Aspiring writers compete, collaborate, improve

Langdon Hammer enrolled as an undergraduate at Yale in 1976. The next year, he applied for and was accepted into a verse writing seminar led by the poet and critic John Hollander. For Hammer, the course proved vital in shaping what would become a life-long love for and dedication to the study of poetry.

In an e-mail, Hammer described the course as “a tremendously exciting, shaping literary experience that I go on thinking about decades later: that class taught me more about literature than any other I took, and it instilled in me a sense of the seriousness and possibilities of crafting anything in writing, whether in poetry or prose.”

Now, 30 years later, Hammer is a professor of English and currently the chair of the department, and John Hollander is still on the faculty, teaching an advanced verse writing seminar each spring. Serving alongside Hollander are some of the most decorated writers currently teaching American undergraduates, among them Pulitzer Prize, Bollingen Prize, Drama Desk, National Book Critics Circle and American Academy of Arts and Letters award winners. The courses they teach — seminars for groups of between 10 and 15 students — range from verse writing to translation to science fiction and fantasy, and each requires interested students to apply by submitting a writing sample. Although the opportunities seem incredible, the difficulty of getting into the seminars and the formal structure they insist on worry some Yale students.

Genna Braverman ’09 said that although she has considered applying for one of the introductory seminars, she isn’t “really sure about formalizing my creative output in a class setting.”

But Anne Fadiman, the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award winner for “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” emphasizes the ability of seminars to fine-tune existing skills and to give students a critical vocabulary with which to discuss both their work and the work of their peers.

“I wouldn’t say writing classes are necessary, but they can be useful,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Because they almost always include oral and written critiquing of student work, they often teach editing as well as writing. And although it’s impossible to grant anyone the gift of talent, classes can sometimes help a writer who already has the gifts but needs polish and focus and a few tools.”

Carina del Valle Schorske ’09, who has taken both Introductory and Advanced Verse writing courses with Louise Glück and “Writing About Oneself” with Fadiman, echoed this sentiment. She insisted upon the value of the formal structure of Glück’s seminars, which require students to turn in one poem a week.

“The most material gift of her classes is that she forces us to produce consistently, and while that is no small gift, the emphasis she places upon rigorous collective analysis and troubleshooting has blurred the boundaries for me between the type of thinking that makes for good creative writing and the type of thinking that makes for good, well, anything,” she said. “Her course is a course in clarity about matters that seem, at first, to defy clarity.”

For Glück, former U.S. poet laureate and winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, much of the attraction of teaching at Yale is the caliber of the student body. She noted that the students she has taught here share qualities — “ardor, eccentricity [and] a capacity for articulate response” — that she has found at very few of the 25 schools at which she has taught.

The particular qualifications shared by Yale’s writing students, however, present a unique problem, some students said. Laura Bennett ’09 took “Introduction to Fiction” last spring and noted both the advantages and disadvantages of the competition which seemed to be a natural product of a class filled with such talented students. Though the competition was “not a conscious” one, some of her classmates tended to be “very careful with their criticisms and praise.” But ultimately, Bennett said, the competition proved healthy.

“It’s good to raise the bar for yourself,” Bennett said.

Langdon Hammer agreed, maintaining that “writers, like tennis players, are competitive, and that’s not a bad thing — it can be highly creative and collaborative at the same time.”

That combination of competition and collaboration is not designed solely to benefit aspiring writers, Hammer said.

“Students who are interested in literature, who see themselves primarily as readers or critics, ought to be taking writing classes,” Hammer said. “There is so much to be learned there, and it would be artificial — and sterile — to separate literature and writing classes as it would be to separate readers and writers.”

For instance, Jonathan Ferrugia ’08 took Penelope Lauren’s “Versification” class during his freshman year and felt that a major boon of the course was the appreciation it gave him for the work of other poets, an appreciation that carried over into his other coursework.

It is the ability of these classes to develop skills on both the creative and analytical fronts which students and professors say renders them so valuable to the Yale community. Though the associated competition and difficulty of writing for a deadline may be turnoffs for some, in the end, such is the life of a writer.

When asked if she thought the seminar culture at Yale and the competition it produced was dangerous for developing writers, Glück said without hesitation, “If it is, then the world is dangerous. Which it is.”

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