Susan Millar Du Mars on the Art of Teaching Poetry

Susan Millar DuMars has published three collections with Salmon Poetry, the most recent of which, The God Thing, appeared in March, 2013.  Bone Fire will be published by Salmon in Spring, 2016.  Our Galway correspondent Meabh Ann had the chats with her about teaching poetry and being brave.

Meabh Ann (M): Until I listened over the recording of the absolutely delightful interview I had with Susan Millar Du Mars, I really hadn’t noticed how much I’d laughed when I was talking with her. Susan has been a phenomenal poetry role model since I met her when I was but a wee poet; she writes what scares her. I was thrilled to be able to ask her so many questions on teaching poetry, something she has such a talent in.

So, I’m really, really interested in how you teach your poetry workshops and I have a lot of questions about them. Just in case you think I’m really weird for obsessing over the fact you teach poetry workshops.

Susan (S): Is it poetry you want to know about? I also teach fiction and non-fiction.

M: Mostly poetry. But I mean, if you want to mention something about fiction I’m not going to deduct points from you.

S: *Laughter because I am just so hilarious* Good to know!

M:You can’t fail my interviews. I’m a cool teacher.

S: I’ll try to be focused!

M: I wanted to ask you, how did you learn to write poetry…? I mean, did you take classes like the ones you teach now, or was it purely life experience and just bouncing off other poets?

S: Well… That’s a good question.

M: Thank you. It’s my job.

[pullquote] Imitating other poets is like trying on a hat you wouldn’t normally wear to see if you can pull it off. [/pullquote] S: I think it’s all of those things. I’ve been writing poetry since I was eight years old. I had a teacher in school who got us to write poems, and I just really, really liked it. I really liked words; I really liked the sounds of words and expressing myself. My dad realised that I liked it and he got me child anthologies every once in a while, just to stoke that flame, so I was reading and just getting a bit of encouragement. And as an undergrad I did study writing as well. I studied different poets and began imitating them… I didn’t go to many poetry readings though. Though now, thinking back, I went to Graduate School in San Francisco! There would have been so many poetry readings. I wish now, looking back that that would have been integrated more into the course. My teachers were great, but I wish I’d been encouraged to listen to stage poetry a lot more. Imitating poets is important. Not imitating them to be exactly like them… I say to my students, it’s like trying on a hat. Imitating other poets is like trying on a hat you wouldn’t normally wear to see if you can pull it off. Maybe not, maybe you can’t, but you’ll learn something by trying it.

Susan and her cat take a selfie!
Susan and her cat take a selfie!

M: Your poetry education was mostly real-life stuff, I guess. Do you think that kind of education can be emulated in a classroom setting?

S: The class helps focus and discipline what you would already be learning from your life. It concentrates your thoughts so you might get where you’re going a bit faster and with the support of your teacher and the other people in your class. You do need both. It’s like yoga – I can do yoga at home, or I can have a teacher telling me that I could do this pose this way, or this might be more comfortable, or try this… I have the discipline of, “I have to be there, I have to do it”, it makes it harder to just blow it off. The classroom gives discipline, and a guide, and it’s great to have the class there for support, too.

M: Since you’ve started teaching each and any of your writing classes, has there been any one student who’s just come out with some really profound remark or comment or question that you can remember? Has anyone ever like, encouraged an epiphany?

S: To choose one will be so hard! I did have one, though would I count it as an epiphany…? Yeah, it was an epiphany! I was teaching first year college students fiction, and they work-shopped for the first time and a lot of them were really nervous to share their work. After the class we talked about it, and one of my students said, “I thought you were going to compare my work to the others’ work, like, it wasn’t like hers and it wasn’t as good as his, but you just dealt with it as its own work”. I was so glad that they got that. I really just want my students to write the best they can, and to know that there’s no point in saying to anyone, “you should write more like him!”. It was great that I could see this little light going off for her.

M: I’ve seen on your Facebook a few times that you have written poems that scare you! I’ve never written poems that scare me. I’ve written poems that make me think I’m stupid, but what you do is so cool! Overall, does writing poetry actively make you happy?

S: Yes. It does.

M: …

S: …

M: Oh. Well.

S: More! Okay! Well, I actually write in a journal every few days and it makes me feel really centred. And when I write something that people can relate to it’s so validating! It’s like, I’m not as crazy as I feel like I am! If something is upsetting me or angering me, I can put it in a poem and divorce it from the individual. It feels really good. Kevin always says I’m in a much better mood when I’ve written!

M: You don’t think it’s easy to dwell on certain things you write poems about?

[pullquote] poetry doesn’t help us process things, it’s all dwelling. [/pullquote] S: I’ve done that too. Sylvia Plath’s editor actually said that poetry doesn’t help us process things, it’s all dwelling. I do agree, because I think sometimes dwelling is the right choice. Sometimes you need to be in that feeling for a while. Sometimes, I’ll have six poems on one issue or person, and one is really good and the others just are not!

M: So why does your poetry scare you? Or is that a stupid and awful question to ask?

S: No! I’m more and more of the view that it should scare you, at least some of the time. It scares me because sometimes I would say something in a poem that I would never actually say out loud because I would be afraid of offending somebody, or because I would be afraid of sounding crazy or weird… Okay, so my mom is Protestant Irish, and she’s from Belfast, where that’s kind of a big deal, and I wrote a poem about Bobby Sands. In presenting the non-Catholic view point of Bobby Sands’ death I thought that it would really piss people off; he was a martyr to a lot of people, and I get that! I would never want to offend anyone or take that away, I just wanted to show that there were other people that felt differently about it. I’ve written a couple of poems about menopause where it feels like I’m outing myself. But it’s something all women go through, and I would like to read about it so I’ll just write about it. It does make me feel vulnerable to have said it out loud. But those are some of the poems that are the most worth writing.

M: Do you ever write haiku?!

S: Sometimes! But I’m more long winded than that.

M: Could you write me a haiku about how “cool” you are?

S: Cool?!

M: Not about you. But about how cool you are.

S: I am secretly cool;

please don’t tell anyone!

Nerdy writer cool.

M: So I have one last question…

Oh! That was painless.

M: If you could give yourself at nineteen years old any piece of advice, what would it be?

S: Ooh, and I would so like to do that, too… Briefly: be less afraid. The worst thing that could happen if you do something is not going to be as bad as the regret you’d feeling having not done it. The ways in which you’re weird are cooler than you know, and the ways in which you’re just like everybody else are more than you know. You’re actually doing fine. I really would love to do that, but even if I could I really probably wouldn’t even have listened.

M: Waste of time machine petrol.

You can follow Susan on her blog at this link, or check out her other project Over the Edge at this link.