An Interview with Poetry Teacher Extraordinaire, Marty Skoble

August 18, 2017

The extremely humble Marty Skoble has single-handedly created a new generation of poets and writers. He was my poetry teacher from fifth grade to twelfth grade at St. Ann’s School. I only started with him so late, by St. Ann’s standards, because that’s when I came to the school. The other students who had been there longer had been working with Marty from an even earlier age. Many of them would go on to become well-known poets and writers. I’m sure many a book has been dedicated to Marty.

Marty was the kind of teacher who would never comment if you cut class, but of course he was also the kind of teacher whose class you would never cut. Every week he brought us bread and cheese and poems he loved. He photocopied our poetry, and we shared it with each other. He never imposed any particular approach or belief. His love for poetry and his students radiated.

Above all, he simply let us be what he saw we already were: poets. The legacy of class with Marty was that I left believing, above all else, in poetry. I assumed the outside world would share my feelings. I only made it as far as college before I discovered the truth. But I kept my feelings anyway. I carry this belief with me that comes straight from Marty: that we live in a world of poetry and that somewhere, however deep down, we are all poets.

Caroline Hagood: How would you describe your take on poetry?

Marty Skoble: “Take” is a funny word here. I “take” poetry to be a fundamental art form in which language is a plastic medium that in many ways endorses/reflects/echoes other arts.

Poetry is gesture (language dancing in space across the page or through the air); poetry is sculpture (text is shape); poetry is music (self evident); poetry is architecture (design); poetry is a transaction in which the maker puts on a maska persona and is no longer selfwhile reader/listener enters the persona so it becomes kind of sexy too; poetry is also mathematical, analytical, and scrupulous, etc. I’d rather take it than leave it.

CH: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

MS: I am philosophically committed to improvisation. Every gesture is a form, every form is evolving. History is essential; it is also essential that it be incessantly reinvented.

CH: To what extent do you think creative writing teachers should shape, teach, control, and to what extent just guide and let be?

MS: I strongly believe a teacher should create possibilities and get the fuck out of the way.  The more control we teachers assert, the less control we actually have. Good teachers set their students free to discover and learn. The poem will find them.

CH: How does it feel to watch a poet evolve over so many years?

MS: How does it feel to watch a child grow up learning to be more and more skillful at making something beautiful? They are all my children although I know some better than others. And I know that I am co-parenting with many others.

CH: What poems or poets have your students been most inspired by?

MS: Many are most often excited by poets who speak to their experience of the world. By this I mean poets who are virtually their contemporaries: relatively young, engaged, still living. This is not to say they don’t admire Mary Ruefle, Paul Muldoon, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, or Louise Glück, because they do.  Just as they admire Yeats, Brodsky, and Eliot.  But their hearts are most strongly snared by a Toi Derricotte or a Kevin Young. It just has to be the right poem at the right moment. Then there are others, a smaller contingent perhaps, who fall in love with form. Any good sestina will set them off on their own quest; the work of Anna Rabinowitz surprises and delights these lovers of craft.

CH: Do you have a favorite poem or line of poetry you’d like to share?

MS: That’s like asking me what poem I just read, which was by John Yau, by the way. But casting my mind back, I come to Auden’s “The More Loving One:” “If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.” That kind of cosmic perspective always gets me. Many poems by Joseph Brodsky also come to mind.

CH: Who should young poets and writers be reading?

MS: Let’s change that “who” to a “what.” Young poets and writers should begin with a few magazines. Poetry, Hanging Loose, Ploughshares, The Pedestal, and whatever they can skim in their local bookshop or on line. Find a poem or a story that speaks to the heart, the mind, the soul, the current need, and seek out that person’s work.

CH: What is your advice to poetry and creative writing teachers?

MS: I’ve been preaching this sermon for many years. I wrote it into an essay in the afterword of When We Were Countries, an anthology of outstanding high school poetry. In my classes we only talk about what “works.” Students are required to comment on each other’s writing, pointing out a choice or choices that they consider effective. These can be as small as punctuation choices or line breaks, or they can be global: form or design or character or theme. By focusing on what “works,” everyone—the writer, the commentator (who is also a writer), indeed the entire class—will pay attention to it in their own writing. What does not “work” falls away of its own accord. My own written comments on drafts follow the same rules. I tell them what I like and why I like it. I may suggest that a poem could end sooner or ask for more of something, but that’s it. I even approach spelling very cautiously as I’ve had many a student (gifted with dyslexia, perhaps) who have coined new words that create deep and wonderful ambiguities and ironies. I do permit students to ask questions about each other’s poems (what does a word mean, where is this place, etc.) and the writer is free to decline any answer that veers towards explanation.

CH: What is your advice to young writers when it comes to revision?

MS: We all worship at the altar of inspiration. The young are notoriously (perhaps rightly) impatient and eager to move on to the next poem. I do encourage revision and even teach examples of it: Yeats, Pound, and Williams all have marvelous poems published in more than one version. But of course such examples also support the argument that there is nothing wrong with publishing first and revising later. Put it this way (I have before): if I make a student rewrite the same poem 100 times, I might get a perfect poem, but he/she will never want to write another. If, on the other hand, the student writes 100 poems, one might be perfect, and he/she will want to keep writing. That, one could argue, is revision at its best.

CH: What is your advice to young writers when it comes to publication?

MS: I would tell them to relax, but I know that’s hard to take. Rejection is even harder, but do put your work out there if you can take the frustration of not being understood. Also, there are many contests exclusively for high school students, others for young writers in general. Entering contests is a good way to approach publication because it means you are not competing with “professionals” while you are still an “amateur.” There are also magazines, like Hanging Loose, which has a section exclusively devoted to high school poets, and Aerie International, which publishes only poems by high school students.

CH: What do you think is most important to give young poets? What do you want them to carry with them when they leave your class senior year?

MS: They deserve and should have encouragement. The word inside that word is what they should carry with them: courage.

CH: What do you want to say to young poets and writers?

MS: Cliche: just do it! We need to hear each other and understand each other so that we can love each other.