Jill Khoury Discusses Her Teaching with Poetry Barn and the Value of Online Poetry Workshops

To celebrate National Poetry Month, I’d like to share this online interview I conducted with Jill Khoury. I was inspired to interview Jill after taking her online poetry workshop, Writing Poems From the Body, at The Poetry Barn.

Jill’s course was my first Poetry Barn class, but I have since taken two more, and I’ve found them to be incredibly exciting! Each month-long course is organized around a theme (poetry and spirituality, poetry and the body, poetry and gender, just to name a few), where the instructor offers you readings, prompts, critiques, and discussions. Classmates also critique each other’s work, and the courses are wonderfully encouraging.

Writing Poems from the Body wasn’t my first experience with Jill or her compelling work. Several years ago, Jill and I joined other disabled writers in a dialogue on blindness and writing through Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. And last year, I reviewed her book, Suites for the Modern Dancer, for The Deaf Poets Society. When I saw her workshop on the schedule at The Poetry Barn, I knew her course would be an exciting opportunity!

About Poet-Teacher Jill Khoury

Jill Khoury is interested in the intersection of poetry, visual art, representations of gender, and disability. She is a Western Pennsylvania Writing Project fellow and teaches workshops focusing on writing the body. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University and edits Rogue Agent, a journal of embodied poetry and art. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Copper Nickel, Bone Bouquet, Lunch Ticket, and diode. She has written two chapbooks—Borrowed Bodies (Pudding House, 2009) and Chance Operations (Paper Nautilus, 2016). Her debut full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer, was released in 2016 from Sundress Publications. 

How did you discover Poetry Barn? How did you get started as a teaching artist for Poetry Barn?

Poetry Barn started out under a different name: Rooster Moans Poetry Collective. As best I understand it, the Collective began as a few poets workshopping together and then expanded into a venue for teachers and students to become involved in online workshopping. Poets Susan Yount and Lissa Kiernan were members of the original collective. I had recently been in contact with Susan Yount because she’d published a poem of mine in Arsenic Lobster, a journal she edited. I don’t remember the details but I’d asked about teaching online and she introduced me to her friend Lissa who runs Rooster Moans aka Poetry Barn. This is just one illustration of why my online poetry community means so much to me. Being able to transcend geography and the limitations of my disabilities is a godsend.

How much freedom are you allowed with the design of your Poetry Barn workshops?

Lissa gives us a lot of creative freedom! I was able to design this course entirely. It is and continues to be the only course that I’ve had the maximum amount of freedom in choosing material and how to present that material.

How often do you teach with Poetry Barn? Have you taught different workshops or do you teach the same classes every year?

I’ve taught the Writing Poems from the Body class twice with them, and I’m teaching it again in the fall of 2018.

What are three principles you strive to build into your Poetry Barn workshops?

Risk-taking, close reading / helpful critique, and safety. The first pertains to a value that I hold dear in my own and others’ writing—being able to take risks with content, writing process. language, or poetic form. Risk is going to seem different to everyone, however. Of course, what is extremely risky for one poet might not be risky for another. I aim to push each student just slightly out of their comfort zone, but it’s also okay if they don’t want to go there. I think close reading and helpful critique is also a core motivator of the workshop. I also allow my students to indicate what depth of critique would be most helpful for them. Some students are writing with the goal of eventual publication in mind already. Some students are just there to generate work and want to worry about deep revision later. Some students are writing for catharsis or self-inquiry. Suggestions for revision are not useful to them because they are not interested in revising. The great thing about teaching in a venue like Poetry Barn is that as a teacher, I can meet every student where they are. It’s not for credit. It’s for enrichment—whatever enrichment looks like to the individual. Lastly but importantly, safety is important. When teaching a workshop like Writing Poems from the Body, situations can get really vulnerable really quickly. It is of paramount importance that everyone’s journey into the subject of the body is heard and respected.

How is the online format similar to in-person workshops? How is it different?

The thing that it’s hard to replace from an in-person workshop is the face to face meeting. It will always be a lovely thing to feel that unquantifiable but delicious feeling of being poets sitting around a seminar table writing, reading, and engaging one another. However, there are many limitations on an in-person workshop. Geography and scheduling, for example. In my first time teaching Writing Poems from the Body I had students from all over the US plus Australia and Norway. Some were university students. Some were professionals. Some were retired. Since the class is asynchronous, people with all these different geographies and schedules were able to come together and form a cohesive unit.

What is some advice you would give to a new workshop participant about writing critiques?

My recommendation would be similar to any new workshop participant, whether online or in-person. Be respectful. Be specific. Take your time. Give praise and advice in the spirit you would wish to receive it.

Which features of class or community design help the Poetry Barn workshops to be constructive and civil spaces?

The Poetry Barn classroom has discussion questions available as a course design choice. I like to generate discussion even before the first poems are turned in. In Writing Poems from the Body, the first discussion question I offer is to share your journey toward embodied writing. People come to it from different places, in different ways. My intention is that the more that students participate in discussion, the more they will see themselves as a community. The more they see themselves as a community, the more they will respect one another. Also Lissa has built respectfulness into the courses literally. On the pages dedicated to poem critique, she has a list of good advice for workshopping that shows up every time someone starts a critique.

And lastly, who are the poets you return to again and again? What are the poems you can’t stop reading?

Rather than always-returning, the way I read poetry is ever-expanding. There is so much new work coming out all the time that examines the subject of the body in some way. I want to read it all! Here’s a list of ten books in my queue right now:

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I’m so grateful to Jill for her thoughtful answers — and to the folks at Poetry Barn for continuing to provide quality instruction in a civil and accessible environment!

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