most atheists.
Studies in Documentary Arts
In 1936, noting a turn toward the documentary in a variety of arts, Wallace Stevens explained the Depression had focused attention "in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact." At a time of economic crisis and drone strikes, of Wikileaks and reality TV, we may be experiencing another such turn. Over the course of the semester, we will read hybrid documentary work and criticism. Despite its relationship to "objectivity" we will consider how aspects of documentary or investigative thinking can impact even the most personal projects. Then we will experiment with a variety of documentary approaches. As a cross genre class, our studies will not only help to inspire new documentary-based projects but demonstrate how documentary approaches can stimulate work already in progress.
The Art of the Short Novel
In this seminar, we’ll study a number of short novels, investigating structure, use of language, manipulation of time, and strategies for narrative engagement. We’ll identify and articulate each novel’s particular character. Additionally, we’ll use the seminar as a workshop for drafting short novels of our own. The class will require generation of a significant amount of creative material (over a hundred pages). The reading list is still under construction. Three likely candidates are: Train Dreams/Denis Johnson, The Hour of the Star/Clarice Lispector, and Pedro Paramo/Juan Rulfo.
When Race Meets Fiction: Deconstructing Race, Deconstructing Identity
In the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown declared that the reputation of belonging to a race is an inheritable property. The relationship between creative writing, the “property” of race, and its endowments and restrictions continues to instigate debate as recently as Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech about cultural appropriation and Michael Derrick Hudson’s publication under a Chinese pseudonym. For this course, rather than being concerned with the question of who has the right to tell a story or who has successfully racially “passed,” we will instead examine the creative works of writers who use deconstructive modes to tackle race and ethnicity head on. We will begin with classic narratives of racial “passing” and move on to works that utilize science fiction, satire, pastiche, and allegory, among other genres, to offer mechanisms for challenging, critiquing, and embodying racial discourse.
As writer-artists and scholar-critics, we will be concerned with locating the questions and answers embedded in these narrative pursuits, identifying and practicing the narrative strategies and craft techniques, and grappling with the “gaps” and “slippages” inherent in deconstructive modes of inquiry. Because this is a craft course, our work will be two-fold: we will read (scholarly and creative works, essays, author interviews, and commentaries); at the same time, we will also write and workshop (critical essays, exercises, and short stories or novel chapters). Although the focus of our discussions will be on racial-ethnic discourse, in your creative writing, you are welcome to use our practice as a model for inquiry into other aspects of identity, such as gender, sexuality, age, (dis)ability, religion, socio-economic status, political identity, nationality, etc.
Some of the works we will read, may include Nella Larson’s Quicksand and Passing, George Schuyler’s Black No More, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, A. Igoni Barret’s Blackass, and Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine.
Writing the Lives of Animals
Poetry & Film
In this course, we will study the ongoing conversation between poetry and film through an examination of the feature-length and short films of Maya Deren, Wong Kar-wai, Charles Burnett, Victor Erice, Chris Marker, Jean Epstein, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Chantal Akerman, among several other directors. We’ll read poetry inspired by film as well, including work from A. Van Jordan, Anne Carson, Sawako Nakayasu, John Yau, Renee Gladman, and many others. Students will be invited to select a film/maker and a poet whose work the class might study, so that we might ensure a diverse list of sources, influences, and approaches. As a class, we’ll focus on writing exercises in conversation with the movies we screen. Students will make their own short films as a final project for presentation on our final class meeting. No experience with either poetry or filmmaking is required to enroll.
This course takes the collection as its subject. Or: this course takes collection as an act as its subject. What does it mean to collect things? If we gather items together, say in a box (or in a book), by the very act of their gathering the eye or ear begins to perceive the ways in which they are like and different. By looking at similar (though rarely identical things), if we look closely, we begin to intuit their relationships, both with each other, and with the class of things that they represent. One looks like X. Another also looks like X. Or think of a diptych or triptych: the arrangement of the panels implies a relationship between the things pictured or displayed because of the context of their display. It’s no different for textual artworks, stories, essays, poems, or even things we think of as a monolithic (the novel, the memoir), say: all of these are made piecemeal, and when we place them side by side, chronologically (or in some cases not), we create a structure, we create order.
Here’s metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith: “The unique quality of a work of art depends on the manner in which its component parts are shaped and put together. It has style, but the style is unrecognizable except by comparison with other works having similar structure and overtones, an extension of an inevitable hierarchy. In chemistry, the characterization of a phase (whether crystalline or not) also depends on how the parts are put together and how this internal structure affects external contacts to build up materials on the scale at which we use them. Structure provides a universal metaphor: the apparent mixing of metaphors throughout in this article is not entirely due to carelessness! Everything involves structural hierarchy, an alternation of external and internal, homogeneity and heterogeneity. Externally perceived quality (property) is dependent on internal structure; nothing can be understood without looking not only at it in isolation on its own level but also at both its internal structure and the external relationships which simultaneously establish the larger structure and modify the smaller one. Most human misunderstanding arises less from differing points of view than from perceptions of different levels of significance. The world is a complex system, and our understanding of it comes, in science, from the matching of model structures with the physical structure of matter and, in art, from a perceived relationship between its physical structure and the levels of sensual and imaginative perception that are possible within the structure of our brain’s workings.”
