In Class with Professor José Angel Araguz from Suffolk 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 José Angel Araguz, Assistant Professor of English at Suffolk University.
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
José Angel Araguz: Novelist and poet, Chuck Wachtel, comes immediately to mind. He was the first model I had of a teacher of writing rather than just a writer who teaches. He had a deft way of making complex things accessible to young writers and also emphasized how much teaching is performance, a dynamic conversation and building experience. Conceptually, I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed early on. Not creative writing, but his breakdown of the “banking” method of traditional teaching and his emphasis of more communal discourse has always stayed with me. I’m currently reading bell hooks’ essays on teaching. I’m realizing as I answer this that more than strict creative writing influence, my pedagogy might stem and be influenced by things outside of creative writing. CW is such an intimate and personal endeavor, yet placing it in the social context of the classroom places us—educator and students—in the position to have some nuanced and dynamic conversations that honor the intersections such a context brings together.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
Watch your heart and, to a lesser extent, your wallet. Your heart in that, as much as it sounds cliché, it is important to make time for your writing, to dive into it and be faithful about your obsessions and curiosities, to make sure you keep doing it for the love of writing. No one can teach you how to be more you, on or off the page. If you don’t write it, it won’t get written; and if you don’t believe in it, it’ll get hard for others to believe in it. These abstract ideas play out on a practical front in terms of publishing, that every submission is an act of faith in your own writing, a way of honoring your efforts, and that your self-worth shouldn’t be measured by any consequent acceptance or rejection. Similarly, your wallet in that at least once a year I have a student who has heard the advice that contests are a way to make a name for yourself. I say, save your money and instead build community. Throw away your “top tier journal” minded framework, which is capitalistic and enforces a toxic hierarchical approach, and instead send work out to dream journals and journals whose work you’d like to see hang out with your own.
What book of craft/poetry would you recommend to new poets (and why)?
In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet’s Portable Workshop: a Lively and Illuminating Guide for the Practicing Poet by Steve Kowit is a pretty solid read. It has a wide range of examples and draws from a great number of traditions.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing at the university level?
Get to know the academic job market and the culture around academia. I had to play a lot of catch up in terms of how toxic and problematic it can be. It’s been rough. Like with my advice on writing, make sure you like to teach. Like, putting together lesson plans and breaking complex things down in order to connect with others. To balance that, talk to others doing what you want to do. See who is up for being a resource. There’s a great program called the MFA App Review (https://mfaappreview.com/) where I’ve done some mentoring. While its focus is to increase access to fully-funded MFA programs and build community among underrepresented writers, I feel like the conversations of such programs allow for some of the dispelling of myths and gatekeeping around academia in general. Also, be prepared to be flexible to pay the bills. For most like myself, it’s a long road to getting to teach creative writing specifically. Be prepared to tutor, copy edit, and also to teach composition and other courses at first. I feel like creative writers can do a lot of cool work in the composition classroom. In teaching composition, I like to approach writing from a perspective of investment and expression and invite students to see the act of writing as something that comes from them and that matters. This, before any rules or MLA business, haha.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
The act of facilitating connection, whether through talking about a poem and watching it spark something in a reader or working with someone on a revision, teasing out the vision with them. It’s such a privilege to get to be in that space, that conversation. I always put it in terms of writing a poem being an experience of glimpses, and, as an educator, I’m looking over their shoulder trying to see as well.
José Angel Araguz’s most recent collection is An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press). His poetry, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Poetry International, The Acentos Review, and Oxidant | Engine among other places. José is an Assistant Professor at Suffolk University where he serves as Editor-in-Chief of Salamander and is also a faculty member of the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program. His personal website is: www.thefridayinfluence.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.