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NOTE: This is the 2nd part in Joe”s series about poetry workshops. The first part can be found here.

Some days in a writing workshop should be like rainy days with a coloring book. In that case, I might let my students just talk and read, or sketch. At arts high, when I thought a student was tired—really tired—I encouraged them to lay down and take a nap.

If I had my way, every writing work shop would have the following:
1. Some plants the students can take care of. The plants could be taken home each week by a different student and cared for until returned when the next class happened.
2. A fish aquarium (I love fish).
3. A workshop dog or cat if no one was allergic. Dogs and cats relieve stress, especially dogs raised to be around sick people (writing has all the outward signs of being sick: you are not involved in heavy physical activity, and you are confined to a room).
4. Two or three computers on which students could put in head phones and watch videos of poetry and music performance, but no more than two or three.
5. Sketch pads, coloring books, crayons, and some water colors.
6. Sculptor’s clay.

I’d have the following books in my class…

Myth related:
Bulfinch’s Mythology
– Frazier’s The Golden Bough
American Indian Myths and Legends (Selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz)
– A standard anthology of world myths
A Complete Works of Shakespeare
A King James Bible
– A good thesaurus
– A rhyming dictionary
– A good unabridged Webster or Oxford dictionary
– A book of quotations

Art related:
Any art books you could get your hands on: Degas, Picasso, Braque, Jasper Johns, etc., etc.

Poetry Anthologies I’d make available:
– An Oxford anthology of English verse
The Longman Anthology
The Golden Treasury
The Voice That Is Great Within Us
– All of Jerome Rothenberg’s Anthologies. They are the most comprehensive collections of folk and alternative/experimental poetry in a general sense that I know.
Unsettling America (Maria and Jennifer Gillan)
100 Chinese Poems and 100 Japanese Poems (Kenneth Rexroth)
– An anthology of 20th century French verse (I gave mine to Metta Sama because I thought she was a wonderful poet.)
The American Bible of Outlaw Poetry
Staying Alive (Neil Astley)
The Rag Bone Shop of The Heart (Bly, Hillman, & Meade)
Western Wind …part anthology, part text, wonderfully sane work
A Geography of Poets (both first and second editions)
– An anthology of world poetry, J.D. McClatchy’s comes to mind.
The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry
Martin Espada’s anthology of political poetry

I am leaving out some good anthologies, but this will give them a start. Hell, I’m doing this by memory. I don’t believe that new means best. New just means new. It’s better for them to see an anthology from 20 years ago, so that they know how few poets truly remain prominent, and so that they read and enjoy poets who have been unjustly forgotten (and ones who have been more than justly forgotten).

Ron Padget’s Handbook of Forms is a great readable book on the basic types of set forms in poetry
The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twichell: lots of prominent poets waxing wise on teaching poetry.
Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio have a good one which one of my students stole. Oh well, I’ll re-buy it. I love when kids steal my books.
Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form: the entry on the English stanza is a masterpiece of lucidity, and the version with a chapter on free verse is priceless.

I would make each of my students compile an anthology of poems from these anthologies. They can scan it, and print it up. They could form the anthology any way they wanted. They could include friend’s poems (poets certainly do). But it would be no less than a hundred pages, and they’d have to write an introduction for it complete with their own manifesto. It would be interesting to see twenty kids compile one hundred page anthologies. That would be 2000 pages of poetry!

This is my ideal class environment, my dream. They stick creative writing classes just about anywhere—usually anti-septic, drab, “professional” rooms which say: “be creative where no one else ever dared.” I taught a creative writing workshop in a school boiler room in Paterson. It was preferable to most college rooms because, at least, it had cool pipes, and an air of underground danger.

I wish I could make it a rule that every student would create his or her own anthology, and put what they thought were their four best poems in the midst of the poetry gods—just to see how they’d swim. These would be amazing keepsakes. I just might do this.

Anyway, there’s no one stopping someone with money or power from creating such environments. They are not that expensive. There should be such a poetry room in every library and school, and there should be a poet there to guide the students. I’d also have the kids write to lit mags, and see if they could get a deal, and then I’d have two or three hundred literary magazines around. Lit mags love to pretend they want their magazines seen and read, but most of them are financed invalids from universities, and they don’t try hard enough to get the work out there.

