Making it Real: The Poetry Chapbook and the College Classroom
Gracias a la Vida que me ha dado tanto
me ha dado el sonido y el abedecedario
con él las palabras que pienso y declaro
madre amigo hermano y luz alumbrando,
la ruta del alma del que estoy amando.
“Gracias a la Vida”, Violeta Parra
Last fall, I experimented with a different kind of “final” project assignment for my senior level class on the poetry of Pablo Neruda. I gave students the choice of either writing a traditional literary analysis or creating a chapbook of original poems accompanied by a separate reflection on how they saw Neruda’s poetry engaging with their own. I assured them that I would not grade their poetry, but rather their prose statement on Neruda and their creativity.
In other courses I had asked students to write poems, but I had never asked for an entire chapbook. My hope was that after three months of reading and discussing poetry, my students would be inspired enough to write poems and own them through the process of creating an “artefact,” an object that they could share with others and preserve as a memento of their creative self. Because many of my students are working people with families, the idea of creating space for artistic self-expression seemed particularly worthwhile.
Apart from all the high falutin’ conventional objectives of an upper level literature course (critical thinking, yada yada), I wanted students to discover poetry, and see it as a potential extension of themselves, rather than something foreign, like uncomfortable orthopedic shoes forced upon them. The conventional lessons of a literature course would drop away, I thought, but what might endure longer would be pleasure and a sense of creative entitlement to poetry. So I risked it, and all of the students opted to write and create chapbooks.
Students were not convinced at first. I am struck by how college students, in general, tend to feel intimidated by poetry. It is something foreign, esoteric and forbidding, a locked box that they sometimes resent. But thanks to weeks and weeks of reading poetry, with varying degrees of success (and I blame myself for their missteps along the way because it was my responsibility to teach them well), and after writing two poems as assignments throughout the semester, my 20+ students went for it and prepared chapbooks.
Most students created genuine chapbooks. They went to the trouble of presenting their poems in an attractive and original “package.” For some, this meant a clean plastic presentation folder with colored paper and illustrations from the internet. For others, it was something considerably more complex that involved making, by hand or via Kinkos, little books with hand-painted illustrations or collages. In many cases, these chapbooks were breathtakingly beautiful. And clever as well. Katie, for example, designed an attractive chapbook that contained approving “blurbs” by reviewers, including a made-up quote by me stating that the collection was sensational.
But I don’t want to limit myself to the packaging of these poems. The poems themselves were fascinating windows into the diverse spirits of my students. I discovered that one of the quiet students was a young mother who was deeply fulfilled and excited about her newborn, and all that being a mother entailed. She was full of love and expectation for the future. Other students came into focus through their poems as edgy voices that had lived hard and passionately. There was rage and passion and survival in their poems. I was quite moved when one male student used his poetry to tell his father what he could not tell him in person, what his upbringing as a Latino would not allow him to share. (And what he said was that he loved him.) And there was gallantry and gratitude for love and travel and learning. Other students used irony and humor to explore the world and its contradictory meanings.
Teaching is not only about teaching content, it is also about teaching the value of self-expression. Creative projects such as having students write chapbooks of poems allow students to experience something new and pleasurable, something they can really take with them.
The only problem is getting all of the munchkins back to my office to pick up their projects! That’s still a work-in-progress.