WKU Prof. Tom Hunley on Workshop Shaming and Telling His Life Through ‘The Simpsons’

Dr. Tom C. Hunley will read for Subterranean Phrases at Decca (812 E. Market) June 12th with musical accompaniment by Russell Shartzer (tuba) & Ryan Marsh (piano).  The event starts at 8pm and begins and closes with a brief open-mic. I contacted Dr. Hunley to discuss his long career as both educator and poet:

Brandon Stettenbenz: You’re an Associate Professor of English at Western Kentucky University, a poet, and an editor. Let me first ask you about teaching. I’ve not heard much about literature at WKU or in that region in general, so I’d like to ask two questions. Tell us about the English program at WKU and your role there. Is there a strong literary community in the Western part of our commonwealth?

Dr. Tom C. Hunley:  WKU is a great place to study creative writing.  You can major in it or minor in it.  Several times our students have swept Sarabande’s state-wide student awards, taking first, second, and third.  Recent alums have published in Louisville Review, West Branch, and The Hollins Critic, and we’ve sent students on to graduate programs at Rutgers, Ole Miss, Georgia State, Spalding, Southern Illinois, Naropa, and elsewhere.  My colleague, David Jack Bell, has yet another novel forthcoming from Penguin/NAL, and we have several other fine faculty members, including Mary Ellen Miller, who is a legendary teacher and poet in this region.

BS: You’ve written a book of essays on creative writing pedagogy, and have a long career as an educator. Could you share with us some highlights from those essays or discuss them a bit?

TH:  My main preoccupation in the essays is to explore alternatives to the traditional creative writing workshop, which wastes a lot of time, in my opinion, while putting students on the defensive, often embarrassing them and shaming them.  Generally I teach “flipped” classes, in which most of the class time is spent on generative exercises and most critique takes place outside of class.

BS: Of your book “Poetry Gymnasium”, a textbook on creative writing, you’ve been quoted here as saying “the book’s title is intended as wordplay and a nod at the progymnasmata and the gymnasmata, two classical sequences of exercises for orators. My model of instruction centers around writing exercises derived from the five canons of classical rhetoric:  invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery”. In the reviewer’s later description of the same book, they indicate that your model leads students to decide their own “prompts, forms, and rules” by studying the approach of successful authors like Yeats, etc. Could you talk a bit about this approach you teach to students of poetry and perhaps about your own, more experienced approach to writing poetry?

TH:  Another key feature of The Poetry Gymnasium is that each of the book’s 94 exercises is supplemented by an example written by a WKU student.  If my students couldn’t generate great work via an exercise, that exercise didn’t make it into the book. 

BS: One of your chapbooks is written in the voices of characters from the TV cartoon The Simpsons. I’d venture that you’re likely the first poet to do this, though many Simpsons fans may have written fan-fiction tales before. The book is both like the show in that your poems describe the characters’ known exploits and reach for an unexpected catharsis, and unlike the show in that the poems brevity and weight most often exceed the emotional capacity usually portrayed. Tell us about the making of “Annoyed Grunt” (Imaginary Friend Press, 2012).

TH:  Those are just the first fourteen poems in a full-length manuscript called The State That Springfield Is In.  So far I have thirty-two of these poems, and the manuscript is fifty-four pages long.  These poems are not about The Simpsons.  They’re about me, about my inner life.  Just as my Maggie Simpson sees herself in the old, craven face of Mr. Burns, I see a part of myself in each of these characters.  When I write about the Van Houtens’ divorce and its effect on young Milhouse, I’m writing about my own scarred, departed youth.  When I have Homer wax uxorious about Marge before confessing, in his next breath, to being tempted by the Lurleens and Mindys of the world, you can bet that I have in mind my own marriage to the lovely Ralaina.  Like Troy McClure, I yearn to be remembered and fear that I won’t.  Like Moe Szyslak, I have different, conflicting sides to my personality and I don’t always know how to reconcile them.  Like Frank Grimes, I have frequently felt like an outsider trying desperately to fit in.  When Lisa Simpson discusses foreign policy and Kent Brockman and Mayor Quimby’s campaign staff weigh-in on local politics, they address my own concerns.  Edna Krabappel voices my thoughts and feelings about teaching.  Reverend Timothy Lovejoy and Ned Flanders articulate my struggles with faith and doubt better than I ever could without wearing their masks, just as Disco Stu and “Bleeding Gums” Murphy help me explain what music means to me.  This poetry manuscript is the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.

BS: Finally, I’d like to address some of the poems from your Greatest Hits chapbook (Pudding House Publications, 2010), part of a series of similar collected works by other poets. I sense that this book likely contains poems from the three other chapbooks and also three other full collections of poetry you’d published before its publication in 2010. This book is an eclectic mix of free-verse, narrative, and prose poetry dealing with various concrete experiences. Despite their differences I see in these poems a serious seeking for personal truths, and a tenacious humor for both love and life, through elated heights and sickening lows. Talk to us about balancing joy and darkness as a seeker/poet.

TH:  A lot of young poets only write when they’re angsty or depressed.  I write when I’m anxious and depressed too, but poetry can express other moods as well.  Read the great Romantic odes or the playful poems of someone like Thomas Lux, David Kirby, or Denise Duhamel.

Tom’s Bio:

Tom C. Hunley is an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University and the director of Steel Toe Books.  He is the author of three full-length poetry collections, two textbooks, and six chapbooks.  He is the co-editor, with Alexandria Peary, of Creative Writing Studies: A Guide to Its Pedagogies, which is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press.  He has also written for a variety of literary publications such as TriQuarterly, New York Quarterly, Five Points, The Writer, North American Review, New Orleans Review, Rattle, Exquisite Corpse, Verse DailyThe Writer’s Chronicle, Atlanta Review and Poetry Daily.  His poems have been featured several times on Garrison Keillor’s NPR program, The Writer’s Almanac.  In addition to writing his own poetry and prose, he is the book review editor for Poemeleon and the director/founder of Steel Toe Books.  He and his wife, Ralaina, have been married since 1996, and they have three sons.  In his spare time he enjoys playing bass guitar and drums.  He divides his time between Kansas and Oz.

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