In Class with Professor Dorothy Chan
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 Dorothy Chan, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
What features do you believe define contemporary poetry today?
Surprise. Suspense. Swerve. Sensuality. Richard Siken’s Crush is one of the greatest contemporary studies of the line. I am extremely fond of the swerve of his lines in this collection—leading us into filmic moment after filmic moment. I can say the same about Rosebud Ben-Oni’s poetry, especially the poem, “I Guess We’ll Have to Be Secretly in Love.” This poem is also filmic, taking its title from The Royal Tenenbaums, and specifically a line that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot says to Luke Wilson’s Richie.
I get surprise from Mary Ruefle’s first chapter of Madness, Rack, and Honey, “On Beginnings,” every time I read or teach it. Or I think about the “…straddle the two Os / in the HOLLYWOOD sign” moment in Monica McClure’s title poem, “Tender Data,” in TENDER DATA (Birds, LLC). Dr. Rita Mookerjee’s poetry always surprises me in the most astounding ways, especially emotionally. It’s the idea I reiterate to my students that when you are happy, you’re not simply one polar or binary definition of happy — numerous gray areas of mixed emotions exist. Same with sadness. Or any emotion. Jane Wong’s poetry is a primary study of swerve and surprise. Think about the “interruptions” and “fill in the blanks” of “MAD,” the first poem of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (Alice James Books).
What are some patterns and/or pitfalls you see students falling into as beginning writers?
Workshop is a collaborative environment and conversation, not a defense or explanation. I am against the “cone of silence” workshop model. I believe it’s wrong to forbid the student whose work is being workshopped, to speak. That being said, and this is a general statement, it can be challenging to adjust students to a workshop model, no matter what “rules” you follow as a teacher. I am lucky to have such bright, collaborative, and engaging poetry workshop students. A line I put at the top of every single syllabus: “Write to think; don’t think to write.” This is a quote by my Poetry Mother and mentor, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. It’s natural human inclination to “procrastinate” on writing because we have such perfectionist attitudes. However, it is critical to “strike while the iron is hot” and allow the “shitty first draft” to happen. Most likely, the ideas on the page are strong, and the starts of lines are promising. This is where revision comes into play. Revision is perhaps the most critical part of the process.
Students, please, if you remember one thing from me: read more contemporary poets. Read far and wide. You should be reading beyond what is on a class syllabus. A semester can only cover so much, so the rest of reading time is your own responsibility.