In Class with Professor Kimberly Ann Southwick-Thompson
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 Kimberly Ann Southwick-Thompson, Professor at Jacksonville State University.
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
Dr. Kimberly Ann Southwick-Thompson: Probably all of my past teachers of creative writing who are too many to name, but two poetry teachers who come to mind first as being influential these days are Peter Shippey and David Daniel, from my Emerson College undergraduate years. I remember Daniel had us make books (or gave us the option to?) as a final exam, strolled us through Boston to talk about Lowell, and gave the most excellent lesson on meter. I remember Shippey showing us a documentary film about Andy Goldsworthy and giving us a novel in verse—Shippey taught the first advanced section I took and Daniel the intro. Shippey was really trying to expand our minds on what poetry could do, what art could do. Daniel was… trying to get us to the thing, from so many different angles. I always wish I could replicate what he did or at least have the same effect in my students’ brains when it comes to teaching poetry that his lesson on meter did for me. I remember walking through the Boston Commons “thinking in meter”– and it was like language was music, was this whole other thing.
More recently, Skip Fox didn’t force us to be silent while our works were being workshopped while I was at UL Lafayette, and I make sure my students have the same ability to speak up to make sure the workshop is headed in a useful direction for them. It’s hard to get them not to “explain” the piece to us, but even grad students at times–even I!—struggled with that. That’s a really important thing to me pedagogically, to let them talk so they are getting the best feedback.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
I’m actually not going to say “show don’t tell” here, though of course we talk about the benefits and limitations of that. I would say the piece of advice I give them most often instead is about revision and the power of revision. “Editing is my favorite part of writing,” is a thing I find myself saying a lot. Is your poem all one stanza? Try it out in couplets! Read it out loud until all of the line breaks are having the effect that you want them to. Getting the thing on the page is the hardest part for me, and too often students (especially intro students) seem to think “I wrote the thing and now it’s done/perfect.” There’s just something about the ability we as writers have when we are typing, especially nowadays with laptops and phones/devices, to hit backspace and delete and move things all around to see how they look/sound. I think about this a lot lately—how, yeah, you can “edit” a work of visual art, but it’s not the same. The other version is always somehow physically there unless you literally toss the clay/canvas into the trash and start over. But if I hit backspace on a laptop, no one can see the original version, and I don’t have to trash the whole thing to make it seem like it was always this way. We as writers need to appreciate this power.
That actually reminds me of a story I am sure I’ve told some of my creative writing students—an old legend of Bill Knott from my undergrad years. Apparently, some kid from Emerson was in Grolier’s in Harvard Square and was buying Knott’s book, and Knott was there and saw him buying it and grabbed the book from him, tore out a bunch of pages, dug into his briefcase and was like “these versions are better,” and stuffed edited versions of the pages he’d ripped out into the book and then was gone. Like, if that doesn’t speak to what I’m trying to say about editing, I don’t know what does.
What are some of the unique benefits/challenges of teaching creative writing at the undergraduate level?
Where I am now at Jacksonville State University, I so often it seems have the unique privilege of being the person who is introducing my Intro to Creative Writing and Creative Writing: Poetry students to a whole new world. Like, they are jumping on the magic carpet and I am like, this is what poetry, this is what language, can do. I have them read things I know they’ve never read before—an excerpt from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an excerpt from Jena Osman’s The Network—things that really blow some of their minds. One of the best compliments I’ve read from them in their final reflections has been a few of them telling me that they never knew they could just write about their life and have it be effective creative writing. It’s so silly and simple, but it means so much to me that they see the nouns and verbs of their everyday life and think, “that’s fodder for my art.” At the same time that this is a privilege, it can be a challenge too—some may come in expecting the tried-and-true creative writing lessons of Hemingway and Poe and I’m giving them things that are way more contemporary and different than what they expect.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing?
I think my first bit of advice works for any teachers generally, but always revise when you teach the same class again. Never do the same exact thing. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t in terms of prompts and readings and lessons and learn from that and revise. Attend panels and workshops of your peers when you can for ideas and try them out.
Secondly, I will add, when you can, write alongside your students. I never had a teacher do this for me that I remember, but I have peers who say they do this for some semesters or for some prompts. Especially when I give my students timed in-class writing, I like to write with them, to show them that you can benefit from a prompt and a time limit no matter if you’re standing in front of the classroom or sitting in a desk. Being a writer always means trying out things like that, and illustrating that in real time in front of them is a great way to show them that your work as a writer never ends–and that’s, in a way, the most fun part of being a writer. You’ll always be one. You’re one now, and you get to be one still when you’re teaching writing or doing whatever it is that you’re doing that’s not sitting in a creative writing classroom.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
Hands down when a student who took the class “for fun” or something like that really begins to define themselves as a writer. This can mean that they take the skills and use them for whatever job they are going to have in the future as, like, a social media manager or whatever and work on their novel on the side for the rest of their lives and never show it to anyone. Or it can mean that I “convert” a student to our creative writing concentration or minor that we have in the English department. I always try to tell my students that if they write, if they like to write, if they love to write, then they’re a writer. And when they take that step and are able to say, “yeah, I’m a writer!” and push aside (or at least temporarily quiet) any doubt they have in that or whatever—that’s the best feeling.
Kimberly Ann Southwick Thompson, PhD is an Aries with a Capricorn Moon & Ascendant. She is the founder & editor in chief of the literary arts journal GIGANTIC SEQUINS, which has been in print since 2009. Her full-length poetry collection, ORCHID ALPHA, is forthcoming from Trembling Pillow Press; it was a finalist over six times and a semi-finalist twice before getting picked up. Kimberly has been a featured reader at the Open Mouth Poetry Festival and Dogfish New Orleans Reading series. She graduated in May 2020 with her doctorate in English & Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, after successfully defending her dissertation “Aletheia: An original collection of poems and a play, with an essay exploring hybridity in works by contemporary American women poets via hybrid utterance.” Previously Kimberly received her MA in English from NYU & her BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing from Emerson College. Her most recently published poetry chapbook is EFS & VEES from Hyacinth Girl Press, and her micro-chap LAST TO BET: THE NEAR SONNETS was published by Ghost City Press in Summer 2020. She currently lives in Saks, Alabama, with her husband, Geoffrey Thompson, their daughter, Esmé, and their two dogs, Jasper and Nova. She is an Assistant Professor specializing in Poetry and Creative Writing at Jacksonville State University.
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.