The collection—of essays, of stories, and less so of poems—sometimes gets a raw deal and is ignored (certainly, this is often the case commercially) in favor of the memoir, the novel, the book-length essay or nonfiction project (though they too are in fact collections, and hardly seamless wholes). Perhaps this is because in an era of disintegration, readers favor the artifice of seeming wholeness. However, a good collection isn’t just a random assembly of component parts, whatever you wrote over the course of five years chucked chronologically in a binding—it’s structured and architectured, patterned, woven (choose whatever metaphor you like), that is, if it’s a true collection and not just a haphazard yoking together of unlikes. A thoughtful collection offers the pleasures of wholeness that the other, more obviously commercial Big Projects often do.
This semester we will study and venerate various sorts of collections, paying particular attention to the ways in which they are shapely, how the individual pieces echo or connect to each other and make use of structure. We will look at roughly a dozen collections, in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, mostly though not exclusively contemporary, and discuss how they work, how they’re organized, structured, and shaped. We’ll get the chance to talk with several contemporary writers whose work we are reading, too, and query them about their collecting and compositional strategies in their recent collections.
We’ll discuss philosophies of shaping and collecting, and think about the act of collecting particularly as it relates to the book (in whatever shape the book might appear). I imagine this course as being useful across genre (and perhaps as a collection point for all three genres). Considerations of structure bridge and connect genres. We will draw inspiration from the ways that poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers collect and order a book, and use them to suggest ways of filling out our own nascent or in-progress books. Sometimes, we find that imposing or finding a structure or order in a book suggests essays or poems or what have you that have yet to be written. In this way, finding or conceiving of a collection’s structure can lead to filling and finishing it. Too, we’ll investigate other structures in other fields: perhaps the symphony, the building, the collage, the commonplace book, the genre film, etc. in order to proffer alternative structures for or theories of how a thing is made and held together.
Writing assignments will be either short and generative/creative, or longer and critical/craft-oriented, suggested by the work of the writers we’re reading. Writers will be asked to consider (or conceive of, or reconsider, or reconceive, as necessary) their own collection and connections within their own work. The expectation is that you will leave the class with a stronger structural plan or sense of the book project you’re working on in whichever genre and a sense—however temporary—of direction for your project along with a method—however bizarre or arbitrary—that will provide the structure necessary to push forward.
Crucially, this course will ask you to consider some macro-level concerns to your work. Though this is not a workshop, you’ll each be asked to read and comment on threads and questions that move through a larger body of work by at least two of your peers.
This course will examine the poetic line broadly understood as the stuff between the poem’s turns. In verse forms those turns might occur where we would expect to find them, namely at the moment where a line of text breaks away from its continuation in standard prose formatting, but they may also occur elsewhere. To trace these expected turns and their elsewheres we’ll read deeply into the work of a handful of poets likely to include Emily Dickinson, Paul Celan, Joanne Kyger, Hoa Nguyen, Fred Moten, Alice Notley, and Akilah Oliver. Considering several books by each poet, we will practice a comparative reading strategy by considering a small selection of pages from each author in tandem every week. We will consider these texts against our own critical readings of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax and James Logenbach’s The Art of the Line. Students will use these readings, along with periodic one-on-one consultations with the instructor, to develop a semester-long writing practice tailored to their individual needs.
Cartographies of Desire: Making Meaning of Latin@ Texts and Textualities
Cartographies of Desire is a course that will map the terrains of Latin@ texts and textualities and use that map, following Toni Morrison, to create “space for discovery intellectual adventure, and close exploration… without the mandate for conquest” (265). As we interrogate and write these works, we will draw from a range of authors and theorists, including Felicia Luna Lemus, Helena María Viramontes, Catriona Rueda Esquibel, and Roy Pérez and a wide variety of genres and expressive forms to chart how creative cultural productions make manifest desire across a variety of terrains. How is desire imagined, manufactured, read, and understood in visual images, music, texts, and textualities?
This course is innovative for its interdisciplinary approach to reading, writing, and analysis. It will be jointly taught by a rhetorical scholar and a creative writer: students will have the opportunity to participate in a studio workshop with Professor Muñoz and have exposure to literatures of critical and cultural theories with Professor Licona.
Form: A primer, with exercises
This reading and sandbox course looks at the way that form functions in writing. Though nominally a nonfiction course, most of our readings will be in nonfiction, though we’ll also spend time reading fiction and poetry that employ overt formal elements. Of particular interest are how writers employ received forms like the outline or the index or fast food comment cards or the detective novel, the academic essay, the dissertation, the craigslist ad, the review, and so forth. We’ll also look at the use of artificial constraints such as those algorithms employed by Oulipian writers, and the borrowing of formal elements or ideas from science or mathematics and how they can shape and pressurize a text.
How does an essay, story, poem, or novel accept and handle these external pressures? How do constraints generate energy? At what point do internal pressures—those that the writing itself suggests or tends toward—work against, outweigh, or overwhelm the pressures applied by an external form? When does a text jump the guardrails, and is that always a bad thing?
Expect to read and talk about a book a week augmented with shorter critical and creative pieces, some focusing on specific aspects of craft. Though we’ll talk about (and work to derange a bit) your own artistic practices, this class is read and think and take an opportunity to try new stuff and start new projects, not necessarily to finish and finely hone work (which is the domain of workshop).
Plot and Its discontents
Plot: Is it an alien creature that swoops in to wrench and sever your story to bits? Is it the antidote to sleep? Is it just a fancy word for story and structure jammed together, easier to pronounce than strucstory? In this class, we’ll read novels that are interesting, confrontational, or just purely accomplished in the way they unwind a story. Although our primary mission will be to analyze overall structure, we’ll take time to consider sentence and scene—a revealing microcosm not to be severed from the whole. My hope is that the semester’s readings and conversations will help us “see” plot and story structure more clearly, loosen up preconceptions, and foster more confident wrangles with plot in future writing. Critical and creative exercises will be assigned in moderation.
