An introduction to the art of poetry

Ever since their first visit to Greece on a teaching stint in 1997, poets Wendy Battin and Charles O. Hartman have been eager to return. They spent nine months on Aegina in 1999, and this year are back in Athens for the fall semester, team-teaching their craft to students of DIKEMES / College Year in Athens (CYA). The two poets spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about writing and teaching poetry, and the effect of their experiences in Greece on their work. Getting to grips with a new language has been enriching. Hartman is enchanted by Greek, to the extent of trying to write poems in it, though «very, very slowly.» Battin professes herself still bewildered, but relishes the experience as being «very instructive for one who lives by language.» Has being in Greece affected the substance of their poetry at all? Hartman says he is writing poems he would never write back at home: «They have different themes and a different relation to time and space. I don’t write very much about the famous sites that we see; I’m more inclined to write about the life on the street and life from the balcony and my continual amazement with the ins and outs of the language as I learn them one by one.» The changes are more subtle for Battin, whose work is lyrical rather than narrative: «I very rarely write about the spot that I’m living in at the moment. I generally assemble landscapes from memory and dream. There is a great deal of mythic landscape that has filtered in from my last two visits. I keep a prose journal online and most of the actual reporting I do is in prose, because it’s too immediate to subsume into poetry yet.» But she finds constant inspiration in Athens: «Partly from the sort of language soup I’m living in. I have bits of enough languages that I’m always conflating new names and confusing French with English with Greek with Russian, and that leads to some wonderful poems.» The shared experience of being in a strange country is productive for teachers and students, explains Battin: «I find it really wonderful, teaching poetry here, because we’re all disoriented. I think that strips us back to more essential things. If you have a roomful of students who are slightly jet-lagged and completely bewildered by everything that’s going on around them, and also probably a little homesick for their own language, to lay a poem before them is a much more vivid experience for everybody. And their writing is wonderful too.» Immersion in the new language heightens sensitivity to words. Hartman is struck by the «collisions» that occur between words he recognizes as English, but which have different meanings in Greek. The strange yet familiar words make Battin feel «as if you’re walking around in the understories of the language, constantly hearing roots that you recognize.» Team-teaching for the first time, Hartman and Battin use different approaches, with Hartman focusing more on analysis of verse and Battin workshopping the students’ poems. Teaching one’s own craft is helpful, Hartman believes: «You’re always going back to the beginnings when you’re writing poems, and to do that with students can be really instructive. They’re getting those beginnings the first time; you’re getting them the hundredth time, but they’re still the same beginnings, the same roots, the same peculiarities in our relation to language, which you hope to find and bring out in the poems.» As a sometime jazz guitarist, Hartman loves music theory and its equivalent in poetry and in language: «I’m often very interested in how the systems of language – the syntactical system, the lexical system – how those things come together in strange ways in poems.» The course «is an introduction to an art,» says Hartman, «and like all such courses, it is divided between discussions of particular techniques and discussions of the why and how of art as a human activity and this particular, very peculiar one that uses words – which people use all the time for buying and selling things, making headlines and engaging in international debate and insulting each other on the street. The act of making an art form out of that is peculiar. It takes students a little while to discover how peculiar it is. And then they’ve really learnt something about their own language. Even if they never go on to become poets, they will have had a different relation to poetry and to language as a result.» Battin has material for a new book and is working at the same time on new poems. Hartman likes to count on the unexpected. «That’s where the excitement of writing things always lies. And the excitement of reading; I think you feel when you’re reading a good poem that it took the poet by surprise. But it takes a long time. I think on a trip like this you know that a lot of what you’re doing is collecting, and you don’t know what will happen to what you collect. But you collect it, you let it ferment, you let it stew for a while.» The poem, he believes, may not emerge for decades. And what are they planning to do when the course ends in December? «We’re already beginning to scheme how we can manage to come back,» says Hartman. «I don’t know how to do it until the next time I get a sabbatical, which will be years in the future.» Battin is optimistic: «Well, we’ve managed three times. I suspect it will happen again.» The poets Poets Wendy Battin and Charles O. Hartman are currently in Athens, team- teaching their craft to students attending DIKEMES / College Year in Athens (CYA). Battin has published four collections of poems, including «In the Solar Wind» (Doubleday) and «Little Apocalypse» (Ashland), which won the Snyder Prize. She has taught at Smith College, MIT, Boston University and in the graduate program at Syracuse University and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merill-Foundation. Hartman, who is poet-in-residence at Connecticut College, has published five books of verse, the most recent of which are «Glass Enclosure» and «The Long View,» and three books of prose, including studies of free verse, poetry and jazz, and computer poetry. He is also the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merill-Foundation. Battin and Hartman will be reading their poems on October 17, at 7.30 p.m. at Compendium Bookshop’s regular Third Thursday poetry reading, 28 Nikis Street, Syntagma, tel 010.3221.248. DIKEMES / College Year in Athens College Year in Athens (CYA), which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, is a non-profit educational institute based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The program offers a study abroad program through the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies (DIKEMES). CYA runs university-level courses focused on Greece and the East Mediterranean world. Classes are taught in English. CYA started in 1962 and has since grown to a body of about 100 students per semester, a faculty of almost 30 and a curriculum of more than 40 courses.