Joy Manesiotis—who was recently named the Edith R. White Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing—challenges her poetry students to delve deeply into their interior lives and connect with the exterior world; study form and craft; take on exercises to free the imagination so they can write something wildly inventive; express themselves freely, while embracing responsibility for the power of their words; ask big questions, and accept that answers may be elusive.
These sometimes paradoxical goals reflect the nature of the medium. “Poetry is trying to excavate the invisible—it’s trying to say the unsayable, to speak the unspeakable,” says Manesiotis, who is author of They Sing to Her Bones, which won the New Issues Poetry Prize from New Issues Press, and many other works.
It is also transformative, she says, not only for the reader, but for the poet, who must set aside assumptions to view ideas, events, and objects with fresh eyes. “You can’t make art if you’re not awake in the world,” she adds. “And that means being perceptive and open and observant and engaged.”
In class, Manesiotis uses games and exercises to stimulate openness. In one assignment, students consider items from A History of the World in 100 Objects, a book by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, compiled from a BBC Radio series and BBC-British Museum website featuring objects of ancient art, industry, and technology across cultures. Students choose one object, explore its history, and then write a poem in which that history intersects with the poet’s everyday life, making connections they might not otherwise have thought existed. The poems are workshopped and undergo multiple revisions. Since language shapes thought, the more refined our engagement with language, the more subtle, complex, and nuanced our thinking, Manesiotis says.
She models this in her own work, using language to examine almost unimaginable events. Years ago, she set out to write a poem about the 1922 slaughter of Greek residents in Smyrna by the Turkish military and the exile of 1.5 million people that followed.
“The events became a kind of blueprint used for subsequent state-sponsored genocides in Europe in the 20th century,” she says. While she wrote in part to explore this profoundly important episode of history, the story was also personal for Manesiotis. Her mother’s family lost many members in the attack on Smyrna. Survivors immigrated to the United States. Manesiotis wanted to examine how trauma flows through generations, including from her grandmother to herself.
The project grew as she researched and wrote. It became A Short History of Anger: A Staged Reading. A hybrid of poetry and theater involving a narrator and a Greek chorus, it has been performed in multiple countries to audience members from disparate cultures who’ve seen similarities with their own families.
“It’s important for literature to engage its culture,” Manesiotis says. “In the United States, we privilege the individual self. We tend to think of poetry as ‘we take a walk on the beach and then spontaneously emote.’ But poetry is a much larger enterprise, a balance of technique and mystery.”
Looking outside themselves to write a poem changes how students see the world, she says, and that expanded perspective will help them not just to be more successful professionally, but to be better citizens of the world.
Learn more about studying creative writing at the University of Redlands.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first ran in the Spring 2020 issue of Och Tamale magazine.