Year End: What 2019 taught me
In a year where everything felt unpredictable, unprecedented, and often pretty frightening, few things in 2019 remained steadfast and constant. Among the things I could routinely count on over the past 12 months were my work here at TCI, my own writing practice, and my work as a teacher. For the past five years I’ve been leading a recurring poetry writing workshop here in NYC, an endeavor that has saved my sanity in ways I could never have anticipated. While the rest of the world felt like it was on fire, and as I tried to navigate dealing with the illnesses of loved ones, knowing that every week I’d have at least one night to sit in a room and talk about poetry with a small group of people became its own unique kind of nourishment.
Even during the times when I felt totally exhausted or like my own personal well of ideas had run permanently dry, knowing that I still needed to show up prepared to have a thoughtful conversation and have something ready to share (I hold myself accountable to doing all the same writing exercises as my students) kept me moving, thinking, and ultimately feeling inspired. I was often reminded of all the TCI interviews in which creative folks have discussed the ways that teaching helps to enrich their own creative lives and how, more often than not, as the instructor it’s actually you who is being taught something valuable.
In considering the ways that the poems I wrote this year were like little maps helping me find my way through the world, I can’t help but think about the fact that they likely wouldn’t exist at all had I not been teaching a workshop. Looking back at 2019 and the interviews, guides, and tips that populated our third year as a publication, it feels right to comb through the archives and celebrate the importance of sharing knowledge and the continued thrill of knowing there is always something new to be learned.
Acknowledging that I’m not an expert always really helped me as well. I don’t have answers for many student questions, especially technical questions. Conceptual questions can be confusing too. Sometimes it’s good to say something like, “I don’t know, I’m sorry. Let’s look at it together.”…I teach because I want to be a student.
All these different questions are prompts that essentially make the student look at themself as a source of discovery and investigation, which is pretty much my goal in this class, and maybe my goal period.
There’s a ring of authenticity when someone is expressing something versus when you can tell they’re listening to how it sounds and judging it. So how do I trick people into feeling comfortable enough being themselves to sound like who they are in that moment?
I, for better or worse, don’t really separate my day job from my art practice. I prefer not to compartmentalize my life. I prefer to think of what I do as an artist, my livelihood as a filmmaker, as “that’s my livelihood.” I’m a filmmaker and that’s what I do. I’m fortunate enough to be able to share my experience and my interest in film making with students who are interested in learning the medium.
The better adults can play, the better we become at failure and the better we can become in teaching our children how we fail and what we do to overcome this failure. Hopefully we teach them that failure is not fixed and often leads to wonderful things. Extracting the positive from low points in life is a celebration of our creativity, which is the foundation of play.
My relationships with my students and the questions that they ask keep me so honest. Like if I’m suggesting to my students that they should set a timer and write every day, I feel like I have to be keeping that promise to myself…It really does help to be reading and writing things alongside my students, and I learn so much from it. I feel very expanded by it.
I also teach at a university in Germany and I consider that a part of my practice—the teaching job. The dialog I have with the students, all the things we do together—it’s something that became very important in the last few years.
The way I think about teaching is you do it in the classroom, so you ask the students to listen to each other, to listen to you, in this really active way. And you keep being improvisatory, you keep throwing things at them that they don’t see coming. They start to realize, “Oh, it’s not out there—the work we’re doing is now, right here.” You’re learning to do it now. You are learning to conduct an interview now. I am learning to respond to your questions now.
Education is something I’m very passionate about and that also fuels my art. Even though I transitioned to being a full-time composer, I’m still teaching one class. I can’t let go of that—I feel like my art would suffer, as it really feeds my artistry.
The pedagogy is a way to structure your making and your thinking and your practice. So when I practice teaching, I am making things in my mind. I am teaching with a lot of feeling. I am teaching what I want to teach. My students are learning with me what they want from me. So that is very different from being clustered in an institution or academic situation in which you are not happy, or you are drained of your energy or your time. That is not the case. That’s not what I am doing. It’s invigorating to be with young thinkers, because they are hungry and they eat from you. But I am still hungry, too, so I eat along with them.
I really enjoy teaching. I want to be good at it because the students invested time and money to be there. And if I’m not fully engaged, then I’m ripping them off.
I have always seen writing and learning as part of actively teaching and I’ve never had a time where that wasn’t the case. Those things are always in conversation with each other. I think I would be very unhappy if one part wasn’t there, especially the teaching part.
Writing, however much I might complain, has given me this amazing life, where I’m hanging out here talking to you. And one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed it so much is that I’ve been teaching these graduate students in their 20s, and I’ve found it so rejuvenating.
I teach a fair amount, usually undergrads. I’m always teaching a lot of women. There are a lot of women in theater programs and art programs and they are always the ones that are being told to dismiss that gut-level little voice that’s like, “This is what I’m actually thinking about.” Women are often told their interests are trite or stupid because that’s just what it is to live in this world that fucking loves dick and war. Whereas I’m like, “Where is the My Little Pony in all of that?” Your intimate, personal feelings are not trite. It’s my fucking pleasure to be like, “Actually, your journal entry is the thing. Perform it.” Just get better at being as engaged as possible with the world around you, and yourself inside of it. Trust yourself. Give yourself permission to just be who and what you want to be. Make work about that.
Whenever people complain about teaching, I’m always rolling my eyes because this is honestly the best job I’ve ever had. I understand why it’s exhausting sometimes, but I think it’s a pleasure. Not all students are a pleasure, not every condition is a pleasure, but it’s mostly been a really great thing for me and it’s helped my work grow too. Aside from the financial support teaching provides, I’ve also been able to think about how and why people make things, and how to push my students and have them think about what are good ways of working, of what’s inherently a good strategy for them to make things. I’m doing that all the time for myself, too.
I think teaching is important because the kids also give me information that I need for my work. I think teaching obliges us to think and also to discover new things. It’s a laboratory of thinking. I show my work to my students, and I make projects with them. They love it, but I also love it. It’s important for me.
I think teaching has been good for me. Engagement with other people’s projects is really inspiring, and I like being able to use my creative and visual problem solving skills to help other people with their work. It sharpens you.
I only know how to teach one way…In workshops, we often privilege correction as progress. There’s this capitalistic anxiety to fix it. Even in the way we talk about writing: polish, cut, write, chop, tighten. I want it to be more about actual creation—looking at people making organic things with their imaginations.
I tell my students—and I think this is absolutely true—that the work comes relative to your readiness for it. As a professional actor, singer, storyteller, you maintain a state of readiness for whatever opportunity presents itself. It’s a process that never stops. There is always more to learn, more to do.
T. COLE RACHEL is a writer, teacher, and ceramic cat collector who lives in Brooklyn. He creates poems, essays, and all manner of culture-related journalism. His work has appeared in Interview, The FADER, Pitchfork, V Magazine, Interview, and The New York Times Magazine among others. He teaches a recurring poetry workshop, Poetry & Photography, at SSHH in NYC. His books include Surviving the Moment of Impact and Bend Don’t Shatter. He is currently Senior Editor at The Creative Independent.