In Class with Professor Jessica Johnson
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 Jessica Johnson, Professor at Portland Community College
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
I went to University of Washington for undergrad and my MFA, and I was influenced by my teachers there: Richard Kenney, Colleen McElroy, Linda Bierds, and Heather McHugh. Pieces of their teaching definitely show up in my classes: rhyme from Rick, the line from Colleen, a way of thinking about narrative from Linda, language play from Heather. Teaching is such a traditional activity—student experience can lay down foundational assumptions, including how to carry yourself as a teacher. More than the content, my teachers showed me how to be generous with students—generous with recognition, knowledge, and enthusiasm.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
I try to ask a lot of questions before giving advice. What inspired this poem for you? What are you hoping this poem can do? Why this shape? Toward what or whom are you writing?
Practically, though, I do give a little advice about making room for writing in a crowded life. Set a timer if the urge to express seems too overwhelming. Just commit to ten minutes. Light a candle if you like candles. Make a cup of tea if you like tea. Write for ten minutes. Then, if you want to keep going, commit to another ten minutes.
What are some of the unique benefits/challenges of teaching creative writing at the undergraduate/graduate level?
I’ll answer for community college specifically. Community college creative writing classrooms gather people from many walks of life—people with a very wide range of reading and writing histories, people with a wide range of writing goals. Some have degrees already; some have been writing on their own for years and are already very skilled; some come from specific creative lineages and bring that knowledge with them. And of course, some are completely new to poetry. The unique benefit for me—and I hope for students—is the richness of discussion and the range of creative work. Students bring insight and courage, which I try to match.
In many ways, the traditional path and culture of academic creative writing didn’t prepare me for the community college workshop, and the teaching environment has challenged me to learn and develop the pedagogies, practices, and poetics that will lead to a better learning environment for a much wider range of writers. One thing I’ve had to read up on is trauma—both trauma-informed teaching and vicarious trauma.
And since I’ve indulged in a lot of positivity here, I will say that a downside of teaching creative writing at community college is that you generally don’t have the opportunity to teach specialized courses. So if I wanted to really nerd out on something particular for a whole term, that’s harder to do here.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing?
Here, too, I’ll answer for community college specifically. Seek opportunities to work directly with community college students, in whatever way you can. Embrace the study and practice of teaching composition. It will probably be a substantial part of your course load, and there can be synergies between creative writing pedagogy and composition pedagogy. The work of Asao Inoue, a composition theorist, has influenced the way I teach creative writing as well as comp. Embrace the work of making the creative writing classroom more accountable to students. Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World and Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop are great places to start if you haven’t read them yet
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
Jessica Johnson writes poetry, nonfiction, and things in between. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry Northwest, DIAGRAM, and River Teeth, among other journals. She’s the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship, and her chapbook In Absolutes We Seek Each Other was an Oregon Book Award finalist. Her debut full-length collection is forthcoming in 2023. She lives in Portland, Oregon and teaches at a community college.