Joanna Klink - English
I love working with UM students, and that has only deepened over the years I’ve taught here.
The M.F.A. poets arrive gifted with language and wide-open to learning about craft and the history of poetry. They sense immediately how valuable their time is, and within a few weeks they’re writing poems at a clip that is hard to sustain in ordinary life: one or two poems a week. To be around this kind of creative energy is a privilege. It reminds me that making art is possible at any moment, if you only want it enough.
The undergraduates arrive with very little experience writing poems, sometimes no exposure whatsoever to poetry—but they are game to read anything, to try out odd forms and techniques, and their playfulness makes me look forward to meeting them each week. I am often floored by poems my undergraduates write, once they see how expressively free they can be with their own words. The seriousness of their concerns in the poems is a reminder to me of how much they have already lived, although many are only nineteen or twenty years old.
I also learn from the ways in which all of my students communicate with each other. Workshops are intense classes. Poems that were written twenty-four hours ago come under close scrutiny. They are often charged records of inwardness, the poet’s inner life, inner weathers. So there is a lot of care and precision that needs to be brought to the discussion of a poem. How can this poem in front of us be better, more bracing, more consistently itself? To revise any poem you have to understand its terms: what it announces about itself, how it seems to want to unfold. Interacting with a poem is not unlike interacting with a person—you have to lean in and listen to what the whole person is trying to say, to the life the words are springing from. You have to spend some time in its presence in order to know how to respond. This is a delicate process. When a revision works, it works because every student in the room contributes some response (a line to cut or rearrange, a pattern to develop) in light of a rich understanding of what’s already there on the page. It is breathtaking to see a poem come alive as the parts it doesn’t need fall away. The poem becomes more luminous, more clear in its mystery, and often there is a great sense in the room of potential—the potential for change. We may just be tinkering with lines, but what we are experiencing is the transformative power of language, its capacity to alter us as we engage with it. I have never taught a class here that didn’t at some point rise to this pitch. It is one of the reasons I feel lucky to go to work every day.
Joanna Klink is the author of four books of poetry: They Are Sleeping (University of Georgia Press, 2000), Circadian (Penguin, 2007), Raptus (Penguin, 2010), and Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy (Penguin, 2015). Her poems have appeared in many anthologies, most recently The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry. She has received awards and fellowships from The Rona Jaffe Foundation, The Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Jeannette Haien Ballard, and The American Academy of Arts and Letters. From 2008-2011 Joanna was the Briggs-Copeland Poet at Harvard University. She has taught in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana since 2000, when she was a Visiting Assistant Professor. Now a Full Professor in the Department of English, she teaches graduate and undergraduate poetry workshops, as well as graduate special topics courses such as “Description” (a class devoted entirely to techniques for describing the world) and “Inhabiting Poems” (a class devoted entirely to memorization, recitation, and close reading of poems).