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In every poetry writing class I teach, about halfway through the term, there is one week that a significant number of my students suddenly begin to turn in poems full of sex. This sudden efflorescence isn't due to spring, spring break, or some threshold in the cycle of the moon. It is the fruit of an experiment I have been trying out for years, ever since a version of it was tried on me by the poet Mark Levine. Curiously, this experiment does not involve asking directly for sex poems of any kind. And yet they come.

Here's how it works. About halfway through the course, after we have studied sonnet structure and strategies of repetition, and become conversant in some top-shelf vocabulary like "terminal modification" and "détournement," and spent several weeks scouring our own poems, sorting the brilliant from the bland, in an effort to hew a good poem into shape—after all this, I ask students to write a bad bad poem.

Such a poem is not to be confused with the merely bad. "Look at the poems you've written," I say. "See what sort of 'good poem' you were aspiring to write, then go 1000% in the opposite direction. Tell your teacher, who has enjoined you to be good, to go fuck himself." Poems are submitted anonymously, so there is nothing to be gained by way of fame and little to fear by way of shame. The following week, in lieu of our usual workshop, we take turns reading them aloud.

There is of course some danger here. This practice is irresponsible in a literal sense: students need not answer for what they write. Each time I do this, I worry someone might write something that could harm somebody else—by being racist, sexist, or otherwise damaging to the social fabric of the class under the sign of badness. That risk is part of the eros of the assignment, the possibility that things could go really wrong. You can't do this sort of thing in the second week of class; it takes some trust.

Fortunately, there have been no disasters so far. What tends to happen is the following:

  1. 1). Students who were writing studious, intelligently mild poems—poems by smart, earnest students, well-trained in the getting of good grades—suddenly write a poem with real blood in its veins. And students who were already writing with wild imagination just get wilder. Of course these poems are not well-wrought urns. They're messy and unstructured. They're sometimes puerile. Many of their lines and sentences are destined for the dustpan. But what's good in them is truly good—and not the unsurprising sort of good that sometimes gets a pass from the beleaguered instructor or editor. The in-class performance of these poems invariably produces laughter, moments of collective awe, and joy. I have attended more than a few readings by professional poets, "mainstream" and "avant-garde" alike, in which these things did not occur.

  2. 2). In almost every case, these poems go bad by speaking about sex and eros. And often in a sexually explicit diction. "I don't mean to brag, but / my vagina is kind of like a cowboy," wrote one poet, to the delight of the class. "Do not feel upset / when I fake an orgasm / if you have faked five months / of caring about me," wrote another, in a moment of real talk. "For the night sky is a uterus, and vice versa," a third exclaimed. And one poet, Rachel Calnek-Sugin, described a love affair between a boy who loved his girlfriend "insofar as he loved himself" and a girl who loved him "insofar as her poems needed / to be about something":

She told her friends the sex was good. His body was coated with adjectivesand dotted with nouns: soft, warm, white; nose, ear, sweat.One night, after two unfortunate hours in bed, he told herhe had erectile dysfunction. "Oh," she said, "I wondered."She should have called him "lover," then."Jack has erectile dysfunction," she told her friendafter the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-4578
Print ISSN
0149-9408
Pages
pp. 5-25
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-06
Open Access
No
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