In Class with Professor Mag Gabbert
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 Mag Gabbert, Professor at Southern Methodist University.
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
Dr. Mag Gabbert: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several incredible writers and teachers throughout my time in degree programs. In particular, I’m thankful to have learned from Jenny Browne and Jill Alexander Essbaum (at Trinity University and UC Riverside, respectively). Both of them taught me not only about poetry, but about life—they taught me how to write and live better. It takes a lot of energy to teach that way, but it leaves such a lasting and beneficial impression. I owe so much of who I am to the time and compassion that Jenny and Jill both invested in me, and I want to pay that gesture forward. So, that’s something I try to emulate.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
While I was working on earning my MFA from UC Riverside about ten years ago, I had the opportunity to study with Matthew Zapruder, and he made a comment during one of our workshops that I often paraphrase now to my own students. He said something like, “Novice poets will write in the most veiled and obscure way possible about something that could be easily stated; but, seasoned poets will write in the most clear and direct way possible about that which cannot truly be said.”
What are some of the unique benefits/challenges of teaching creative writing at the undergraduate/graduate level?
Most of the classes I teach at my university are for students in our Graduate Liberal Studies program, who’re either working toward a master’s or doctoral degree in liberal studies. This makes them a particularly unique group, because they are highly educated folks who’ve often already begun their professional careers, but many of them have no prior experience in creative writing specifically (since the degree itself isn’t field-oriented or specialized in that way). So, I tend to find that my students are motivated, intelligent folks who are eager to learn and put the work in, but at the same time we’re sort of starting from square one. In some ways that can be challenging. But, at the same time, I enjoy having the opportunity to introduce them to this field, and sometimes it helps to start fresh, without navigating the challenges of working with students who already learned different approaches.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing?
Go to a degree program that offers teaching opportunities. Try not to be bummed if you aren’t awarded the scholarship or fellowship that allows you to receive funding without having to teach. If you want to teach, then you need to teach as soon as possible, as much as possible. None of the higher ed schools I’ve taught for or that I’ve put in faculty applications for were interested in hiring someone with less than five years of experience teaching at the college-level, so grad school is one of the only places that will offer you the chance to get your foot in the door.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
I think more so than with other areas of study, teaching creative writing often means that I get to learn new things every day, too. Whether from my students’ pieces, or from the books I assign, or discourses online, or any number of other sources. I love the fact that the core of this subject is about making discoveries. That’s how you practice it—it’s not about learning something once and then just going through the motions. Each time you write, you should be learning. About the world; about yourself; about the people you’re closest with and about people you’ve never met. And each time you write, you often have to teach yourself a new way of writing, too.
Mag Gabbert holds a PhD in creative writing from Texas Tech University and an MFA from The University of California at Riverside. She is the author of the chapbook Minml Poems (Cooper Dillon Books, 2020), and her work can also be found in 32 Poems, Pleiades, The Paris Review Daily, The Massachusetts Review, Waxwing, and many other journals. She’s received poetry fellowships from Idyllwild Arts and Poetry at Round Top, and in 2021 she was awarded a 92Y Discovery Award. She teaches creative writing at Southern Methodist University and serves as the interviews editor for Underblong Journal. For more information, please visit maggabbert.com.