Teaching poetry in a CUNY classroom

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Before I became a professor, I was a tour-bus guide, museum receptionist, university secretary, Chinatown reading-series curator, and so on. But all during this time, what I really was, was a poet. I write poetry no matter what I do to earn a living.

Of course, being a professor is a very fortunate position for a poet — what with time for writing, health care, and, of course, scores of students who want to learn about poetry and how to write poetry, if only for an easy grade. Which it is not.

I recently realized that my colleagues who are literature scholars do not understand what the creative faculty does in class. So, I’ll begin with that classroom, which is more specifically a CUNY classroom.

First, we create a space, a community if you will, where the students feel comfortable writing material that will most likely issue from a very personal depth; also, where students feel comfortable critiquing one another in a way that is productive and straightforward but not mean-spirited. This is not easy. And with our students, there seem to be more issues (“My parents don’t want me to air dirty laundry”; “I’m gay but in my conservative religious community, I can’t come out”; “I choose to wear a niqab [full covering except for eyes and hands] but I don’t think any of you understand it isn’t about modesty”; “Does it count that I’ve written poetry in Russian?”). As poet-teacher in the CUNY system, we constantly listen in between the lines, so to speak.

Also, as a poet-teacher in the CUNY system, there are times when obstacles are less social than concrete. Everyone here has regularly had students who cannot make class because they must drive a parent to chemo every week; a relative has died overseas and they must go to the funeral; a partner is leaving for military service; a partner is incarcerated; he or she is homeless. Over my twenty-plus years, I am constantly learning what my students don’t know. And it is my pleasure.

Another part of our classroom work begins with other writer’s words. Aside from cultural literacy, published work can give our own students permission to move deeply into their own lives. Learning the craft of poetry (line breaks, point of view, etc.) deepens the experience for readers.

I once heard a student complain to the poet Marie Ponsot that she didn’t have time to write. Marie — who, aside from everything else, raised seven children on her own — replied, “Surely you have fifteen minutes.” I’ll never forget those words.

Here is a Marie Ponsot sonnet that I’ve used in class.


Heart, you bully, you punk, I’m wrecked, I’m shocked

stiff. You? you still try to rule the world — though

I’ve got you: identified, starving, locked

in a cage you will not leave alive, no

matter how you hate it, pound its walls,

& thrill its corridors with messages.

Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl

in your cell but I’m deaf to your rages,

your greed to go solo, your eloquent

threats of worse things you (knowing me) could do.

You scare me, bragging you’re a double agent

since jailers are prisoners’ prisoners too.

Think! Reform! Make us one. Join the rest of us,

and joy may come, and make its test of us.

Kimiko Hahn is distinguished professor of English at Queens College, The City University of New York, and president of the Poetry Society of America.

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