The Possibilities of Self Expression

December 1, 1997

Nick Marinello

Every Tuesday afternoon, Ralph Adamo walks through the "hole in the fence" between Loyola and Tulane. An assistant professor of English at Loyola, Adamo makes the weekly trek to teach an introductory class in creative writing at Tulane as part of the English department's New Orleans visiting writer program. It's a short walk but one he hopes will have a long-term impact on his students.

"There seems to be among students a growing interest in exploring creative writing," says Adamo, who is also editor of the New Orleans Review literary magazine. "A lot of students would like to think that they will become writers. Others just want to explore the possibility of self-expression."

And it is precisely this possibility that appears to intrigue and excite Adamo most. "If you are writing something, the writing that you are doing becomes a kind of magnet," he says. "Things in the world begin to come to you for what you are writing."

Just last summer, when Adamo was spending a month at Yaddo, a prestigious--and reclusive--artists' residency located in upstate New York, he was told about a book, Gravity and Grace, that, as it turned out, had a particular relevance to the manuscript of poetry he was working on.

"It was a book that spoke directly to me in the process of writing my book," says Adamo, who believes that, when engaged in it, "writing becomes a focus for everything that happens in your life." While he says that it is important for young writers to see that "writing is all gushing up out of you," he views the next level of understanding of the creative process to be more subtle. "You are the filter, the prism" of your experiences, he says. "I think the work really comes through you rather than out of you."

Adamo tends to stay away from these more esoteric concepts in class and sticks to creative writing's mechanical underpinnings. "We're looking at voice, style, tone, the balance between form and content," says Adamo, who approaches the material by splitting the class into two distinct parts. The focus of the first half of the semester is on fiction writing. Students write several stories, which are then critiqued by the entire class. They also read through a "fat collection of short stories" in order to gain perspective on the craft. At mid-semester, Adamo switches the focus to poetry.

"One of the boilerplate things I say to them is that it is all writing," says Adamo. "The same criteria prevail in both fiction and poetry."

Many students, he says, come to class with some experience in creative writing, but largely do not view themselves as either fiction writers or poets. "They usually want to explore both of these avenues, and by doing it this way it gives them an opportunity to see where they excel."

Only a few students will go on to become accomplished writers, Adamo admits, but "one of the pedagogic reasons for teaching this is not only that it helps them to develop ideas and skills as writers but also as better readers because they will better understand the considerations that poets and authors make. Every tense, tone, syntactical shift is a decision."

Interestingly, Adamo, who uses this bipartite method in the classes he teaches at Loyola, once began a course with poetry rather than fiction, but with less success. "I think it is harder for people who haven't written to write successful poetry than successful prose," he says. "One of the main differences between the two is that poetry is more intense, more compressed, more elliptical and less dependent on linear progression. It requires that you disengage yourself from your normal social way of thinking and using words. In poetry you are trying to find the deep current of your own voice."

Adamo, who received the Faulkner Society's Marble Faun Award for poetry in September, continues to explore his own deep current. He has published three books of poetry: Sadness at the Private University, The End of the World and Hanoi Rose. A new manuscript of a book-length poem is currently being reviewed by a publisher. He will read from that manuscript, as well as prior work, on Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. in Rogers Memorial Chapel. The New Orleans visiting writer program is in its fifth year of bringing local writers to campus.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000