Free Verse Intern Emma McMullen sat down with Liana at Liquid Planet to interview her before she leaves Free Verse. Here’s their conversation:
So you just finished the MFA program?
Yeah. I was in the fiction program, and I did a lot of work with poetry. This is kind of the end of my Montana and Free Verse tenure. It’s been cool.
Where are you moving?
I’m not entirely sure. I’m going to be in Europe for the summer. I was living in Brooklyn before I moved here, and I will probably move back. Either to Brooklyn or maybe to upstate New York, but I haven’t really figured things out past this summer yet.
You taught in the composition program, right? That must be pretty different from fiction and poetry in terms of teaching style and content.
Yeah definitely. For one thing, when you’re teaching composition and rhetoric, the content that you have to teach is more closely moderated in most programs, so you have assignments that are given to you, versus assignments that you create. The way that your course moves across the semester is pretty much the same as everyone else’s. We have a pretty fair amount of freedom with supplementary materials. I had essays each week that my students read, but I also had textbooks that I use, I had key terms and specific things that you’re supposed to get across that are the same all across the university, and usually pretty similar to first-year composition programs just across the nation. With a lot of variation, because this school is really different than the school that I went to undergrad in. I also went to undergrad a long time ago, so it was definitely much more moderated than my experience teaching fiction or especially with Free Verse.
You create your own lessons plans at Free Verse?
Yeah absolutely, and the objectives are completely different at Free Verse. Especially in comparison to the composition program. There’s very strict stuff that every student in the classroom is supposed to take away, whereas I think the point of Free Verse is to give students an opportunity to think any way they want to think about things because their experience of being in the JDC is so stripping. Everything is about taking something away from them. I think that a classroom where they are given poems or songs or whatever content the teacher brings in, they are just able to interact with it however they can. It’s one of the only times in their week they have to do that. It’s just a relief to have content and let people interact with it without necessarily having to make them interact with it, or make them interact with it in a particular way. It feels a lot more like the way that I want to experience content as a teacher where you introduce people to something and allow them to have their own reaction to it… Teaching with Free Verse is a lot more emotionally… not taxing exactly, but the way I felt like I had to prepare for Free Verse was a lot more how I would feel talking about things versus having to figure out what the theme is, how the author wanted us to feel. It’s not so much about getting in deep with the text as much as trying to prep myself for maybe having a really intense emotional reaction to what went on in the room. That actually happened to me a few weeks ago. I taught a class on epistolary poetry, like letters, at the JDC. I picked pieces that were kind of heavy, but I just didn’t expect to have a really intense emotional reaction to it. I just didn’t expect the students to be as immediately engaged and emotionally affected. It was a pretty high-stakes, teary class. It was really beautiful, but afterward, Claire and I both walked out and we decided we needed to cry in the car for a minute maybe. It’s more stuff like that that takes the space up.
You said a lot of the material can end up leaving you heavy. At Free Verse, how do you know that the class has been successful? How do you know that the students have taken something away from it?
I mean, you can tell in the writing, and you can tell in the way that the conversation moves. I mean sometimes there will be a really quiet class that still feels successful and it’s hard to quantify that. Sometimes if it’s a quiet class, when the kids are paying a ton of attention, you know it’s affecting them even if they’re not saying so. Or like at the end of class, sometimes people who haven’t shared anything during discussion will show their writing or turn it in to submit it without sharing it. They’ve just poured out something that is so surprising and touching. It shows in the way that they pay attention, the way that they write. Those are the main things I would say.
It sounds like often the classes do go relatively well and the students are often able to engage. How frequently do the classes fall completely flat?
One of the first classes that I taught, I brought a piece that was really abstract and I wanted to talk about it in a sort of abstract, undirected way. When I teach at the U, I really encourage interpretive responses to things, and I teach a lot of work that’s self-consciously inaccessible, or accessible in a lot of different ways and doesn’t have ‘this is the theme’ ‘this is what I’m trying to say to you’. Not that the kids at the detention center can’t handle thinking in that way, but I did find that if you are not giving any direction, or if it’s work that you need a lot of other reference points to understand, the conversation is a lot more challenging because people are at such different levels in the classroom. I think they do actually like to have specific directions or specific prompts for writing or giving them a specific entry point to either the thought process or the writing makes them jump off in really interesting ways. That was definitely a learning curve for me in terms of teaching. Sometimes there’s just a mood in the classroom where it’s like we’re not really going to get a significant conversation going, but even still when that happens, a lot of times the writing is really good. The writing will surprise me even if it doesn’t seem like they’ve engaged with the conversation.
What do you do in reaction to a loud class or a silent, unengaged class?
We definitely want them to come back to the text. We want to encourage them to come back to these classes and conversations. It’s sort of like a policy thing in some ways like if they’re getting too personal with each other and with us. We want it to be just like a really informal and friendly constructive environment, but sometimes that’s not possible. It’s hard because they’re not really supposed to get into conversations about their personal lives with each other or about stuff they did. That moves into awkward territory. If they’re getting into deep spirals of conversation with each other, I usually just say, ‘Hey guys, let’s talk about this line instead. Let’s come back here. Let’s rewatch that video. Sometimes it doesn’t really work. We also don’t want to feel like we’re forcing them to do something they don’t want to do. It’s not school in that way. They’re not required to do this; they’re choosing to be there. If they are clearly not engaging with something, we don’t want to make it feel forced. If it’s just that they’re being chatty with each other, I’ll just be like, ‘Hey, we’re here to read. Let’s read.’ I just try to get them back to the purpose that they’re there for.
Tell me about The Beat Within. It has pieces from all over the western side of the United States, right? Or is it everywhere?
