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Teaching & Poetry: A Dialogue With Jennifer Firestone

Jennifer Firestone

Our poetry friends have tremendous influence on us—on what we read, how we write, who we write for, and for some of us, how we teach. My friend Jennifer Firestone is the author of numerous chapbooks and three volumes of poetry, the most recent is Gates & Fields, published by Belladonna* this spring. And she is a skilled, thoughtful, expert teacher. Her writing is unflinchingly investigatory—but for Jennifer, “investigatory” doesn’t mean “documentary” only, or overtly political, or located outside the home, the body, and the heart. Jennifer puts emotional intelligence on the same plane as whatever else intelligence is supposed to be. I would say that her work makes the term “emotional intelligence” absolutely redundant. Jennifer’s work also moves between narrative, the experimental, and each of her projects finds its own new form. It is not surprising, then, with all that range and all that steadiness mixed with risk, that she is an excellent teacher. We have often talked about making knowledge together about teaching—this dialogue is toward that project.

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Jill: When I visited your class as a guest writer, and you were wrapping up a workshop session from a previous week, I was astounded by how high the discourse was for undergraduates! Can you tell me a little about your methods and even your ethics of teaching?

Jennifer: Thanks for your note. You always seemed to understand the classroom as a space of intellectual potential, a place in which we could undress our prejudices, examine our notions, and hopefully, make some adjustments and extensions. And frankly, you have always inspired me with your radical and imaginative teaching and thinking. 

So to begin—my method, approach, ethos, and ethics have developed through almost 20 years of experience in and outside of various academic institutions. I’ve taught at a Jesuit College in Chicago, an evening college program (also in Chicago) geared for adult students, MFA programs, NY CUNY Colleges, in a preschool, at libraries, as a guest writer, and of course where I have been for the past 13-plus years, Eugene Lang College, the Liberal Arts College at the New School.

I’ve also recently taken over directing and overhauling a program called Academic Fellows, which places students in the classroom as mentors of students and as mediators between faculty and students. In connection with this program, I teach a pedagogy course incorporating Paulo Freire, bell hooks and others. My first day of the pedagogy class this semester began with something along the lines of; “If you are interested in being a mentor you should look at your own positionality. Mentorship is built on an implicit hierarchy that you should be suspicious of.” These issues of unpacking power structures within mentorship were explored in a book I co-edited with Dana Teen Lomax to which you contributed, Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics and Community.

Jill: It sounds like your project of teaching is a political one—to encourage a critical view of institutional power. I think what’s tricky about the word “mentor” is that when it’s institutionalized, it loses some of its historical basis in friendship, relation. As you know, Mentor, the character in “The Odyssey” from which the word “mentor” is derived, is an old family friend who advises young Telemachus. Athena even shape-shifts into his form in order to give Telemachus information because she knows Telemachus trusts and will listen to Mentor. So I think when mentors are “assigned” by an institution, there is another dynamic going on. It seems wise on your part to point this out—that the hierarchy is institutionalized and not based on a history of friendship, relationship, and good will that comes from knowing someone and caring about them.

I also think that some reluctance “to sit at the feet of an expert or elder” is cultural, and maybe even class-based. I wonder what you think about this.

I admire young people who rebel against the notion that because someone has institutional authority they shouldn’t necessarily tune in to them. That attitude of criticality can come in very handy when an elder abuses institutional power.

But I think a lot of students may be from a culture or class that expects hierarchy in the classroom—they even find it preferable to know I am “The Teacher.” I don’t buck this, honestly. I also had this expectation in college. I noticed that some teachers weren’t good at teaching, yet they knew tons and tons of things I didn’t, so I sat and listened, passively, and I learned! I was hungry for every single thing a teacher could give me and felt, again and again, that I really didn’t know anything, but this wasn’t a problem. Of course I should also point out that I encountered a super conscientious and hugely influential teacher in Minnie-Bruce Pratt and ended up TA-ing for her Theories of Feminism class, which was extraordinarily participatory. So I guess I enjoyed all the models.

