This article is supported by a 2020 Poetry@Tech Pedagogy Grant.
In my introductory writing and communication course “On Becoming a Writer,” students read Alexander Chee’s 2018 essay “The Autobiography of My Novel.” The central concept of the essay is what Chee calls a “prosthetic voice.” Unable to write the autobiographical work he had planned—sometimes even physically unable: “I would feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there” (201)—Chee discovers that, in his own practice, there are certain traumas that become articulable only through a careful amalgamation of fidelity to real experience and fictional difference. While Chee could not write precisely what had happened to him, he could compose “what would happen to someone like me,” and in that person’s voice (215). Thus, the genre Chee terms “autobiographical fiction.”
In an effort to determine (1) what it means to be a “writer,” (2) what effective writing pedagogy looks like, and (3) how best, as peers, to support those in our lives who pursue writing, my students consider the appropriateness of writing in what they regard as their own voice and in the voice (or voices) of others. Alongside Chee, students examine works by Philip Roth, for whom confusions of authorial identity and character-identity—what Roth likened to “ventriloquism” in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review—make up the very pleasure of writing and reading fiction. In the same vein, students immerse themselves in the semi- or questionably autobiographical stories and poems of Lorrie Moore, Ocean Vuong, and Langston Hughes.
The final project for this course is a narrative in which students describe and assess their own experiences in writing classrooms in order to comment critically on writing pedagogy or writing as a craft. My hope in assigning students readings that complicate the matter of voice and authorial/narrative identity is for students to consider the kind of voice, whether “authentically” their own or constructed, through which they can best articulate their story and its critical ramifications. So in their first assignment in the course, I ask students to tell a fraction of their story, but to do so by borrowing, stealing, or remixing an element from one of the course readings. This element may be formal (like Moore’s second-person narration in “How to Become a Writer” ) or thematic/conceptual (like Chee’s “autobiographical fiction” or Roth’s “ventriloquism”), but in either case students must select that element for the explicit purpose of enhancing the communication of their own story-fragment.
Access Dr. Colton’s “Multimodal Remix” Assignment sheet as a PDF here: Artifact 1_Multimodal Remix
One student who completed this assignment with particular alacrity and power was Caroline Dowell-Esquivel in her poem “Theme for English A,” which recently appeared in issue 1 of RAMBLE, a GA Tech literary magazine sponsored by the Writing and Communication Program’s World Englishes Committee. For Dowell-Esquivel, questions of voice and identity took shape through concepts of national and cultural belonging. Riffing on Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” (1951), Dowell-Esquivel makes the poem-about-writing genre truly her own as she articulates the dynamics of a multipart identity, Cuban and American, in contexts personal, geographical, educational, national, and familial. In addition to composing her poem, Dowell-Esquivel also recorded herself reading the work aloud.
Listen to “Theme for English A” by Caroline Dowell-Esquivel [pictured to the right]:
To learn about Dowell-Esquivel’s writing process and her thoughts on how this assignment impacted her ongoing practice and future as a writer and communicator, I asked her nine questions over email in early March 2020.
- What was it about Hughes’ poem that led you to adapt it for expressing your own experience with writing?
I chose Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” because I felt I could relate to his story and, more importantly, I could hear his unique voice. Reading this poem inspired me to reflect on my own life. For that reason, I tried to model the elements of the poem that spoke to me as a reader. The line that drew me to Hughes’ poem was “You are white— / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American.” During my first few months at Tech, I struggled with unifying my perception as a Cuban-American from Miami with a new cultural environment in Atlanta. They are two very distinct environments although both in the same country. I felt Hughes’ poem highlighted the challenges of being a minority in a new school environment with teachers of different races or backgrounds.
- I can certainly see that unreconciled perspective in your poem—especially in the questions that you pose so provocatively in the second stanza. Were those particular questions ones that you knew you wanted to examine before you decided for this assignment to write and record a poem? Or did deciding to write a poem inspire any new questions for you about identity and experience?
