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Elizabeth Alexander on Teaching and Learning Poetry
Elizabeth Alexander – poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and arts activist – is president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation's largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in higher education. Dr. Alexander has held distinguished professorships at Smith College, Columbia University, and Yale University, where she taught for 15 years and chaired the African American Studies Department.
Question: What should poets consider when thinking about an MFA?
Alexander: Well, I think to each our own. I really do think it’s not the answer for everyone and I don’t like to think that people, you know, to make that choice because of the career. I think it’s not… it doesn’t really guarantee you anything. So I wouldn’t want people to put all their eggs in that basket for the career. On the other hand, to hear someone who is a passionate and committed writer say, “You know what? This gives me time to do some writing. This gives me time to work on a manuscript and that’s how I’m thinking about the year.” I think that that’s a wonderful and sensible thing to do. It’s great if you can get a fellowship to do that and, you know, used to be when there are fewer of them that a fellowship, you know, paid year in graduate school made a tremendous amount of sense, made more sense than anything else in a way, as a way to try to get a first book done. I think study is good, I think community is good. Do I think that there are positive, creative communities in all MFA programs? No; in some? Absolutely, absolutely. And so you see people who make their communities of readers for life or who are able to apprentice themselves with a teacher who changes their life, that was certainly the case for me studying with Derek Walcott, he was the only poetry teacher I ever had and he was the teacher who changed my life and that… and that was that. So, if you’re lucky enough to make that connection and absolutely of course, it’s worth it. I think also, you know, for MFA programs that have a classroom component that’s not just the creative writing workshop? So then in other words designate some time in your life to, you know, really, really, really read and soak up a lot, I think that’s great. Although I also think for any artist and for any poet, there is no substitute for autodidacticism, you know, that you have to have a reading hunger that leads you on your own path, that that’s a very, very, very important part to my mind of being an artist.
Question: How can success be measured in poetry?
Alexander: There are so many poets who make a life in the work and do their work but that’s not necessarily measurable in conventionally successful ways. You look at… there’s a very great poet who died about a year ago named Christopher Gilbert who wrote a book called across the mutual landscape and he published this book about 25 years ago, it was a book… a kind of an underground hit with… I know many poets for whom this is a secret, special book for them and he was a practicing, I think, psychotherapist? He had another professional life, apparently, he was writing poems and kept writing poems but the legacy as we know it now is that one book but it was a very beautiful and important book. So, you know, how do you put that against the career of someone like an Adrienne Rich right? Who publishes her first book of poems in the Yale series of younger poets when she’s in college, you know, she’s 20 or 21 or something when… on picks that book. And now as an elder, she’s had a whole steady productive… I mean, that, that’s a life in the arts. That’s another kind of success and so eventhough, you know, poem for poem there, there are many rich poems that are indelible and incredibly important to me. But I also learned so much from the whole career, the whole life. So there’s so many different ways that it plays out, you see? And in different ways that I would think of… of success so I think that it’s mysterious perseverance that keeps you going.
Question: How do you get your students to write?
Alexander: When I teach Creative Writing, I’m a great believer in Free Writing in, you know, that whole concept of taking the sensor off your shoulder and of when you feel stuck especially just trying to let it all out to write without stopping and then deal with the fixing up later. That can be very, very difficult because sometimes page upon page, day upon day, week upon week of drafts. Sometimes, it’s unbeautiful, it’s uncompelling, and you just have to keep moving through it, you have to keep moving forward but I think that that kind of just letting it come and knowing that somewhere, in the tumbling down the river, there’s going to be a stone that’s… that’s… that it’s got a particular sheen to it and that’s what you build on. I think that that’s the most important thing, is not to stop.
Question: What’s an effective way to teach poetry in schools?
Alexander: I think that one of the important things that I’ve seen in places where poetry is taught well to young people is to realize that they have got… they’re not yet afraid of it and they are still unselfconsciously in love with sound and also they’re fantastic memorizers, kids can memorize so much because, you know, their brain as supple and spongy. So, I think to have to memorize and recite, before you think of it as cod liver oil is a very, very, very good thing because then you have that wonderful experience of possessing a poem and also of feeling how it exists in the voice which sometimes makes it very exciting in a way, you can, you know, you can sort of experience the rhythms in a way that might not always be clear on a first reading on the paper. And then finally, I would say, just the continued and avid teaching of poetry and to teach that… you know, yes, we go back, we study it, we try to unpack how it works but we also need to take it in as music and I think that remembering that aspect of reading poetry is very important.
Question: Can digital technology deliver a greater appreciation of poetry?
