So Many Persons not Myself – Moving Student Poets Beyond Self-Expression

So Many Persons not Myself – Moving Student Poets Beyond Self-Expression


John Menaghan, Ph.D.

1. Restatement of the Original Project

As the project title makes clear, my goal was to develop a series of perspectives, points of reference, and ultimately an innovative and stimulating set of instructional activities and procedures designed to move student poets beyond self-expression by inducing/compelling them to write in the "voices" of speakers other than themselves. These activities and exercises would then be deployed and tested in the context of a course entitled "ENGL 563: Creative Writing Seminar--Reading & Writing the Dramatic Monologue," to be offered in Fall 2003. The summer would be spent first updating my research on the dramatic monologue itself, then moving beyond this narrow focus by looking into recent research in the fields of Performance Studies and Drama Therapy as well as at theater-based guides to the writing and performing of monologues for the stage and guides to the practice of writing and performing as a comic monologist (a.k.a. a "stand-up comedian"), all in the search for perspectives, methods and approaches that might be adapted to the course in question. I also planned to look into theories of translation for insights into the ways in which this act itself involves a form of impersonation or masking. I then planned to develop a series of exercises and techniques for responding to monologues written by established poets from Browning to Ai, and for writing a series of poems in the voices of historical and/or fictive personae.

2. Description of the Work Accomplished

Updating my research on the dramatic monologue amounted in the end to reviewing the one book devoted to the subject to have appeared in recent years: The Dramatic Monologue, by Elizabeth Howe. This activity proved a bit disappointing, since Howe's book was little more than a synthesis of earlier work with which, after a dissertation devoted in large part to the monologue and several semesters spent teaching a seminar in "The Dramatic Monologue," I was quite familiar. My foray into the area of "Performance Studies" proved more of a mixed bag. On the one hand there was a tremendous amount of material on various aspects of this topic, but on the other the range of approaches, from socio-linguistic to environmental to popular culture-oriented to ethno-musicological to political to feminist to philosophical, proved both rather daunting and of questionable relevance to my enterprise. And the works actually devoted to dramatic/theatrical matters were largely focused on issues of staging and acting rather than the production of monologues and the like. Happily, however, my research in the area of "Drama Therapy" proved more fruitful, especially when I succeeded in uncovering, in a book entitled Current Approaches to Drama Therapy, a chapter entitled "Toward a Body of Knowledge in Drama Therapy." This chapter involved an attempt to state some basic principles informing practice in what was itself a remarkably diverse field. Divided as it was into an attempt first to define the practice, then to identify its "foundational concepts" and goals, as well as its notions of "health and dysfunction," followed by a summary description of the "therapeutic process," it ended with what was for me the most valuable and useful content: a series of "Drama Therapy Techniques" and "Key Dramatic Concepts" that promised the possibility for creative adaptation in the context of my upcoming course. The other area that proved, somewhat to my surprise, to suggest a number of intriguing possibilities was my investigation into the theory and practice of "Stand-Up Comedy." From a book seeking to apply Julia Kristeva's theory of "abjection" to the practice of stand-up comedy to a how-to manual for prospective comedians to an account of one stand-up's life "on the road" to a wide-ranging account of "subversive comedy" in New York City and beyond to a book entitled "Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy," this small but rich trove of materials gave me new ways to think about the distinctions and connections between person, personality, and persona, and even suggested to me the possibility of developing a distinct course devoted to the practice and phenomenon of Stand-Up Comedy. And this in turn gave me a sense of how I might, in the future, be able to connect ideas about stand-up comedy with the more, how shall I say, elevated concerns of the Performance theorists.*

3. Description of the Extent to which the Goals were Accomplished

Although my investigations involved, as stated above, some surprises, in the end the research stimulated me to create not so much a firm set of exercises to be deployed in a systematic fashion in my upcoming course, but a kind of embarrassment of riches in terms of such possibilities. And when I discovered over the summer that, despite being open to both graduate and undergraduate students, the course had attracted only graduate students, and only six of them, I decided to take an open-ended rather than a pre-ordained approach to deploying the actual exercises I would use to accomplish the goals of the course. On meeting the students for the first time, and even more so in getting to know them in the first weeks of the course, I felt confirmed in the wisdom of this approach, especially as the students, though few in number, had come to the course with a wide range of interests and experiences and ambitions for their own writing. Then too, since the course itself was an amalgam of three other courses I had offered (Advanced Poetry Writing, The Dramatic Monologue, and Oral Interpretation of Poetry) and thus contained within it a myriad of possible permutations and shifting emphases, I judged it best to remain open to this select group of students' particular needs and desires, both initially and as these developed and changed over the course of the semester.

