Humanize the world.
Make me feel real to myself.
Make someone else (my husband?) feel special.
Make way (room?) for someone else to write better poems.
Connect me to the world.
Occupy my time in such a way that I spend less time destroying the world.

This semester I’m teaching a seminar at Columbia called “Lines and Lineage: Contemporary American Poetry by Women.” We’re reading Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, an anthology of essays I co-edited with Arielle Greenberg. Last week we read Kristin Prevallet’s essay on Anne Waldman. We also read poems and prose by Prevallet and read (and watched) poems by Anne Waldman. I had the sense, while preparing for class, that the students were going to resist this work. Two weeks earlier, they'd responded very positively to Katy Lederer’s essay about Lyn Hejinian, to Hejinian’s work and, in particular, to Lederer’s book, A Heaven Sent Leaf.  I was excited by the disjunction of moving from Lederer to Prevallet but wasn’t sure if the students would appreciate this jump.

In her description of her 2004 performance, “Cruelty and Conquest” Prevallet explains she generated a poem from a segment of a speech by George Bush using an Oulipo technique “re-introduced by Juliana Spahr.” That technique called for words to be systematically eliminated and replaced with another word, in this case “oil”. Later Prevallet translates this poem into a performance in which she pours molasses from an oilcan over herself and into her mouth for 2 minutes so that she is gagging on the “oil” and drenching herself and the American flag laid out before her on the stage. The description of this performance fascinates me, and I’m moved by what I see as the driving  force of such a work—the desire to push beyond the limits of what we expect from poems and to seriously activate the relationship between the author and audience. I was similarly moved by utube videos of Waldman reading from her work. I’d always been “interested” in Waldman’s work from an historical perspective, but now I found myself inspired by her in a way that made me frustrated with my own work and made me question the strictly normalized etiquette of most poetry readings.

A few days before class I was slammed with a virulent head cold. I mourned my weak, scratchy voice and my exhausted body. I’d wanted to go in and stir things up! How could I make the experience of learning as active and genre bending as the work we were learning about? It felt wrong to me to go into class and (just) talk about Prevallet and Waldman the way we talked about the other poets, but without a smart board I wouldn’t even be able to bring Waldman and Prevallet’s performances into the room.

I emailed my poetmoms and asked for suggestions. Several wrote back with inspiring classroom exercises that involved small group activities or spontaneous group “mash up” performance exercises. All of these seemed smart and useful and completely beyond my energy level.

I dragged my red-nosed self to class and decided to begin, as I often do, with a few minutes of free writing, knowing I’d discover my prompt(s) by feeling what was in the room.

After writing for a while I asked if the students would share their responses. One student spoke about wanting poetry to take her all over the world and serve as a community building force. I read the response (I'd never thought through this question before) that I'd written, but most students chose not to share their responses. Instead, we had a interesting and provocative conversation about the relationship between poetry and performance, but I wish I'd heard each of their answers.

I’d love to know if any of you think these questions are relevant and the answers you’ve come up with for yourselves.

What can poetry DO? What do you want YOUR poems to DO?

Originally Published: April 2nd, 2010

Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...