Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writer's Craft Interview with John Ouzas and angela rawlings

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June 2, 2011 -

Open Book: Toronto:

John, can you please tell us about your Writer's Craft classes.

John Ouzas:

The Writer’s Craft program is a new one for me, so I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach it, but because it’s not a compulsory course it attracts students who are motivated and willing to experiment. That’s certainly who was there and an excellent place to start. It’s where we started and are finishing this course, with a lot of experimentation.

Before taking on this course, students had a solid grounding in writing academic literary criticism from previous courses, but this class has allowed them to explore areas of interest to them and helped to break down some firmly held notions of what is “correct” in writing and how they can discover freedoms within the confines of the word and with a voice of their own.

I don’t have any reservation in saying that we have a lot of raw and developed talents. That’s not to say that those talents are with writing alone. The students — as I’ve been discovering since this is my first year at Malvern C.I. — have exceptional talents in music, athletics, drama, public service and many other areas that they bring to the class, and that’s what’s brought the richness that you see in the students’ insightful questions. They’ve got a lot to drawn on.

OBT:

angela, how did you become involved in working with the classes?

angela rawlings:

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and working with high-school classes and their remarkable teachers since 2003. These opportunities have come through individual requests from teachers (then partially subsidized by the League of Canadian Poets and Writer’s Union of Canada) as well as organizations such as Writers in Electronic Residence, Learning through the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council’s Artists in Education program.

John and I met at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in 2005, when I was invited to work extensively with Katherine Parrish’s classes. I’ve long been impressed by the active and sensitive engagement of pedagogues like Katherine and John, and their creative approaches to introducing students to reading, writing and thinking beyond the borders of the classroom.

John and I bumped into each other last summer as we edged around Queen’s Park during the G20 Summit, and he extended the possibility that we might work together with his new Writer’s Craft classes at Malvern Collegiate in 2010/2011. It has been a phenomenal experience to meet his cohort of gifted students, and to navigate non-traditional approaches to literature while also bridging “Canadian” and “contemporary” within the classroom.

OBT:

Did the students come to the course with knowledge of and interest in poetry?

JO:

The students’ interests are as diverse as the students themselves, and while some did have a sense that they liked poetry, many only had a sense of the tradition of poetry in the Western canon so many were apprehensive about taking on poetry. Experiencing poetry from a poet seemed a good approach. angela’s precision and rigour spanned the gap perfectly because she showed them that poetry is not a fluffy white cloud wandering on a blue sky of emotion that allows for expression, but rather a literal living and breathing of words (no disrespect to Wordsworth since after, all his poetry was a new and spritely dance in his contexts). She was breaking down notions of poetry as plodding and making way for the growth of new, flexible, agile and muscular ideas.

ar:

The course began in September, and I did not meet students until February 2011. Their interest in poetry varied from a couple of students who confessed their desire to pursue writing beyond high school to other students who showed little to no interest in poetry as a useful and enervating form of literature. It’s been incredible to witness the blossoming, constructive attitudes and thought through the various moments of this project.

OBT:

The series of interviews that the students conducted are remarkable. The questions they ask are thoughtful and smart, which of course leads to some really interesting answers from the poets. What did you hope the students would learn from the interviews?

JO:

Oh, the questions are incredibly smart. I was thrilled to see many students flourish in a new form of writing. As for what I wanted them to learn, this experience was so multifaceted that it reached into many areas simultaneously from an investigation into contemporary poetry, to journalism skills, to interacting with people on the local and national scene and ultimately, to publication. I had no intention of getting into journalistic writing with this class, but learning opportunities arise from unexpected places, as they always do.
The project sprouted off of an assignment that I created where I wanted students to explore the lives and works of canonical poets and compare them to those of living, breathing poets. I wanted them to see the value of the traditional forms and how they were tied to the lives and times of the poets in the English tradition. But I also wanted them to see how we are now in a new idiom that is both an extension of that tradition and one that is responding to the world we’re creating so that they could see their own lives reflected in it.
This was at the time that angela was working with us over five days, and she proposed that we go even further since she was connected to the poetry community and could put students into contact with living, breathing Canadian poets who were willing to collaborate. angela has been tireless in coordinating the communication between students and poets as well as putting the practical elements in place to create the forum for it all, and this has become much more than I could have hoped for. The learning experience became even richer because of it as she’s shown students how form and content are inextricably linked and that was the intent for the assignment.
The project's scope was very wide, but if there was one thing that I valued most, it was that students were working with something authentic, with real people outside of the classroom. I would have preferred that there weren’t any marks attached to it all, and I’m almost ashamed to admit that there were, but ultimately, the work was so outstanding that the students deserved the feedback that marks can sometimes give.

