My Students Catch Me Dancing
Interview with Leslie Adrienne Miller about "My Students Catch Me Dancing."
Ann: I know this poem is one of your earlier ones, but do you recall what it meant to you at the time? Was its origin actually that encounter?
Leslie: I wrote that poem more than 25 years ago, so my memory of my intentions for it are pretty fuzzy, but I do remember the context from which it sprang as well as the moment of the encounter (writing a moment like that always has a way of fixing it in the mind, however, and since remembering is a matter not of remembering an original incident but of remembering the last time we remembered something, poems written from real life events often replace the event itself in our minds).
The more important context for the poem however, is the fact that I was, at the time I wrote it, teaching at Stephens College, a small women’s college in Columbia, Missouri, from which I had received my undergraduate degree in 1978. I returned to Stephens as a teacher in 1983, after doing my Masters in English at the University of Missouri, and my M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. Still, I was only a few years older than my students, and I lived in a duplex on campus owned by the college and directly in the shadow of the dormitories. I held my creative writing classes in my own living room, and my students often showed up at my door unannounced because they were passing by. It was even possible to see into my living room from the windows of the large dormitory across the street, so my professional and private lives were very merged.
I did take ballet lessons for many years, but I started late, so I was never much good at it. Still, I enjoyed doing my exercises at home, and the kitchen counter served well as a barre. Two young students did show up at the door one day as I was going through my routine, and though they were probably kind enough not to mention what they’d seen, I honestly don’t recall if anything was said. In my mind, however, I was very conscious of the fact that I’d been trying hard to teach these young women the “craft” of writing, the idea that there is a craft to it, and that it required constant practice. Like dancing or any other art, writing is not something one can just sit down one day and expect to do well. And though I never did become very good at ballet, I did know how to practice, and I did know the value of doing it daily—so it seemed to me that the moment of my encounter with the students may have suddenly put them and me on equal footing for a moment: I was practicing an art at which I wanted to be better, and they (as writers) were at that same point—I was giving them tools of craft, and they knew that they needed to practice using these tools daily too—but we were all, in that moment, people who were in the difficult business of acquiring an art.
I might have written the poem as a kind of argument for my students. It’s certainly an argument I find myself giving to writers at the undergraduate level on a regular basis because many do sign up for creative writing classes with the vague sense that talent alone is all they need. They don’t always realize the discipline, the practice, the slow and painstaking acquisition of skills the art requires, but if they can see it in relation to other arts, like dancing ballet or playing the violin, they can begin to see that it’s not a matter of simply putting on toe shoes or picking up a bow. All these arts require a long apprenticeship, craft and discipline.
Ann: Have you felt you've been able to strike a balance between building a satisfying life as an artist and a professor at the same time?
It is always a struggle to do both because there is less and less time available to us in contemporary life, but I will say that being in the classroom, having the chance to talk face to face with students about literature is always good for my own writing. Literature and how we regard and use it are in a constant state of flux, so one never teaches the same text twice, even if one teaches the same book twice. Classroom interaction makes that flux tangible for me. Were I to win a lottery that enabled me to stay home and write full time, I’d swiftly be stuck and have to find some other forum in which to interact regularly with real people about texts to keep myself growing as a writer. That said, the parts of academic life that most wear down my ability to stay productive and innovative as a writer are institutional in nature—the flood of e-mail, meetings, evaluative activities on every front, the constant need to learn new technologies, attend to rapidly changing policies—in short, everything that subtracts from the time I get to spend face to face in a room with either colleagues or students discussing books that excite us.
Ann: What are some memorable classroom (or non-classroom) moments for you, teaching poetry to UST students?
Leslie: I’d have to say that the most memorable moments I’ve experienced with UST students have come in the years well beyond graduation, sometimes five or ten years beyond, when I get a letter or e-mail out of the blue, and the light has suddenly gone on for someone: they recall my classes and thank me for something they could not, at the time, understand they wanted or needed: sometimes it is simply poetry itself that has become really essential to their emotional lives in the wake of family trials, tough or unrewarding jobs, and they’re grateful they know how to read deeply, how to use language to probe the complexities and mysteries in which they find themselves. Sometimes it is the self-discipline they acquired in creative writing that they suddenly realize has helped them think critically in an entirely different context. Sometimes, they have gone on to become writers professional themselves, and they remember that the habits of self-discipline and craft they labored to acquire in my classes have made that possible.
Ann: Leslie, I’ve always loved your poems. Thank you for letting us re-visit this poem, and for sharing your thoughts with us.
Leslie Adrienne Miller
Only when I hear the knock
do I realize that what I’ve been doing
is probably odd: a few crooked pliés
and a variation on an arabesque
no dancer would recognize, after which
I arch my spine just to see
how far it will go, because it’s spring
and my body’s permutations are suddenly
as apparent to me as the shade
across the porch stair these two
young women ascend, glancing, as anyone would,
through the kitchen window to catch me
at the life I have without them.
When I open the door, they know better
than to giggle; they ask politely
if I dance, stretching the word
like a muscle to indicate art is meant.
They are not so much surprised by my dancing
as embarrassed to catch me concentrated
in my own grace, in the act of willing
myself beautiful. They would like
to apologize for something, but what?
Do you dance? one asks, as if I have
not been. I have, I say, as in not now,
not just now. They have seen how much
I liked the way my leg went up slowly
behind me, my breastbone forward, aloft
almost, as if a string were attached there.
They might have caught me at frying chicken
or sewing on a button; even trying faces
in the mirror would have been
less private, less sad, because I’ve said
too much about devotion, art, a whole life
concentrated in the movement of words
across a page, fingers across a keyboard,
so that the confinement of my dancing
to five square feet of dusk-lit kitchen
makes them too suddenly aware
of that place in us where art goes
when all the stages have gone dark.