I’m never more aware of myself as a patchwork—a centerless (practically) amalgam—than when I think of teaching. It isn’t just that I say the phrases I heard my teachers say—though I certainly do that. It’s that I often say these phrases in the same ways, using the same inflections, notes of irony, surprise, or suspense. I remember one of my first writing teachers, Alan Michael Parker, talking about how a poet might interpret for the reader. Don’t stick your finger in my pie, he said. I don’t recall when he said it—or if he said it more than once—or even if I understood what he meant. In fact, I’m sure I didn’t understand. But I can hear him saying it . . . can hear the way his voice rose in pitch as he spoke, pretending a little belligerence. My pie. He sounded almost petulant. What pie were we talking about? I wasn’t sure. But it was his.
So how was it, ten years later, teaching my own creative writing class, that the phrase slipped out of me? Was I looking for a way to discuss how drawing conclusions in a poem actually limits a reader’s involvement . . . how it locks a reader out? Trying to help a class see why “telling” actually makes a text less inviting and participatory, even though it might seem to ensure wider understanding? But I didn’t say that. I talked about Alan’s pie. At least I think I did. Afterwards students said that phrase back to me, smiling, enjoying it, enjoying me for it. How had it gotten from him to them, if not through me?
That’s what I mean by centerless amalgam. Ed Hirsch often began classes by asking if we had any hopes, fears, or dreams for the future. Something like that. It was offered playfully, but I have no doubt—he has such a commodious soul—that had I or anyone earnestly offered a “dream for the future,” he’d have made space for it and found its dignity. I suppose he was really just asking if we had questions—but simultaneously letting us know that the floor was open, and that our work together would be informed by a spirit of serious play. Now, I’ve never said that exact phrase. But Ed’s rhythm and the ethos of an open invitation? God yes: it’s come out of my mouth more times than I can count.
Amalgam. Patchwork. There are dozens of examples—and perhaps many others from earlier teachers that I can’t recall.
But I’m not in debt only to my past teachers. I’m also in debt to my past self, past moments of clarity. And this, too, is a kind of copying. At some point, in some class, I uttered the phrase, criticism honestly offered is a form of love. I know that’s a little cheesy, but it expressed something I believed—still believe—that suggestions for emendation offered without ego or agenda are a generous act. I wanted students to think about workshop in more lyrical—even grand terms. So now I say that phrase every semester, usually around the third week when we just start workshop. Is the phrase any less stolen, any less delivered, because I am its originator? At least I think I am its originator. Maybe I’ve just forgotten who said it to me.
So many examples. The screenwriter Dave Kajganich once taught me about narrative structure using William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force.” I’ll never forget Dave’s right there, finger jabbing at the page, pointing to the line “Nothing doing,” which initiates the story’s conflict. I always say, right there, when I teach that story. Or Cynthia MacDonald’s exhortation that I make a poem the best that it can be. I discovered years later how useful that phrase was to encourage revision without taking a stand on a text’s value. Revise this until it’s great? Not so likely. . . . Cynthia’s finesse has become my finesse.
A teacher, then: a concentration of luminous moments—from past teachers, from past selves. How many new such discoveries, conjured on the spot, take place in a classroom? Maybe one or two a term? Fewer as years pass? Perhaps when I think I’ve had a bad day teaching, that assessment should be tempered by the inherent value of what I’m delivering: it may have felt bad to me, but I’m dulled to all those great phrases and formulations I’ve stored up over the years. Maybe their value can’t be completely obscured by clumsy delivery. And maybe on days when I think I’m really good, there should be some tempering, too. After all, much of my work has been integration, not invention.
In one of the bursting moments of Song of Myself, section 24 (“Unscrew the locks from the doors!”), Whitman describes himself as a conduit for speech: “Through me many long dumb voices. . . .” Whitman focuses on those who have been silenced, but the idea resonates more generally—how voices can move in and out of us, how we can speak about the human voice, a single, collective thing. I’d have thought it would be through writing and reading poetry that I’d glimpse that connection. I would have wanted it to be through poetry. But that said, I should probably just be glad that I’ve experience it at all.