In Class with Professor Paisley Rekdal

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 Paisley Rekdal, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah.


What features do you believe define contemporary poetry today?

Right now, I think the “personal is political” ethic reigns supreme. There’s a premium put on poems that feel personal, emotionally spontaneous, and both politically accessible and transparent. This feels like a wild swing from the early aughts, in which a much more theory and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-driven poetry held court—think the heirs of Ashbery and Howe, among others. But this swing between modernism and its heirs and Whitman and his heirs has pretty much happened throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. After the high modernism of Eliot, you get the Beats, Confessionals and post-Confessionals that work in more personal and direct modes, for example. Then you swing back to post-modernism and more avant-garde poetics. My own generation (one of the largest groups of poets to be influenced not just by CW workshops but literary theory) was “famous” for trying to marry the aesthetics of the Confessionals with avant-garde poetics. But now I think the younger poets have walked away from that to a poetics that, for me, resembles the post-Vietnam era of American poetry. This makes sense, because so many of the issues that defined the US post-Vietnam are defining us now: civil rights, feminism, the lingering costs of war and a growing awareness of and anxiety over a global ecological crisis and America’s changing demographics.

What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginning writers?

Not reading widely or deeply.

What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?

Please read outside your century. Actually, even reading outside this current decade would be refreshing.

What poets are you teaching this semester? (and, how do those collections fit into the overall curriculum and educational objectives?)

I’m teaching two classes: one called “How to Read a Poem,” and the other called “The Archival Imagination.” For the first class, we literally read a smattering of everybody and everything we can, to get a sense of the incredible diversity and range of what we have historically categorized as poetry. This means I go as far back as Old English runes and as far forward as Jos Charles. And in between it’s everything from John Donne to Myung Mi Kim to Seamus Heaney to June Jordan to Tan Lin. For my archival imagination class, we start with Andrew Marvell, Keats, Shelley, and Byron, then move to poets like Susan Howe, Elizabeth Alexander, Sara Uríbe, Mai Der Vang, and Robin Coste Lewis.

What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?

Paisley Rekdal is the author of four works of nonfiction, including Appropriate: A Provocation, and six collections of poetry, most recently Nightingale, which won the 2020 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. Two new books are forthcoming: a hybrid book-length poem entitled West: A Translation (Copper Canyon Press, May 2023) and Real Toads: Imaginary Gardens: How to Read and Teach a Poem (forthcoming from W.W. Norton). She is the recipient of fellowships, grants, and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, Pushcart Press, and the Academy of American Poets, among others. She is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah, where she is also the creator and editor of West: A Translation as well as the community web projects Mapping Literary Utah and Mapping Salt Lake City. Between 2017-2022, she served as Utah’s Poet Laureate, receiving a 2019 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. She currently serves as poetry editor for High Country News, and as co-chair of PEN America’s Utah Chapter.

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