The faces of my former students
blur together like the crowd
in Pound’s metro station:
petals on a wet, black bough.
But you are the only student
I’ve had who suffered
such a public loss. And so,
nearly two decades later,
I can still see you
sitting on the right side
of the classroom, your long legs
tilted to fit under the small desk.
It was my first semester teaching
creative writing. I felt I had
something to prove, though
now I’m not sure what.
That I knew what I was doing?
That I wasn’t a pushover?
That despite the reputation of poets,
I wasn’t flaky or sentimental?
All of the above, I suppose.
I must have been afraid
any display of emotion would
crack my professorial armor.
Our introductory class covered
poetry and fiction writing.
You and your classmates read
and wrote poems and stories
that we critiqued in workshops.
You preferred the concrete cause
and effect of narrative, the mechanics
of getting characters from Point A
to Point B. Poems were squirming
fish that slipped between
your fingers; it was as if you
didn’t trust them. You set your
story one year into the future.
I had decided in advance
that I would treat your work
the way I would treat that
of any other student: objectively.
I would not assume
the character’s experience
was your own, even though I knew
from faculty lounge murmurings
that it was. I would not offer
sympathy. Sensitive topics
are par for the course
in creative writing. In the years
since you took my class,
I’ve had students write about
childhood abuse, sexual assaults,
gambling, and drug use. Self-harm
is a common theme, especially
among young women, though
I once had a male student write
a creative nonfiction essay
about his former addiction
to cutting his gums. In graphic detail,
he described repeatedly puncturing
the pink flesh above his molars
until he drew blood. Some students
need to learn the difference between
writing personal journal entries
and writing for an audience.
Others may benefit from a referral
to health services. But you didn’t
fit into either of these groups.
When it was time to discuss your story,
I jumped right into critique mode.
Give us a flashback or two
to develop your character,
I suggested. Try incorporating
a specific memory. Add some dialogue.
At the end, you—
I mean your character—
reflected on the one-year
anniversary and said
Everything will be alright.
Your resolution seems a bit forced,
I said. Maybe find a way to suggest
to the reader that she’s
trying to convince herself.
A month later, I would see you
dancing at the winter formal
in a blue polka dot dress, flinging
your arms into the air as if
launching missiles. But that day
in class, you folded yourself
over your notebook, scribbling
furiously. Your classmates painted
the tile floor with the soles
of their shoes. I suggested that you
build tension by withholding
information. Don’t tell us
right away that it was
September 11, I said. Wait to tell us
that the protagonist’s father
was one of the airline pilots.
What I did not say:
What I did not show:
I am. I am. I am
Erin Murphy’s eighth book of poems, Human Resources, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Diode, Southern Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, The Georgia Review, North American Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her awards include The Normal School Poetry Prize, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and a Best of the Net award. She is editor of three anthologies from the University of Nebraska Press and SUNY Press and serves as Poetry Editor of The Summerset Review. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Website: http://www.erin-murphy.com