A wider realism: The theory and practice of speculative writing
In her recent acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke of “the realists of a larger reality.” She was speaking of a wider realism, of what we might also call speculative writing or speculative fiction. H.G. Wells called it scientific romance. Pulp magazine editor Hugo Gernsback—the man most responsible for ghettoizing the genre—called it scientification. (And his own writing was just as awful as that term might suggest). Many just call it SF. Only the naïve call it sci-fi. The contemporary British writer Brian Aldiss prefers the term metaphorical realism. These names matter, as do genre definitions (even as we might undo them) because these are ways of mapping writerly and readerly horizons of expectations (even as we might complicate them).
This is a multi-genre course in the theory and practice of speculative writing. I teach my craft courses more akin to readings classes—closer to literature seminars—even as I want technique to be foregrounded in discussion and in product for the MFA students. And this is in some ways a pedagogically impossible class: Chances are, you are coming to “science fiction” without a historical and theoretical context for this capacious and contentious genre. So I will try to provide that to the extent possible. At the same time, we will be working on responses to the work that push your craft. History, theory, craft. That’s a lot. A genre whose roots begin, some say, in ancient tales or, at least, fantastical travel narratives. Or that begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or with Verne and H.G. Wells. Or…
It’s a complicated story. As we grapple with historicizing the genre, we are necessarily grappling with how to understand what its readers have traditionally valued: premise (or novum); world-building; sense of wonder or varieties of the sublime and grotesque; scientific accuracy or, at least, logical extrapolation; and what critic Darko Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement.” This is in contrast to mainstream realism’s focus on, say, characterization/psychological complexity and verisimilitude.
In this course we will focus on what I call a unitary reading experience that unites as best as possible the values of these two genres. This is work that Orson Scott Card has called—and it’s not a compliment—“li fi.” The reading list will include Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood and other writers you probably don’t know, such as Pamela Zoline, Carol Emshwiller and Brian Aldiss. We’ll read at least one book of poetry—Swedish Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson’s space epic Ariana—and a selection of nonfiction writing that engages with varieties of the future, including the dark essayistic speculations of Loren Eiseley and the crisp, engaging journalism of Joel Garreau.
Throughout, we will be reading criticism and theory to contextualize the genre and its complications—and reading in such a way that, I trust, your own work in the field becomes enriched intellectually and creatively.
Your own work? Among other things, you’ll be asked to produce several microfictions taking on the points-of-view of characters or objects in the stories that we read. You will also write either a suite of poems that explore technology, time and the body or an essay/article about the same. You will do some kind of critical assignment, to be determined. Doctoral students, who are welcome to take the course, will produce a major seminar paper. All this work must be produced with an eye toward presentation and publication. The writing assignments are not set in stone yet so I'm looking forward to talking with students to produce writing assignments that are most generative and beneficial to you.
What do we mean when we call fiction “political”? What are such works subjecting to scrutiny (and how are the works themselves, conversely, under scrutiny)? Do we negate the relevance and utility of such work if we claim that all fiction is “political”? What is the risk in producing work that openly obliges us to engage with “political” questions? In what ways might our chosen subjects explore complex ethical questions about power and representation? A thematic course, our reading list will consider works that make explicit their mission to restore historical absences (Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, Helena María Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them), to wrestle with shifting contemporary ideas of identity (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah), or to offer perspectives on how desire is negotiated (Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher). A short critical essay will be required, as well as some creative work that engages these questions.
Writing through (public) feelings
The lyric legacy is stitched through with debates about the relationship between poetry and emotion: from Wordsworth’s proclamation that poetry is “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling” to a recent AWP panel on sentiment “Hot/Not.” We will pick up those debates by looking at the work of a group of scholars who study the use of emotion in literature in the same way others have traced power relations in order to expose and reveal contemporary dynamics around class, race, gender, and national identity. Working under a concept of Public Feelings, these theorists suggest that feelings can be both public as well as private, political as well as personal. In this seminar, we will study the work of a diverse group of writers and thinkers including Anne Carson, Anne Boyer, Claudia Rankine, Fred Moten, CD Wright, Ann Cvetkovich, and Lauren Berlant, among others, whose work explores expressions of loss, love, nostalgia, trauma, patriotism, precarity, depression and optimism. While the questions we raise and issues we discuss will be rooted in poetry, our findings will be relevant to those writing in and beyond a variety of genres. Through readings, discussions, critical/creative assignments, and reflections, we will consider: How we approach issues of sentimentality and sincerity? What if anything do feelings measure? What are the differences between public and private feelings?
Poetics of love, loss, & desire
In this course, we will study poetic essays (Anne Carson, Hilton Als, Roland Barthes, Adam Phillips) as well as some cross-genre works of poetry and fiction (Maggie Nelson, Karen Green, Diane Williams), which flirt with hybridity, ekphrasis, and collaboration. Our goal will be to use Eros the Bittersweet (Anne Carson’s critical work on the figure of Eros in Ancient Greek literature) as a kind of foundation, on which we will elaborate a poetics of love, loss, and desire—through study of the subsequent texts, with the intention that those works will diverge from, complicate, and perhaps undermine our assumptions about Eros and writing. Students will write a single, final work in the genre of their choice by semester’s end—in addition to writing weekly responses to readings.
