English MATTERS — SPRING 2012

Innovative Pedagogies

Friday Harbor

Photo: Tom Mumford

“It’s not about the landscape, but it IS all about the landscape.”

For the past seven years, under the direction of UW poets Richard Kenney, Cody Walker, Jason Whitmarsh, and Catherine Wing, undergraduate creative writers from this Department have joined an Early Fall Start class at the UW Marine Laboratories at Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. On return, some of them referred to the experience as Poetry Camp, their facial expressions making it clear that the allusion owed at least as much to Boot Camp as to Summer Camp. Most had a good time; more than a few said it was the best thing they had done during their course of study at UW. The intensity of the intellectual encounter, the beauty of the islands, the unfamiliarity of the circumstances, the melancholy when it was over—all these inclined students to compare this program with the experience of foreign study—and to ask why it had to end so soon.

What was it like? One participant, Libby Hsu, wrote: “Stand on that hill with the soft-swept grass and the dying climbing-tree. Shut your eyes harder, and revive the feelings: blooming camaraderie, hesitance forgotten by the unprompted bond that digs deeper than personal discrepancies, shadows pale in the face of that which drew us to the fire every night: an unspoken commonality, a shared spark.”

The original course, open to anyone and without prerequisites, promised “a practical apprenticeship in the poet’s art, rather than a theoretical or critically-minded literary seminar. In that spirit, writing will be constant and joyful.” Applicants were selected for courage rather than experience. Writing was certainly constant, often with two assignments a day. Classes met morning and late afternoon, with open time between; students and teachers gathered again in the evening around the large stone fireplace in the dining lodge.

They read and wrote poems together, and discussed issues central to the artist’s way of thinking: “What is poetry? What are its forms and ways and means? What are its affinities with other forms of knowing, such as natural science? What is a poet’s relation to the natural world?” There were formal lectures and seminar discussions on poetry and play, poetry and comedy, poetry and science, nursery rhymes and nonsense, tone, gesture, and the generative nature of poetic constraints.

Emily Dhatt wrote: “I am sure the feeling I had on returning from Friday Harbor is not an uncommon one. Really, it’s a two-step process of feeling. The first step is longing: If I could live in a hut on an island and do nothing but write and talk about poems for the rest of my life, I would. The second is a romantic leap (lapse) of judgment: Well, why can’t I?”

If not for life, then maybe at least for a full quarter? Prompted by that question, Professor Kenney began collaborating with the scientists and Directors of the Marine Laboratories, with the help of Advising staff in English and Fisheries, to establish a new, interdisciplinary initiative. Next fall, for the first time, the so-called Marine Biology Quarter in Friday Harbor will encompass literature and creative writing. Participants will have the choice of taking two sciences and one English class, or two English classes and one science. All courses will be open at the introductory level.

If the September class was a guerilla beachhead, seven years secure, this will be a full-dress invasion. Professor Kenney is looking for more than a few good humanists to join the fray. Hear the bugle. Sign up.

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