In Class With Professor Robert Krut of University of California, Santa Barbara
A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Robert Krut, Professor of the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
Read. Read a lot—read living poets, read classics (whatever that means to you), read what’s in between, read the people you love to read, read names you’ve never heard before, re-read poems you’ve written off, read recommendations people pass along, read your peers, read your teachers, read random selections, read from books you find in the library, read from books you notice at your local independent bookstore, read from great poetry sites like Verse Daily and Poem-a-Day and the Poetry Foundation, read from the piles of poems your teachers will share. This is, of course, not a new suggestion, and I suspect most teachers say the same thing, but it is one of the few pieces of advice that applies to all students (and we as teachers could use the reminder sometimes, as well). Each student is so unique that there are as many different bits of advice as there are people in a class, but you can’t go wrong with encouraging more, vast, reading.
And, also, always be open—open to new ideas, new voices, new styles, new suggestions. This doesn’t mean you will automatically infuse your own writing with these fresh elements, but listening, considering, and appreciating does at least keep you from becoming fossilized, which can happen at any age.
What poets are you teaching this semester?
I am very lucky this coming quarter in having an extremely small class—only five students—designed to help them develop large-scale senior projects in poetry. With that in mind, I am planning on tailoring the readings specifically to each student based on their writing, interests—I will be sharing work that will make a particular impact on each individual’s work. So, the readings will be fluid, and constantly changing. In general, though, my plan is a sort of three-tiered approach: to share poets who are out there, right now, creating incredible work (ready to go are recent poems by people like Danez Smith, Ada Limon, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Matt Hart, many more); poets considered “classics” that perhaps the students have read before, but with more of a student’s eye, not that of a poet (Dickinson, Whitman, and so forth), and finally, in an effort to connect with and share in the writing life with them even more, I always like to add a few poets that changed the way I wrote when I was in college, as well (Denis Johnson, Elizabeth Bishop, Michael S. Harper, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, among others). It is important to show that there are writers out there at this very moment, as we speak, creating moving, vital work. In addition, I find that reintroducing them to poets they may have read first in high school, or other college classes, can be revealing as they look at them through different eyes. Finally, while I would never share my own work with students, I do think there is value in sharing personal writing experiences, and process, with students, so you become more like peers than the traditional classroom teacher/student dynamic—sharing the poems that changed my life is a way of connecting, even a bit.
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
While each quarter, there are new poems and poets to read, and each quarter, there are new students with unique styles and vantage points, the one constant are the types of pitfalls over the years, or momentary stumbles, so to speak. I know I fell into some of these when I was a student, and I have witnessed them for as long as I have been teaching (since the late 90s).
The first is the student who comes to class fully committed to a particular style, and/or persona. They know how they want to write, they know who their heroes are, and often they know what they don’t want to be. I was certainly like this at times when I was in college, so I’m particularly sensitive to it now, and recognize it right away. Obviously, that’s no way to grow as a writer—it’s good to know what you like, but at any stage in your writing life (I try to remember this myself, as a teacher, as well), you certainly don’t want to shut yourself off to all of the myriad of worlds out there.
The sort-of flipside of this, naturally, are when students come in with very little faith in their abilities—I’ll bet all poetry teachers have had numerous students who walk into class on the first day to say “I’m not very good,” or “I don’t know what I’m doing,” or some variation. Workshops and discussions become tough as they willingly take every single note, often winding up in a state of suspended animation, or in a scrum of all the other voices in the room. Both of these examples can make for stagnant writing (and again, this can be true for us as teachers, as well), or students who don’t continue full, lifelong writing lives.
I try to lead the class somewhere through the middle (a “Middle Way,” to use a Buddhist term), somewhere between the two extremes. It is good to know to have the self-confidence to know who we are and what we aspire to, but we need to be open and humble enough to change; it is good to accept that we are always learning, but it is important to remember that we all have something to share and valid ideas at any stage. I have yet to have a single student who didn’t have something to add to the classroom—those additions just take on a wide variety of shapes.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
There are so many moments in teaching—in the best cases, of course—that can happen. When a student has been working hard on a piece and it finally comes into focus and reveals its final form, that’s an exhilarating feeling to experience through them. Or when a student stumbles onto something great and we look at each other with an expression of I don’t know where that came from but I think it might be something, and they have the spark for an incredible poem. Or when someone reads a new-to-them poet for the first time, and you see the start of a life-long love of that writer. These are all the moments that energize teaching—and not surprisingly, as a writer, these moments infuse our writing lives, as well. Watching a student feel the rush of “completing” a poem sends us, as teachers, back home to our notebooks or computers or typewriters with renewed vigor.
When I’m teaching, I think a lot about the teachers who have meant a lot to me over the years, which helps guide me and put me in touch with the earnest desire to share in the writing process with the students. And I’m always reminded of a great line from one of my favorite teachers/writers, Norman Dubie, from his book The Clouds of Magellan, where he wrote “Work with young writers—never for them” (italics added). In his classes, while he was a clear guide, he always spoke with us as equals, and was free with a compliment when warranted (and concrete suggestions when that was needed, as well)—we were together, writing and sharing ideas as a whole.
When teaching poetry, it is important to view the whole room as a community of peers, I think, with all of us at various points in our writing lives. Of course, the teacher guides the discussion, and is there for their experience and expertise, but it should always be from a place of sharing ideas, not sermonizing from some soapbox. There are a lot of clichéd ways of expressing this—teachers who would rather be called “facilitators” or “coaches,” or what-have-you, but in the end, that’s all just nomenclature—the best writing classes, in my experience as both a teacher and student, are ones where we are all in it together, and the teacher grows as much as their students.
Robert Krut is the author of three books: the recently released The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2019), which received the Codhill Poetry Award; This is the Ocean (Bona Fide Books, 2013), which won the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize; and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). His work has appeared widely in journals like Gulf Coast, The Cimarron Review, Blackbird, Passages North, Poetry Vinyl, The Mid-American Review, and many more.
He lives in Los Angeles, and teaches in the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Through UCSB, he also works extensively in community outreach, and has spoken on the topic at numerous national conferences, most recently at the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Prior to his current position, he taught at Georgia State University and Arizona State University.
In the coming year, he will be reading from The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire at venues across the country; more details can be found at www.robert-krut.com.