Q1: I truly believe that teachers are gatekeepers and they hold a lot of power. What can you tell me about why and how you teach?
I’ve really been questioning and considering the gatekeeping aspects of teaching both in my own classroom and within creative writing as a discipline as, let’s just say, it’s been a few difficult years. While my strategies differ between first-year and more advanced students, I believe a lot of my job is to cheerlead, empower and question. I like to focus on the possibility more than the rigidity of what something has to be.
The reality is that I’m getting a paycheque, but I would hope that my desire to mentor and uphold creativity and wonder are still prime concerns. My program still uses the workshop as its main model, but I’m no longer convinced this is always the best way for folks to learn—especially folks writing from the margins. I’m still trying to figure that out. Just because Iowa did it way back when doesn’t strike me as a good enough reason to not question the pedagogy for modern day classrooms.
Q2: Busting rules. What do you do differently in the classroom? What are your template-busting, tradition-breaking teaching techniques?
A couple of years ago I started to realize that some students had never seen a contemporary book of poetry before. They’d heard poems and read them in course packs and anthologies, but had never placed a contemporary poetry book in their hands. I was not sad in a sentimental way, but in the knowledge that if they did not know how a book worked, they would not know the power of the quiet poem. Yes, placing entire books on the required reading list has become template-busting!
I guess it’s sort of similar to music and the death of the album versus the world of singles and hit culture. It’s important to me that my workshops do not fall into the trap of rewarding only loud and flashy pieces. I often see this in spoken word circles as well. There are more ways to craft a poem than simply manipulating the reader into emotional responses.
I also noticed that students were doing half-baked essays the evening before due dates and that we were all spending time (including my marking) on things that I questioned as useful. In my Business of Writing class students receive credit for things outside the classroom like attending readings, volunteering, networking and even visiting bookstores.
Introducing students to community and nudging them toward owning their own careers and craft is much more useful than correcting grammar.
Q3: Creative writing is tough all on its own. How do you balance teaching, working on your own writing, and then ...life?
I have never been able to work 100% of my time on writing—whether due to finances or just from the fact that I can’t write for 12 hours a day—so I’ve always cobbled together a rather strange mix of interests. I’m also super worried that I’ll become the kind of writer who only writes about writing or teaching, so I make sure I do not limit my experiences to writerly things. The world does not need another novel written by an academic about academia.
I do wonder if I’d have as many books if I wrote more prose. I don’t know how I’d be able to hold a novel inside me along with all my other projects and interests. I can write poems on a day off; novelists need more time.
Q4: Do you have any advice for new teachers out there?
Read the room and identify what your classes need and want. Where is the sweet spot, Venn diagram I guess, of what you want them to learn and what intrigues them? It’s not about you. Listen. Demand more, but make sure you inspire. Do not be afraid to break the rules. I cancel one class a term so that I can meet with each student at some point in the term. I can often learn more from a ten-minute one-on-one with a student than a dozen classroom hours. Check in with your students! Ask them questions about their learning throughout the term.
If you find yourself needing to be adored by your students, you need to check yourself. Find your affirmations elsewhere. Nothing good comes from needy instructors. I repeat, nothing good comes from needy instructors.
Q5: One minute of fame. Tell us all the new stuff you have in the works.
I’m just finishing off a new poetry manuscript entitled “Rhymes with Boyfriend” (still seeking a publisher) and am also working on a poetry anthology with Renee Sarojini Saklikar entitled “Valley”.
I have a long poem/lyric essay entitled “Skies” coming out in the Malahat Review.
Billeh Nickerson is the author of five books including the City of Vancouver Book Award nominated Artificial Cherry. He is the former editor of PRISM international and Event, two of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and a co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets. He is also a former writer-in-residence at Queen’s, the University of the Fraser Valley, and at the Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon. He is permanent faculty and former Chair of KPU’s Creative Writing department in Surrey, BC. He lives—and loves—in Vancouver.