Colleen Abel on Writing Lessons

Alumna and current Joan Beebe Teaching Fellow at Warren Wilson College, Colleen Abel (poetry, ’04), discussing her approach to teaching poetry at a service-oriented institution is featured in the blog series “Writing Lessons” at Ploughshares

colleenabelRecently, poet and scholar Seth Abramson released a list on The Huffington Post called “The Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry.” The list included writers, teachers, publishers, founders of listservs and writing centers, and celebrity Friends of Poetry like Bill Murray and Patti Smith. Abramson didn’t define what he meant by advocacy, but I imagine he meant things like word-spreading, cheerleading, and trying to make poetry reach a wider audience—which most of us agree that poetry needs.

On the same day that Abramson published his list, I was participating in orientation activities at the school where I’ll be teaching this fall, Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. As I’ve heard a dozen times over the course of orientation, WWC is the only school in the country with an integrated work/service/learning program. In other words, students here spend 15 hours a week on a work crew. They are the college’s janitors, cooks, constructions workers, landscapers, foresters. On top of the work crew—and, of course, their studies—students have many, many hours of required service volunteering in the community, taking service classes, and attending issues workshops. (The other day my son tumbled through an intricate Asheville playground built in five days by WWC students).

Naturally, the culture of service here has gotten me thinking about the connections between poetry and volunteerism. In addition to teaching my usual poetry curriculum this fall, with lessons in things like surprise, voice, structure, and image, I want to show my students how to take the step from being a poetry advocate and promoting work they love, to serving the community using poetry as a tool. To me the difference between advocacy and service may be like the difference between being a pastor and being a missionary, only without the fraught associations of either.

I look forward to introducing my students to the work of Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor, the co-founders of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, a DC organization that uses poetry to help teenage inmates write about their lives and their experiences. We’ll talk about the local organization Asheville Writers in the Schools, one of a multitude of programs across the country that works in educational settings with youth writers. We’ll also talk about the Line Assembly Poets, six young writers who took a van across the country this summer, facilitating community workshops in libraries, at festivals, and in bookstores.

These three examples—out of hundreds—show that poetry is elastic enough to be used as a therapeutic tool, as an expression of imagination and empowerment, and as a source of entertainment and intellectual stimulation. I’ll be encouraging students to discover their own aesthetics in the classroom, while also showing them that, despite their own approaches and methods, poetry contains multitudes. It can’t be contained to just the classroom, and the more possibilities that writers—be they inmates, schoolchildren, plumbers, or professors—are given, the more capacious poetry will become.

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