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Modern Languages & Literatures

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Teaching Modern Latin American Poetries


Modern Language Associate of America


Jill S. Kuhnheim and Melanie Nicholson


New York


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In 2010 I piloted a Spanish-language poetry workshop for intermediate and advanced students at the College of William and Mary. I used the lines from Martin Espada's poem for Chile as an epigraph for the syllabus: "In the republic of poetry,/A train full of poets/Rolls south in the rain." Translating this for my students into Spanish, I sought to signal the kind of collaborative journey the course imagined: a semester spent together, a train full of poets, engaging poetic voices from the south through our own creative work. In so doing we would combine our skills in cultural criticism and translation with our capacity for invention, linguistic experimentation, and performance to yield an original body of work while deepening our understanding of Latin American poetic traditions, their contexts of creation and expression. Our common point of departure would derive from a simple question: why write? And we would develop our particular, situated responses to this prompt—why write poetry? why now? why here?—by considering how poets in Latin America and Latino poets in the United States have answered this question in the context of activism (militancia) and human rights. While similar questions could guide a traditional seminar dedicated to the critical study of poetry, by activating the vital creative force within my students I hoped to advance a different kind of learning—one structured through “practices that might not have so much to do with mastery and judgment as with affective connection and abductive participation.”[i] I was convinced, moreover, that the risk, self-discipline, collaboration, openness, and sensitivity this work requires could make it transformative. In coming to voice as part of this larger conversation, students would refine not only their linguistic competencies and affirm their ways of being in the world; they would do so by expanding their cross-cultural awareness, their understanding of the literary form, and their appreciation of the tools for change the public humanities can offer.

The taller de poesía I now offer regularly as part of the Hispanic Studies curriculum builds on my experiences teaching Latin American literature and culture to non-native speakers in the US academy. But it also explores largely uncharted territory. A brief review of curricular offerings in departments of Spanish and Hispanic Cultural Studies suggests that creative writing classes taught in Spanish are few and far between. I am convinced this represents a missed opportunity to harness the awe-inspiring, revelatory, and critical capacities associated with second-language acquisition, including the joys of linguistic discovery, experimentation, and creation. With this in mind, I offer a template for one such course, including sample assignments and evaluation rubrics, while making the case for the ways of knowing the workshop environment facilitates.

[i] Interview by Mary Zournazi with Brian Massumi in Hope: New Philosophies for Change (New York, Routledge: 2003), 220.


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Publication Statement

Final, pre-publication version.

On Poet-Scholars: Un Taller de Poesia