Then, too, there was the tricky matter that despite my having found my research into Drama Therapy and Stand-Up Comedy very stimulating, my students had not come to this course either for therapy or a crash course in how to become stand-ups. I have found in my experience that the smaller the group the greater the necessity to be tuned in very closely to each student's needs, desires, anxieties, and ambitions, especially in creative writing courses. Thus as the weeks passed I did give students a number of particular exercises to complete—from writing a response to a classic monologue in the voice of one of the "voiceless" characters, such as the Duchess in Browning's "My Last Duchess," to writing in the voice of a historical figure, to writing a matched pair of interior monologues spoken/thought by two characters simultaneously—but at the same time I fed them, as it were, a steady diet of diverse monologues from different periods designed to serve as potential models and an array of articles offering critical perspectives on such topics as "voice" in poetry, dramatic monologues and related lyric forms, the concept of the persona, and the sociology/psychology of "self-presentation." I also assigned an unusual type of paper in which each student had to provide an account of how a poem of their choice "ought" to be read aloud in order for its full impact to be heard and felt by an audience. More informally I exposed them to my research on both drama therapy and the split between "self-presentation" and the creation of a comic "persona" involved in the work of the stand-up comedian, in particular the need in this latter context to create the illusion of sincere self-expression and spontaneity while performing scripted "material."

Having taken my own somewhat daring approach to combining scripting and spontaneity in terms of the course's organization and procedures, over the course of the semester I was often uncertain about how it would all turn out, especially when, early on, several of the students seemed either to be having trouble following my directive to write in the voices of characters clearly distinct from the poet or actively resisting it. Yet by the end of the semester each of the six had written and revised a selection of monologues—and in some cases converted poems that started out in their own voices into monologues—that persuaded me I had, in following that classic advice to teachers to "start where they are but don't stay there," succeeding in reaching them and enriching their work and bringing them, as it were, to a new place, even if, as I suspected, some of them would be likely to revert, at least in the short term, to more personal poetry once the semester was over.

4. Reflection on how this Project has Affected my Teaching and Student Learning

The student learning part I have covered above, I think. As far as my teaching, the research informing and my experience in actually teaching the course confirmed for me the value of bringing diverse perspectives and employing a wide range of techniques to reach students in new ways and teach them new things, rather than testing their competence to absorb and reflect back pre-digested material or praising them for simply following their own inclinations. This process also confirmed for me that my teaching is at its best when I combine planning and improvisation, and this was a welcome reminder and reinforcement of my inclinations in that direction after a full year's sabbatical and thus at a time when I was coming back to teaching feeling both refreshed and a little rusty. Having to teach this course my first semester back was in some ways an extra challenge, but one that in the end paid clear dividends, I believe, for both the students and me.

5. How the Outcomes Might be Useful to Faculty in Other Areas

This is the hardest part for me to judge, since the course is such an unusual one, even in the context of the English department itself. All I can say is that not panicking when I didn't seem at first to be succeeding in inducing all of the students to write in the fashion I had prescribed and at the same time not being content with allowing them to produce whatever they wished but instead nudging them ever closer to the goals I had for them would seem to have some general applicability for instructors whatever the subject matter. Also, although it might not suit every instructor's personality and might not always be practical in certain subject areas, my openness to spontaneity and shaping the course week by week in response to what I perceived to be the students' changing needs and my openness to perspectives and practices outside my own discipline helped to keep my teaching simultaneously fresh and challenging, and might arguably do the same for other instructors able to adopt some version of this approach.

6. Future Plans for Dissemination

I would be most interested in offering a departmental or Dean's seminar, perhaps after I have taught the course another time or two, examining the changes that occur from one incarnation of the course to the next. Similarly, after at least one more go round, I plan to write an account of my experiences and offer it for conference presentation and publication to the Associated Writing Programs, the Modern Language Association, and/or in similar contexts. Finally, as noted, I hope to develop a new course devoted to examining Stand-Up Comedy as a literary genre, performative discipline, and cultural practice.

* Regarding the theory and practice of translation: in the end I decided that such concerns were more appropriate in the context of a course devoted to that particular practice, and that it was impractical to try to work translation as an act of "impersonation" into this particular course, or at least this particular incarnation of the course, when there was so much other material to cover.