Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing poet and professor Deborah Poe speak on a panel at AWP with five fellow women writers-professors-scholars. I wanted to interview Deborah for Assay, so that we might benefit from Poe’s creative process, writing, scholarship, and work as a creative writing professor. [Read my brief report for Brevity on that AWP2014 panel, “Another Voice in My Mouth: Persona in Poetry and Prose” with moderator and panelist Holly Wendt, and panelists Kathryn Henion, Claire Hero, Deborah Poe, and Virginia Shank.]
[Renée asks] Deborah, in your talk in the panel I mention above, you discussed researching and crafting your full-length poetry narrative Hélène. It’s an extraordinary poetic novella where a woman in a factory-convent uses her imagination to escape the confines of manufacturing silk in western France (in the 19th century) by pretending she is in China. Hélène imagines she is elsewhere. Poetry can take us elsewhere, but it can also teach us to live right here. In Hélène, your heroine finds a level of personal freedom through imagery. I’m packing so much into this question, forgive me, but here’s a quote from Hélène:
In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater
power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.
Might you talk more about what this quote means to Hélène, to you? How might the dead function like poetry?
[Deborah answers] It’s funny that you bring up that talk, because I just devoted an entire class to research, empathy, and character in my flash fiction course in the Fall 2016 term. I gave the same talk, adapted a bit for fiction. After giving the talk, I then had them do their own research. We watched a video on the White Helmets in Syria as well as Before the Flood (Stevens 2016)—the new film about climate change narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Using that research and taking the details they found most significant, they then wrote drafts. Some beautiful work emerged.
For Hélène, I want to include the entire page from the book, which will help me answer your question and contextualize for readers.
I find no portraits of kings, of high officials, men.
In old designs I make out the eyes—more animal in shape—
not men. Powers. Presence in an abstract way
In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.
Hélène has had exposure to both French and Chinese art and has had time to register their differences. (I imagined this access through books within communal areas like the office of the factory convent in which she works.) She finds the lack of portraits of kings and high officials in Chinese art emblematic and a differentiating factor between east and west. In the east, as she perceives it, there is not only more of a focus on the natural world but less of a focus on ego.
I see Hélène as deeply observant and intelligent. She is not limited in her thinking and imagination, despite the abysmal working conditions within which she finds herself. I wanted this book to hold both east and west in it without exoticizing the east.
I suppose if we think about this particular passage you cited, the dead function like poetry in that poetry is language. The living language has power. Through the patterns of this living language, there is order, regularity, organization, and experience reflected back to us in script and art.
[Renée asks] You have a unit in your creative writing courses called “Revisions and Preoccupations.” Could you tell us about that unit and why you developed it?
[Deborah answers] I provide many opportunities for revision, and consideration of rewriting, throughout the term. But having such a unit in my creative writing courses allows me to underline the importance of revisiting and revising work.
If you’re a creative writing teacher, you undoubtedly find a significant number of students that resist revision—some quite fiercely. “Revisions and Preoccupations” gives us a set aside time to look at revision strategies—whatever the genre—and to consider ways to simplify tackling work again with the same kind of editorial eye and engaged reading that students utilize in workshopping their peers and in discussing published authors.
In poetry, for example, I provide a handout which begins with quotes from acclaimed authors about their own revision process. Then I have various questions for elements of poetic craft for them to help guide rewrites. With point of view, for instance, I ask students if they have tried the poem in first or third person if it’s written in second, or second if they write a lot of their work in third person. Questions like these urge students not to just copy edit their work but to really think about how to make a piece the best piece it can be.
“Preoccupations” is related to “Revisions.” Perusing their work over the semester, students begin to recognize what themes or concepts they return to again and again. That in itself is helpful and often compelling. But recognizing their preoccupations can also provide a lens through which to think about revision. For example, J— realizes in looking through her semester’s collection of writing that she writes a lot of poems with speakers yearning to return home. Using that yearning to return home as a lens through which to study a particular draft helps her think about how she can enrich the description in her piece about the speaker’s beautiful island home, or what is truly at stake in a sense of loss or displacement and if what’s at stake is coming through, or about how changing diction might better serve the tone or mood of the piece.
[Renée asks] In what ways do these “Revisions and Preoccupations” impact your own writing practice?
[Deborah answers] I am highly creative and analytical and am fairly systematic in my approach to revision. I use very similar ones myself in the rewriting phase to the poetry strategies I mention above.
[Renée asks] Would you name a teacher who had a particular impact on your writing practice and your teaching methods? Why was that influence unique? How do you bring that influence into how you teach in your creative writing classrooms?
[Deborah answers] Dr. Bruce Beasley, my professor at Western Washington University during my first two years of graduate school, is the best teacher I ever had. He always took the time with my work. That enabled him to provide suggestions for readings and tools to deepen my particular strengths and challenge my weaknesses. He did not try to impose his own aesthetic on me either. (I am vehemently opposed to teaching that does so.) I endeavor to bring that openness to work, to take the time with students’ work for thoughtful feedback, and to suggest writers they read whenever I think it fitting.
Thank you for your time and answers and body of work! We so appreciate you visiting Assay’s “In the Classroom” series.
Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections keep (forthcoming from Dusie Press), the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats), Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). Associate professor of English at Pace University, Pleasantville, Deborah directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit. She has also taught at Western Washington University, Binghamton University, SUNY, the Port Townsend Writer’s Workshop, Richard Hugo House, and Casa Libre en La Solana in Tucson. Deborah served as Distinguished Visiting Writer for Seattle University during Winter Term 2016.