In the fall of 1972 Peter Bernhart, a member of the staff of The Oswegonian, the student newspaper of the State University of New York College at Oswego where I taught, made an appointment to meet me in my office in Sheldon Hall so that he could interview me. The discussion was published on Thursday, November 16th, and many of the young reporter’s questions had to do with the Program in Writing Arts that I had founded at the school four years earlier. The program was successful from its outset and eventually became its own department.
My idea had been to set up a three-tiered curriculum in several genres including fiction, drama, poetry, and journalism. The basic course in each genre except for journalism, which was basically an internship course, was called “The Nature of…,” and these courses were quite technical, covering the elements of each genre and having the pupils write exercises in each of those elements.
The second set of each tier were called “Creative Writing in…” courses, and they were workshops. The students could write whatever they wanted to within the genre, but they had to turn something in every week, and they were supposed to bring to class enough copies of what they had written so that everyone could have one to read and criticize.
The third tier were Advanced Writing classes — at the beginning of the semester each student would propose a major project of some sort, and there would be no classes while they got started; instead, the first half of the semester there were individual sessions between teacher and student, one-on-one, and when enough of each project had been produced, there were class sessions the second half of the semester in which everyone went over each-other’s work.
Generally, the most problematic of the courses were the middle Creative Writing workshops. In the poetry workshop the student could do pretty much what he or she wanted to do. The idea behind that course was to take student work and judge it in terms of its own premises. I didn't give many specific assignments. The class looked at each poem, decided what it was the poet intended to do — and we had the writer there to ask him or her what was intended — then we judged it in terms of its success with us as readers.
Describing the course that way makes it sound easy, perhaps, but the criticism that came out of the class was rigorous as a rule, and everyone had taken the prerequisite basic course, The Nature of Poetry, which was very technical. The goal of the workshop was to help each member to develop in his or her own way as much as possible during the course of the semester. Many people came into the class not really knowing what it was they were trying to do. By the end of the semester the hope was that they would have consciously understood something of what they were attempting and developed ways that would help them succeed.
At this point in the interview Berhnardt asked me, “Is there always enough student work to discuss every week?”
I replied, “Now that the writing arts program here is large, with a staff of seven members, and with twenty-three courses in writing being offered, there is always enough — most often, too much. But in the early days when there were sometimes only three or four students in a class, I would have to turn the classroom into a writing studio and the students would write with me looking over their shoulders, as art students do in a painting studio. I remember one class when no one brought in anything. I took them to another room of the old Penfield Library building, where the class was being held, to look at a print show. Each student picked out a print, studied it, then we went back into the classroom and everyone wrote a poem about his or her print. I did the same, and we compared work. That was a very interesting session.”
“Did you write a poem for that class too?” Bernhardt asked. I said yes, and that it was called,
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem titled Lovers
The bed frames them. Their eyes
tell little of the story. Some old passion
has been eroded. Rivulets of time have
eaten their cheeks until their faces
lie flat against linen
landscapes — or against each other in a dark
room, on a night empty even of owlcries.
Their flesh is a sophistry of shadow:
nothing is hidden. They
must therefore film their eyes in order not to
notice there is nothing there to see. They sang
songs once, to each other, in moon light.
Now, not even night hawks
call out to the lovers in their still stead. Not
even sleep lifts the veils from their sight, returns
each other's image for an hour's dream.
And if the world wheel, what then?
The grim creature of the mind stunned
by the spaces of stars hung silently
among the dumb regions where death dwells
in an old house, watching from twin windows,
snuttering among pebbles
like a hag made of pimples and
sacks. She will stow her hours in odd chinks,
fondle each old thing on her ticking
as night whines beneath the bed and her roof
trembles with light. Then, at last,
when least she needs his flesh — when least
they know each other in their age, the stars
will smash their windows, their roof vanish,
and the world come burning while they make love.
“Lovers” appeared originally in the Iowa Review, ii:4, Fall 1971; it was first collected in a chapbook, The Weed Garden, Orangeburg: Peaceweed Press, 1973, then in The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems, Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1989. Both booka are out of print, but both, including the poem “Lovers,” are included in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007.