In Class With Professor Michael Torres of the MFA Program at Minnesota State University Mankato
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 Michael Torres, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the MFA Program at Minnesota State University Mankato.
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
Michael Torres: Beginning writers have a difficult time translating how they feel into concrete and specific imagery that will help the reader recognize themselves or at least what’s going on in the poem. This was what I struggled with when I started writing. I have notebooks from back then—around 2005—and it’s all emotion in the abstract. It feels far, though I know, at that time, I was being more honest than I had ever been. Here’s a couple lines from an old notebook (also I liked to rhyme a lot): “The block feels the same even though years have passed. Remembering times of summer when we were out in a dash. Young love that faded too quick and was gone too fast. Memories of homies and evening that didn’t last…” I thought I was being very specific, admitting this truth.
Another pitfall is the idea of vague and abstract as a strength, as a way for the poem to be “open to interpretation.” I think it’s rooted in caution. The thinking is: if everything is open to a reader’s interpretation, everybody wins, right? That’s what I’ve heard from many of my introduction to creative writing students. When this happens in workshop discussion, I try to frame it like this: “Say you’re doing a reading and afterward an audience member tells you their interpretation of your poem and asks if it’s correct. If you, the writer, say ‘Yes, sure it can be that and anything else,’ it’s likely to frustrate that person.” If it can mean anything, it risks meaning nothing.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
“Tell me what this looks like.” This is one part passed-down advice (show don’t tell) and another part preference. I’m pulled-in to a poem with concrete imagery (and I tend to focus on tangible images in my own work), so that’s what I look for when I’m going over a poem.
What book of craft/poetry would you always recommend to new poets (and why)?
As far as poetry collections, it really depends on the student. I’ve given a student Rankine’s Citizen before. Another time, I gave a student Levine’s The Simple Truth. Each time it was because I believed the work would speak to that person, their writing, and or what they were going through.
I don’t have an always-recommend craft book yet. Maybe I haven’t been teaching long enough. That, or I think I shouldn’t have a go-to craft text. I fear the stasis that might create in me as a teacher. Currently though, I’m using Hoagland and Cosgrove’s The Art of Voice. With the exception of some content overlap, it’s an accessible book exploring the where, how, and why of our writing voices.
What poets are you teaching this semester?
Victoria Chang. Emily Yoon. Dustin Pearson. Paul Tran. Phillip Levine. A bunch of others as well. I’m not teaching any poetry collections this semester, but what I did in my graduate workshop is create an online discussion board so that students and I can upload recently published poems that move us. It’s our “Compendium of Very Contemporary Poetry.”
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
The community of it. The type of community that leads to trust and a space where we can joke or talk shit while still getting the work done. This usually takes several of the first weeks of the semester to get to and depends a lot on class cohesion. I think this desire for community comes from my graffiti background. As teenagers, me and the homies used to gather at my house, spend time sketching new graffiti pieces, show each other, and then talk about what looked cool and what we thought was whack. Essentially it was workshop. I want my classes to get there. It’s a lot of work, of course, because we don’t enter the semester knowing each other like that. But the payoff is great. Just this week in my grad workshop, for example, I had a student submit a poem and there was this line like “On the plane I saw the city beneath my feet,” and I smiled and was like, “No you didn’t,” suggesting that meant to say they were looking out a window. It was a great moment in the discussion because then the whole class started going back and forth about the logistics of that line versus its musicality and lyricism in proximity to the rest of the poem. I think the student ended up keeping the line as it was. I think the class may have changed my mind. I care about process over product but in a workshop we end up, inevitably, focusing on the product/poem. My hope is that a class community built on trust will counteract all that. If we have to discuss the poem as product, I want our energies and respect for each other to help create a space for possibility.
Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His debut collection of poems, An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press, 2020) was selected by Raquel Salas Rivera for the National Poetry Series and named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020. His honors include awards and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, VONA Voices, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center. Currently he’s an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit him at: michaeltorreswriter.com
Jose Hernandez Diaz
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is from Southern California. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Nation, Poetry and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Currently, he is an Associate Editor at Frontier and Guest Editor at Palette Poetry.