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Distinguished Poet A. Van Jordan Blends Film and Poetry in Middlebury Classroom

April 3, 2014

"When I teach poetry, I want to take the fear factor out of it pretty early on," says poet and University of Michigan Professor of Creative Writing A. Van Jordan, who is spending a semester as Distinguished Poet in Residence at Middlebury. "The first thing I want students to understand is that when we're talking about a poem, we're not talking about anything they haven't experienced before. We're talking about the human condition, and we're just talking about it through the poem."

When Jordan reflects back to his early days with poetry in the Akron, Ohio public schools, he still finds it hard to believe he's built a life and career out of poetry. "Poetry was taught almost like math, as if there was a single right answer to the meaning of a poem, and I was always getting it wrong."

Needless to say, he takes a different approach as teacher, but the acclaimed author of four poetry collections recognizes similar anxieties in some students who take his classes. One solution he's discovered is to bridge the familiar with the perplexing. In his Middlebury course, "Cinematic Movement: Poetry," Jordan uses his love of film as a framework for helping students engage with challenging poems. Unlike with poetry, he says, students feel at ease discussing the conventions of film and other popular media. He finds that many of those ideas from film can be transferred to poems.

  A. VAN JORDAN

THE RED BALLOON

(Albert Lamorisse, 1956)

Tribes of boys are jealous of the one
tethered to the red balloon.
Adults don't seem to understand him either.

See, the boy runs with his balloon
trailing behind him; even when he
opens his grip, the balloon obeys

and, as if it had legs, runs
alongside him. Can you see?
Even in the silences between them,

even when the boy is not there,
even when the boy cannot come
to play, the balloon—the boy's

secret, this one boy's one friend—
remains loyal, rising and falling
right along with the boy.

The balloon keeps returning,
around every corner, down every alleyway,
and as more of its fidelity is revealed,

the other boys try to destroy its élan,
but the balloon simply gathers more
balloons, and something common to this boy

appears fantastic to others: He gathers
the strings attached to the balloon
bouquet. He takes flight over the city,

until he's even more of a mystery
in the squinting eyes of the boys,
the boys looking into the sun,

which gleams like a future too bright
to look into. The boys
wield slingshots to bring him

back down to the soil, the soil
which does not stir beneath their shoes
like the clouds do beneath his
as he continues to float beyond
their skinned-kneed jealousies,
as the rectrices of his feet

steer clear of their stones.
And then their mouths hang agape.
And then there is no hope; his floating away,

his act of no-act-at-all for him, is already
too many octaves above their voices.

In one exercise, the class discusses the idea of "essential coverage" in Hitchcock films, or the use of standard shots that let the viewer know what's happening, such as establishing shots, master shots, and dialogue shots that most people understand as the filmmaker's way of grounding viewers in time and space.

After watching the opening scenes of Psycho and Strangers on a Train, the class turns to a difficult poem by Lynda Hull. "She has these beautiful sprawling poems with long lines," says Jordan. But, as with Hitchcock, the poem has clearly constructed scenes within its lyrical moments. "So we're able to go from Hitchcock and standard coverage into this Lynda Hull poem and see what she was doing on the page in a way that might not have been as apparent otherwise."

Jordan, who is married to Dean of the College Shirley Collado, has ties to Middlebury dating back to 1995 when he first attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Ripton as a contributor. Over the years, he has returned to Bread Loaf as staff, fellow, and faculty. His long list of professional honors includes a Whiting Writers Award, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He is also a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and a United States Artists Williams Fellowship.

In the classroom, Jordan is fast-paced, yet thoughtful, with a friendly intensity his students seem to enjoy. In a recent 75-minute class, he managed to fit two poetry readings with discussion; a class Skype interview with young film director Perry Janes; and a screening with discussion on the opening scenes of the 1980 crime drama, American Gigolo.

Jordan says he's impressed with his students' willingness to consider new ideas. "The thing I've enjoyed about these guys is that they're very open. They can engage intellectually, but they're also nimble enough to try something new," he said.

"Ultimately, I'm hoping they'll engage the poem much in the same way that they'll engage film and media; that they'll have the same level of comfort and that they'll articulate and argue in the same way they would with their favorite—or not so favorite—film."

Van Jordan will give a public reading of his poetry works on Thursday, April 10, at 4:30 p.m. at Axinn Center, Room 232.


Reporting by Stephen Diehl, Photo by Matthew Lennon '13