Multilingualism in the workshop

Creative writing across languages

The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel

Following up on my last post about Janet Neigh’s wonderful article on multilingual poetry and feminist pedagogy, I wanted to spend a bit more time reflecting on multilingual writing in the classroom, and more specifically in the creative writing workshop. I know this might sound daunting — what if the teacher doesn’t speak the same languages as the students? How will she know if their writing is any good?

Luckily for me (and also for my students), when I teach creative writing I’m not interested in diagnosing what’s good and what’s bad. Instead, I want to see what the students can make language do. To that end, I try to take an expanded and expansive approach to language: I want the students to think about the different languages and different kinds of language that they use every day, and to think about how any of these might take on a new life in writing.

Let me try to spin this out as a quick draft syllabus: in my upcoming 300-level poetry workshop, “Languages of Poetry,” we’ll begin by reading Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto, which is about how a poem should be between two people, without any paper mediation. Then, we’ll try this exercise devised by Kara Walker, in which we’ll write a story together through text messages. We’ll read poems by Craig Santos Perez and Garry Thomas Morse that incorporate the voices of family members and other speakers, and then the students will interview people and use the transcripts to bring their voices into poems.We’ll follow Jack Spicer’s example and work on Lorca translations, and we’ll read Myung Mi Kim’s Commons Jennifer Tamayo’s You Da One and think about how the languages of documentary film and pop culture might come into our work. We’ll also read essays including Kamau Brathwaite's "History of the Voice," June Jordan’s “Nobody Mean More to Me than You,” Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” and Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” which will help us reflect on where the way we speak comes from, and how and why we might tune into these ways of speaking in our texts.  

I don’t expect that all of the students will come to the class with multiple languages at their disposal. But if this expanded approach of what kind of language is “allowed” in a poem helps them to move freely across multiple discourses, so much the better. My workshop will be just one among many that make multilingualism key component of the work of writing: the University of Texas at El Paso has a bilingual MFA, the DC Center for the LGBT Community hosts a Queer Bilingual Writing Group, Mano a Mano in New York hosts a bilingual writing workshop, the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago will host a bilingual writing workshop in Spring 2015 co-taught by Na’ama Rokem, Anastasia Giannakidou, and the novelist Sayed Kashua. Over in Iceland, a.rawlings has been coordinating a multilingual writing workshop, and at the community and university levels, there are so many more.

If my students do choose to use multiple languages in their work, we’ll talk about what reading multilingual poetry can teach us about reading poetry in general (don’t forget to look up the words you don’t know!), and this will also give us the chance to think about reading as a form of writing and response — students can take their notes on their peers’ poems and turn them into new texts of their own, texts that would have been written without the working and thinking prompted by a multilingual encounter.