I had thought of the questions “Am I Cuban? Am I American? What does it mean to be Cuban American?” before beginning the poem. Since coming to Tech, I’d noticed how I call myself Cuban when meeting someone new on campus from the United States, but when I meet someone who is Cuban in Miami, I consider myself American. Noticing this natural change in my response prompted me to reflect on why I change how I identify myself based on those around me. Throughout the writing process, I also began to reflect on how my experience was similar to others’ in Miami and pondered the questions “How is my story different from others? How is it the same?” Growing up, I heard countless stories from family members and friends who faced similar hardships coming to the United States. Moreover, many classmates were like me with ties both to Cuba and the United States. Many of them were also trying to reconcile the differences in the two cultures.
- So did your intended audience change as you wrote and revised this poem? Was it always meant, even implicitly, for others beyond the assignment itself?
My intended audience was always people besides my instructor. After reading Hughes’ poem and gathering my thoughts for the piece, I knew I wanted to share this poem with others in my life. I felt this work was able to encompass an internal struggle that I originally had trouble identifying and vocalizing. This piece serves as a medium to voice my journey as I question and accept my identity as a Cuban-American.
- Did knowing that you were going to record yourself reading poem change your writing process in any way?
Yes, I found that knowing I was going to read aloud and record the poem caused me to pay more attention to the tone of the piece and the rhythm of the writing. Each word had a purpose and added to the message of the piece.
- Did you find yourself having to adjust anything in the poem once you started to read it out loud? And what was the recording process like? Was it challenging in any personal or technical ways?
I noticed that with the style of the poem I had to slow down my speech and focus on the message of each word. The recording process was challenging. I had to record multiple times because I would stumble on my words, and after rereading the poem so many times, I would go faster and needed to adjust my speed. I also tested different methods of recording including a microphone, earphones, or just a phone and found challenges with each, whether it be capturing background noise or stabilizing.
- Was there anything about your poem that surprised once you’d heard yourself read it aloud?
Not particularly. I did notice that some phrases stood out for more than just their message but also their rhythm. For example, “So will my page be a different color from my father’s? / Being him, it will be white. / Being me, I don’t know what to label myself.” These three lines emphasized the frustration of my internal struggle with my identification as a Cuban American. Not only did the message change but I changed my tone when reading these lines aloud.
- Writing poetry is pretty far from the argumentative writing that is more typical in freshman composition, as is recording yourself reading your poem. But were there ways that this assignment was effective in preparing you for different, non-poetic kinds of writing? Was there anything about writing and recording your poem that you’ve carried over to other writing projects, whether for school or outside of it?
Writing poetry taught me to be more concise with my words. It helped me learn to cut out any “throw away” sentences and choose my words meticulously.
- What would you say to a Georgia Tech student who’s unsure about or suspicious of creative writing assignments in their ENGL 1101/1102 courses?
I am majoring in Biomedical Engineering and am an aspiring physician. With STEM-focused careers and majors at Tech, students have one or two semesters worth of ENGL 1101 and ENGL 1102. In my first semester at Tech, ENGL 1102 was my favorite class as it was an escape from the large lecture halls and general education classes. Creative writing assignments in ENGL 1102 provided me with a change from all my science and math classes where there was always a “right” answer. With only one or two semesters of required English courses, choose one that you are interested in and take risks in your writing because you only have so many English classes. I never enjoyed writing or poetry before coming to Tech. It was after my first assignment in ENGL 1102 that I realized I liked having a creative outlet to write my thoughts, especially when adjusting to a new college environment.
- Finally, do you see yourself continuing to pursue creative writing throughout your STEM education—and possibly med school and career? If so, how do you see it?
Definitely. I hope to continue creative writing in the journal I keep as it motivates me to reflect on and voice my experiences. It is a creative outlet for me. I think wherever I end up in life that I will not stop myself from pursuing creative writing.
Chee, Alexander. “The Autobiography of My Novel.” How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. New York: Mariner Books (2018): 197-220.
Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47880/theme-for-english-b, accessed 30 March 2020.