I’m definitely not an expert, but I know I’ve seen stuff from Michigan. I noticed it because that’s where I’m from. I think it’s nationwide, and I think you just have to somehow register your facility with them. It’s super inclusive. There’s just a set of rules you have to follow for submissions. Yeah, it’s a really cool program because it’s gratifying for our kids to see their work alongside other stuff. Especially when we’re talking in class, this kind of goes to what I was talking about earlier with what pieces are accessible. A lot of times, the best reactions that the kids have are to pieces that we teach from The Beat. We usually include a piece from there in our conversations. It’s writing by kids their own age who have had similar experiences, so it’s really relatable to them and really powerful to see other kids’ words like that. It’s powerful for them to see their own in print and know that other people across the nation are going to see that and feel the same way they feel reading other work. It’s very empowering.
I know you said there are certain rules regarding what they can say about a specific incident. I’ve noticed that a lot of the pieces in The Beat Within are about what goes around an event: what feelings are left over and the aftermath. Is it difficult for the students to avoid writing about what they have experienced?
I think sometimes for some students, yes. But I also think that that’s kind of what good writing is,. If you’re just saying ‘x, y, z happened to me today’, that’s not a very good story. A better story is why it mattered that it happened today rather than yesterday or the way I feel about it because of all the other stuff that happened to me earlier in the day… It’s not so much the event but, like you said, the aftermath or what feelings are left over from it. It’s like a safety issue for the kids too. A lot of stuff has to be edited out because hopefully, juvenile offenders are not going to spend their whole lives in the system. You don’t want to publish something that could get somebody in trouble when they’re not incarcerated anymore. We publish everything pretty anonymously. We want their work to get out into the world and we want them to see it and recognize their own stuff, but we also want to keep them safe and keep them out of trouble when they’re not in the system anymore. Our kids are usually just really good writers, and it’s pretty amazing to see what they can come up with after just a half an hour of talking about a few pieces.
Yeah, those sorts of exercises are difficult for anyone. Saying ‘okay here’s this prompt, go’. Yeah, it can be really intimidating.
When sharing pieces, how do you go about opening up that forum? I’m assuming you don’t call on anyone.
No, usually we will just write for about ten minutes and then just ask if someone is ready to share, and more often than not, the people who have been really chatty in the conversation want to share. Usually, once one person starts, people will go. When it’s a smaller class, it’s a bit dicier. Then sometimes, if I’ve watched someone writing a lot who hasn’t volunteered to share, I’ll ask if they’d like to read part of it. A lot of times we’ll ask if they want someone else to read it, and that works sometimes. Sometimes they’re just not super comfortable reading in general, but they’ll have someone else read it. If they say no to that, I’ll ask if they want to submit it without sharing it, and a lot of times they do want to. Again, this isn’t a place where we’re telling them to do anything they don’t want to do. We just let whatever wants to happen, happen, which usually works well. I think that they really like having the opportunity to say their own words and be vocal.
I’ve been in a lot of writing classes where it’s encouraged to share, and no one plans to. No one’s interested. It’s great that they have the confidence, and feel comfortable sharing, especially when the topic is heavy. Even if they’re not discussing a particular event directly, it seems like it would be hard to share.
It seems like some people like the opportunity to get stuff off their chests. I’ve had a few conversations with students where they say something like how it’s so good to write this down because now it feels like it’s out of me like it feels like I don’t have to hold that so much anymore. I think in a lot of ways it’s very therapeutic to do both the writing and the sharing for some people. For some people it’s not, so we don’t make them. I think it’s also an environment that almost ironically feels safe because you know you won’t be judged by people for having those experiences or those feelings. It becomes a place where you’re allowed to say things, which is great. I think that’s the weird part of a college classroom is that it feels like such a competitive or raw and vulnerable thing. Actually, in my fiction classes, we sit in a circle, and there would be days where we did a writing exercise and just say ‘you, start.’ Maybe not have them share everything that they wrote, but just go around in a circle and everyone would say one or two sentences from their writing exercise. I do think there shouldn’t be so much of a stigma about sharing writing and being open to that. I think that with a lot of young writers, it feels like your fiction is really important and personal and close to the heart, but I would tell my college students that your writing shouldn’t feel precious to you. You can always do that kind of writing. But the writing we’re doing in here is not precious. It’s for sharing. It’s for public consumption. That’s what we’re here to learn how to do. It’s almost the opposite with the JDC: you are writing something that’s really close to you and precious and raw, but they’re really open to putting those experiences out there somehow. That’s something really special about that space, and that’s something that’s made me love it so much, just how open and raw and ready the students there are.
Your plan wasn’t really to teach, but now that you have, do you think that you will want to seek out more opportunities to teach?
Not for a career. I feel lucky that this is something that I enjoyed, and have as something that I know is an option now, and I think that something like Free Verse is something that I would seek out elsewhere. I started doing this once I discovered the program existed because I actually have a pretty large handful of friends who have worked in prison systems and juvenile centers in different states, and through similar situations, like being in an MFA program that partners with something or being in a writing program. There was a pretty robust program at my undergraduate school, University of Michigan, that worked with a jail in Detroit, and there were a few different undergrad classes that did art in the jail, and a good friend of mine in Alabama works for a college degree equivalency program across like six or seven Alabama prisons. So this was something that had been in my consciousness, and I wanted to know what it would be like and to just have the experience because it was just something that was so close to the hearts of lots of people that I know and love, and I think this definitely would be something that I would seek out. I don’t really see teaching as being my future, but I like the idea that there are things available on a volunteer basis. I think arts administration is a big interest of mine, like cultivating more community-based opportunities versus academic based opportunities for writers and creative people, and people who have robust individual lives and don’t have time to do full programs, but want more enrichment opportunities or… I don’t know, it’s a cheesy phrase, but like becoming students of the world.