Recently, I asked a group of students what unstated assumptions are associated with the writing done in their English courses, and resoundingly (and unsurprisingly), they said:
The writing done for the course exists for only the course.
The writing done for the course doesn’t have a life outside of the course.
One student even admitted that he kept a poem he wrote in a shoebox, and while I love that gesture for sentimental reasons, I wonder about the life that piece could have outside the “shoeboxes” of our classrooms.
For these reasons, it is important for me to be actively publishing my own work – to not only generate energy for my teaching, but also to model what a writer’s life can be. Should be. Navigating the continuum between academics and its applicability/relevancy is already nebulous, particularly for creative writing students, but I find that my enthusiasm for current discourse happening in the literary word (see: politics, inclusivity, access, representation) is contagious.
During my first semester as an assistant professor with a 4/4 load, I thought I’d never have time to write, but I did. I felt activated by conversations happening in poetry class about blurring the lines between prose and poetry, what students charmingly classified as “prosetry.” By the risks they took with form, homage to Whitman’s long line, as they stretched their sentences out toward the right margin. By their leaps in narrative hinged by figurative language à la Natalie Diaz.
Being wholly immersed in this dynamic helped inform my latest project, a chapbook called The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez, which explores the immigrant experience, as well as genre boundaries. Here is the final stanza in one of the titular poems:
Learning how to tear apart the United States began slowly, as I put my cup of water on them. The glass began to sweat, first dissolving Dallas (Love Field) where a marriage dismantled easily. On to West Texas’ mirror, a landscape of clay mountains & stars short-circuiting, an occasional firework that happened to be a plate breaking very close to the torn envelope of my face.
I feverishly completed the chap in the midst of a turbulent fall semester and election cycle, but I desperately needed this work to ground me. Sustain me. After responding to workshop poems (some that come to mind: boyhood in the Wichita Mountains, an anti-ode to a sister), the seamless transition was into my own work, not into exhaustion. Not into mental fatigue. Not into a night of zoning out on the couch with some Netflix (but I enjoy that too!). The reward was always more poetry.
The relationship between teaching, writing, and publishing is cyclical and reciprocal, and as I’ve struggled to write this semester, and I wonder if it’s because I’m not teaching a poetry course. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to confuse correlation for causation, but it’s something I’m hyper-aware of. Why am I not writing?
But wholeheartedly, I accept this writer’s block, never punishing myself for it. Instead, I’m reading more. I’m revising older poems. I’m staying on top of my submissions. I make sure I’m in office hours listening to students, taking inspiration from their writing journeys. We keep the shoebox open.
How do you manage your writing and teaching lives?
Iliana is an assistant professor at a state university. Her first book, Karankawa, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Karankawa was featured in “2015 Latino Books: 8 Must-Reads from Indispensable Small Presses” by NBC Latino and named one of the 23 Essential New Books by Latino Poets by the Los Angeles Times. In addition to being passionate about Contemporary American Poetry, Critical Theory, Modern British Literature, Chican@ Poetics, and TESOL, Iliana is currently researching missing women across the country, along with other true crime cases. Come find her on Twitter at @la_ilianarocha or on her website, ilianarocha.org, to discuss poetry, basketball, drag, snacks, and Houston rap music.