Colleen Abel is Warren Wilson’s 2013-2014 Beebe Fellow. She originally hails from outside of Chicago, graduated from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers in 2004, and has just completed her PhD in Creative Writing at UW-Milwaukee this past August. Her first chapbook Housewifery came out in 2013, and as a writer and poet, she works with the themes of family, domesticity, and place.
A teacher for several years, Colleen has found that meshing her style to meet the expectations of each new group of writers allows her classrooms to be places of co-creation, where students are free to guide her as much as she guides them. The undergraduates at Warren Wilson are an especially passionate group of writers who take a lot of ownership in their education and are quite vocal about what they expect from their poetry classes. Colleen reports it’s both been “fun to co-create the classroom experience” with the students and also a positive challenge to reflect on her own teaching style to consider what works well in this special environment.
Colleen finds that what most students want from their poetry classes is to marry the discussion of craft to the practice of making poems. When Colleen introduces a new craft element—such as line or pacing—she and her students immediately apply it to the page to understand its value and to better incorporate it into their own personal craft toolboxes. Along those same lines, her poetry classes explore the possibilities of bringing poetry to the community, both broadening the definition of what poetry can be and considering the way it can be used as a tool for activism. “One of the cool things about the kinds of poetry activism that are happening out there,” she says, “is that it gives you a great overview of the different uses that poetry can have for different people: as a political tool, as an intellectual exercise, as something playful or humorous, as self-expression.” Colleen pushes her students to fully understand the versatility of poetry and the transformative power it holds.
The Beebe Fellowship has allowed Colleen to continue growing as a writer as well as a teacher. Teaching poetry and creative writing has changed her work as well. She learns something new with each new class and says that “whatever I am teaching and thinking about inevitably seeps into my work, both in terms of form and content. For example, having taught playwriting a couple of times, I find myself working often on poems that are dialogues or that have multiple speakers within one poem. Last year I taught a class in speculative fiction, and am now working on a long series of poems about dystopic cities.”
Colleen believes in the transformative power of teaching and writing poetry, but she also believes in the transformative power of a positive writing community. If she could, she would “bottle the respect and support that I got during my MFA and sprinkle it over the heads of every writing community in the world.” She’s not sure whether the MFA community at Warren Wilson was (and is) so strong because many people had identities beyond that of being writers or if it was because of the intensity of the contact at residencies; regardless, she has “never had another experience where writers were so generous and supportive of each other.” As the Beebe Fellow this year, Colleen hopes to create this kind of supportive community in her own classroom. As we are all writers and teachers in one way or another, I hope that we, too, can remember this gift and continue to pass it along.