Tony Barnstone is The Albert Upton Professor of English at Whittier College and the author of 12 books. He has served as the Visiting Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Bowling Green State University and as the Visiting Professor of Translation in the Ph.D. Program at the University of California, Irvine. He has a Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. His books of poetry include Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry (BKMK Press. 2009),The Golem of Los Angeles which won the the Poets Prize and the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry (Red Hen Press, 2008), Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005), and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University Press of Florida, 1998), in addition to a chapbook of poems titled Naked Magic (Main Street Rag). He is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose and an editor of literary textbooks. His books in these areas include Chinese Erotic Poetry (Everyman, 2007); The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor, 2005); Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Wesleyan, 1993); Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1991); The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala, 1996); and the textbooks Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Literatures of Asia, and Literatures of the Middle East (all from Prentice Hall Publishers). Among his awards are the Grand Prize of the Strokestown International Poetry Festival and a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Barnstone has lived in Greece, Spain, Kenya and China and is deeply interested in international poetry and poetics. In addition, Barnstone has in recent years been deeply involved in multimedia work. His first CD of folk rock/blues songs (in collaboration with singer-songwriters Ariana Hall and John Clinebell, based upon Tongue of War and titled Tokyo Burning) will be available in 2012. He is also involved in a poetry/art collaborations with the artists Alexandra Eldridge and with artist Dorothy Tunnell he is writing a poetry graphic novel.
Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner John Ciardi Prize in Poetry (BKMK Press, 2009)
The Golem of Los Angeles, winner the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry (Red Hen Press, 2008)
Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005)
Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University Press of Florida, 1998)
Chinese Erotic Poetry (Everyman Press, 2007)
The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor, 2005)
The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala, 1996)
How I Teach:
Twenty-six years after I first walked into a Beijing university classroom wearing the title “Professor,” I feel I put on my teaching comfortably, an old leather jacket. I have adjusted my teaching radically over the years, always testing out new methods, happy to throw out the rulebook on the chance that something interesting might be revealed.
For example, in the last Advanced Poetry Writing workshop I taught, I ripped up the syllabus, sat down with the students and asked them to tell me what they wanted to learn from the class and what sort of work they wanted to do in order to practice their skills and to show me what they had learned. I had two singer-songwriters in the workshop, and they wanted to work on the connection between poetry and music. I had one student who wanted to work on learning traditional metrics and how to write the long narrative poem. Another wanted to explore surrealism, and another wanted to learn how to stop writing about herself and how to write about the experiences of her community in surviving Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Together, we worked out a verbal contract and set out to learn together. In many ways, that was my favorite class in years. We played YouTube videos of the students’ favorite songs and analyzed them for rhythm and the poetic technique (figurative language, performative versus demonstrative speech, levels of diction, shifts in register, metrical form, rhyme and internal resonance). Each student bought two books published in the past year and wrote lovely reviews of them. The singers collaborated on a terrific song, which they included in their final collection and performed for the class. The young woman from New Orleans wrote immensely powerful dramatic monologues, based upon her interviews with Katrina survivors. This is how I anticipate working with my Stonecoast students. I expect my students to let me know each semester how they would like to develop, what esthetic field they would like to grow, and then I will work with them to create a course of study tailored to their interests. For students who prefer a less tailored approach, I can happily provide a more traditionally structured course of study.
Having said that, I guess the next thing to understand about me is that I began my career as a free verse poet and that I have in recent books shifted towards formal verse. I read free and formal poetry with equal pleasure, and continue to write in both forms, and occasionally in other forms, such as the prose poem. I enjoy experimental poetry when the experimentation feels deserved, organically important to the poem, and fresh, and when there is something to the poem beyond mere verbal play. Thus, I am perfectly comfortable teaching students with a formal bent and those who prefer to write in free verse, and would be happy to work with experimental poets who tease the reader with shifting surfaces through which an elusive depth can be glimpsed (with the caveat that my interest in your work might flag if it is merely surfaces without depth).
I am also deeply interested in international poetry and poetics, and I will tend to encourage my students to read widely in ancient and modern poetry from around the world. As the poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth stated, “translation saves us from our contemporaries.” By reading widely, the poet can escape from the period styles that dominate a culture at any one time and find his or her own essential voice and vision.
At Whittier my literature classes are often hybrids that break the artificial boundary between literature and creative writing classes, or they are interdisciplinary paired classes that join poetry writing with classes offered by the art department. Thus, at Stonecoast I am very happy to work with students who wish to push the boundaries of the traditional text and create flash animation poems, ekphrastic poems based on works of art, sculpture poems, dance poems, poems as song, or any other interesting hybridized form of the art.
My creative writing classes are designed to promote specific writing skills, but also a larger vision, and a personal “voice” in the beginning and the advanced writer. In the modernist era, as critic and novelist Malcolm Cowley has noted, many artists and writers became adherents to what he called “the religion of art.” Beauty and personal expression became an absolute ideal, even substituting at times for religious, moral, social and other ethics. I do not promote such an absolute religion of art, but strive to inculcate in my students an understanding of writing as a method of living and of perception. A writer doesn’t just see a tree, a writer sees the patterns in the bark, pierces inside through ring after concentric ring, and travels up and out to the leaf-tips on a river of sap, dives down into the unseen world beneath the earth and fingers through the soil searching for nutrients and water. As a writer you see, in the words of painter-poet William Blake, “a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower:/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.” Thus, more than any particular writing practice, I strive to teach my students to trust the wings of their imagination. I want to create a space in which students feel at ease with their inner thoughts, with their emotions, their esthetics, and their imaginations.