Community & the Classroom: an interview with Juliana Spahr

by Michelle Naka Pierce

Juliana Spahr's books of poetry include the 1995 National Poetry Series winner Response and the more recent volume Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). She taught poetry and poetics in the Department of English at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa up until last year. She currently teaches creative writing at Mills College. She is also an associated faculty member with Bard College's Institute for Writing and Thinking and Goddard College's Master of Fine Arts program. With Joan Retallack, she is editing Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary.

In this excerpt from a much longer conversation, Spahr talks with Michelle Naka Pierce, who directs the Writing Center at Naropa University, about enhancing the role of community in the creative writing curriculum.

Michelle Naka Pierce: I just finished rereading Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You the other day and was struck by the language and suggestion of community in the lines, "In culture we reach out to build / ourselves. // In culture we interact." Can you discuss what role community plays in your creative writing workshops?

Juliana Spahr: I think of two sorts of community in your question that matter in creative writing workshops. (1) The community of the classroom. This I think is the easy part. In general, students like to tell each other they like each other or their work. Or at least in my experience they do (although I've heard otherwise from people in intensely competitive M.F.A. programs). Here's a sample of an easy community-building exercise: I often start undergraduate classes with a collaborative writing exercise that I stole from some people at Bard. I give students a range of unrelated and disparate works. These change all the time. The most recent time I did this the works were these:

♦ A list of gods from Greg Dening's Islands and Beaches
♦ A section from B. K. S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga
♦ A short essay on bird song from a PBS program
♦ Lisa Jarnot's "Suddenly Last Summer"
♦ John Ashbery's "Some Trees"
♦ A passage from Jean Luc Nancy's Being Singular Plural.

Then I have participants do various sorts of writing (see handout) and put them to work in writing a collaborative piece. This is both an exercise in editing (what to put in and what to leave out) and in collaboration. The pieces that students create are often amazing. I've had the exercise fail once, the one time I did it with M.F.A. students. They refused to make one piece and ended up with these little segregated sections of pieces. (2) Then the harder issue . . . getting the community into the creative writing classroom. Or getting cultural issues into the creative writing classroom. Or getting students out in the community from the creative writing classroom (poets in schools; poets in prisons; poets in . . . ). These seem to me to be the things that I need to keep working on in the near future and yet find very hard to do because there is so little institutional support and, I have to admit, there isn't a huge amount of interest in those who go to graduate school in creative writing either. I have no clear answers or advice on this topic.

MNP: I'm dialoguing with Thalia Field on similar issues, and she says that "Schools, though often dressed benignly like a village of small merchants and farmers, are financed and manipulated by the state or corporate state-surrogates." Do you agree? Is the dilemma with "community" a deeply rooted one?

JS: I do think that the community building that happens in workshops is artificial, that it risks pacifying participants; and I do think it is hard to move from collaborative classroom models (which even something as traditional as the seminar uses through the model of discussion) to more socially resonant models of community such as activist political movements, social justice movements, etc. I do not at all want to suggest that this is a natural or easy process. I wish I were smarter on this topic, but I am not yet.

So while I do not think that doing a collaborative writing essay in the classroom leads to activist or collaborative work outside of it, I do think it could lead to the creation of a more interesting piece of writing than one person could create on his or her own.

I am still trying to think about how the humanities divisions of universities might be places less for self-exploration and self-betterment and more for outreach. I think prison education programs are one possibility. I have a former colleague here who teaches computer literacy courses at housing projects; that seems another useful model. Another possibility would be to encourage and support more innovative master's projects, ones less paper-based and more outreach-based: such as a master's thesis that organizes a reading series, or a master's thesis that is a documentary film on the importance of literature to anti-colonial political movements, or a masters thesis that organizes a community writing workshop. But I'm still trying to think of other ways.

As for Thalia's comment, universities and colleges are financed by the state or corporate state surrogates. They do a lot of socializing and policing. They do perpetuate and maintain class divisions (even as they grant many people class mobility). But I think I might be a little more optimistic than Thalia, at least about state university systems (I'm not so optimistic about private universities; the pressure to be responsive to community needs is just not as intense on private institutions and it shows—this is just one more reason that states might want to maintain strong funding support for their universities). I think there can be moments of disruption in them. The U of Hawai`i at Manoa, for instance, has a Center for Hawaiian Studies that basically educates students in anti-colonial resistance. This is an amazing thing, and it wouldn't have happened in a private university or in the private sector in general. The state university system is one of few places where Marxists, Black Separatists, political activists, etc., can get hired for what they think, where this sort of thinking is seen as beneficial, as part of larger conversations that universities need to have.

MNP: I see your work in the tradition of post-language writing. How do you deal with aesthetic issues in the classroom? With "mainstream" and "alternative" writing styles, camps, lineages?