New wine in old bottles
This craft class borrows its name from Angela Carter’s moniker for new fairy tales, and is dedicated to the art of retelling — also sometimes known as “same language translation.” This class is suitable for writers of all sorts, along the fabled spectrum of realism to fabulism. The class will focus, via literary examples (along with some examples from visual art and film) on improving your dexterity in a very old tradition that thrives around the globe in diverse and new variations today. We will begin by accepting, for the purposes of this class, that “The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales,” as Walter Benjamin famously wrote.
Our primary texts include mainly old source tales — from which you’ll be working directly as writers — and some critical works. Titles include Max Luthi’s Fairy Tale as Art Form and Portrait of Man [sic], Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Karen Armstrong’s A Brief History of Myth, Maria Tatar’s The Grimm Reader, Maria Tatar’s The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, Arab Folktales, Russian Fairy Tales, The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, Japanese Tales, a collection of myths or fairy tales from the culture of your selection, and other individual examples of scholarship and old folklore, along with a handful of 21st century poems, short stories, and essays. We will also read Willy Vlautin’s The Free (a post-Iraq, working class realist novel with a science fiction, dystopian love story woven throughout – Willy Vlautin reads at the Poetry Center on January 29, 2014). This book will serve as inspiration early on in the class for where this fairy-tale path might take you in a longer project someday.
You will write brief critical and creative responses to readings and select tales from among assigned readings for your own retellings. This is a multi-genre class though our primary readings are prose volumes – poets, nonfiction writers, playwrights, novelists, story writers, all welcome here.
Memoir as culture-making
This nonfiction craft seminar will explore the memoir, major and innovative works in the genre, including some that trouble the definition of memoir. The reading list will present various conventions and inventions (in terms of voice, form, development, and the problem of the “I”) available to literary nonfiction writers with the goal of increasing each writer’s sense of the range of possibility for working in memoir. The reading list skews away from memoir as self-making towards a broadened sense of the task, the memoir as culture-making. We will read works that interrogate the self within a cultural context, books that tap memory, imagination and research in an ongoing encounter with becoming that engages with history, politics, religion, place, art and cultural identity. Students will write brief weekly response papers or stylistic imitations. A final project will be one longer work (essay, memoir, short story, poem sequence or hybrid piece). Each student will make a presentation addressing craft elements in and critical responses to one of the assigned books.
In this seminar we will delve into the relationship between the lyric tradition and the use of autobiographical material engaging in a variety of historic moments and important debates. We will start by considering William Wordsworth’s claim that poetry represents “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” in light of the work of the Romantics. Then we will look at T.S. Elliot’s counter that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion.” We’ll study the role subjectivity plays in movements as diverse as Surrealism, “Personism” and Confessional poetry, among others. We’ll test the relationship between the subjective lyric and political engagement, between individual experience and larger dynamics. We will read about the science, psychology, and philosophy of the self. Most importantly, we will analyze contemporary poetry and poetics statements by writers such as Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, and Carmen Giménez Smith (to name just a few) in order to understand how they make use of the autobiographical. Naturally, we will discuss how issues of gender, race, and class influence these works as well as their reception. While the questions we raise and issues we discuss will be rooted in poetry, our findings will be relevant to those writing in and beyond a variety of genres. Over the course of the semester students will produce several creative and critical responses to our readings as well as a culminating book review, panel presentation, and/or interview that engages with the debates and discussions taken up in this class.
Literature of social justice
This is a course in the study of a highly selective sampling of the literature of social justice. We will discuss the historical circumstances surrounding each of the readings – students will be asked to research and give oral presentations on that history. We will also discuss the rhetorical devices that the speaker / writer / director uses. We will pay particular attention to the ongoing, ever-present discussion over the relationship between literature, art, and politics. Is the creation and study of beauty an inherently radical and subversive act? To express the question in terms of brick and mortar, does a museum exist to cultivate the seeds of revolution, or does it exist as a means of defusing the power of art and turning it into mere decoration? Is there such a thing as “mere” decoration? What is the relationship between craft and politics / personal philosophy?
Students will be asked to design or participate as a volunteer in a social justice project outside the Creative Writing Program curriculum. I recognize the burden graduate school places on students. But conceiving and/or participating in, even in a limited way, the challenges and rewards of activism is an important aspect of the course – a bit of “practicum” integrated with and, I hope, informed by theory. I will work with students in designing projects that dovetail with and reinforce existing interests, and that are most likely to provide research background and experience contributing to their thesis and creative projects. We may also meet less frequently (e.g., every other week) by way of allowing time to identify and pursue these interests. Projects or volunteer work could be with organizations as varied as the Center for Creative Photography, the Sky Island Alliance, the Audubon Society, Primavera, the Community Food Bank, Casa Mariposa, the Poetry Center… Students will generate approximately six short (1-3 pp.) critical papers, and one longer writing project (poetry, prose, or fiction) inspired by and rooted in their activism and/or personal philosophies.
Brevity, Economy, and Lush Life
This craft seminar is still under construction. It is most likely that we’ll focus on very short prose forms (prose poetry, micro-fiction, short essays), reading examples of these forms and considering their attributes. Students will be asked to write short prose pieces and assemble selected pieces into a short collection. My hope is that we can consider two primary questions: the relationship between economy and “lush life” and between an individual piece and a larger idea.
