Project Write Now is excited to introduce our newest instructor, Laura Cyphers, who will be teaching remotely from Virginia. Laura is teaching two poetry classes—one for adults: Poetry & the Natural World and one for teens: Teen Poetry. We recently “virtually” sat down with Laura to learn more about her love of poetry and to find out why she is looking forward to teaching these classes.
PWN: When did you first connect to poetry and realize that it would be an important part of your reading/writing life?
Laura: Poetry became an obsession in college. My first literature courses were in English literature (specifically the Romantic and Victorian eras) so those were my first real experiences with poetry. In those classes, I learned how to hear and distinguish rhythms, how to scan poems, and how to attempt to extract meaning from them.
My interest in poetry grew exponentially when I took Women’s Literature and African-American Literature. Those authors—Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Mari Evans, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov—redefined poetry for me. I realized, then, that poetry was an active art, a visual art, and an art that could give voice to identities and movements that broke the silences our culture insisted we maintain. Later, I discovered more contemporary poets—Nikki Giovanni, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Gary Soto, Marie Howe, and Ocean Vuong—and it struck me that poets keep taking artistic and cultural risks that are irresistible to me.
In the middle of all these poet discoveries, I began keeping a more regular journal. Poetry was something I just began to try. I tired of my journal entries that sounded like boring rants or diary entries. When I began shortening my lines and playing with images, rhythms, and sound, newer, better writing emerged. So, I’ve kept writing it. It has positively affected and transformed my ability to write better in other genres, as well.
PWN: What’s one of your favorite types of moments in a poetry/writing workshop?
Laura: As an instructor and as a student of workshops, my favorite moments are when we, the students, are overwhelmingly surprised by our creations. There is, as anyone who’s ever attempted to write anything knows, a great deal of self-doubt that gets in our way. When they read that piece that works, that has everything—image, sound, energy—their faces and voices transform. Usually, this piece is the one they got lost in, the one that took over and seemingly made itself. Truly, in those moments anyway, we forget the work that went into making that piece dazzle. Being surprised by the possible. That is the best outcome I can imagine for myself and my students.
PWN: Can you share with us a stanza that has stuck with you over the years & why?
Laura: For so many years, I carried Mary Oliver’s poems (especially “The Swan” and “Wild Geese”) with me. I taped them up on cork boards, carried them in my wallet, and read them over and over to myself when I felt like I’d chosen the wrong life or the wrong career. Sometimes I needed them to remind myself of how essential image and story were in any writing. Her poems are like moving paintings for me. But, they also challenge me—to hold my head high, to breathe, to get back to nature (my nature and Mother Nature). The opening lines of “Wild Geese” are precious to me:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
PWN: What do you think writing & reading poetry can offer us right now, in time of uncertainty?
Laura: I have never been one to memorize poems and quote them verbatim, although I admire those who can and do. I can, however, remember the names of poets and chant their names as if doing so might change the world. And I think it’s true in some sense: Poets have and do change the world. You only have to watch Ocean Vuong speak to understand the power of clear vision and sensitivity to break down the barriers between us.
In this current moment, we are being challenged to connect without connecting. We are having to sit with ourselves in a deep way and, for most of us, looking inward is not comfortable or “normal,” especially since we exist in a world that is surface-obsessed. I have read more poetry and written more poetry in the last four weeks than I have in years. It’s comforting because it is fluid, moves with the times, moves inside and outside. Writing poetry is not just for people who call themselves “poets” or even aspire to be “poets.” In my opinion, poetry is the best teacher of writing, but it is also the best teacher of being human.