In Class With Professor CM Burroughs, Columbia College Chicago
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 CM Burroughs, Associate Professor of Poetry at Columbia College Chicago.
What features do you believe define contemporary poetry today?
CM Burroughs: Thankfully, diversity is the most important feature of contemporary poetry. Over the last several decades, all ethnicities of writers have infiltrated a historically homogenous canon and incrementally enhanced what will become a more inclusive canon for readers and writers to come. Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” will not be one of the few poems by a writer of color taught in high school classrooms, as was the case for me. Brooks will be one of the many writers to represent the diversity vital to a wholistic comprehension of poetry reading and writing.
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
Students fall into the trap of writing without interrogating the urgencies of their subjects. It is important for a beginner to understand what is most urgent/vital/important for them to write about and to be factually clear about their subject. A beginner ought to be able to answer the question, “What is this poem about?” Second in importance is to discover how to communicate this urgent and clarified subject to a reader. This requires the poet step outside of herself to conceive the nudity with which a reader comes to the page and understand how to guide a reader through the poem. It’s very easy to write these instructions here, but the execution is extremely difficult and requires a great deal of study and practice. The divide between writer and reader can be a chasm if the writer does not understand what and how the poem needs to communicate to the reader. An easy analogy to understanding how to close this divide is driving from one destination to another. A person doesn’t simply climb into the car and instantly arrive to their destination by magic; there are clear steps, visual cues, instructions, etc., that allow the person to begin with the idea of a destination, excavate each detail that it takes to get there, and reach the destination.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
I tell my students that in order to write well they must also read well. I have many students who surprise me with how much and how often they read, pulling unassigned books out of their packs in class to share with peers. Every now and then my students introduce me to new poets, up-and-coming contemporary poets. It’s a wonderful exchange. These students become better writers because they understand more of what is possible in writing poetry. I believe it breeds a sense of adventure and imbues them with a desire to meet their contemporaries in literature, communicating through their own construction of verse. Reading, the act of it, does not come easy given the interwebs’ far-reaching influence. Societally, we’ve unintentionally trained ourselves and our attentions spans far from the energies it takes to consume short-form and long-form literature. We must train to read as we train for any marathon, becoming more skilled over time.
What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets?
I recommend Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, primarily because they are accessible texts, and both relay important foundational knowledge from which more complex knowledge can be built.
CM Burroughs is Associate Professor of Poetry at Columbia College Chicago. She is the author of two collections: The Vital System (Tupelo Press, 2012) and Master Suffering (Tupelo Press, 2021.) Burroughs has been awarded fellowships and grants from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Djerassi Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Cave Canem Foundation. She has received commissions from the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Warhol Museum to create poetry in response to art installations. Burroughs’ poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Poetry magazine, Cal