Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #13
Inside issue #13:
Versecraft at Funnison: An Interview with David Rothman
Background: The Colorado Poet (aka E-Words #10) ran a story about the beginning of the new low-residency MFA in poetry with an emphasis on formal verse that had just been accredited at Western State College of Colorado at Gunnison. The other tracks available are genre fiction and screenwriting.
Mark Todd, Director of the whole program, says the low-residency aspect accomplishes two things. It allows a wide range of students to enroll from across the country, who only need to be physically present on campus for a couple of weeks during the summer. Secondly, it “lets us involve and engage potential faculty from across the country.” The website of the program is http://www.western.edu/academics/creativewriting/. We interviewed David Rothman, Director of the poetry track.
Bob King: I guess it’s understandable why the low-residency aspect. But why the particular focus on formal verse in poetry? Did that seem to be a need, or a niche that other programs weren’t doing?
David Rothman: You’ve got it. There is growing interest in the study of verseforms and genres and there are very few other programs – almost none – that treat the craft the way this program does. It does therefore give us a niche, but I hope it’s more than that – I’m quite passionate about this way of approaching the teaching of poetry, and I want to convey that passion to others. I’ve been quite serious about the study of verse in this way since I took Robert Fitzgerald’s class on versification almost 30 years ago…so it’s an interest of long standing, one I’ve pursued as a poet, scholar and teacher.
I should add that I wouldn’t exactly call what we’re doing “formal verse,” even though that is what our PR documents say. I’ve grown less and less comfortable with that terminology, and I’d probably now call it a focus on versecraft. This is because although there is a distinction between “free verse” and “metrical verse,” all verse is formal, including free verse, which I like, which I write and publish myself, and which I teach. In this sense, the only real alternative to “formal verse” is “formless verse”…and presumably no one wants to write that.
The premise of our program is that poems not only say things; they also do things.
I know that the debate about versecraft is filled with all sorts of terms and strong feelings that are difficult to address, for many reasons. Still, I’d like to adjust those terms a bit. Here’s a way into that revision: the premise of our program is that poems not only say things; they also do things. In prose you can say anything. You can use any word, or any combination of words; you can use any syntax or grammar, and any rhythm; you can discuss any subject and use any figure of speech. The one thing you can’t do…by definition…is write verse. So what we focus on in our program is what poems do – which is verse – that is different from what prose does. And to learn how to get verses to do the things you’d like them to…you have to study versecraft.
BK: Who are the faculty involved in the poetry track and why were they chosen? Are there faculty from other geographical areas working on-line or do you have enough resources close at hand?
DR: Right now…in our first year…it’s me! But next year we will be hiring at least one more professor, and perhaps two, and then the following year another two or three if all goes as planned. The professors in the other tracks are accomplished writers from all over the country, and their programs are going to grow as well. We all gather together in Gunnison in July and if the first summer was any indication, we’re going to have a good time every year.
BK: What kind of course-work is involved? I mean, the titles of courses or what goes on in them? And was that difficult to get organized?
DR: The poetry curriculum starts with meters and students scan and write exercises in all the major English metrical forms (Anglo-Saxon strong-stress meter, ballad meter, stress-based imitations of classical forms, iambic tetrameter, blank verse, triple meters, free verse; nonce meters), then all the major recurring stanza forms (couplets, terza rima, quatrains, “Venus and Adonis Stanzas,” rhyme royal, ottava rima, Spenserian stanzas, etc.), all the major fixed lyrical forms (villanelle, sestina, ballade, haiku, limerick…you name it…), and then move on to verse drama, verse satire, verse narrative, translations, questions of poetry and music, some linguistics, how to write poetry book reviews (somebody’s got to do it…), poetry pedagogy and much more…all ending, of course, with an original volume of poems as a capstone project.
Mark Todd, the Director of the program, deserves tremendous credit for overseeing the organization of all of this in all three tracks of the MFA – and then taking it through the accreditation process with North Central, which took several years. He’s my hero.
BK: What kind of initial enrollment success have you had? How many students are currently in the poetry track? In the other tracks?
DR: Poetry currently has one section of five students; Screenwriting has one section of three; Genre Fiction has two sections of five each. I’m beyond pleased with how we did in our first year, with no track record and very little advertising money and lead time. The poetry students are from all over: three from Colorado, one from North Carolina and another from New Jersey. They are gifted, gifted people; one, Robert Abbate, has even published several books. They include two high school English teachers, a community college teacher, a university administrator, and the editor of a scholarly journal. They keep me on my toes.
BK: What have you discovered now about offering on-line work or about the students that you didn’t expect? What’s been confirmed that you did anticipate?
DR: It’s a lot of work! But I expected that and I welcome it. What I’ve realized is that building the courses is very time-intensive, but one is then rewarded with what practically amounts to a textbook that can be tweaked and modified as time goes by. Also, I’m amazed by how diverse and efficient on-line content delivery has become. The multiple kinds of interactions teachers and students can have are fascinating and productive. At the same time, I’ve learned that students also want to connect more personally, to hear each other’s voices – so we have weekly conference calls as well, which is also now far easier than it used to be because of free VOIP platforms such as Skype. The most gratifying thing I’m seeing confirmed is that…it all works quite well, and that the curriculum is a strong one.
My goal is to give students the tools they need to understand the full range of the art, as widely and as deeply as possible. That’s why we study so many metrical forms, including free verse forms, and genres and modes.
BK: Do you have an overall impression of the program and how it helps students?
DR: In terms of its structure, the low-residency model is ideal for people who have families and jobs, yet who want to study what we have to offer. They don’t have to move and can get things done on their own time while still working and living their lives where they are. It takes a lot of discipline, but it works.
As for the curriculum itself: my goal is to give students the tools they need to understand the full range of the art, as widely and as deeply as possible. That’s why we study so many metrical forms, including free verse forms, and genres and modes. The students are learning not only from me, but from the best, by imitating what they’ve done. They’re learning how to join a conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years.
It doesn’t matter to me in the slightest if a student never writes another sonnet in his or her life; but it does matter that they all know what one is from the inside, so that they are part of the greater conversation.
As to what they make of it when they graduate – that of course is up to them. At least they will have the tools to make their own decisions as they pursue their own creative work. It doesn’t matter to me in the slightest if a student never writes another sonnet in his or her life; but it does matter that they all know what one is from the inside, so that they are part of the greater conversation. In this sense, our MFA is structured like an art school, dance academy or conservatory, where students study, for example, how to re-harmonize Bach chorales, or life drawing and still nature, even if they don’t plan to compose or paint in that way later on in their careers. The point is to master the traditions, the better to create truly original new work.
This seems to me to be a path more likely to lead to success than the alternatives.