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Interview by Elizabeth Maria Falcón
Christopher Nelson is a master's candidate and Jacob Javits Fellow at the University of Arizona. In 2009 his chapbook Blue House, selected by Mary Jo Bang for the New American Poets Series, was published by the Poetry Society of America. He has taught composition, creative writing, and literature for several years at Catalina Foothills High School and, most recently, at the University of Arizona. His interviews with poets can be read at http://nelsonpoetry.blogspot.com.
Elizabeth: What inspired you to teach to the Poetry Center's Reading & Lecture series?
Chris: There's a history to that inspiration that goes back ten years, which is how long I've been enjoying the Poetry Center's offerings. Actually, it goes back further than that, in a round-about way: as an undergraduate at Southern Utah University I had the privilege of being in a small writing program (directed by poet David Lee) that was visited by several talented poets: Samuel Green, Joy Harjo, Robert Hass, and Leslie Norris, to name a few. During these visits I remember feeling something new to me: poetry as a living thing, as something that would inhabit the room and pass among us. These moments with living language were catalytic and quickening in a way that time alone with my favorite books was not. I remember hearing Joy Harjo sing her poems, and now when I read them, I can hear her vocal inflections and sense a poem's lilt and pulse. I remember Robert Hass's fascinating introductions to his poems; there was such seamlessness between the man and the poet that he was often well into reading a poem before I realized that he was no longer introducing it. I would draw inspiration for weeks from one such visit. So, you see, I'd caught the bug, the poetry virus.
When I moved to Tucson I began attending the Poetry Center's events and quickly realized that it was a house of muses in which those sort of experiences with language abounded. When I began teaching a few years ago I decided to integrate my curriculum with the Poetry Center's, as much as possible, knowing that it would be more than a meaningful supplement or a relevant adjunct or a field trip. I envisioned the intersection of the curricula as potential encounters with magical living language. Of course, it isn't that for every student every time, but it happens more than I had expected.
Elizabeth: What do you hope that your students will get out of it?
Chris: Entertainment, inspiration, a sense of what the human imagination is doing in this time, a sense of the vast possibilities of language, a respect--or reverence--for funding for the arts. And not just those obviously positive things, but I hope that there is some bewilderment and even dislike and frustration. I think we learn the most when we're challenged.
Elizabeth: What kind of impact do you think it has upon student learning?
Chris: That's not easy to assess. If a student catches the bug, so to speak, the effects can be lifelong, but they may be largely invisible. Overtly, however, I see students excited by literature; I see them more engaged with the content of the course--and with each other--when the centerpieces of the lessons are live literary events. And the Poetry Center's events are diverse, which is commendable. Many people know about the reading series, but there are also discussions and lectures and classes and exhibits and, of course, there's the library, which isn't only books.
Also, I want students to be part of--or have the option to participate in--a dialog that began with the first human utterances and stretches unimaginably through time and space to include us in this present moment and all of our noise. When we think of the looming literary giants--Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson, et al--we think of a canon that has duration and historicity, and it seems permanent and authoritative; but think of time and space--aren't there 100 billion galaxies? Against that immensity, against that forever, what have people said about the universal themes? About love and death and morality and war and law and self and mind? And what do students have to say? That's exciting to me. So, perhaps ideally, the impact of impacts is a permission to speak.
Elizabeth: Has anything surprised you?
Chris: Sure. I've had physics majors fall in love with Gertrude Stein and high schoolers find pleasure in the difficulty of Hart Crane. I've had a student start and sustain a correspondence with a famous poet. I've had students join the school literary magazine or win poetry contests. I've had students start creative writing blogs and maintain them for years. I've had students at the beginning of the school year openly admit that they dislike poetry, but by the end they're writing it regularly--some of them on the sly, some enthusiastically out in the open.
Elizabeth: How do you set up your students to be successful in attending readings, lectures, discussions, etc. outside of class?
Chris: It's an important question. Thank you for asking. I always do something preparatory. At least I'll share a poem or two by the poet who will be visiting, and I'll say a few words about his or her aesthetic or style so that students have a context for what they'll experience. At most I'll create a whole unit around a poet's visit, as I did recently with Franz Wright's visit. This will include reading poems and interviews and criticism, class discussions, imitations of the poet's work, a thematic or stylistic analysis, and a follow-up discussion after the poet's visit. It's tenfold more interesting than lessons out of textbooks. And, as you know, the Poetry Center often prefaces a poet's visit with a "Shop Talk" that introduces the poet's work and personal history and the literary context in which he or she writes. These are among my favorite events, and my students have spoken highly of them as well. They pave the way for a more enjoyable and more insightful event.
Elizabeth: Do you have certain methods for piquing student interest and/or for enriching the experiences?
Chris: I think that my own enthusiasm for the events piques many students; but some need a lure, so I often offer extra credit for attending. Most students realize quickly, however, that the extra credit is just the carrot being dangled in front of them; the real reward is the experience itself. And I think that the experience is richest for students when they have ownership of it: when they can choose to go or not, when they are safe to like it or dislike it, when they can participate to the degree they are comfortable or are interested. But sometimes I make attendance at an event required--if it is the centerpiece of an instructional unit, for example. Sometimes I'll give them the Poetry Center's calendar of events and tell them that they are required to attend three of the ten or fifteen events for that semester. Much of my approach is determined by the course that I'm teaching--high school or university, poetry or literature survey, advanced placement or not, etc.
Elizabeth: Tell us about the relationship between your pedagogy and your writing. Do they intersect, and if so, how?
Chris: Well, having graded thousands and thousands of essays has made me a better editor of my own work. [Laughter.] ... I teach most effectively that which I'm passionate about, which I imagine is the case for all teachers. When there's a reciprocation--when my writing excites my teaching and my teaching excites my writing--that's a beautiful thing. And the energy for that engine comes from me, my students, the things we read, the events we attend, the discussions we have, the confusions and insights that arise--it's a synergy. Of course, there are times when the creative fires have reduced to coals, but that's okay; the wind will come back and fan the flames. You can tell that it's a mysterious relationship between my pedagogy and my writing if I'm resorting to metaphor to talk about it!