In Class with Professor Ángel García

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 Ángel García, an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


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

One pitfall I notice is that beginning writers can prematurely become obsessed with discovering their “voice.” Often, this leads to a pattern of writing poems that speak to each other thematically and stylistically at a time when I think it’s important to experiment and exercise diverse approaches to poem-making. But like a snowball effect, this phenomenon can also lead to reading too narrowly. As important as it is to read widely and read deeply throughout one’s career, many beginning writers in pursuit of their voice also begin reading work that speaks to their own aesthetic or their personal experience exclusively. They become “experts,” so to speak in what they read and what they write, and conversely, dismiss what they don’t read and refuse the poems they might be otherwise inclined to write. While this narrow focus might serve writers well as they work on specific projects, this can be particularly harmful for beginning writers because it often cuts off the blood supply to diversity, variety, multivocality—their own as well as in the larger landscape of poetry.

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

Because students so often think their lives or their imaginations don’t warrant an audience, I try to reassure students that their lives, their imaginations, and their experiences are valid fodder for poetry. Despite not having the tangible proof, I tell them that someone somewhere can and likely will connect to their work in a deep and meaningful way. And that to make than connection to someone else they should try to be as true to their art and who they are as writers. Whether they are writing about their own lives or fictionalized versions of their lives is unimportant. But they should show up to the page with as much honesty as they can bear to muster so that the connections they make with a reader or an audience are more powerful. All we might strive for in our work happens, most often, without our knowing. But it is that hope that keeps us writing.

What’s the best thing about teaching poetry?

Ángel García, a proud son of Mexican immigrants, is the author of Teeth Never Sleep (University of Arkansas Press), winner of a CantoMundo Poetry Prize, winner of an American Book Award, and finalist for a PEN America Open Book Award and Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He has received residencies from Community of Writers, CantoMundo, Vermont Studio Center, and MacDowell. Ángel currently lives in Champaign, IL and teaches in the MFA program at UIUC.
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