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What I Usually Say to my Students

By Linh Dinh

Written at the request of Joshua Marie Wilkinson, who’s compiling an anthology of “micro essays about approaches to teaching poetry”:
Hoard your time, since you’ll need it to be alone to think and to write.
Be frugal, since it’ll allow you to work less and have more time to think and to write.
Try, as best you can, to have an overview of what’s possible in writing, the various strategies attempted throughout history, throughout the world.
Identify the writers or works you admire the most, and read them very slowly, as many times as necessary.
Have faith that you will get better at thinking and writing, and that people will notice it, even if stingily and reluctantly, since you’re not entitled to any attention.
Be prepared to be disappointed over and over.


For the sake of experimentation, it’s OK to write badly, even foolishly, but don’t try to pass off crap you yourself are disinterested in.
Even if you’ll end up a mediocre writer, there’s an outside chance you will become an excellent reader, so this pursuit will still be worthwhile, sort of, even as you lie there, unheated, loveless and clutching your last packet of Ramen Pride.
Don’t be afraid to be as weird, meaning as PECULIARLY YOU as possible. Try to say it all. Be shameless. Don’t hesitate to revisit a piece over and over to follow and capture everything that it really wants to say. Use each draft as a lead and a springboard into revealing something truly astounding, even if the actual changes (a revised noun here, an added adjective there) may be minimal.
Be as crazy and as perverse as possible, be inspired to the point of madness, but don’t be glib.
Poetry should astound and frighten, not make you giggle for two seconds.

Comments (7)

  • On January 1, 2009 at 1:54 pm Nancy wrote:

    Very interesting piece. I love your following points:
    Hoard your time, since you’ll need it to be alone to think and to write.
    Be prepared to be disappointed over and over.
    Don’t be afraid to be as weird, meaning as PECULIARLY YOU as possible

  • On January 1, 2009 at 10:10 pm Oscar wrote:

    Thanks much for this. These are some great maxims to help kick off the New (Writing) Year.

  • On January 2, 2009 at 11:59 am Jordan wrote:

    Brilliant. Thank you.

  • On January 2, 2009 at 1:56 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Maxims are meant to be shared, so I shamelessly share mine– especially since they bear a measure of correspondence with Linh’s. They appeared early last year in Almost Island, published out of New Delhi:
    “33 Rules for Poets 23 and Under”
    http://almostisland.com/prose/33_rules_of_poetry_for_poets_2.php
    Kent

  • On January 2, 2009 at 3:36 pm john wrote:

    But Mr. Dinh, what if my most peculiar me-ness is prone to giggle and giggle and giggle?
    That’s my only objection. Other than that — great advice.
    thanks — and Happy New Year!

  • On January 3, 2009 at 5:04 pm Lisa Schumaier wrote:

    Linh,
    As one of your recent students from Montana, I have a couple questions regarding what you Usually Say To Your Students. Your voice is fresh in my mind, yet the voice here is almost unrecognizable. Inside our classroom, you presented a more contentious and dynamic relationship between teaching, poetry, and academia. What I value about your teaching is the courage and spirit with which you illuminate the complexities, hypocrisy, and art’s inhabitability of systems—without compromise.
    What you usually said to us, after reading a poem—student or published—was, Is it enough? For which we would have to decipher what the “it” might be and what “enough” required. This question of “is it enough?”—despite seeming initially ridiculous—has not only deepened my reading of poems but even more so, has called into question a life devoted to poetry—whether teaching it or reading about its teaching. Since your class, the question has continued to renew and reaffirm its importance.
    However, your piece on teaching hardly seems to be an honest rendering of the actual experience as far as I witnessed. I like to think I was a decent observer—since your class forced me to become incredibly active, to think standing up, to think! My god. I could be thwarted at any second in that chair if I let my awareness lapse. I have you to thank for that intensity of engagement. So I guess what this leads me to ask is, why were you more honest in the privacy of the classroom? And why is that honesty not translating into the public sphere of a teaching anthology? From what I can gather of the editor’s prompt, there is a real chance for exploration. Maybe what I’m saying—or maybe because I’m new to teaching myself—is that teachers are not the best people to ask about their teaching experience. But I don’t believe this at all, in fact. Obviously teachers are the best people to ask this from. I believe it is a teacher’s responsibility to convey their experiences … honestly. How? We can all offer our pedagogical statements, our manifestos, but when one has been to the frontlines and has seen not only the carnage but has confronted the ever-expansive field beyond—the battles, farces, failures, and risks—then the conversation becomes inherently different. From then on, it must consist of experience from the actual classroom (not the theoretical classroom), requiring the strength to run those actual experiences through a series of questions, interrogations, critical analyses, forthrightness, and writing—such as afforded by this essay prompt—in order to explore and confound the processes of teaching—the relationship to a career, to students, as well as the relationship that occurs within the writer in a position of “creative authority.” Without this exploration, all we have are niceties, to which I say, table manners! Although the table isn’t acknowledged and therefore doesn’t exist, and the participants? Merely people sitting in a circle without the feast of discussion.
    I might be out of line—clearly many people have enjoyed this piece—but the teacher does not own the teaching experience, nor does the student; the “teaching experience” is proof of thought, is the devastations and micro-crises from human interactions, is the occasion for poetry.
    Linh Dinh, I can’t help but read your portrayal of what you Usually Say To Students and ask myself, “Is it enough?”
    Devotedly, your student,
    Lisa Schumaier

  • On January 4, 2009 at 11:27 am Linh Dinh wrote:

    Hi Lisa,
    Writing the piece above, I wasn’t trying to hold back or aiming for niceties, but I’m glad to hear that your experience of taking one of my classes was more intense and engaged than what I could capture in a brief statement. During 3 hours a week for an entire semester, there are (or should be) many nuanced and contested exchanges, “interrogations, critical analyses [and] forthrightness.” At Montana, Chris Alexander and Scott Jones took both of my writing classes during the same semester, so I had to be extra careful not to repeat myself. In any case, I’m glad you’re calling me out in this instance, since anything that’s done can be done infinitely better!


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, January 1st, 2009 by Linh Dinh.