Writing In the Contact Zone
Some say translation is the closest reading we can do and also the most violent treatment a text can suffer. This multi-genre craft course will explore literary translation as a concept and as a creative practice. Students are encouraged to enroll regardless of second language competency. We will read broadly from contemporary and canonical short fiction and poetry in translation, we will compare and evaluate various English translations of the same text, and we will sample some key texts in translation theory and practice. We will consider the values of analogous writing techniques across languages and, where no match is possible, we will imagine new compensating effects. We will consider, too, what might be the unique role of translation within a creative writing program, how translators who are themselves authors first can imagine translation broadly and boldly. Framing these technical concerns will be our ongoing and open-ended exploration of the ethics of writing in the “contact zone,” the place where communities, languages, and texts reveal their interdependencies. Students will be free to design their own writing experiences, ranging from taking on a significant single project in literary translation to using translation techniques to discover new possibilities in their own English language texts.
Research methods for creative writers: The ethos and eros of organized curiosity
This craft seminar will introduce students across genres to a variety of research approaches and craft applications--including archival work (textual and visual), museum visits, "quirky research moves," site visit note-taking, research attributions/citations in creative work, varieties of interviewing (including shadowing sources in the field), and seamless multi-source historical scene reconstruction--and provide a reboot on foundational techniques such as compiling an annotated bibliography, summarizing/paraphrasing, sophisticated online searching and balancing scholarly sources with popular ones. But this isn't a how-to course (well, it is)...it's a class meant to instill a respect and passion for a research ethos, an ethos that can lift your writing into wider scales of engagement. The point is: Your life is not your own. It belongs to many stories, and this is a class that will help you discover those stories via research. Research like this is a skill, but it is also an attitude. We'll cultivate both. Practically speaking, the course will strike a balance between research assignments that partake in this year's Convergences theme of "The Body," before opening up to directed work that will focus on your own research subjects. There will be a lot of one-on-one conferencing as we shape research strategies for your writing, and the course will be demanding. We will read examples of research-saturated work and we will absolutely take as a given that respect for verifiable accuracy is foundational.
Robert Duncan, in his correspondence with Denise Levertov, responded to the declamatory strain of her anti-war poetry by stating, “the poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it,” and he asked, “Is it a disease of our generation that we offer symptoms and diagnoses of what we are in the place of imaginations and creations of what we are?” Duncan and Levertov carried on their correspondence during the Vietnam War era. How does the contemporary American poet, situated as she is at a node of global power and writing well after various stages of our culture wars, imagine the intersection of the personal and the public? How does she, writing after a complex poetic tradition that interrogates the viability of the lyric subject, imagine the contours of her subjectivity and of the public as such, let alone imagine the terms of public discourse and of poetry's interventions in that discourse? We will examine contemporary critical studies of the Levertov/Duncan polemic. We will also extend the two poets' debate by reading pairs of contemporary poets and contemporary poetry anthologies that approach the challenges of public address and political poetry through divergent means.
This course is cross-listed with the Visual Art department and will be co-taught by Professor Karen Zimmerman. At its core this is will be an experimental, hands-on course fusing the art of poetry writing and printmaking. MFA students in poetry and the visual arts will develop both writing and printing projects, and discover new approaches to composition, typography, and the materials of writing, making, and printing. We will meet Mondays at the Book Art & Letter Press Lab (Mabel & Fremont).
The secret life of puppets
Dolls and puppets have such weird power - they can be comforting, childlike, malevolent, blank. Appearing in ritual and art across cultures and ages, they call upon us to participate in a world where carbon-based “life forms” may not be the highest. Put a doll or a puppet at the center of your new story or poem and see just what happens. Borrowing this course title from Victoria Nelson’s book The Secret Life of Puppets (excerpts of which we will read), this class will consider narratives featuring dolls and puppets. Selected examples include Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, Kathryn Davis’s Duplex, Rilke’s puppet-angels, and the film Pan's Labyrinth, along with critical readings by Marina Warner, Gilles Deleuze, Kenneth Gross, and others. Your writing will be based on dolls and puppets you and your classmates acquire in Tucson’s thrift shops, and we will be selling the dolls and puppets on Etsy (with copies of your poems, stories, and essays as gifts to the buyers) to raise money for a local literacy group.
This course takes the collection as its subject. Or: this course takes collection as an act as its subject. The collection—of essays, of stories, and less so of poems—sometimes gets a raw deal and is ignored (certainly, this is often the case commercially) in favor of the memoir, the novel, the book-length essay or nonfiction project. Perhaps this is because in an era of disintegration, readers favor the artifice of seeming wholeness. However, a good collection isn’t just a random assembly of component parts, whatever you wrote over the course of five years chucked in a binding—it’s structured and patterned and woven (choose whatever metaphor you like), that is, if it’s a true collection and not just a haphazard yoking together of unlikes—in other words, a good collection offers the pleasures of wholeness that the other, more obviously commercial Big Projects often do. This semester we will study and venerate various sorts of collections, paying particular attention to the ways in which they are shapely, how the individual pieces echo or connect to each other and suggest structures to readers. We will look at roughly a dozen collections, mostly though not exclusively nonfiction, and mostly though not exclusively contemporary, and discuss how they work, how they’re organized, structured, shaped. We’ll get the chance to talk with a couple contemporary writers whose work we are reading, too, and query them about their collecting strategies.