Jennifer: Yes, I was just corresponding with a colleague who wrote to me: “to speak and contribute vocally in class is sort of a Western one and tied up in gender/patriarchy.” But perhaps because of the kind of classes I teach, how students somewhat self-select, I generally don’t experience very many of my students as being reluctant. Perhaps the occasional student here or there, but mostly they, students, from all different backgrounds, appear invested in the expertise (sometimes without any kind of criticality!) of the teacher. This impulse is so strong, that even in my classes, where I clearly invite collaboration, and focus on the social body as a body of knowledge, the students tend to speak only to me when they respond in class discussions. It’s fascinating to track.

The fact that I teach experimental texts, which invites meaning-making between reader and author and amongst readers, also sets the precedent for how my class is run. I set up the framework in order to address the work, but we do the analyzing together; my students often show me new interpretations or entrances that I didn’t see before. So, though I think listening to an elder or expert can be one’s ideal or accustomed reception for a variety of reasons, it depends on circumstance. I’d like to think that a class can hold both—that one can lecture, instruct, and students will listen in a quiet way and then maybe there will be a shift to a noisier, active engagement.

Jill: Yes—I agree—it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Can you give me some specifics on your teaching methods and how you begin?

Jennifer: My first approach, no matter the material, is to try to speak of the artifice of the classroom. That we all have previous knowledge that can be learned from. That we all learn differently. That we are diverse bodies in a room, a room that gives us space to learn, but a room vested with power and prescription. That this room isn’t “safe” under the auspices of a university, it’s not “safe”—as any room may not be “safe.”

Thinking about the way in which we occupy the classroom space and the attention to the body is important because (and this I got from bell hooks) academia can be so disembodied. You’re supposed to be a talking head, spouting out ideas as your students pan for gold. Studies reflect back that generally passive, top-down learning isn’t even effective. One can best connect to the information that is taught by roping in their own experiences and ideas.

Jill: I’m interrupting—because what you’re saying reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about and I wonder what you think. I teach like this also; I facilitate a participatory model in my classrooms. If I lecture, it’s a “mini-lecture.” However, I’ve been wondering about the importance of boredom, or the importance of suppressing one’s own experience and ideas and desires in the name of citizenship. Or learning to be bored or to tolerate passive engagement as maybe even an audience-building skill for experimental poetry!

I wonder, is it a good exercise to sit, patiently or impatiently, in somewhat public space and watch something unfold that might not involve you, that might seem strange, exclusive, and that you know absolutely nothing about? But yet you are still there, and your turn for involvement may or may not come?

The question of “what kind of citizens do we want?” comes to mind when I think about students being trained to bring what they know to the scene all the time or as much as possible. Maybe our U.S. American context at the moment—and the privileged, white, middle and upper class pockets of it especially—need to sit back and listen a little? To sit with not knowing and with their own capacity to be silent and reflective? Perhaps there is a politics to this act and state of being.

Jennifer:  Boredom, hmm, I think it does have its place and I hear what you’re saying. Mainstream U.S. culture is one of over-stimulation, response-overload, multi-tasking to the upmost degree—it’s hard to be still. Not to mention being loud and knowledgeable is rewarded often.

I play with this in my classes by interjecting silence into the class time. Yesterday I allowed 30 seconds of silence after one of my questions, only 30 seconds, and my students were visibly uncomfortable. Inviting boredom and silence can be a great practice on many levels, including as a gateway to experimental poetry.

When you first mentioned boredom I immediately thought of John Cage, who I teach periodically. It’s a real training, a discipline to stay with boredom, to not instantly interject one’s own ego into the mix. Today my students are going to be discussing the work of a feminist Quebecois writer, Frances Théoret. But their “discussing” is going to be set up such that they will be placed in pairs and one student will read Théoret’s work in a very monotone evenness for a period of time. The other student will be writing the whole time. This will probably invite some discomfort, perhaps some boredom, but it’s an activity about listening to a text, about hearing it live, about only responding on paper privately. It’s also an experiment to expand upon notions of what it means to “read.”

When I mention my working with students’ previous knowledge, it’s not necessarily about inviting them to “know” or to even to exhibit their knowledge. Instead, I’m trying develop awareness of their own beliefs and aesthetics so the new material I’m introducing has a base to touch.

Jill: How great. Thanks for being so specific and sharing what you’re doing in the classroom. Before my dérive into “boredom,” you were saying some very interesting things about bodies—please continue!

