The best poets are not always the best teachers of poetry. The ability to teach poetry, to foster humility and passion, to nurture risk, to invite inquiry, to encourage delight, to model poetic listening--these are intangibles. Some people claim that poetry can’t be taught. It is too ineffable, too mysterious, too much an affair of natural endowment. They weren’t taught poetry by Stacy Doris.
Stacy was an inspired poetry teacher. Some people are so good at what they do that hyperbole applied to them becomes plain truth. She exemplified the cultural role of poetry teacher. She exalted it. Certain pedagogical skills needed for effective teaching in a poetry classroom are more heightened than in other content areas. As a poetry teacher, you have to be emotionally intelligent, a visionary listener, acute and oblique in your feedback. You are a lantern, a radio, and a satellite. You are also on a quest.
I met Stacy in 1997 as a graduate student at City College. Many good teachers had taught me about poetry; some had even taken an interest in my writing. They generously did what good teachers do—they encouraged, rectified, and shared what they knew. Stacy did something else. She blew the top off my understanding of poetry and writing. I walked into her class one person and walked out a different person. She was a catalyst of transformation. Maybe it was a question of timing, but I’ve talked to other people who were taught by Stacy and they say the same thing. Stacy changed them. Or they were ready to be changed and Stacy lit the match.
The natural question is how? What did Stacy do differently from other good teachers? Was it sui generis? Part of the answer, and I’ll only have a part of it, is that she flattened the power hierarchy in the classroom by actively being a poet, too. She shared her work with us: she shared how she was thinking about it, how she got the idea, she traced a process that we saw unfolding. While most of the poetry teachers I had up to Stacy were also working poets, none of them brought that part of themselves to the classroom in the same way. It was a subversive way of gaining our trust. And it was exactly what I needed to see: what a real poet does. It sounds so simple, but it had a profound impact on fleshing out the archetype, giving it muscle, contour, and a human face.
Once she had our trust, her real agenda could let loose: to blow our minds. To destroy our presumptions, ideas, and notions about poetry and replace them with something much more vital, with something that breathes. She went from Aphrodite to Kali. There was something ravenous about how she interpreted the world as poetic material. Material was everywhere. The world was poetic material and poetic material was the world. She set us out into the city asking us to make city poems.
One assignment had me collaging Chinese restaurant menus, highlighting exotic words, the sudden and often funny linguistic slippages, looking at their design as a possible form. Another had me at Coney Island, sitting on a bench and recording the rollicking conversation of two old men speaking Yiddish. Later, I listened to the recording and transcribed it. What came out was a mix of real words and nonsense words, no syntax, no narrative sense, no center. I was disappointed when I brought the assignment to class. But Stacy loved it! She told me to read it out loud and asked people what they heard and many said they heard a conversation, the ocean, a song, birds. Stacy showed me that I had transferred energy, and that energy itself has meaning.
One of the most significant teachings that Stacy provided the environment for us to achieve was that poetry did not innately have any connection with ourselves. This may have been the keystone in the transformation. It is challenging to parse now because much of what I learned from Stacy has become part of what I think. Her teaching has become integral in my ground of being.
Last year at around this time, the day before my birthday, I wrote a list of the things that I wanted to do in the upcoming year. Thanking teachers was on that list. I wanted to thank my eighth grade teacher, my high school Latin teacher, and Stacy. This year on the day before my birthday, instead of hunting her down and sending a cheerful email, maybe some poems, I’m reflecting on the impact of her teaching on me. I feel like it’s a conversation that will go long into the night. I can imagine her, just like she did fifteen years ago, handing me a plate of figs, refilling my whiskey, and telling me to listen.