We’ll discuss philosophies of shaping and collecting, and think about the act of collecting particularly as it relates to the book (in whatever shape the book might appear). I imagine this course as being useful across genre (and perhaps as a collection point for all three genres). Considerations of structure bridge and connect genres. We will draw inspiration from the ways that poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers collect and order a book, and use them to suggest ways of filling out our own nascent or in-progress books. Sometimes, we find that imposing or finding a structure or order in a book suggests essays or poems or what have you that have yet to be written. In this way, conceiving of a collection’s structure can lead to filling and finishing it.
Writing assignments will be either short and generative/creative, or longer and critical/craft-oriented, suggested by the work of the writers we’re reading. Writers will be asked to consider (or conceive of, or reconsider, or reconceive, as necessary) their own collection and connections within their own work. The expectation is that you will leave the class with a stronger structural plan or sense of the book project you’re working on in whichever genre and a sense—however temporary—of direction for your project along with a method—however bizarre or arbitrary—that will provide the structure necessary to push forward.
This course will also make use of the Hybrid Series readings in Fall 2013 (Maggie Nelson, Jenny Boully, Thalia Field, Lia Purpura) cosponsored by the Prose Series and the Poetry Center. We'll be reading collections by all four writers, and they will join us each for a class meeting.
Baudelaire wrote, “It is evident that rhetorics and prosodies are not arbitrarily invented tyrannies, but a collection of rules demanded by the very organization of the spiritual being, and never have prosodies and rhetorics kept originality from fully manifesting itself. The contrary, that is to say, that they have aided the flowering of originality, would be infinitely more true.”
Stravinsky wrote, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”
This craft seminar will focus on form in poetry with close scrutiny of the line, the sentence, the stanza. We will read into the varieties and histories of poetic form: oral tradition, sonnet, ode, elegy, villanelle, pantoum, sestina, syllabic verse, accentual-syllabic verse, blank verse, blues stanza, haiku, tanka and renga. We’ll end with a consideration of the prose poem as a locale where poetry meets the lyric essay. Texts will include: Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Form; Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music; Annie Finch, An Exaltation of Form; Phyllis Levin, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet; excerpts from The Kalevala, excerpts from Michael Benedikt’s The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, etc. Students will write a short weekly response paper or poem and create a final project (such as an essay, poem cycle, or performance piece).
The portrait of the artist: The writer as center
The risk involved in placing a writer at the center of any novel is considerable, from accusations of self-absorption to the potential for narrative insularity. Yet the payoffs are equally substantial, as writers taking on writers as central figures often open the doors to ruthless self-examination and moral equivocation. We’ll study the narrative strategies of a few books that take advantage of such characterization, with an eye on creating a set of questions for our own creative investigations under the same constraints. Texts may include Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Eileen Myles’s Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.
2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm Brothers’ Kinder und Hausmarchen (Children’s and Household Tales)—a book not intended for children, in that first inception. One of the Grimm Brothers was a poet; the other a scholar; as this hybrid being, together they perfected a form. (They collaborated for more than forty years on seven obsessively rewritten editions.) This class is dedicated to investigating their art and its aesthetic and ethical influence—and to creating new lines of flight for you as thinkers and artists, wherever you see yourselves along the fabled spectrum of realism to fabulism. Much is made of the interpretation of fairy tales, but their incredible techniques remain little discussed. An easily recognizable (yet little recognized) Grimm style has influenced and infused art all over the globe. This class will focus, via literary examples—along with some examples from visual art, film, and music—on Grimm techniques from around the globe in diverse variations. We will also consider fairy tales as a minoritarian art form.
For this class you will write brief critical and creative responses to scholarship and fiction; be guided through exercises based on very short traditional tales to produce new very short works of fiction; and select a tale from any tradition that means something to you, in order to work on one longer project. Our goal is that you will discover the rabbit hole already there for you in your work, and leave with some new directions to take under the influence of technical wonder.
We will read fiction (novels and short stories) from around the centuries, likely by Horace McCoy, Gaetan Soucy, Cesar Aira, Michel Houllebecq, Alissa Nutting, Vanessa Veselka, Michael Lee, Dubravka Ugresic, Thomas Bernhard, Willy Vlautin, Italo Calvino, John Cheever, Kelly Link, Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, Kevin Brockmeier, Jorge Luis Borges, Edgar Allen Poe, Deborah Eisenberg, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Naoko Awa, Lucy Corin, Robert Coover, and others; scholarship by Max Luthi, Maria Tatar, Jack Zipes, Vladmir Propp, and Marina Warner, among others; philosophy by Gilles Deleuze; selections from edited collections of including The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Mexican Folktales, Arab Folktales, Russian Fairy Tales, Chinese Fairy Tales and Ghost Stories, and others
The Interior Journey
This course will look at fiction and creative nonfiction (with poetry making guest appearances) in the rich mode of interior journey: spiritual, philosophical, metaphorical. Students will be encouraged to work on using reading and writing as a means to shaping and interacting with their particular understanding of the great existential questions: What is the relationship between destiny and free will? Does life inherently have meaning or must we create it, and if the latter, what are our means to that end? How does reading and writing figure in your relationship with God / Goddess / the gods and goddesses, concepts and words – with ample time and space given to atheists and agnostics?
As a literary form, the memoir began with an interior journey – St. Augustine’s Confessions, with which we will open the course. We’ll then travel through history, reading excerpts from the following reading list. We’ll pay particular attention to comparing / contrasting Walt Whitman (Democratic Vistas – the exterior / masculine journey?) and Emily Dickinson (selected poems – the interior / feminine journey?). This is a craft course, so our emphasis will consistently be on how we can apply lessons from the craft of these writers to our own work.
