Hugo House instructor Sharon Bryan is the author of four collections of poetry, including Flying Blind, Objects of Affection, and Salt Air. In 2009, her collection, Sharp Stars, received the Isabella Stewart Gardner Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in more than a dozen anthologies, as well as in American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, Crazyhorse, Ploughshares, and more.
Sharon has taught as a visiting poet in nearly twenty writing programs across the country, and currently serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This fall, she’ll be teaching two classes at Hugo House: Little Glimmers and Angry Poems: From Simmering to Rage. Check out the interview below to learn more about Sharon, her path as a writer, and her approach to teaching.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path as a writer and what drew you to poetry?
What drew me to poetry in the first place was reading it and having it read to me as a child. I wanted to imitate the poems I read. Later on, after passing through philosophy and anthropology, I realized that poetry was the space that could include the broadest range of my thoughts and feelings, and I went to a graduate program to focus on learning the craft. I think people who work in any of the arts are driven to it by strong emotions, and needing to find a place where they can explore them.
In the description for your class, Little Glimmers, you mention the bits and pieces that we collect because it struck us as a piece of a poem. Can you tell us about a piece of a poem that haunted you for a long time? How did you find the right shape for it to take?
Something that haunted me for a long time before it made its way into a poem was a vivid image in the aftermath of the Challenger explosion that killed seven astronauts. A few months after that happened, a foot belonging to one of them washed up on shore somewhere, and that shocked me. Because their deaths had happened in the air, it was as if they had just vanished. But here was tangible evidence that literally embodied the reality and violence of it. That image sat in my notebook for a while before I went back to watch news accounts of the explosion, and an announcer used the word “vaporized” to describe what happened to the astronauts. It was that word that brought it all together as a poem for me—it’s almost always language that does it—the combination of that euphemism with the reality of the foot.
One of your upcoming classes focuses on angry poems. Can you give us an example of an angry poem you really admire?
One angry poem I admire is Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The first time I read it, I found the power of it exhilarating, especially when most of what I was reading was much more polite and tempered. It was just a blast of fresh air to hear that much rage. And then, as I studied the poem and its history, I discovered how much had gone into the making of it—decades of reading and writing—and that it invented a new kind of free verse line as well as image combinations. It still blows my mind every time I read it.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
I’d say my approach to teaching is totally interactional. I start asking for student responses almost as soon as I walk in the door, and it’s very much a back-and-forth throughout. I do a lot of leading and focusing, some explanations, but dialogue is the heart of it, conversation. At the same time, it’s not a free-for-all. Rigor matters to me, and developing as precise a vocabulary as possible for talking about poems. In workshops, trust and respect are basic requirements. We show each writer that our comments can be trusted by demonstrating that we’ve read their poems closely and carefully. We start with everything that’s working before we talk about ways to move a poem to the next draft.
What are three things students can expect to take away from your upcoming classes?
I can never guess what students will take away from a class—I’ve often been surprised by the directions and angles things go after a class when I do hear about them later. That unpredictability is one of the pleasures of teaching for me. I suppose I hope they take away a passion for reading poetry, openness to and respect for poetry very different from their own, and some language for talking about how poems are made and can be made better—language that goes beyond “I like this line” or “I don’t like that ending.” I hope they leave with a sense of excitement about their own work and eagerness to work on their craft.
What would you say is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned about writing poetry?
A lesson about poetry? That it’s the love of my life. That even though it can be frustrating and infuriating and heartbreaking, I can’t live without it.