Alexander: When I see some of the cool things, let’s say, that the Poetry Foundation is doing or, you know, when… I see these things where, you know, “Oh, here’s Langston Hughes on a street in Harlem. Here he is with Charles Mingus, doing his… the weary blues,” I mean, why not take digital and multimedia capabilities as a way of bringing poems into three dimensions, it’s great. I am recorded and it was such a pleasurable project an AM podcast for the Poetry Foundation where they do a literary tour of Washington D.C. which is my hometown which is… you know, you’re supposed to… they paste it out, you’re supposed to put on your iPod and go out and start walking and see and learn about the literary heritage and, you know, you can stop in front of whatever historical sight, you know, this is the corner where Walt Whitman would shyly wave to Abraham Lincoln and then they… there’s Lincoln’s voice in your ears while you stand on that corner, what’s not to like about that?
The poet covers poetry’s dynamics, from graduate to grade school.
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Gender and sexual minority populations are experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic.
- Anxiety and depression rates are spiking in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially in individuals who hadn't struggled with those issues in the past.
- Overall, depression increased by an average PHQ-9 score of 1.21 and anxiety increased by an average GAD-7 score of 3.11.
- The researchers recommended that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.
Study findings<p>For the study, <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05970-4" target="_blank">published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine</a><em>, </em>Flentje and her team evaluated survey responses from nearly 2,300 individuals who identified as being in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. Most of the participants were white, while nearly 19 percent identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Multiple genders were represented with cisgender women (27.2 percent) and men (24.6 percent) making up a majority of the participants. Sixty-three percent had been assigned female at birth. For the most part, participants identified their sexual orientations as queer (40.3 percent), gay (36.5 percent), and bisexual (30.3 percent).</p><p>The JGIM study participants were recruited from the 18,000-participant <a href="https://pridestudy.org/" target="_blank">PRIDE Study</a> (Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality), which is the first large-scale, long-term national study focusing on American adults who identify as LGBTQ+. It conducts annual questionnaires to understand factors related to health and disease in this population. </p><p>Participants filled out an annual questionnaire (starting in June 2019) and a COVID-19 impact survey this past spring. Flentje noted that on an individual level, some people may not have experienced a big change in anxiety or depression levels, but for others there was. Overall, depression increased by a <a href="https://patient.info/doctor/patient-health-questionnaire-phq-9" target="_blank">PHQ-9 score</a> of 1.21, putting it at 8.31 on average. Anxiety went up by a <a href="https://www.mdcalc.com/gad-7-general-anxiety-disorder-7" target="_blank">GAD-7</a> score of 3.11 to an average of 8.89. Interestingly, the average PHQ-9 scores for those who screened positive for depression at the first 2019 survey decreased by 1.08. Those who screened negative for depression saw their PHQ-9 scores increase by 2.17 on average. As for anxiety, researchers detected no GAD-7 change among the study participants who screened positive for anxiety in the first survey, but did see an overall increase of 3.93 among those who had initially been evaluated as negative for the disorder. </p>
Risks among gender and sexual minorities<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fc3fd1ae68b77bbbf58a6995638d6d65"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EnUqDjCqg0A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The LGBTQ+ community is a vulnerable population to mental health concerns because of their fear of stigmatization and previous discriminatory experiences.</p> <p>Previous research by the Human Rights Campaign has found "that LGBTQ Americans are more likely than the <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/general+population/" target="_blank">general population</a> to live in poverty and lack access to adequate medical care, paid <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/medical+leave/" target="_blank">medical leave</a>, and basic necessities during the pandemic," said researcher Tari Hanneman, director of the health and aging program at the campaign.</p> <p>"Therefore, it is not surprising to see this increase in anxiety and depression among this population," Hanneman said in the release. "This study highlights the need for <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/health+care+professionals/" target="_blank">health care professionals</a> to support, affirm and provide <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/critical+care/" target="_blank">critical care</a> for the LGBTQ community to manage and maintain their mental health, as well as their physical health, during this pandemic."</p>
What should health care providers do?<p>The authors of the study recommend that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders in members of that community—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.</p><p>As cases of COVID-19 continue to mount, the sustained social distancing, potential isolation, economic precariousness, and personal illness, grief, and loss are bound to have increased and varied impacts on mental health. Effective treatments may include individual therapy and medications as well as more large-scale coronavirus support programs like peer-led groups and mindfulness practices. </p><p>"It will be important to find out what happens over time and to identify who is most at risk, so we can be sure to roll out public health interventions to support the mental health of our communities in the best and most effective ways," said Flentje.</p>
What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.
- When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
- A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
- Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".