“Study War No More”: 21st Century poetry and poetics
Our course borrows its title from Robert Hass’ essay on violence and literature in his 2012 essay collection What Light Can Do. In another essay in the collection, on poetry in translation, Hass writes, “We are going to be hearing a lot about China in the next decade, about its economy, its foreign and environmental policies. It’s going to be the work of translation to give us glimpses – human glimpses – at what's going on.”
We will examine American poetry, and translations by American poets, working in the first decade of the century (plus a year or two) to see “what’s going on.” The purpose of our reading and discussions: to encourage clear images and clear thinking in your own book projects for publication in the 21st century’s second decade. What is the next new poetry? From whom and from what will it derive? Who are the most formidable and original American poets writing today? Who do contemporary poets choose to translate into English?
We will read new work by Maggie Nelson, D.A. Powell, Tsering Dhompa, and others, as well as translations by Anne Carson, Ilya Kominsky, Jean Valentine, and Donald Revell.
Writing the outsider
This seminar will focus on issues of representation and authenticity, examining the various strategies that writers employ in depicting characters who are outside the “normative” boundaries of American fiction, if not the subject position of the writer herself. How are characters “marked” and what questions must be negotiated when a writer tackles narratives not immediately aligned with personal experience? Texts may include William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Susan Straight’s Aquaboogie, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, as well as recent popular fiction, from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.
New York School poets & painters
In this course, we will investigate the crosspollination between the seminal poets of the New York School (Guest, Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler, & O’Hara) and the painters whom they influenced and who influenced the poets themselves (de Kooning, Pollock, Kline, Motherwell, Guston, Rivers, Frankenthaler, Newman, Twombly Rothko, and many others). We will also explore the so-called 2nd Generation of the NY School, especially Notley, Ceravalo, Waldman, Berrigan, Mayer, and Myles through Maggie Nelson’s book Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions; David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde; and Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome. Assignments will be a mixture of structured and improvised, collaborative and ekphrastic, verse and prose, critical and creative.
Crafting the technological / sublime
From writers of antiquity—Statius and Longinus—to philosophers of the 18th century—Burke and Kant—and on to the Romantic poets, painters, photographers, diorama builders, architects, nature writers, science-fiction novelists, and filmmakers, artists of all kinds have been trying to make sense of the ultimately inexpressible emotion of the sublime, what the historian David Nye says is the feeling that strikes us “dumb with amazement.” This amazement can arise from nature and it can arise, for some, from technology. We will spend the semester reading philosophy, history, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction (especially this)…looking at paintings, photographs, and films…then trekking to places such as the Grand Canyon, the Nevada Test Site, the Very Large Array, and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station as we read and write our way into a more nuanced understanding of the natural and technological sublime. We will ground our approach to the craft of expressing the sublime by understanding its history, its psychology, its social and aesthetic construction. We will keep journals, try our hands at different writing and visual modes, and engage in an exploration that is at once intellectual, creative, and physical. Some nonfiction writers we will read include John Muir, David Nye, J.G. Ballard, Jon Hersey, Ginger Strand, Rebecca Solnit and Tom Wolfe. Other writers and texts we may encounter include “2001,” Godfrey Reggio’s techno-nature film trilogy, ViewMaster reels, Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Exposition,” and samples from the pen of William Gibson. Please note that there will be several excursions for the class. I won’t require that you go to all of them, but we’ll set a number—four, say—and you’ll need to have some times open to accommodate those trips, most of which will be on the weekend.
The science, poetics and politics of plants
This craft seminar will look at a range of formal strategies (literary and photo-journalism, immersion journalism, memoir, meditative essay, biography, science writing, and bioacoustical musical composition) in exploring the science, poetics and politics of plants as a lens into our time and culture. We’ll start with some grounding in texts from a range of cultures and take off from there. This is a preliminary list that will need some winnowing before January, but it will give you a sense of type of reading we will do. While this list is driven by concern for content (human relationships with plants both wild and cultivated), as with all craft seminars, we will work to tease out craft devices that can inform your own writing. Seminar participants will write weekly assignments, conduct focused field work on a plant of their choosing using a multi-disciplinary approach, and write a final essay. The option is open for final projects in other forms, should you wish: video, graphic memoir, short story, poem sequence, or thesis chapter.
War and Peace
Tolstoy declared in War and Peace, Volume II, that his aim was to blur the line between fiction and history in order to get closer to the truth. Since that time, “the truth” has undergone interrogation and transformation, including its recent excoriation and nascent recovery.
We will investigate extremes (“war” and “peace”) of experience for an understanding of how the truth operates in poetry. On the one hand, we will read books that confront violence, aggression, and disjunction; as well, we will read poems that are shaped by silence, soul-speaking, and meditation. This includes writing that is, to some degree, at war with itself, as well as writing that comes from a peaceful heart. What about the quiet at the center of the proverbial storm?
We’ll examine poems by Paul Celan, Anna Ahkmatova, Fanny Howe, Jean Valentine, and many more poets, as well as prose writing by J.M. Coetzee, Vincent Van Gogh, and others. In our study of very specialized voices, we will also see what happens to the voice of the speaker in a long poem or extended monologue, as in the work of Carolyn Forché and Marguerite Duras.
Let us study each writer’s bearing toward classic notions of confessions, “admissions,” autobiography, and post-confessionals.
Are free association, connotation, and irony friends or enemies of the truth? Is there a future for the personal voice in poetry after postmodernism? Are extreme dictions—violent or peaceful—signatures of those whom we may conclude speak for our times?
