In Class with Professor Donato Martinez of Santa Ana 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 Donato Martinez, Professor of English at Santa Ana College.
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
Donato Martinez: I remember these four wonderful professors that I had at Cal Poly Pomona, two from the English Department, one from the Ethnic Studies/Women’s Department, and one from the Political Science Department. Collectively, all four of them taught me about the creative process in their own individual ways. They taught me about grasping on to moments of inspiration. Of writing things down as soon as it strikes you. Mind you, this was before cell phones, so we did not have access to the “Notes” app, so we had to find a piece of paper, or journal and jot it down immediately. They taught me about the idea of feeling “free” once I tapped into expressing myself. They inspired me to not be afraid of expressing my “authentic” self. They helped to liberate the creative writing voice that is within all of us.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
I tell students to write as often as they can, every day. It does not matter what they write. But to do it for sustained amount of time. I tell them to practice this art, like practicing how to dribble a basketball with your left hand, like learning how to play guitar, or learning how to cook (culinary). All of these endeavors take practice. So, I tell them to produce work, even if they appear like “shitty first drafts.” Then I tell them to edit, revise, cut things down, to write with more imagery (details), to do less telling. I tell them to bring readers into their writing. I remind them of the need for readers to empathize with their work.
What are some of the unique benefits and challenges of teaching creative writing at the community college level?
The benefits of teaching creative writing are that I teach to students who are lovers of the written word. This class is not required, so only interested students enroll. Students in creative writing classes are mature, creative, opinionated, vulnerable. It makes for great discussions and challenging debates as well. One of the challenges (at a Community College) may include low enrollment which causes classes to be cancelled. But as a professor, the biggest challenge is trying to get students to participate in sharing their work in class. Many students are intimidated by this process, but it is one that is so beneficial. The idea of having 15-20 students critique one’s work is intimidating, because fiction or poetry is so intimate and personal. So this process is difficult for the timid writer. Lastly, I have to remind myself to allow students to express themselves and to be vulnerable. I like to encourage them to write about difficult experiences, to be able to tap into emotional setbacks or past trauma. But I know this must be done with sensitivity and compassion. The challenge – to make sure I provide a safe space for them to explore these memories.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing?
I would tell students/future teachers to take as many classes as they can from different professors. Each professor is going to teach you something different and unique. I model my teaching of creative writing from many of my professors; in fact, some of my professors taught in a different discipline. I remember my political science professor. I took his class on Latin American Politics. On occasion, he brought in his guitar, talked about his love of water coloring, discussed his own love of revolutionary poetry. He wove in teaching with his own creativity. These professors taught “outside the box.” Each of these had an impact on me. It was so refreshing to sit in these classes. I would tell students to read as much as they can and to read “marginalized” and diverse voices. To look at styles, craft, meaning, character, conflict, etc. I would encourage them to read works by BIPOC writers, to visit independent bookstores, to go to poetry and fiction readings. Lastly, I would tell them to share their work with other writers or join a writer’s collective to engage in the writing process. I would encourage them to take workshop classes or attend a writer’s retreat. All of us writers learn so much from other writers. I have learned to teach our students what I have learned in these settings.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
I love teaching creative writing. It challenges me to find a new story or poem to share with my students. I always imagine – if I was a student, what would I really enjoy doing today in class? But this means that I must continue to read works by other writers in order to share with my students. It challenges me to stay organized and current to create lesson plans. I also love being in a classroom setting and discussing character, or conflict, or climax, or the metaphoric language or symbols in a poem. I love dissecting the work with a group of students. I enjoy asking tough and thought-provoking questions – such as, why did the writer use such explicit depictions of violence? Or, why did the poet use such euphonic language to write about death? Lastly, and believe me — I get inspired by young writers. Sometimes there will be a line, an image that inspires something in me. Or a student will write about his grandmother, and his description or memory triggers something in me about my own grandmother. These connections are invaluable. It is gratifying and refreshing to make connections with my students.
Donato Martinez teaches English composition, Literature, and Creative Writing at Santa Ana College. He hosts and curates a bi-annual afternoon of artistic expression with poetry, dance, and live music. These events generate large crowds and active participation. He is also a poet and writes about his barrio upbringing, his community, his culture, his bi-cultural and bilingual identities and other complexities of life. He is influenced by the sounds and pulse of the streets, people, music, and the magic of language. He has a self-published collection with three other Inland Empire poets, Tacos de Lengua. He loves the outdoors and is inspired by music, books, movies, and his grown children, Gabriel and Abigail.
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.