The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: We noticed a tension in this poem between the speaker and his students, as he struggles to convey his passion for Seamus Heaney to the bored students in the “purgatorial classroom.” What do you think is the most effective method for teaching literature and creative writing to students? How do you think poetry can be made engaging to students?
Adam Tavel: The tension in this poem arises from a question of relevance. The speaker—who is essentially me, a community college teacher—feels the weight of Heaney’s poems and political commentary, whereas the students simply don’t. I hope the poem succeeds in depicting these students as disengaged, but avoids condescension and judgment. I despise ageism and am increasingly alarmed at the cultural stereotyping of millennials. The summer school context is important, too, as it insinuates this cohort is populated with overachievers, repeaters, or part-time students trying not to fall behind.
Few community colleges in America offer degrees in literature and fewer still offer degrees in creative writing, so that Dead Poets Society stuff doesn’t really work. I’m not sure I believe in the transference of passion, either. When a good teacher connects with a promising student, that student usually has some spark within them that simply needs stoking. I can’t necessarily speak to the challenges found in a university creative writing classroom, but one of the major advantages of teaching in such a place is mutual interest. When a student takes a community college course merely to fulfill a degree requirement, it remains a constant struggle for educators to keep the content relevant and fresh. I find poems that reflect our changing America—either by expressing outrage at social injustice or poking fun at everyday stressors—usually resonate with students, especially if they are written by young poets. In the end, though, teachers would be wise to accept their limitations. We shouldn’t be so naïve to think our love of something can be passed like a race baton to someone else. I had plenty of brilliant math teachers, but I still hate geometry.
The central irony in my poem is that the speaker assumes a YouTube interview will make the lesson more exciting and it has the opposite effect. The students are justifiably bored with the intricacies of Irish politics because they’ve never been taught that history, so Heaney’s poems read within that context fail to present any deeper meaning for them. As such, the poem wrestles with the limitations of technology in the classroom, as well as the limitations of our so-called age of globalization.
RR: What made you want to write about a lecture on Seamus Heaney in particular? In what ways has Seamus Heaney influenced you and your writing?
AT: Heaney’s influence on my writing is immense. He’s one of my favorite poets. The few criticisms I’ve read of him are thinly-veiled snarls of jealousy. The only reasonable argument is that he occasionally suffered from sentimentality, which is a valid charge against every poet who writes about themselves, or their home, or their culture, or the people they love. I’ve gone on two deep Heaney binges in my life: once in graduate school and once in the months after his death in 2013, right when I was beginning to focus intently on traditional poetic forms. The qualities I most admire in Heaney’s poems are their mythologizing of personal experience, their tenacious interrogations of history, their moral yearning, and their unfaltering music. I’ve never pulled a bucket up empty from his well. My poem is more or less autobiographical, so his appearance in it is, as the old cliché goes, based on real life.
RR: The speaker seems concerned with how poetry fits into our 21st century world. He references YouTube and specifically notes how cell phones can be distracting to his poetry students. How would you characterize the role of poetry in 2016, as we are surrounded by diversions and digital entertainment?
AT: Let me go ahead and utter the obligatory platitude your question demands: cell phone addiction ain’t poetry. It may very well be the mortal enemy of the lyric impulse. Before we all yawn, though, I think this is an amazing time to be a poet or student of poetry. Some of the best literary journals are now online or have online components. Websites like those run by The Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets keep poetry accessible, diverse, and fun, despite the constant atrophy of poetry sections in our public libraries and big-box book retailers. The internet is largely to thank for the growth of indie and micro-presses, and social media allows like-minded poets to connect with each other, regardless of distance. The literary community is still coming to terms with the pesky issue of online submission fees, but I wish we all paused now and then to celebrate the reduced carbon footprint our art leaves because of these online portals. Some months ago, the director of a prestigious reading series told me she mines Twitter to spot new talent, and that she regularly books emerging poets so she can help them find an audience. I’m not wired for optimism, but I have a hard time spotting doom here. I don’t see Hulu or Netflix killing poetry anytime soon. There’s a time for entertainment and there’s a time for serious art, and we have always had those among us who are obsessed with the former and hostile to the latter. Sometimes we forget it was the noble citizens of Athens who sentenced Socrates to death.