These are some of my questions for our course. During the time of the semester, we will also discuss your questions.
The art of the short novel
This seminar in craft will require the close reading of many short novels, the creation of several novel ideas, the collaborative creation of an imaginary novel, and the drafting of key scenes modeled on scenes in the readings.
The study of fictional craft is a lifelong process, and we certainly cannot exhaust the subject in sixteen weeks. Instead of narrowing the scope of the class, I want to attempt a general look at fictional craft. We will read books and stories that fall under the categories of realism, modernism and post modernism. We will read craft essays, stories, and novels; students will write short papers and give presentations.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson
In this course, we will examine prose works in several genres by writers for whom poetry—arguably—is the primary genre. Through seven markedly distinct works—from “A Poet’s Novel” to an experimental memoir, prose poems and a treatise on the color blue to “An American Lyric” with photographs—we will explore what happens when poets shift from the line to the sentence, from the stanza to the paragraph, and from the verse poem to a more expansive prose text. Our weekly writing assignments—both critical and creative—will draw from the books under discussion, and each student will turn in a portfolio of 15-20 pages of new prose, consisting of individual prose pieces or a single, longer project. Texts will include Inferno by Eileen Myles, Don't Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, Humanimal by Bhanu Kapil, Prairie Style by C.S. Giscombe, The Line by Jennifer Moxley, Discipline by Dawn Lundy Martin, and Bluets by Maggie Nelson.
Collecting; or The Collection
This course takes the collection as its subject. The collection—of essays, of stories, and less so of poems—sometimes gets a raw deal and is ignored (certainly, this is often the case commercially) in favor of the memoir, the novel, the book-length essay or nonfiction project. We will venerate the collection. Just because a book is a collection doesn’t mean it should be unshapely, or that individual pieces don’t echo or connect to each other and suggest structures to readers. We will look at roughly a dozen collections, mostly though not exclusively nonfiction, and mostly though not exclusively contemporary, and discuss how they work, how they’re organized, structured, shaped.
We’ll discuss philosophies of shaping and collecting, and think about the act of collecting as it relates to the book. I imagine this course as being useful across genre (and perhaps as a collection point for all three genres), though since it’s a nonfiction craft course, our texts will be at least half nonfiction. Considerations of structure bridge and connect genres. We will draw inspiration from the ways that poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers collect and order a book, and use them to suggest ways of filling out our own nascent books. Sometimes, we find that imposing or finding a structure or order in a book suggests essays or poems or what have you that have yet to be written.
We’ll focus primarily on writers’ first books, and on criticism of these books and the ways in which the parts come together (or don’t, sometimes) to form a whole.
Writing assignments will be mostly generative and creative, suggested by the work of the writers we’re reading. Writers will be asked to consider (or conceive of, or reconsider, or reconceive, as necessary) their own collection and connections within their own work. The expectation is that students will leave the class with a stronger structural plan or sense of the book project they’re working on in whichever genre and a sense—however temporary—of direction for their project.
Place and Space
“It is useful to know where you are.”
“Exploration is a liturgy using the language of methodology.”
There is a fascinating strand in nonfiction writing that considers not only the places we live in but also the future of our species elsewhere—that is, “off planet,” as some say. This class will include with two classic works of American nature writing, Loren Eiseley’s The Invisible Pyramid and Chet Raymo’s The Soul of the Night. Both are grounded in actual places—both writers are terrific naturalists—but they also look up at the night sky and speculate on our impulse to explore. We’ll find a more optimistic view of exploration issues in Wyn Wachhorst’s The Dream of Space Flight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity. Even memoir writers such as M.G. Lord and Homer Hickham have weighed in on the question of our future (or lack of it) in outer space and what such an impulse does to the textures of our lives here on Earth. Along the way we’ll encounter stand-alone essays, critical essays and some pop-culture influences (the painter Chesley Bonestell, for example) and we’ll utilize craft-oriented criticism of these works, some ecocritical theory and even environmental history.
So the course will also cover a lot of terrain in terms of genre--how does a journalistic science writer such as Ferris approach his subject? How does humor play a role in science writing, as it does in Roach's work? How well does a New Journalism classic like The Right Stuff "hold up" after all these years? What about "literary" science writing in the work of Eiseley and Raymo--does their work remain both timely and timeless?
This class will grapple with one of the central questions of human existence (and how writers grapple with it): What is our primary nature? To seek, to explore? Or to settle, to make a home? The writers we will read ask these questions by looking up and looking around; that is, they write of the sky and of space exploration (crewed, robotic, astronomical) and they do so with their feet planted firmly on the Earth. Most, though perhaps not all, of the writers we’ll read seem to subscribe to the notion that you can’t get where you think you’re going unless you know where you are right now. And that knowing is manifold: It is personal, it is scientific, it is historical, it is environmental. Another way of putting all this might be: Does wanting to extend our impulse to explore beyond the confines of the Earth represent or embody who we are or is it is a form of Earth hatred, as Hannah Arendt suggests. Perhaps these are not "or" questions... The central tension here can be illustrated by two quotes. The poet Robert Frost says, famously, “Earth’s the right place for love, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” The rocket theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky claims, however, that “the Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” How writers of all stripes navigate these two poles of belief will be our concern. You need not have any prior knowledge of this kind of writing or prior interest in place writing or the night sky to benefit from the course. The craft insights will ramify. I trust the existential issues will too.