In Class with Professor Daniel B. Summerhill
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 Daniel B. Summerhill, Professor of Poetry/Social Action and Composition Studies at CSU Monterey.
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
Daniel B. Summerhill: I didn’t have many influences or role models that I could look to in terms of teaching creative writing. In fact, I am in large part a professor because I didn’t see many that looked like me and I was always hungry for praxis other than what I saw. I wanted to have teachers that not only understood craft, but understood that craft is and will always be a derivative of culture and orality, not merely an aesthetic exercise. I understood that teaching outside of this framework could potentially exclude entire groups of people—myself included.
I will say I admired a great deal of folks and their work. James Baldwin was and still is a bedrock of my approach to language, thought and teaching. Beyond him, June Jordan, although discovered much later, has been instrumental to my work with writing/creative writing pedagogy.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
Lately, because of my own stint of “writer’s block” a few years ago, I have been really unpacking the practice of writing and have come to discover: writing isn’t always writing—with a pen and paper that is. I’ve been letting them know that if their pen isn’t writing, it is because their body might be interested in a different modality in that moment. Maybe the pen aint it. Perhaps it’s a walk, or a sketch or a tiny Chaka Khan or Frank Ocean karaoke session. Poetry is multidimensional and our bodies know that and will let us know when we seem to forget.
What are some of the unique benefits and challenges of teaching creative writing at the undergraduate level?
I get the chance to interact with folks from different areas of study and interest. Many undergraduate students are in the cocktail of discipline decisions. Though some may have declared areas of study or majors, those who have not, along with those who may later decide to change, are very much the bulk of undergraduate students. In the case of my campus, students outside of the Creative Writing/Social Action Concentration also make up this group of students. Interacting with folks from business or the sciences provide alternative approaches to language and languaging.
In addition to this, and to be more direct, undergraduate students have been less influenced by the academy. They haven’t been molded into singular thought or overly exposed to “the canon,” and remain in some ways, divergent thinkers. These factors allow them to approach writing in a more authentic and honest way.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing?
Become an agent of social action and linguistic justice first. Without thorough understanding of the link between identity, culture, power and writing, you cannot teach in an equitable or honest way.
In addition to championing social action, one of the best pieces of advice I received during graduate school was to consume outside the genre of creative writing. It is easy to intake poems, stories and creative essays, but consider how other mediums can be used to inform and make sense of creative writing. For example, I learned most about prosody by listening to Tank and Bangas and Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes at the recommendation of my mentor, Nicole Terez Dutton.
Lastly, I would say, once you receive an opportunity to lead a class, teach across the spectrum, teach Black and Indigenous authors, teach through students, not to them.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
It is such a communal and empathetic process. James Baldwin says we write to discover something which we didn’t know before set out to write. Creative writing is how we make sense of ourselves and others. Serving as the catalyst for these discoveries is my reward. Returning students back to themselves and their communities, rather than the academy is the best part. The work is with the people. The work has always been with the people.
Daniel B. Summerhill is Assistant Professor of Poetry/Social Action and Composition Studies at California State University Monterey Bay. He has performed in over thirty states, The UK, and was invited by the US Embassy to guest lecture and perform in South Africa. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Columbia Journal, Rust + Moth, Button Poetry, Flypaper, Cogs, The Hellebore, and others. His debut collection Divine, Divine, Divine is available now from Oakland- based -Nomadic Press. His sophomore collection, Mausoleum of Flowers will be published by CavanKerry Press in April 2022.
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.