ar:

My hope was that students would gain an understanding that poetry is not some dusty, historical form written by dead white men, or that poetry is not solely the mathematical structure of rhyme and meter so often associated with childhood songs and nursery rhymes. I hoped for students to experience what I missed at their age — the dawning awareness that there is such a thing as contemporary poetry, that it can behave in radically different ways than the oft-taught historical forms, that poetry is written by people living in Canada (hell, people living in their very neighbourhood such as Kevin Connolly or people who used to live there such as former Malvern alumnus Rachel Zolf). I hoped students would realize and recognize the validity of their own readerly responses (instead of putting so much emphasis on just what that mythic writer might have meant). I hoped that students would witness their own ability to access contemporary poetic forms. The project hoped to provide a humanizing moment where students and writers could truly feel that spark of readership, of comprehension. I hoped the students would gain journalistic experience after intensive research into a book, poem and poet whose work honestly squeaked their squirrels. I hoped that the writers would respond in earnest, with passion and taking these students’ questions seriously. There is much we have to learn from each other, if only we make the effort to extend ourselves.

OBT:

Did the students choose which poets they would interview, or were they each assigned a poet? What sort of research did the students do to prepare for the interviews?

JO:

angela began by letting students explore the range of poets’ works firsthand to get a feeling for each poet and which ones they might like to spend some time with. Some were certain about the poet they were interested in but others weren’t. angela is so sensitive to students as individuals and knows the work of her contemporaries well, and she was able to make insightful pairings for those who weren’t too sure. Others just took up the work of any poet they were offered, and that without much difficulty.
To prepare for the interviews, students read a volume of the chosen or assigned poet’s works as well as any biographical information they could find. After that, we spent two or three classes discussing how to frame probing questions that fit into the thematic categories assigned so that students could compare the ways that questions could vary and to look for patterns and variety in the responses. For example, one particular area I wanted students to explore had to do with Bloom's idea of the "anxiety of influence." Since we had many young writers who may be daunted by taking themselves public with their writing, I hoped for them to get some insight from the poetry community about how valuable the poetic tradition is to writers and how that figured in to their work. What became clearer to students was the range of ways in which writers negotiate their relationship with their worlds.

ar:

In February, I brought a selection of my home library (over fifty books) into the classrooms for the 72-minute period. Students were given the “assignment” structure to grab a couple of books, browse them, re-select if the work didn’t mesh with them, and then to settle into a scavenger hunt where they would mark down words they liked and knew already, unfamiliar words they’d like to know, lines from poems that could function as potential epigraphs, and poems that intrigued. Fifty minutes into this exercise, students were invited to shift their attention to writing a poem that used one of the lines as an epigraph, used one of the lines as the first line for their own poem or worked within the perceived style in which a poem within their chosen book had been written. Erin’s response poems to Sherwin Tjia’s The World Is a Heartbreaker were spot-on, crafted in his style and showing an immediate, intuitive and immersive understanding of his work. A later collaboration between Rebecca, Taylor and Micaela (actualized in all three speaking text while a visual poem in the form of an animated gif was projected atop their bodies) demonstrated some of the readerly exposure to arts practitioners and an expansion of the definition of what a poem could be.

After this experience, I began to brainstorm about the potential for these students to have greater access to the books and writers. John and I discussed the potential to launch a larger, summative, year-end project that included interviews, responses and student-bio creation. Knowing the goodwill and brilliant pedagogical sensitivity of fellow writers, I set out to inquire about interest and availability of writers to dialogue with students. The response was powerful!