Jennifer: I’m a body and sometimes I’m tired and sometimes I want to wear a sweater. Sometimes I can’t focus and my thoughts sputter. My body might have just had a long subway ride, or yelled at a kid, or eaten a sandwich. All my experiences are there when I step into the classroom. But saying “no” to the lure of the patriarchal structure of specialness and ego that a university affiliation imbues is difficult. I’m a female-identified body. I spend a lot of my life trying to rid myself of my body, or versions of it narrated by its spectators. And yet I’m still a white body, which enables me to all kinds of privileges and so I feel it’s important to be somewhat honest, to point out my positionality, my experience of myself, and also to have my students think about how I may or may not fulfill their ideas of authority.

Even at my progressive school, we practice patriarchal structures of teaching, where the professor is ultimate authority. It’s very seductive to assume that role. Power can feel good and students can be compliant under its influence. I try to highlight when I’m wrong or when I don’t know the answer. We’re so focused on answers—it paralyzes students or awards the most verbal or aggressive ones. I always think about poet Kaia Sand’s statement, “I am interested in a poetic practice that insists on inexpert inquiry, gathering ideas and ways of knowing to open a space for more collaborative inquiry.”

Honestly, I’m a restless thinker, I shift a lot, I crack jokes. One of the sentences from my syllabus asks the students to be “Serious-minded and funny and fun. Yes, please try for this.” My courses are active; learning is equated partially with experience. I just took a class to the Belladonna* Collaborative Studio where students learned about collectivity and publishing. Last semester we visited the Center for Book Arts to discuss letter press printing and broadsides.

Jill: Then, here’s a big question: does your pedagogy inform your poetry? So many of us poets teach. But do we trace how the teaching works its way into our writings?

Jennifer: Oh, that’s such a good question and I think about this often. All I can say is this: I really think it does and vice versa. The poem in many ways is pedagogical, maybe it’s directed toward teaching another, but, truly, it’s first directed toward teaching me. It’s the way I mediate the world and come to not necessarily understanding, but a richer view and scale of my questions and thoughts. I was originally taught that the poem comes from knowing and that knowledge should be written down in “beautiful” words. But that model no longer suffices. Also, fundamentally, poetry is how I learned to think critically—I’m always trying to raise the bar on my own thinking. In this sense, it feels like I’m working a similar muscle when I’m writing as when I’m teaching. Research and investigation comes in quite a bit as process on both platforms. And, last: reading! Reading all kinds of books informs my writing; it is another way of writing. I try to incorporate several new works each semester. I want to be boggled, not too comfortable, challenged, and this widens my poetics quite a bit. You know how it is—when you read a work to yourself that’s one kind of absorption, but when you read it out loud in a class and then discuss it another tunnel of absorption develops—to find language that addresses what another is doing aesthetically, formally, etc.

Black and white image of empty room from Jill Magi's LABOR.

Jill: Jen, I love this image of various kinds of absorption, ways of reading and thinking—and that the classroom and poetry both facilitate this. If I’m understanding you, the classroom is a space to practice almost relentless inquiry. So, too, is the poem. That’s wonderfully expressed in your answer.

Finally, as I’ve expressed to you before—and I think we even had a little conflict about this years ago, so apologies if I bring up something unpleasant!—but I worry that being a good teacher is such feminized labor that it’s really invisible. I remember once you asked to talk about teaching and I responded “no, I’d rather not.” I was being all Bartleby-like!

The background to my refusal was this: I thought that my ticket out of being an adjunct was to not spend so much energy on my teaching. I overtly privileged writing and getting my work out into the world. There are some things wrong with this strategy, but most of all, what’s wrong is the system that would push me into that frame of mind.

But I have to ask you about this gendered aspect of the labor. How do you navigate this? Can you speak about this? I tried to unpack some of this in my book LABOR, and I’d like to hear your perspective.

Jennifer: Your question is a difficult one and important to think about. I only vaguely remember a conflict about this but am happy to have you bring this up! I struggle with this a lot and speak to other female colleagues who have a similar experience.

I used to work really hard in teaching and I think part of it was for approval, like it was some ticket to my “success.” Instead, what happened is that I became known as a worker, as reliable and constant and someone who should be placed on multiple committees, who should mentor new faculty, meet independently with students on their various projects, someone who should shoulder the “emotional labor” of meeting with students who are struggling and don’t know where else to go.

