In Class with Professor Joanna Fuhrman
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 Joanna Fuhrman, Professor at Rutgers University.
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
As a preteenager at an arts summer camp, I had poet teachers who introduced me to Surrealist games and poetry. And even now, more than 35 years later, I am still obsessed with the role of chance and the unconscious in poetry. So much of my teaching is about coming up with ways of subverting overthinking and rationality. The idea of poetry as a place of discovery is the central thing I try to convey as a teacher.
Later in high school, I was lucky that I was able to take a class with Jean Valentine at the Writer’s Voice in Manhattan. What I remember about her class was the way she held herself back. Instead of telling the students everything she thought, she asked them to speak first so her authority would be decentered. This method is also really important to me, and something I struggle with because I always want to talk.
Later, when I was in graduate school at the University of Washington, I loved the way Linda Bierds organized her workshops because she gave us assignments that were loose so we could approach them in various ways. I also like how she would always have a packet related to each assignment and would explain how each poem in the packet related to a way of thinking about the assignment. The other main thing I learned from her was an approach to workshopping that emphasized describing the work before taking it apart.
I have also been influenced by years of working for Teachers & Writers Collaborative as a teaching artist in the public schools. Over the years, I have been profoundly influenced by all of the books Teachers & Writers has published.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
“Think of your eye as a camera. If you were to use the close-up lens, what would you see?”
What are some of the unique benefits/challenges of teaching creative writing at the undergraduate/graduate level?
I hate the fact that at the end I have to give students a grade. To me, it feels like it’s objectifying the work. The solution might be to give everyone an A, but then aren’t you suggesting that creative writing is less challenging than other subjects? I think it’s important than the university understands that creative writing is a rigorous as other subjects.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing?
My first thought is marry rich, but I am kidding. Kind of. That said, making a “career” as a poet feels like a foolish thing to do. I made a decision to sacrifice a lot of economic stability to teach creative writing as profession. I was lucky that, after more than 20 years teaching, I eventually landed a job with health insurance and a regular salary, but before that point I was always struggling, and most of the writers I admire are still really struggling, so—I don’t know. We live in a country where it’s really hard to get affordable health insurance, and most creative writing jobs are still adjunct and don’t provide health insurance. I just know so many people (many with wonderful publications and PhDs) whose physical wellbeing has really suffered. I love teaching creative writing, but I think it’s a crazy thing to do with one’s life. I feel like I was lucky in a way that I always just assumed I would not have money, so I made choices accordingly. I went to an MFA program that gave me funding. I don’t have kids. I always looked for the cheapest apartment I could find. Etc etc. Despite all this, it was still difficult a lot of the time.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
I love the magic. You hand people a few tools and examples, and somehow they come up with beautiful creations which you never could have imagined. Nothing makes me happier than being in awe of a student’s poem.
Joanna Fuhrman is the author of six books of poetry, including To a New Era (Hanging Loose Press 2021), The Year of Yellow Butterflies (Hanging Loose Press 2016), and Pageant (Alice James Books 2009). She currently teaches poetry writing at Rutgers University and coordinates the Introduction to Creative Writing Classes and the faculty and alumni readings. For many years, she worked as a teaching artist in NYC schools. She’s currently working on a new book of poetry called Data Mind about life on the internet as a non-digital native. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and cat.