Students Discover Surprises — And Provide Them

Award-winning poet Kimiko Hahn listens to a student during class she teaches at Queens College.
Kimiko Hahn, an award-winning poet and University distinguished professor, can find lyricism even in the Science section of The New York Times. That soft-spoken mischievousness is also what makes her teaching so enticing.

During a recent craft class at Queens College she distributed a handout of several pages, each page bearing a different version of the same poem. She told the nine MFA students that she had deleted the poet's concluding stanzas from the first version and then gradually added them back on subsequent pages -- until the last version ended as the poet had written it. "But no looking ahead," she warned, smiling.

"This is a class in poetic closure," she had explained to her students earlier. "But you can't understand how a poem closes until you understand how it begins." And reading and understanding poems is also the route to writing them, she believes.

And so, page by page, with Hahn leading the way, the students perused those versions of "For Denis At Ten" by Marie Ponsot, another renowned writer -- and a former English faculty member at the college, who gave a reading there in March. Hahn's students read about a city boy exploring the countryside and saw how his open-ended expectations regarding new surroundings unfolded -- and indeed, surprised them as the poem moved towards closure: "Nothing reminds him of something. He sees what is there to see."

"She [Ponsot] certainly pulled a fast one on me," says student Deborah Fried-Rubin, a former attorney and the mother of three children in college, high school and middle school. "Ponsot, knowing she is leading us to look for more, brings us to see how the boy is doing none of that. She defeated our expectations and took us somewhere surprising."

Surprises that ultimately make sense are among the stronger attributes of good writing, whether they work in tandem with closure or earlier in a work. At CUNY, students like Fried-Rubin appreciate the surprises they discover in classes taught by writers like Hahn. In turn, the students surprise their professors and their readers -- and themselves -- with their work.

Phil Klay, a Hunter fiction student and retired Marine who served in Iraq, is attending school on the GI bill. He has been writing for as long as he can remember. And reading as well. Klay memorized T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," during training in Quantico, Va. He laminated pages of the poem and carried them in his pocket while toting a machine gun. Now, he is writing a novel about Marines leaving the corps, which may include characters people don't usually read about in the newspapers -- namely a military meteorologist and "the guy whose job is to collect bodies of U.S. servicemen from battlefields."

Ann Saidman graduated from the City MFA program in February and culminated her achievement at the March Turnstyle Reading arranged by the MFA affiliation group. Saidman is a school librarian in Brooklyn -- and a former hockey mom -- who has written biographies for children about Oprah Winfrey and Stephen King. But what she read to those gathered in the Segal Theatre was not a bedtime story but a striking piece of magical realism about a con artist who sells "meat trees" and has a deadly encounter with an irate customer who carries tiny leopards in her coat pockets. The audience was spellbound, as was the son Saidman once took to all those hockey games, and practices. When she finished, he stood and cheered. The look on her face said it all. That she was happy to be a writer. Happy to know that she had worked hard and will continue to do so, and that she wrote a story appreciated by people who mattered.