Friday, September 14, 2012

Pros and Cons of Instructing as an MFA Graduate

 In relation to teaching, I think Roger Waters put it best: “These are the pros and cons of hitchhiking.” Some people would never hitchhike—it’s scary, dangerous, messy. Those adjectives fit right in with teaching, along with frustrating, time consuming, and low paying. However, the optimist in me finds a silver lining—teaching (like hitchhiking) can be fun, adventurous, risk taking, and awesome.

We all know teaching’s risks and rewards—flexible schedule but frequent home work (like 97% of the time); great benefits but low pay; fun interaction with students but the inability to please everyone; and for those of us who are also writers (or at least trying to be), the playing field is that much more challenging; we must also make time to create.

Because I love teaching (and my sanity), I use some assignments I was given as a student, hoping that if I enjoyed them, my students will too. One is an imitation assignment (for “Interpretation of Poetry”) which requires students to choose a poem and write their own version, imitating the original (its form, style, rhythm, content, etc.).

Students wrote imitations of Mina Loy’s “Mexican Desert” and Kim Addonizio’s “What do Women Want?” (providing several versions of “What do Men Want?”). The best was a response to Dorianne Laux’s “Trying to Raise the Dead”— the student wrote from the dead husband’s perspective, so the two poems became a poignant conversation. In conjunction with writing a poem, students must write an explication—what they chose to imitate from the original, how they did it, what they chose to do without, and why.

Unfortunately, I can’t do cool assignments like that in my other classes, but I try to get creative when I can. Sometimes, after an in-class writing exercise, I’ll have a sudden urge of inspiration and jot the ideas for a poem on the back of my hand or on my phone. Otherwise, the semester doesn’t leave me with much writing time.

Lately, I’ve realized that reading so much prose (both student writing and novels), has negatively affected my poetry. To help make more time for writing, I’ve joined a writer’s group, and several comments have been about the prosody of my poems. “This reads like a short story” would be great if my intent was flash fiction (maybe it should be?), but when I’ve spent the past week working on line breaks and syllabics, and I’m told it’s prosey, it can be pretty frustrating, but they’re right, and so I’m back to the computer.

I also exchange work with some college friends who are writing teachers in similar situations—lots of grading, not a lot of free time for writing—reading other poetry helps us keep from prosody.

The bottom line is that we’re writing during those final hours of sunlight, or when our significant others are sleeping or watching sports and don’t care what we’re doing, or we’re doing the writing prompts we assign to our creative writing students just to make ourselves write something. And when we’re satisfied that it’s good, we send it out to a journal or two and hope for the best. And that’s the best any of us can do.

Melissa Garcia Criscuolo earned her B.A. in English from FIU and her M.F.A. in poetry from UF; she has worked at FAU as an instructor since Fall 2008. Her work has been published with Alimentum: The Literature of Food, PALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano & Latino Literary Art, Nibble, Subtropics (a translation) and The Acentos Review (poetry and nonfiction). Her poetry chapbook Things in My Backyard was published this summer with Finishing Line Press.