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Developing a Strong Poetic Voice Can Be Uncomfortable for the Poet

It Also Builds Strong Community

By Molly Seaman ’21

The clock read 9:15 a.m. and the last student was settling into their seat. My six classmates and I began to take out our class materials: our notebooks, our poetry anthologies, our pens, and our loose poems. We prepared for our 10th day in Professor Nate Marshall’s Beginning Poetry Writing class like we had for the previous nine days and like we thought we would for the remainder of Block 2 and all of Block 3.

Then, something different happened.

Professor Marshall stood up and told us to put everything back in our bags and to grab our coats. He told us we were going for a short walk, and then left the classroom before anyone could ask any questions. We were two weeks into the class already and each day’s schedule had been similar so far, so my classmates and I were confused, excited, and nervous.

We walked out of Armstrong Hall and away from Colorado College’s campus into the surrounding residential area until we arrived at a small, well-kept, brightly-colored house. Professor Marshall unlocked the door and invited us in. My classmates and I stood in the living room, each of us completely still as we took in his various art pieces and cases of books in awe or with curiosity. We spent the rest of the day in Professor Marshall’s house as he encouraged us to sift through his bookcases.

Professor Marshall told me later in an interview I conducted with him that the goal of this class time was simply to expose us to new poetry. He thought the easiest way for us to find poetry that inspired us would be to let us do it on our own as he facilitated, giving recommendations based off the books he watched us pulling off his shelves.

I concurred with my classmate Max Vasquez ’20 when he stated, “I’ve never had a professor like Nate Marshall. No one has,” especially after this unique class experience. Vasquez also astutely remarked, “Any time a professor lets their class into their space, there’s something very engaging about that. There’s something equalizing.”

Professor Marshall treats us like his students, but he also regards us as fellow artists. My classmates, Professor Marshall, and I work together in class to help build the strongest poetic voices possible. Grace Taylor ’21 remarked on this process, stating, “In our heads, we have these voices and we always think that our ideas are so profound and beautiful. Then, for whatever reason, they just completely get lost in translation as soon as you try to externalize them.”

“What’s really cool is I think in this class I’ve been stretched in ways I haven’t been stretched before and I’m learning to sharpen my voice in ways that really attack myself. I’m really becoming able to tell my story the way that it is rather than the way that I think it will be accepted best.”

The workshop process is intensely influenced by the identities present in the class. There are only seven students, and we’ve gotten to know each other better than the students in most CC classes due to the fact that this class spans two blocks rather than one.

It is also notable that this class is unique in that we share most of our classwork with our peers. Rebecca Darcy ’21 commented on the effect of this sharing, stating “I feel like now I have really intimate information about people, but it’s only in the context of their poems… [My classmates] know so much of my inner self, but not my external self, not how I interact with the world.”

Before Professor Marshall began the first day of class, all eight people in the room sat in silence and glanced at each other nervously. We tapped our feet and our pencils and avoided any eye contact. The trepidation was palpable because we all knew we were getting our first glances at the people who would be critiquing our poetry for the next seven weeks. Professor Marshall, himself, was seconds away from teaching his first class at CC. I don’t think anyone knew what to expect, but I do think we all knew just how much each new student that walked through the door would affect the class dynamic.

I can confidently consider myself lucky. I truly believe that every one of my classmates is enthusiastic about poetry, talented at writing poetry, and well-equipped to analyze poetry. Most of all, I am fortunate every day as I observe my classmates working their hardest to help each other craft meaningful and distinct poetic voices.

One of my classmates returned one of my drafts back to me with the paper so peppered with ink that it started to bleed through. My initial uneasiness at the amount of comments was quelled quickly by two highlighted comments at the bottom that read, “You have the ultimate power over your poems” and “YOU’RE the story.” I was moved by this because it reflected their intention to help me maintain control over my poems and to employ my voice in the way that would be most effective.

I have learned just how important revision is to the creative process and especially to the creation of a distinct poetic voice through this class’s many workshops. As Max Vasquez ‘20 stated, “This class isn’t a class about writing… This is a class about revision.” Professor Marshall once told me that “revision is writing.” This class is about sharpening poetic voices through the input of a variety of identities from a variety of backgrounds. It’s not necessarily about simply producing work, it’s about revision and collaboration.

When I asked my classmate Rayn Fox ’22 why they write poetry, they stated, “I feel like, in poetry, there’s opportunity for abstraction, an abstraction that I’m really attracted to. I understand things in metaphors, and poetry allows me to explore life in that way, so I feel like I get to understand myself and things around me better because I’m able to explore it in that way.”

I asked each of my classmates this question as I conducted interviews in preparation for writing this story, and everyone gave distinctly different answers. One common thread ran through all eight interviews, however, and that was the notion that this class is a team of poets more than anything else. We work together to put voices into the world that can incite emotion, action, and/or change.

Beginning Poetry Writing: A Place of Workshop and of Community 

today there is a specific scent    of nervousness.
i can smell it     in my hair when its curtains draw,
smothering all    but the pimpled tip of my nose.

the other students tap    their pencils and their feet,
none of them meeting    eye contact,   
not one person giving in
to the defeat of familiarity    until
the clock says it’s time    to put our innards into the air.

once we begin, i start     to reach into my classmates.
i see them all   as mason jars with
memoirs pulsating through the glass    but
before i move my fingers toward    open orifices
my peers reach into themselves and place pieces into my palms    but
just for a moment,    just until it’s time for lunch.