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Writer's Block: Teacher of the year

Have you ever had a teacher who made a profound difference in your life? How did they influence and/or inspire you?

It would have to be Gerald Barrax (that is his real name), my creative writing poetry teacher at North Carolina State University. Even though I was a computer science major, I also had an interest in writing poetry, and taking his class  was a way I could pursue an outside interest  and get course credit for it.

On the first day of class, we each received a mimeographed* sheet with all of the assignments we would be expected to complete by the end of the semester. I don't remember all of them, but I know there were several that required the use of forms. Among these were heroic couplets, haiku, and one where we had a choice between a sonnet and a sestina.

I was not happy with these requirements. Why did I have to do all this? At the time, poetry to me was about two things: venting my feelings and impressing chicks. Why did I need all these fancy words and rigid forms? And what the hell is an objective correlative anyway?

I stuck with the course though, and soon what started as grudging compliance became a labor of love. Sure, poetry was still about emoting and wowing the ladies , but it was also about craft. I learned that the creation of a poem, like the creation of anything else, is more satisfying if there is a discipline to adhere to, because then you have earned the finished product.

I fell in love with forms. I wrote a sestina for his class which was accepted by the school literary magazine. I even invented a form of my own, the baiku. I still write poetry, and while I do write some free verse, I never allow myself to abandon formal poetry. (Another thing I learned is that free verse isn't really free...you have to construct rules of your own to make it work as poetry.)

In addition to instilling a love of writing in general and poetry in particular, Barrax was a great model as a teacher. He made me do things I didn't want to do, then made me see the importance of it, and then made me like it. I'd like to think I've absorbed some of that in my own teaching, but I know I am not nearly as good at it as he was.

* This was in 1980. In case you are too young to know, mimeographs are what we had instead of laser printers. It was a step above chiseled stone.