JS: Language writing is just one tradition for my work. It has been a powerful one. Yet I feel that just as powerful have been the traditions of a wide variety of culturally based poetries such as Hawai`i's many local poetries, Caribbean poetries, Native American poetries, and Harlem Renaissance poetries. I have learned a lot about structures and forms from language writing, but I have been pushed just as much to think about poetry's cultural obligations and possibilities by what could loosely be called community-based poetries.

I believe that some of the most important work that teachers can do is to point out to students the wide range of possibilities available to them as writers and how that range can enliven their capacities to make sense of where they are, where they want to go in the world. I work hard to teach a multiplicity of poetries. And I often begin classes with a lecture in which I attempt to map out the often overlapping concerns of different poetries around today. Lately I've been trying out this exercise where I draw an axis on the board. I say that above the horizontal line is conventional or standard language and below it is artificial or nonstandard language. To the right of the vertical line is individualism and to the left is community. I then have students call out poets, and we try to place them on the map (of course we end up with a lot clustered around the center of the cross). But I think that this conventional/nonstandard language issue and this individualism/community issue are two defining ones for contemporary writing.

My goal here is just to denaturalize any single poetry, and to expose students to the wideness of contemporary writing practices. I often try to give students a range of works around a single form in creative writing classrooms. We will look at the sonnet, and we'll read ones written by Petrarch, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Claude McKay, Bernadette Mayer, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Lorenzo Thomas, etc. Then we'll list all the different ways the sonnet can be the sonnet. I'm always trying in these discussions to get at a deeper history of form here. To look at how Shakespeare reacts to Petrarch and then how McKay and Mayer react to this same courtly love tradition in very different ways. And then discuss what parts of the sonnet that a tradition like New Formalism is holding onto so tight.

MNP: I was wondering if you could discuss CYBERGRAPHIA.

JS: In some sort of techno-speak short hand, CYBERGRAPHIA is a web-based software platform that encourages students to interact closely with primary texts. The story is this: Bard College got some money from the Mellon Foundation to develop the uses of technology in the classroom. They decided to do something that incorporated the teaching strategies of the Institute for Writing and Thinking. The Institute was set up by Peter Elbow, and while it has morphed into some other thing all together, it is still highly indebted to his sense of the importance of written language as a tool for learning in all subjects. The Institute's workshops offered at Bard as well as on-site at schools are experiential; instruction about theory supports and complements practice. The workshops model the collaborative learning environment the Institute desires to create for students in which reading, writing, and thinking are active processes.

Joan Retallack, knowing I was taking a year off from Hawai`i, asked me if I would be interested in developing something through this grant that would be attentive to the Institute's pedagogies. The website's roots are also in a four-day conference called "Poetry & Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary," organized by Joan, that the Institute for Writing and Thinking ( held in 2000. It concentrated on how innovative, thoughtfully performative, and critically aware practices of teaching might arise when teaching contemporary writing.

What I did was try to design something that would be specific to Institute teaching tools and take advantage of the Internet as a place for collaborative reading. Working with a programmer, I developed a workshop forum and five online interactive teaching tools. The tools are designed for faculty and students to create, collaborate, and comment on poetry and prose.

Basically, the website lets you do various sorts of collaborative writing. It differs from programs like Blackboard or WebCT in that it is less a place for posting static data or assignments and more a place for various sorts of conversations to develop.

adapted from an Institute for Writing and Thinking Workshop

1. Appoint a facilitator. The facilitator will make final decisions in case of disagreement and keep the assignment to schedule.

2. Brainstorm some possible themes for your writing. You might have more than one related theme. You might not. Then discuss which works you will focus on as a group (a.k.a. "the primary works"). This can be as many or as few as you want. Facilitator makes final decision if necessary. This shouldn't take more than five minutes.

3. Each person then gets a writing assignment. The facilitator facilitates this. Here are the writing assignments:

  • One person tells a personal story related to the theme.
  • One person writes something only using words from one or more of the primary works.
  • One person describes one of the primary works somehow (could use literary criticism; could use imitation; could use some other form).
  • One person puts two of the primary works in dialogue (or if you've only got one, just choose another one on your own).
  • One person does some sort of experiment on one of the primary works.

The writing that is done can be in any genre. It should be creative yet not myopic or overly personal. It can be creatively analytical.


If you've got more than five people, then the facilitator should assign one of the assignments twice. The facilitator should time this writing for twenty minutes.

4. Once done, everyone should read their writing out loud. Then everyone should work together (again the facilitator should take the lead here) to make a piece of writing. There is a good chance that the group will have to make the "essay" multi-genre. The group should make it a point to include writing by everyone, but every word by every one need not be included. The group might also want to work hard at making one coherent piece. They might want to cut pieces up and weave them into something new.

5. If time, read the piece out loud to the group at least once.

6. Facilitator should then invite someone from the group to take the essay home, type it up, and bring in copies for everyone next week.

Click here to purchase Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004