Project Challenge Weeks 3 & 4

I've been reporting on my experience teaching Project Challenge, my university's Saturday morning program for high school students. We live in a rural area & high school students don't get the same opportunities for "enrichment" they might get if they lived downstate. "Enrichment" is, I suppose, the approved educator's word for cultural capital. On the basis of this brief experience teaching them, I'd say that the main problem facing our smartest students -- like the ones in my creative writing class -- is the lack of opportunities to increase their cultural capital. Coming from a similar background, I feel immense sympathy for these children. Last week, I had them work on blues & ballad stanzas. Some of them proved remarkably fluent with the blues; the ballad stanza is a tougher nut to crack, but I wanted to offer it to them since so many are drawn to song & rhyme. This morning, stealing again from Kenneth Koch's Wishes, Lies and Dreams, I had them write a group sestina, then work on solo villanelles. The theme for the day was pattern. Seems to me that virtually all the arts engage with pattern in some way & that as young artists my students need to see the power of taking inchoate material & giving it shape. Even if they never write another poem after leaving this class, these students will have a sense of one of the fundamental relationships in all the arts -- the tension between expression & form. That tension is certainly at the center of my own practice as an artist. At the most fundamental level, my work has been a way to externalize anxiety & give it a coherent shape that can then be edited & transformed. Call me a confessional poet if you like, but aren't we all working with our subjectivity? Implicit in my view of what I do is the public nature of the poem. The process of externalizing involves the making of a work that can be perceived & understood & that itself is not merely the product of a process. Not the result of playing out an algorithm, or not just that by itself. The subjective is given a public readability & tentative objectivity through the application of pattern.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

9 thoughts on “Project Challenge Weeks 3 & 4”

  1. That’s wonderful!!! When I was at Potsdam Central, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, going on having to do with poetry in the high school.

    It boggles my mind to picture Potsdam kids working on sestinas.

    Perhaps the engineering focus of the school has waned??

  2. Albert, you might not recognize Clarkson. While there is still a big engineering school, the Business School & Arts & Sciences have grown substantially over the last fifteen years. The faculty of the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences publishes & wins grants at a level comparable to that of a good liberal arts college. We have more than a hundred majors & lots of minors.

    Project Challenge has been going on for a decade or so, along with a Horizons program in the summer, in which we invite high school students to campus to take focused classes with our faculty in many disciplines. One of my colleagues is doing a class on the First Amendment in American Life, another on Contemporary Social Problems, so it’s just not poetry. This is the first time I’ve done the poetry course & I’m having a good time. I’ll definitely do it again.

  3. I was last in Potsdam in ’03. I went back often between ’98 and ’03 to take care of my mother. But I didn’t focus much attention on Clarkson in those years. Sad to see a Wal Mart is going into the marsh where the Chalet motel was, and I guess the restaurant is gone too. The Indian owners of that motel used to give me a really cheap rate. I’ll be back. Potsdam is very close to my heart. I sure didn’t know the liberal arts department was doing so well!! That’s really good to hear.

  4. I think now Potsdam is the best place for my writing, and that’s the main reason I would move to a place. The language of “the West” (I don’t mean California) doesn’t appeal to me.

  5. Interesting. I’m a Westerner by birth (California), but I’ve been here twenty years. I can imagine going back out west when I retire, but [probably won’t be able to afford to, so I’m an Easterner by default. Place is not so important to me as it is to some writers, though, or I’m able to make a place my own, so I feel okay about staying here. Though it’s minus 1 this morning with a fine snow falling!

  6. i was born in niagara falls, n.y. in 1937 of parents who were born there. i first came to california in
    1961 in june for peace corps training for posting in ghana. i came back in 1966 to visit some sisters in the bay area. then i returned in 1970 w/the san francisco mime troupe–my sister margo was the booking manager then. been here ever since. ed

  7. I remember the San Francisco Mime Troupe!

    A part of all my poems can be grouped very clearly by how they’ve been influenced by place, but just part.

    Right now I’m integrating the new verb “to grok” into the idea from Corey and here about the margin between cyberspace and real person. For the first time in my life someone used the word “to grok” speaking to me. A woman said, on the internet, “I’m not going to grok with you, anyway.” (Ah well, women will always lead the jabs and comebacks…) That has me led into an investigation of the word.

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