In Class With Professor Heather Christle, Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory College
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 Heather Christle, Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory College.
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
Heather Christle: The avoidance of pitfalls! I think it’s important to risk falling on your face, to move words in a way you’ve not done before, to summon up the energy and courage to risk writing words that frighten or surprise or perplex you. (Perhaps words that please you beyond reason.) I try to give new poets as many opportunities as they can to practice falling and finding themselves caught by tender hands–or taking wing!
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
There are a few I find myself repeating, but I’ll tell you about two in particular. First: to dig deeper into strangeness (their own and the world’s). I love getting to talk with poets about moments where their words seem to hum with some kind of beckoning intrigue, when I get to say, “Can you tell me more about that?” and then listen to them tell me some weird thought or incident or recently-acquired-bit-of-
What book of poetry/craft would you always recommend to new poets (and why)?
I’m hesitant to always do anything, but I can say that I repeatedly direct poets to this craft essay by Nuar Alsadir, which has all sorts of helpful ideas within it. I think, in a way, I want students to use it as an inoculation against writing for me (or for any “authority figure”). I believe I have a lot to teach, and that I can help create an atmosphere within which poems and poets can flourish, but poets in my classes have to write for themselves, have to guard against writing for my approval. In her essay, Alsadir says:
If […] you are preoccupied with how others see you—particularly how they see you through your work—you run the risk of believing you can only know your work through their perspective, determine its value by reading their knowledge. You’re then less likely to write what you feel compelled to express than what you imagine will win approval.
I want my teaching to help poets develop sustainable practices in their intertwined lives of reading and writing, to know that the classroom is only one site within a rich world, and to find unexpected points of permeability between their various modes of being. And I too keep feeling for those portals and connections; I may have a lot to teach, but I also have a lot to learn. This work we do is ongoing.
What is the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
It’s exciting to catch so many poems in the first days of their existence, like being invited to meet someone’s newborn baby. Who will they become? How can we tend to them? Look at their tiny hands!
Heather Christle is the author of four poetry collections: The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books), The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books), What Is Amazing (Wesleyan University Press), and Heliopause (Wesleyan University Press). Her first work of nonfiction, The Crying Book, was published in 2019 by Catapult in the US and Hanser in Germany. It is also being translated into Dutch, Korean, Spanish, and Turkish, and adapted for radio by the BBC. The Trees The Trees, which won the Believer Poetry Award, was adapted into a ballet in a collaboration between the composer Kyle Vegter and the choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams. It premiered in 2019 at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Christle’s poems have also appeared in The Believer, Granta, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, and Poetry. Before coming to Emory she taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Texas at Austin, and Wittenberg University. She has been a writer in residence and faculty member at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, and is a contributing editor at jubilat.