Students were given the option to select the poets who they would interview. I provided a list of writers whose books I’d brought into the classroom. Over half of the students selected poets. Two students requested to interview poets outside of my list (love the initiative!!). The remaining students met with John and/or me to see who we’d recommend, given our knowledge of the student’s interests and writing direction as well as what we knew of the poets. Part of the success of the project depended, I feel, on the students having room to self-select their reading material and poets for interview.

For the interviews themselves, the students were required to read ONE book in entirety by the poet they’d selected. Some students opted to read more than one book (beautiful!). Students were also required to spend time reading one poem from the book in-depth.

OBT:

What's the feedback about the interview project been like from the students and the poets that they interviewed?

JO:

These students loved it. But the telling response has come through with how they ran with it in their own work. The sense I got from them was that they had permission to create and to think from their poets. They actually started to refer to the poet they were interviewing as “my poet,” and I think that connection of ownership was personal and made the greatest impact. They were recommending their poets and their work to each other and to me for future students.
Spending that intimate time with poets through their poetry, students saw the ties to traditional forms but also the possibilities for new ones and that is coming through clearly and in a refreshing way in their final projects for the course, with many of them opting to write poetry themselves. They want to experiment with what they’ve seen. They want to create and move on their own. What more could a teacher hope for?
Many students responded on a much more personal level, too. Here are some excerpts that students elected to share:

I must admit that when we first started the class poetry unit, I was not looking forward to it all that much. I don’t that there’s anything wrong with poetry, and I definitely enjoy reading it. Whenever I’ve done it in a school setting, I’ve always found that something gets lost in the study. That thing that goes missing from poetry is replaced by the rules, regulations and terminology that accompany any in depth analysis of any kind of art form. Just like looking at a bird in a cage, it’s not the same studying poetry as reading it for our own enjoyment. In the past, whenever I thought of poetry certain images would come to mind. When I read canonical poets like William Blake or Byron, I think of young white men in 1800s clothing writing by candlelight while going to see operas in their spare time. Whenever I read Robert Frost, I think of a much older man hiking through the wilderness, then writing his thoughts down in a journal on a porch of a cottage [and] watching the sunset. When I read contemporary poetry, I think of librarian-like, feminist women writing to prove a point. So naturally when I heard we were going to be interviewing contemporary Canadian poets, I was slightly discouraged. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when I read through all the interviews. While some of the responses were a little eccentric and…frizzy, it was an altogether pleasant experience. It was interesting to see the similarities and the differences between the interviews, despite the fact that they all work in the same field. I guess such diversity was to be expected. I doubt you could find a field of study more diverse than poetry. What amazed me most about all of the different interviews was how amazingly honest and personal the poets were. They shared amazing amounts of personal detail when it came to answering questions about their lives, and they weren’t in the least bit shy of explaining the unique ways they go about writing. It was amazing to see such honesty in their personal lives as well as in their writing. - Conor Ling

I, like Betsy [Struthers], had a bad early experience with a passion of mine. At a young age, I too was told – by my own teacher - that I had no talent at playing the flute and should quit. I was able to relate to Betsy and was comforted that though it took her a while to build back her confidence, [she] now has become a well-respected writer, as I hope to become a well-respected musician. - Rebecca Tuck

From [the poets'] responses, I learned about perseverance and the value of digging into your experiences to assess and reassess your feelings and emotions and sometimes to slop around in there a little to find meaning and connections. From what I read in many of the poets' responses, it’s the process that helps to define the final outcome of a good piece of work and that the editing and reediting is almost like a sculptor shaping clay until it has the right texture and the right consistency to best represent the final form. - Allegra Shaw

What I really enjoyed from [a] particular interview was [Zachariah] Wells’s answer to question two regarding the influence of other poets. He stressed how he wasn’t worried about originality because nothing is original. Having influences is important, so he stresses the importance of reading widely and immersing one’s self in the world that surrounds [you]. A quote that he included really helped summarize everything we’ve looked at in this class about external influences: "It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to." It’s become apparent in this unit that a writer is going to face influences from other poets, but what distinguishes poets and makes them unique is where they take these influences and what they make out of them. - Haley Coppins

