Birdseed: A Writing Prompt with Justin Jannise

Justin Jannise

Birdseed is a series of micro interviews that glean writing prompts, insight and advice from the talented writers leading our workshops.

What course did you teach at Grackle?

I’ve taught a number of courses for Grackle, mostly poetry workshops, but I’ve also courses in creative nonfiction and a two-week course in writing the epistolary short story. 

What stands out in your memory as a special moment from your workshop?

The first poetry workshop I taught had that magical feeling of a diverse group of writers — all with unique voices — developing extraordinary work before my very eyes. Three of those students in that class went on to get accepted into their first-choice MFA programs. I was a proud teacher when I found that out. 

Do you have a favorite prompt for your students?

I often guide my students through a “Three Modes” exercise that involves writing three separate sections — one narrative, one discursive, and one lyrical — and then combining those sections in a non-chronological order. In addition to delving into these three key elements usually present in any successful poem, the non-chronological order often unlocks interesting connections and surprising turns. It’s a favorite among my Grackle students. 

What is one pearl of writing wisdom you like to offer your students?

Dare to be impolite. When you generate new work, it’s important not to let the superego (which in real life governs our sense of morality and fairness) make your decisions. Grackle students tend to be very well-meaning, conscientious, socially active human beings, and I love that. It can be difficult, however, to write a successful poem — especially in the somewhat public arena of a workshop — when you’re overly concerned about how people will judge your character. Finding a way out of your politeness in your work can lead you to more daring lines and surprising connections; it can also make you more vulnerable and self-aware. Furthermore, it frees to you channel your “best self” back into those arenas where you can have a bigger impact on the problems of the world. The problems of poetry may be related, but they’re not the same.

Justin Jannise is the author of How to Be Better by Being Worse (BOA Editions), which won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets, Best of the Net, Copper Nickel, Yale Review, and New Ohio Review. Recently a recipient of the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry and a former Editor-in-Chief of Gulf Coast, Justin is pursuing his Ph.D. in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Houston.

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