Making Noise


Adrian Blevins shows her students the rebellious nature of writing

By Robert Gillespie
Photography by Fred Field

Illustration by Fred Field
Southern women absorb this cultural message: be quiet, be sweet, says Adrian Blevins, her light Virginia lilt at odds with her thoughts about that. "Creative writing was my way of rebelling," she said. "It was a way to say, 'Guess what, I'm not sweet. Guess what, I'm not going to be quiet. I want to make noise.' I think most writers have that need to mark up the page. Make some noise." So says the author of The Brass Girl Brouhaha (Ausable Press, 2003).

In December, two writing workshops (one poetry, one fiction) into her 15th year of teaching and her first year at the College, Colby's new creative writing teacher says that a culture trying to sell you things it wants you to buy doesn't hear what you have to say. But in a writing workshop, a place where students can express themselves and learn different techniques for doing it, "there's someone to hear you."

Somebody said a poem has to have a form "because otherwise the poem will leak out. I really like that. So we do talk about structure ultimately," Blevins said. To talk knowledgeably about a poem that is being workshopped, though, students must learn how to critique. A Blevins workshop is more about the person giving the critique, she says, than about the poem getting it.

"Being educated is partially a process of knowing how to talk about why you think or feel the way you do about that piece of art," said Blevins, who earned an M.F.A. at Warren Wilson College. "It's not only critical decisions, it's also emotional decisions, which are half the decisions we have to make. If we had more poetry, we wouldn't need therapy, we wouldn't need Prozac."

Build critical readers, she says, and you build thinkers. As students think about what they see in the world and develop their ability to articulate judgments, they internalize judgment. As they write their own poems they start editing themselves, teaching themselves. Blevins likes to push them a bit past where they think they can go.

#poetrylife#left#350#"I think that learning to think critically about literature, and learning to think critically about yourself, makes you a better citizen," she said. "Which is what a liberal arts education ought to give you. It's just what Jefferson wanted the populace to be able to do."

Even those who work on poems 18 hours straight will find a workshop a far cry from a training ground for "professional" poets; might as well call yourself a professional lover, she says, paraphrasing Robert Francis. Her answer to students whose parents are convinced their poetry-writing offspring will starve in a garret: the more the American education system moves toward careerism, the further it takes us from the idea of informed citizens able to make intelligent, critical decisions later on in their lives. "What is the consequence of not having any money? Well," she said, "it's not as bad as the consequences of not having a soul."

Students no less high-mindedly intent on careers other than poetry may profit from a workshop, Blevins says. A prospective law student must understand rhetoric, think critically, use language well, use argument. "You know, a sonnet is an argument. Every poem is ultimately an argument of some sort. It's going to help a lawyer make his or her case," she said. "If women read poems to their children, it would be a better culture. It would be a better America."

Blevins plain flat-out loves poetry. "If it were up to me," she said, "I would say, 'Everybody who goes through this college has to have poetry. You have to do it.'"