In Class With Professor Christopher Kennedy, Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University
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 Christopher Kennedy, Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University.
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
Christopher Kennedy: It’s common for beginners to either avoid reading poetry for fear of being overly influenced by what they read, or, at the other extreme, beginners often become too attached to a particular style of poetry, thinking it’s the only way to write a poem. I’m sure I was guilty of both extremes when I started out. It’s important to find that elusive thing called “your voice,” but it’s good to know as many other voices as you can find and to fashion your own voice out of those influences. It seems obvious as I type it out, but it wasn’t obvious to me when I started writing. Beginners are often trying to protect something “original” in their work that turns out to be cliched and uninteresting. It’s difficult to know that unless you read voraciously and know what’s already been done.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
I teach only graduate students these days, who are extremely talented and more than capable of finding their way without any advice from me, but one thing I harp on is economy. I‘m sure I sound like a perverse variation on the old game show Name that Tune for as many times as I emphasize that a line can be comprised of fewer words: “You wrote that line in seven words? I can write that line in four.” I don’t mean that a poem has to be short, just that it shouldn’t have anything extraneous in it. On the other hand, I stress getting as much on the page in early drafts as possible. I’m convinced it’s easier to cut than it is to add. The ghost of what’s cut is important as well in ways I can’t explain.
What is the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
I think of teaching as a dialogue. Many of the writers I assign they haven’t read, and they in turn mention writers to me that I may not know. I love that exchange and learn as much from my students than my students learn from me, maybe more. I have learned about countless writers and books I may not have known otherwise, and hopefully my students appreciate reading the writers I assign. Those conversations extend beyond the classroom, and I’ve developed strong connections to students over shared enthusiasms for particular books that have enriched my life and kept me connected to the larger literary community.
Christopher Kennedy is the author of Clues from the Animal Kingdom, Ennui Project, Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death (which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award in 2007), Trouble with the Machine, and Nietzsche’s Horse. His work has appeared in many print and on-line journals and magazines, including New York Tyrant, Ploughshares, and McSweeney’s. In 2011, he was awarded an NEA Fellowship for Poetry. He is a professor of English at Syracuse University where he directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing.