Monday, July 15, 2013

MOOCs for Creative Writing: Interview with Lynn Levin

MOOCs for creative writing require innovative instructional strategies, and textbooks that combine prompts, examples, and flowcharts. Certain presses (such as Texture Press) are making innovative textbooks available, in both as a free e-book (Writing for Human Relations), and at low-cost printed format (Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets). Welcome to an interview with Lynn Levin, Drexel University, and co-author with Valerie Fox, with Poems for the Writing. 

1. What is your name and your relationship to writing and writing instruction?

My name is Lynn Levin, and I teach a variety of English classes at Drexel University and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. I am principally a poet and have published four collections of poems, most recently Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013), and a craft-of-poetry textbook, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, with co-author Valerie Fox (Texture Press, 2013). My previous poetry collections are Fair Creatures of an Hour (Loonfeather Press, 2009), Imaginarium (Loonfeather Press, 2005), and A Few Questions about Paradise (Loonfeather Press, 2000). My poems have appeared in Boulevard, Ploughshares, The Hopkins Review, and other journals. I also write creative nonfiction, fiction, and I am a literary translator of poetry (mostly from Spanish, sometimes from French).

2.  How do you view the process of writing?

I view the process of writing as a series of promising starts which often turn out to be false starts, which are hopefully followed by restarts, some of which gain purchase on the page and eventually lead to a finished poem, essay, or story. When I have a work in progress, I feel most alive...even with all those starts, false starts, and restarts.

3. What are some of the approaches that you have found yield interesting writing?

More than anything, reading the work of others leads to better writing and better thinking. I also believe in capturing random observations and turns of phrase that fly into my mind when I least expect them. Many of those airy notions may trigger poems and stories. It is also true that a majority of these ideas do not retain the charm I first saw in them, but some do blossom. I also stand guilty of failing to revisit many of my numerous jottings.

In another way, I find poetry prompts to be immensely helpful. They nudge me out of my usual ways of building poems. The prompts in Poems for the Writing do that for me, and, I hope, for other poets, too. They help me experiment with new ways of organizing, rearranging, or shopping for thoughts.

4. What do you consider to be “interesting” or “effective” in writing—and why does it matter?

I value the idea of making the familiar seem strange. It goes along with conveying a sense of wonder or marvel at the world. When it comes to making a literary work effective and interesting, I think of strangeness and wonder. But there’s also the human or moral level. A writer has to show compassion to his or her characters. Strangeness isn’t everything.

I have also become more aware of the importance of the beginning of the poem or the first sentences of a prose piece. The beginning establishes a voice that propels the rest of the work.

5. When, how, and why is creative self-expression important in today’s social media world, where almost all voices are likely to be drowned out or simply be a part of the general tsunami of texts, images, and voices?

That’s a great question. It does seem harder and harder for an individual artist of any genre to stand out in the welter.

Creative self-expression is thriving. Now that so many people are blogging, that is, publishing their own journals of opinion, there’s more to read than ever. It’s overwhelming. Twitter, Facebook, and all those other social media sites that I haven’t discovered are part of the same phenomenon. It’s like there are six billion media channels out there. Everyone’s crying, “Read me!” Yes, certainly voices will be drowned out. On the other hand, so many people are writing thoughtful, insightful, and witty pieces. I would never want anyone to quit writing just because of the huge wave of other voices. But then, whom should one read?

This brings up the phenomenon of narrow-casting or friend-casting (as opposed to broadcasting). I hear that audiences are becoming more and more compartmentalized. For example, a lot of people get their news from their Facebook and Twitter feeds, but not from general-interest news sources. That’s worrisome to me on one hand because it decreases one’s exposure to diverse points of view. On another hand, this gives independent opinion writers an appreciative and attentive audience of like-minded readers.

I think this proliferation of voices makes the role of the editor and publisher more important than ever. Someone has to be the arbiter of literary quality.
Someone has to do the hard and heartbreaking work of picking and choosing which voices to promote.

Then there are the loneliness and celebrity factors. People are lonely and they crave attention. Social media serves those needs brilliantly. Hence more voices calling out.

I don’t know how well these ruminations of mine answered your question, but you bring up one of the key issues of our time.

6.  Please describe the book that you wrote with Valerie Fox.

Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013) is a craft-of-writing textbook that presents fourteen classroom- and workshop-tested writing prompts for both beginning and experienced poets. The prompts range from simple concepts, such as the cameo cinquain and the rules poem, to more elaborate intertextual  prompts, such as the fake translation and bibliomancy. The book is very friendly and easy to use, and it is aimed at students (both high school and college), working poets, and teachers of creative writing. The first part of the book comprises the prompts and the second part of the book presents sample poems generated by the prompts. Those sample poems are written by college creative writing students and established poets alike. The incredible selection of sample poems not only proves that the prompts are effective, it shows how widely the prompts can be interpreted.

7.  What is your next step?

Right now, I am writing some short stories and new poems. And I am working my way through a stack of books and magazines I’ve promised myself I’d read. I am determined to read through my numerous notebooks of airy jottings. Maybe I’ll glean some phrases worth making into poems.

Thank you!

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