In Class With Professor Daniel Anderson, Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon
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 Daniel Anderson, Pushcart Prize winner and Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon.
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
Daniel Anderson: I think as beginning writers of poetry, we often assume that our readers will go to heroic lengths to understand what it is we are actually writing about in any given poem.
In my experience, there are a variety of reasons this happens, ranging from a belief that poetry should be “difficult” to the exasperating idea that a poem can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. The former strikes me as a misunderstanding on the novice poet’s part, the latter more of a defense mechanism. Either way, what results most of the time is a kind of poetry in which context is evasive, the narrator unidentifiable, and the emotional moment so buried and vague that readers must rely their own associative flights of imagination to come up with something (anything!) to respond to.
By now, I’ve gotten used to it, but early in my teaching career there were few classroom silences as awkward and squirm-inducing than that moment after a student reads a poem aloud and the class has nothing to say because not a single one of them knows what the poem is about. Granted, sometimes that poem is submitted by a slacker who wrote it five minutes before it was due. But it happens in the hands of well-meaning, smart, and thoughtful students, too.
Sounds so boring I know: Be concise. Make sense. Don’t compose your poem as if the onus is on your reader to figure out what the hell is happening. But this directive, in turn, acknowledges the far more important and terrifying labor of what it is we want a memorable poem to do: Say something true in clear, beautiful language that tampers with our emotional compass or challenges something we thought we already knew. That’s scary stuff for anyone who thinks they want to write a poem. Being obscure and incoherent on the page—anybody can do that. And there’s no shortage of those who do.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
More and more I find myself saying that good art seldom gives us good choices. It’s not enough for me to read a poem or a story or a play that denounces that same things that I myself denounce. That’s easy. The difficult thing is to write a poem in which we are asked to make some kind of sense of the small psychological, emotional, or political ambiguities we encounter in our lifetimes. “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden comes to mind for me as an example of this, as does Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.”
In an era so enflamed with anxiety and outrage, it’s easy for writers of all genres to just start in the end zone and spike the ball in the name of social justice. No art distinguishes itself by portraying or confronting the obvious. Like a lot of people, I’m seething mad at all we’re witnessing in the news and on social media, the direct and incontrovertible truth about the violence and systemic racism waged against our own citizens, and the subsequent brutality directed at those speaking out peacefully and legally for the basic human rights we should all enjoy. Then there is the ever-evolving totalitarian ideology of our president and those who enable him. Where does one even start? Or stop?
But it seems to me that you can’t take up the necessary and righteous cause of social justice and simultaneously forego the equally urgent work of interrogating the self. What is it that makes us flawed as individuals? What are our desires? What are our own, personal weaponized insecurities? What do we need to do better for the people we love and those we live with on a daily basis? These conflicts—these more molecular questions about how we treat others—are crucial to making this world a better place.
It’s not a choice: do one or the other. Write about the prevalent and readily identifiable injustices that plague us as one single race of people or write about the individualized and often private pain of being human. These two endeavors are interlocked eternally with one another. It stands to reason, along these same lines, that the darkness, pessimism, doubt, and distrust that fuel us as writers must, now and then, also be counterbalanced or offset or modulated by joy and laughter and wonder, too.
What book of poetry/craft would you always recommend to new poets (and why)?
The book that probably had the largest impact on me when I was in my twenties, and as a result the book I often suggest to students, is The Dyer’s Hand by W.H. Auden. Those essays spoke to me in the most accessible terms about what it means to be a writer and reader of literature. Auden’s range of learning, intimidating as it is, also sent a clear message to me that I had to step up my game considerably, and read more widely and deeply myself.
What is the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
The best thing for me when it comes to teaching is seeing the way the critical sensibilities of students are refined over the course of a term. Few things are as gratifying to me as when I’m in the room when a young writer finds the right language for an image or a thought in a poem. But this pleasure isn’t limited to the creative work. When I hear a student communicate with elegance and shrewdness and delicacy a point of critique that surely must be complicated for a classmate to hear in a workshop setting, I am reminded how lucky I am, and how lucky I have always been, to be able to earn a living talking about literature and craft with students who inevitably teach me, time and again, what having ideas and learning to articulate them looks like.
Daniel Anderson’s work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Yale Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, The Best American Poetry and Southwest Review among other places. His three books of poetry include The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel, Drunk in Sunlight, and January Rain. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon.
Felicity Sheehy's work appears in The New Republic, The Yale Review, Narrative, The Adroit Journal, Poet Lore, Blackbird, Shenandoah, Southern Indiana Review, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. She has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship to the Kenyon Review Writers' Workshop, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the Jane Martin Poetry Prize for U.K. residents under 30. In 2019, she was listed as one of Narrative's 30 below 30 writers.