Should I privilege my work more? Absolutely. I’m trying to do it and yet the ingrained female ethic of working hard, being a “good girl,” is strong! But I’m more boundaried now and less interested in putting work into teaching that isn’t fulfilling to me too. I’m less of a pleaser. I bristle and run out of time for students and faculty. To some extent, my writing life, my publications, have taken on more and more of a role so I just have less time to put into teaching altogether. Eileen Myles and I discuss this in our exchange in Letters to Poets.

I definitely respect your position on privileging your own writing. Is that still the case for you?

Jill: Well, sort of. Lucky for me, I now have a sustaining job. And as I continue teaching I have come to see that if I’m not fully engaged in a project of my own, and if I’m not bringing my open questions about that project into the classroom, I am not engaged. It’s almost a new kind of ethics for me: to be fully who I am, which is a person for whom making things—text and image and ideas—organizes my life. In other words, I don’t count on the students to come up with questions that stimulate me. But if I bring in the problem/project that I’m trying to work through, I am usually quite stimulated by what comes back to me. I hope that my bringing “unresolved energy” into the space and letting students know that this is how writers and artists work, I’m doing the teaching I need to be doing.

And, speaking of having a body and being in classroom space, I am keenly aware that I am now the age where younger students see me as the same age as their mothers. And something in me would not like to fulfill this role in the least!

I equate middle age with fire—not burning hard but burning steady, energy not brandished in order to entertain or warm others—but, rather, the pure steady fire of desire for new ideas and forms. I try to bring this kind of fire to the classroom and try to leave the emotive, the watery stuff, outside the door. It’s of course not possible to do that fully. But when I look at students, I don’t wonder, “are you having a good time in this class” or “how are you feeling about your learning”—rather, I want students to feel intellectually and creatively instigated. I want them to use their intuition in the classroom and make that kind of sensing integral to intellectual work. I want to know what and how they are thinking, making—where they are at the precipice of words—and I want them to be reflexive about their learning. We meet on those grounds principally. Sharing that fire.

Jennifer: This makes sense and part of it I believe is related to age. More and more I’m also leading with my concerns. I think it takes the cleanness away from art or writing to hear a writer’s process and concerns, that it’s not just voilà: here’s the book I wrote, the art I made. I used to not know how to lead with my desire, that I was there more as caretaker or that the model I had in my head about leading with my desire was soured from observing too many male colleagues who were teaching their own work and not really reading or engaging with their students. I love your “burning, steady fire,” and I’ve felt that from you and I’m sure your students do as well.  “Sharing that fire”—that is wonderful, feminist, I think. Lately, through the teaching of my Feminist Avant-garde Poetics course I very much feel that shared intellectual space. Last semester, the students planned a final reading for the class. They made fliers and distributed them everywhere, they read work we did in class and worked quite a bit on how to perform the work. Erica Hunt was our featured reader before the students read and it was truly incredible. I mention this because there was a palpable energy in the room. I felt nervous and excited like something was happening and I wasn’t sure what it was. Afterwards, one of the colleagues who came said to me, “Those kids were on fire.” 

But I’m still looking for alternative models, or maybe a happy medium. I will say that I have had female teachers in my life who have policies about not blurbing, writing letters of recommendation, and so forth. I really respect this but also it does provide obstacles for those who could use their support. Jill, I’m still tangled about these issues but at this point my classes seem to draw students who are marginalized, the radicals, the innovators and so forth.

Jill: And they are fortunate to find you! Your dedication to bringing your whole self into the space—classroom space as well as the space of the page—is inspiring. Your take on the teaching life, the writing life, always gives me something to think about. Thanks for this dialogue, Jennifer.

 

Originally Published: October 30th, 2017

Jill Magi is a writer, artist, critic, and educator working in text, image, and textile. She is the author of Threads (Futurepoem, 2007), Torchwood (Shearsman, 2008), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), Cadastral Map (Shearsman, 2011), LABOR (Nightboat, 2014), SIGN CLIMACTERIC (Hostile Books, 2017), and a scholarly monograph on textimage hybridity:...