My chief existential concern about the state of American poetry is this: what happens when a book of poems, or the poem itself, ceases to be an occasion and is reduced to another forgettable commodity in the marketplace?
RR: The diction of this poem indicates a highly educated, likely older, speaker. What made you want to write from this professor’s perspective, as opposed to that of the student? What does this point of view bring to the poem that a different narrator’s voice wouldn’t have expressed?
AT: That pathetic old fuddy-duddy is, as I hinted earlier, yours truly. Is Jacques Cousteau still regarded as a scientist? Do kids play kickball anymore? Can we pretend my gray whiskers are distinguished?
In all seriousness, though, I’ve written many persona poems over the years—half of the poems in my book Plash & Levitation are in other voices—but this particular piece arose from a personal experience. Poems about teaching are, admittedly, not very exciting, but I think whatever modest merits my poem has would be lost if the narrative unfurled from a student’s point of view. Perhaps one student would be resentful, another would be daydreaming, or some quiet soul in the back of the room would be genuinely engaged. I sought instead to comment on the collective experience, which is a task ideally suited for the person watching the watchers.
Regarding diction, aesthetically I belong in that motley camp of poets who don’t care if a poem sounds stranger than a conversation at the post office. I don’t aspire to haughtiness, or pretentiousness, or false formality, but the English language is a massive toolbox and I like to rummage around until I find the right tool. I often remind my students that English is larger than all of the romance languages combined. Equally important to me is making sure each poem honors its own speech act and doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. On my best days, I feel that none of my poems really sound the same, which pleases me. I appreciate that rich tradition from Whitman down through Williams celebrating American colloquialism, but I don’t think poets should have to sacrifice nuance or dumb things down so every aspect of a poem is nakedly transparent after a quick skim. Sometimes the right word is plain and common, other times it’s garish and bold. We shouldn’t let artificial assumptions about our audience compromise our voice or dictate the choices we make. I’m resistant to poems that sacrifice artfulness in an attempt to imitate stand-up comedy or gimmicky advertising. One can only coast so far on tone and cleverness.
RR: After completing your formal education, what inspired you to continue writing? How do you maintain motivation and structure outside of the classroom?
AT: My real writing life began after I completed my MFA. While many writers finish graduate school with a publishable manuscript, I left with embarrassingly few poems that satisfied me. Perhaps that is when my real creative hunger took over. I’ve tried to embody a writing practice that is as natural as breathing or eating a sandwich. I write with children bouncing around the house, in grocery store parking lots, on little breaks between the classes I teach…these stolen moments compress and focus my attention. I reject ritual or the privileging of writing time separated from the pressures of daily life. I encountered an interview with a young poet some years back who said he immersed himself in dense philosophical texts for 2-3 hours each day before he worked on a poem, and I couldn’t help but LOL. I find such behavior superstitious and self-indulgent. Increasingly, I write on my cell phone’s notepad, even though years ago I wrote everything longhand and later I wrote mostly on my laptop. I’ve found that I don’t care much about the medium as long as I can hammer out the words before they fade. I’m excited that my second book will publish soon and my third book manuscript has come close with a few publishers recently. I’ve been very fortunate when it comes to publishing. Coupled with that luck, though, is a self-imposed insistence that I listen to the constant scritch-scratch of each poem clawing to written, or revised, or stitched with others into a manuscript. The gnawing is always there.
“Seamus Heaney in Community College Summer School” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 4.1
Adam Tavel is the author of Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015), winner of the Permafrost Book Prize in Poetry, and The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, 2016). You can find him online at https://adamtavel.com/.