Jim talks about teaching, writing, books he fell in love with, and some of his favorite creative writing exercises.
GEMINI INK: How did you come across the Writers in Communities (WIC) program at Gemini Ink and what expectations did you have coming into it? (Note: Writers in Communities is now called Partner Classes).
I have been a supporter and participating writer, poet, teacher with Gemini since we came to San Antonio 25 years ago. I’ve taught kids in Gemini’s Summer Camp with the artist Terry Ybañez, taught workshops at Blue Star and Institute for Texan Cultures, taught professional development workshops for WIC writers and classes for the public at Gemini. For seven years now I have been teaching youth a Krier. Having been part of Poets in the Schools and Artists in Residence programs, I knew the drill for WIC work.
GEMINI INK: What misconceptions do people have about teaching creative writing?
People imagine that there is some kind of magic to teaching creative writing – that somehow the stuff we all use every day—words —is alchemized into golden lines. Of course, it is a total misconception, and finding a way to help people see (and use other senses as well) to understand and communicate their world—the every day in the plainest of words, is the only magic
GEMINI INK: Do you think writing can be taught?
I think it is possible to help people to use their muscles in different ways than they are used to. I think it is possible to help people stretch, open, and receive.
GEMINI INK: What is the most important thing to consider when trying to foster a safe and open learning environment—a “compact of trust” between teacher and learner, as you call it—especially considering your role in teaching kids in lockup?
Patience. Herbert Kohl, in his magnificent little book I WON’T LEARN FROM YOU stresses the necessity of agreement (buy-in) for anyone to actually begin to “learn.” Trust, especially in lockup precedes that agreement, and patience even for the lag time between buy-in and trusting, fully aware that the setting is always conspiring to break down all those gains, one step forward, two back—is of the essence. It is also always useful to remember how much you don’t know.
GEMINI INK: Who/What do you consider your biggest influences when it comes to your teaching style?
I have been extremely lucky in my life to have had great, wonderful, giving, thoughtful, powerful teachers—and while I’d love to thank them all, I think it is most important for me to say, especially for my work at Krier, that my peers in the WIC program, Andrea Vocab Sanderson and Erica DeLaRosa, have been great examples, friends, sounding boards, and crying shoulders.
GEMINI INK: What was the first book you fell in love with?
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES.
GEMINI INK: What is your favorite genre of writing? Why?
Poetry. It is my medium, and it feels malleable enough to me to encompass everything I want to do or say.
GEMINI INK: What is your favorite creative writing exercise to do with your students?
Hard one, the group, the situation, their needs, the point in the process—all of those things cause one to pick one I love to work with are:
1) I ask students to remove the nouns from a haiku of Issa or Basho, or “The Red Wheel Barrow” of William Carlos Williams, and to replace them with their own set of nouns. The result is evidence of their understanding of the scaffold provided by the original poem, as well as a radical shift in voice, and some pre-determined, by the original poem, success.
2) When I’ve gotten to know students, I will select a poem for them (specifically FOR them) by a “famous” poet and ask them to select a line from within the poem, and use it to write their own poem—resulting in close-reading of the text, deep response to the text, questions to ME, about why I picked this particular poem for them. Rich material.
GEMINI INK: How has the WIC program changed your perspective on teaching? On life?
I am deeply concerned with the lives and futures of my incarcerated youth from Krier, their lives in “the free,” their chances at success. And while I have always had strong feelings about our incarceration—culture, my direct experience of their lives has changed my life.
GEMINI INK: Do you have any rituals you perform before giving a class or workshop?
For Krier, I get there early, and sit in my car and listen to jazz, before I go in. The freedom of jazz bangs right up against the razor wire atop the fences—a contrast I try to keep in mind. In all other teaching settings, I try first to clear my mind of preconceptions and to begin just by LOOKING at my students.
GEMINI INK: At what moment did you know that being an educator is what you wanted to do with your life?
I have no idea.
GEMINI INK: Whose writing style did you emulate when you first started writing?
Yeats, Roethke, William Carlos William, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
GEMINI INK: What is one of your favorite teaching moments?
My first week of teaching at Krier—I came home to Lucia and said, This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
GEMINI INK: What is your relationship like with the kids from Krier?
Hard, good, painful, rich, mixed, bumpy, fluid, testing. There is, of course, ALWAYS, this issue at the outset of—Who is this old white guy, and what does he want from us? And a little further along—how far can we push him and he’ll still keep coming back.
GEMINI INK: What work has come from your students at Krier that are you most proud of?
I love their writing. I love the hotshot writers who take to it right away, even before I get there, and I love the reticent students who try, wrestle with words, are afraid of what’s bottled in them, and not able to trust each other in that setting, and I love the rappers and even the cliches that are all that some of them know to get onto paper—the stories their lives have told them. This is why whenever I do a public reading, I always read something of theirs—because they can’t and I want their voices out in the world.
GEMINI INK: Looking back at your evolution as a writer and an educator, what has been the biggest lesson you have learned?
How little I know, how much I have to learn, how much all my students have to teach me.
GEMINI INK: What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
“I learn by going, where I have to go” Roethke and “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” Duke Ellington, and “so much depends…”
GEMINI INK: Any advice for those who decide to dedicate their lives to teaching?
If you are a writer and a teacher, be sure that your teaching ENRICHES your life as a writer and vice versa. If the teaching depletes you – you are not engaged in the teaching dialogue that takes as much as it gives.
GEMINI INK: In receiving the Teaching Artist of the Year award at this year’s Inkstravaganza, who would you like to thank?
I know I said I wanted the big thank you, but confronted with it— the list is too long. Even just the long Gemini list. So I hope all of you who helped me on this journey know how deep my thanks are, and I couldn’t have done any of this without all of you.
Jim LaVilla-Havelin is an educator, arts administrator, community arts advocate, consultant, critic and poet. His fifth book of poems, WEST, POEMS OF A PLACE was published by Wings Press in September 2017. LaVilla-Havelin is the Poetry Editor for the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle, and the Coordinator for National Poetry Month in San Antonio
Jim will be receiving the Teaching Artist of the Year award at this year’s Inkstravaganza on October 16, 2020.
He’s also teaching a 6-week online class this fall: The Thoreau Project—Journaling as a Function of Observation, a workshop devoted to observation, multi-sensory reception, fieldwork and journaling.