Post #24: Take this Poem, and Listen to It


Alan Heathcock, a writer I admire, recently wrote a fabulous short essay for NPR about reading a poem a day to quiet his mind and steady himself against the bustling life he (and we all) leads.

I listened to the audio version of Alan’s piece while waiting for the shower to warm up (it’s short) and it made me think of a similar practice I enact in my teaching life.

A few years ago, feeling that I wasn’t exposing my students to enough poetry, both because I wasn’t feeling terribly confident at teaching poetry and because I’m always feeling pressed for time in my work and find formal exploration of poetry incredibly time consuming, I began the practice of reading each class a poem before we started the day’s work.  I read them Billy Collins.  I read them Langston Hughes.  Robert Frost.  Carl Sandburg.  Emily Dickinson.  Major Jackson.  Alan Ginsberg.  Elizabeth Bishop.

We don’t discuss the day’s poem.  I don’t ask the students what they think it means.  In fact, there’s an unofficial no interpretation rule.  I ask for nothing from the students but their open ears.  Even half open will do.  After all, one of poetry’s great pleasures is its aural gifts and once you begin reading poems out loud, taking your time and savoring the language, you’ll soon begin asking yourself why you ever would read them any other way.

Once in a while, my students react to the poems.  One will nod appreciatively, another will give a small compliment to the author, or even rarer, to me as the reader.  But I don’t mind admitting that mostly they don’t respond at all.  I say the  poem title and the author’s name before reading and again when I finish, and then off we go into class, the poem quickly behind us.  When I first started doing this, I felt a little self conscious when I’d catch students staring off into space or scribbling in their notebooks or even scuttling past me to their seats after arriving tardy while I read.  But I quit worrying about that, tried to remember why I’d started reading them a poem a day in the first place.  For its simple pleasure.  For the reminder it gives about poetry’s immediate, often unexpected, joys.  In an environment where they’re constantly being pushed and scrutinized, urged to think deeply, it’s nice to get a break.  And I like reminding them, and myself, that poetry can provide that.  Even if we don’t fully understand what we just heard.

Post #6: Revision and the Clock

Things You Should Be Reading, Writing Advice

A writing teacher once told me that you know a piece is done when you can’t stand to look at it anymore.  For a long time, I thought that was about the best writing advice I’d ever heard; it distilled a lot of my own beliefs about revision to a luscious sound byte.  Though, as I’ve progressed in my own work, I’ve become less and less confident that it’s fully true.  I do still feel that the diligent and dedicated writer’s gut is a useful measure of a story’s relative “doneness,” but I’ve also started to see a broader, longer, and more methodical approach to revision creeping into my work.

Enter Alan Heathcock.

I met short story writer Alan Heathcock at this past summer’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont.  Full confession that I’d never heard of Alan before the conference, but after his reading in The Little Theater the second night “on the mountain,” as they say, Heathcock, constantly wearing a fedora, become one of many writers I made a mental note to learn more about.  Alan gave a craft class on Revision at Bread Loaf, much of which he covers in a great interview he gave to  Some of the ideas may be unappealing, mostly because they imply that you’re probably sending in your stories too green, but there’s a great deal of wisdom coming out of this guy’s mouth.  And you can tell he believes it.  Like, really believes it.

Check it out here:

Also recommended is Alan’s story collection Volt, which is garnering praise and earning well deserved rewards.  The collection took him 12 years to perfect and he talks about why in the interview; his approach to revision is a big part of it.  A sobering reminder here that we all work hard, but to get something truly “right” means you may just have to kill your clock.