The Great Canadian Poetry Assignment is one that I will never forget. It has taught me so much about the wonderful writing style that is poetry. Through reading the responses of all the poets, I have come to many conclusions. The first was that the poetry community is a high energy, highly collaborative place. Numerous poets in their responses commented on how much they enjoyed working with their fellow poets or how much they admired them. I got the feeling that the poetry community is one that is very much like a family. I believe that the poetry community is one like no other. Another idea that overlapped between the poets was the idea of using different styles in their poetry. Both my poet, Sherwin Tjia and Erín Moure like to dabble in different styles. As [Moure] says, “it’s important to play with and create and learn from many styles.” I think that this is interesting because I have always wondered what writers thought about other writing styles that were not their own. However, after reading the responses it is clear that once you become a writer, every style is yours and everyone else’s too.- Erin Stephenson

From sifting through [the] responses I have come to realize the diversity of interests and specialties that poets possess. That is one of the things I have come to appreciate most about it as a craft and an art form, it is a medium through which you can channel all of your passions, pipe dreams, hobbies and academic interests and pastimes. For example, angela rawlings studied moths and lepidopterists in depth for the writing of her volume of poetry wide slumber for lepidopterists. derek beaulieu says he incorporates elements of math, science and design into his work. That’s what makes poetry so welcoming to me; it can be whatever you want it to be. - Maddy Rowland

It was really nice to know that a published and accomplished poet with such a busy schedule would take the time to answer my questions. I had a few favourite responses, one covering my second question about there being no more original topics for poets to write about. I liked how she had a fresh view on topics, and the fact that she didn’t put much value into the idea of the original or new. Her interest in “undiscovered territory” in technology merely fuelled my interest in her more, because I had always thought that most poets were opposed to technology and would take time to “appreciate nature,” etc, etc. I liked how in her response she confided her question of the “why” in publishing books, because a collection of poems should justify itself before getting the honour of being made into a book. I really thought that that showed character and a strong sense of modesty. My very favourite answer, however, was one in which she thanked me for asking her the question; it was about her performance methods. She said that one of her biggest pet peeves was being called a “spoken word artist” and that there is a pressure to please the crowd with your performance, as well as with your poetry. Having never been to a poetry reading, with the exception of angela's and Zach Wells's [in our classes], I had no idea what performing a poem was like, but her explanation of different types of performances really gave me a better idea of what it was like. Sandra is now responsible for my new interest in poetry; having never had any sort of access to anyone behind the words on the page except for the recent weeks, I had merely taken the poems I read at face value. My conversation with Sandra Alland really influenced me and pulled back the curtain onto an artistic and pressure-filled society, one which I would be honoured to one day have access to again. - Sara Rolfe-Hughes

OBT:

Will you continue with the interview series with your next Writer's Craft class?

JO:

Without a doubt. I’d also like to see it evolve with future students’ ideas. angela suggested several other aspects of how this project could be extended, and I think that we can explore those in future years as students’ interests shape them. The response from the people angela asked to participate in the project was so overwhelmingly open and generous, and if this is the way the community of Canadian letters wants to foster relations with the coming generation of writers and readers, we should have absolutely no problems in watching it grow. Obviously, they value the energy of these young people, and I can't thank them enough for showing these students that openness and to help them carry it forward.
From the outset of the course, I’d wanted to move students toward publication of their own work to a broad audience, and this interaction with the world beyond the classroom in a public forum is exactly what young people who are about to move out of the closed comfort of the classroom need to move toward. It’s not an easy thing to put yourself out there, but their confidence can only grow from this since they can say to themselves, hey, I’ve done that.
At the outset of the year, many students were very apprehensive about sharing their writing on our class blog. They’ve been used to sharing their personal lives on social media platforms for a while now, but that comfort hasn’t transferred to sharing the work they produce for school. For the past six years, I’ve been working with other colleagues who’ve discovered that the same energy that refines a student’s private persona will also refine their school work when the medium is seen as an authentic platform for interactions they value. That’s what I’d like to continue with.

ar:

The interview series has been an incredible amount of unpaid labour on my end (and also on the end of every poet who so generously volunteered their time for interview and to liaise with me throughout the project). I think there’s great value to providing this kind of direct access between high-school classrooms and contemporary Canadian literature, and I would love to collaborate and consult with organizations that could feasibly offer support, structure and financing to the continuation of this project. If you’re reading this and you’re interested, please send me an e-mail to angela@thescream.ca.

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