I believe environment matters. If it’s really awful, you and the students can bond against it. I had some awful rooms at Arts High—and also at the university. I have one now for my 250, without windows, a ghastly room with hardly any space. But I am not high maintenance. I work with what I got.

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Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghamton and has several collections of poetry out there, A Portable Winter (with an introduction by Harvey Pekar), The Pursuit of Happiness, What Remains, Painting the Christmas Trees, and, most recently, The Plumber's Apprentice, published by New York Quarterly Press. He makes his home in Vestal, New York.

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  • Anonymous October 24, 2010, 3:55 am

    awesome list, joe. would you recommend any books on arabic poetry too?

  • Anonymous October 24, 2010, 4:18 am

    also, to add my own two-cents, i would add ferry’s translations of horace’s odes and dudley fitts poems from the greek anthology (which i like better than rexroth’s–fitts are more fun!)

  • Pigsnout2 October 24, 2010, 4:42 am

    I didn’t get to what recordings I’d have: I’d love Greek poems in their original language, with translations. If our present political situation wasn’t so against the arts (and both parties praise art while cutting its throat– nothing new during schlock times with no true civilization) I’d create a truly wonderful project: leading poets would be commissioned to work with poets in other langauges to create both coffee table sized anthologies, and CD’s of world poetry. I like Ferry’s translations, and Hughes translation of Ovid. We need to doing something magnificent in times such as this– not backslide into bad creative non-fiction and its lower step sister, “inspirational” books. I’d create poetry video games if I had my way– interactive Chaucer, games with lots of action, but a kid would also have to learn Greek Hexameter to pass onto the next level– maybe just a few lines of Homer in Greek so that a door would open, or one of the Greek mythological monsters would yield the gate and let the poet-warrior pass. It’s doable, but we won’t do it. We like mediocrity too much.

  • Pigsnout2 October 24, 2010, 4:44 am

    I have just started a weekly reading in other languages. They are trying to get rid of the Arabic department here. And we think Sarah Palin is stupid? What’s the excuse of the university? I have students reading and singing songs in Arabic. I will have them compile an anthology.

  • Anonymous October 24, 2010, 4:48 am

    one of my students from saudi arabia has been feeding me books of and about arabic poetry. i’ve got one right now on the oral poetry of saudi arabia.

  • Adam October 24, 2010, 8:44 am

    Some anthologies I still love —

    The Faber Book of Beasts
    The Best Poems of the English Language
    Rattle Bag
    The Golden Treasury
    Oxford Book of English Verse ed. Ricks
    Oxford Book of American Verse ed. Ellman; ed. Lehman

  • Alfredcorn1 October 25, 2010, 1:52 am

    I taught prosody for many years in the Poetry Program of the Graduate Writing Division at Columbia, drawing on all studies of prosody then available.. Out of that experience I put together a little textbook, the main focus of which is meter. Many people have told me that meter was a total blank to them until they read this book. But it also discusses syllable count, rhyme, refrain, verseform (sonnet, villanelle, sestina), classical meters and unmetered poetry. The title is =The Poem’s Heartbeat= and it is published by Copper Canyon Press. I think Fussell’s book is all right, but, first, he wasn’t a poet and doesn’t know the art from the inside. Second, the book was written a long time ago, and doesn’t refer to contemporary poets.

  • Pigsnout2 October 25, 2010, 12:30 pm

    I know this book well, and I’ve used it when I’ve done an extended study with a student on meter. UNfortunately, I had six copies, all of which I’ve given away through the years as presents. I’m ordering a dozen this semester coming up. I agree the Fussel does not use contemporary poets… I never teach it alone, and only when I want them to have a ball park view
    of the basic measures. Your book I reserve for studies with students who want to go a lot deeper.

  • Bob March 11, 2011, 3:41 pm

    Bridgeman Art Source Book by Nick Rowling, might be the best $3 art book in the world.

  • Martin Burns November 5, 2013, 9:34 am

    I’ve always been fond of Turco’s New Book of Forms. I think it’s foundational.

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