Yes! You read the title correctly! When I got the email notification saying “Acceptance: ENGL 499 The Iseman Seminar in Poetry,” I almost dropped my grocery bag on the sidewalk. But it was indeed a very real opportunity for me and five other students to spend around 12 weeks engaged in one-on-one study with Professor Louise Glück. Just how did this come about? This year is ENGL 499’s inaugural year: that is, it’s a new course that the English department is piloting! So after submitting a short writing sample and then a couple weeks of waiting, I was in!
The course was one of the more rigorous ones I’ve taken during my time at Yale — capped at just six people, every week we read a book of poetry, wrote an analytical response to the book, wrote a new poem, and revised an older poem, all followed by a weekly conference where each of us discussed our week’s work with Louise. (I know, it may feel rather unexpected — being on a first-name basis with your professor — but at least in the English and Theater departments here, it’s not wholly uncommon!)
Ever got good news that has you feeling like this? I was floating in the clouds when I found out about the Iseman!
I found my style of poetry changing, and then reverting, then becoming more refinedly like itself, and then estranging itself into something entirely different again. I tried on new voices. I succeeded. I failed. I wrote some undeniable hits. I wrote quite a few bad poems. And I wrote bad poems that still had two or three good parts yet that, with some guidance, grew and regrew into what I finally wanted to say. All along the way, too, she’d highlight patterns, tendencies, and sometimes crutches in my writing — I’d pause for a few seconds and then think “dang, yeah, she kinda got me on that one.” And I transformed with each new poem! We even had the opportunity for all of us to meet as a class with Louise in Montpelier!
The farmers’ market me and my five classmates went to in Vermont!
Sunset on the drive back to New Haven (don’t worry, I was in the passenger seat)!
It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to be handing in new work each and every week!
In the words of Nicki Minaj, “I used to pray for times like this.” I still can’t believe this is something that actually happened.
The kind of analysis, close reading, and line-by-line (sometimes even word-by-word) editing made me look at my own and others’ writing with an eye for what composes each individual part of a poem. And while I don’t mean to get sentimental with this next part, the idea of this class — and then the opportunity to actually take it — would’ve been a pipe dream for me at an earlier point in my life. Early on in high school, I was often discouraged from reading and performing poetry, in particular by one teacher who saw very little in me (and made that known). And now, eight years later, I have the opportunity to study with a professor who has seen the poems I’ve wanted to write, and the possible pathways to get there, in my own first drafts before I do.
And I think that’s been one of the most refreshing aspects of working with Louise: you’re really working with her. Her respect for and belief in her students manifests in the granular, incredibly detail-oriented feedback she gives, the fact that she never responds with empty platitudes (and so when she highlights a strength in your work, or compliments something you’ve accomplished in the poem, you know it’s true and that she means it — there’s no lip service), her patience, and the meticulous exactness with which she describes any work she reads. She was also unexpectedly, but really delightfully funny!
Now, I’m not saying all this for the sake of niceness. Rather, it’s to emphasize the fact that even though the six of us in the seminar were all early 20-something, undergraduate writers, she took each of us and our efforts and our endeavors and our work seriously — and trusted that we could handle the rigor that came with a practice of committed and regular writing. We weren’t treated like we were too young to possibly be serious creatives — it was like we’d already begun constructing the bridge between the kind of work we’d been doing before and the kind of work we wanted to do (or keep doing) after we graduated. And having that kind of guidance, in a sense, is just one way I’m reminded that I’ve had the chance to start living the life my high school self dreamed of having one day, here at Yale.