Accomplished writer and poet Kent Shaw’s circuitous route to success has endeared him to his students. After graduating from a prestigious prep school in Oklahoma, he elected not to attend college immediately and instead enrolled in the Navy, serving for six years, from 1989 to 1995. After being discharged, he enrolled at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where his love of poetry grew with exposure to contemporary poets. He went on to achieve a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis, and later a Ph.D. in creative writing and English literature from the University of Houston. He currently is an Assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.
Shaw will return to St. Louis this July to teach the upcoming poetry workshop at Washington University’s Summer Writers Institute (SWI), currently open for registration. Keep reading to learn more about Shaw and this enriching opportunity.
How did you become interested in poetry?
I actually came into a love of poetry later in life. I did not do well in my high school English classes, and when I got into the Navy I realized I was really missing out on college. I started emphatically reading mainly fiction. I tried writing fiction, and I wasn’t very good at it. A few years later, I wound up taking a modern-poetry class, and as far as composition, it was very clear to me that that’s what I needed to be doing. It made a lot more sense. I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and then I did the MFA program at WashU.
WashU has some of the greatest writers and poets of our time on faculty, people like Carl Phillips and Mary Jo Bang. What was it like to learn from talents like that?
Working with writers like Carl and Mary Jo, I really didn’t know what to expect. At, first when I was accepted into the MFA program, it felt like my writing was being validated on some level.
But once I started working with them, I really saw how much the program offered my writing. Having a much more experienced writer reflect on your work and provide suggestions—it’s hard to communicate how deeply that improves your writing.
For this year’s Summer Writers Institute, you’ll be teaching the poetry workshop. What is your philosophy when it comes to teaching poetry?
One of the things I’m always trying to do in the poetry class is to get students into an imaginative frame of mind. With a poem, you’re working in a really confined space. People often think a poem is going to come from a sentimental place and that they need to find an intense emotion to express. But if you start off a poem thinking you’re going to write something emotionally intense, you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself. My strategy is to instead get students to stretch their imaginations and let their emotional expectations fill in the blanks as they write.
I also like to pull from different forms of poetry—one that I really like to teach is the ballad. We begin by talking about what goes into writing a ballad and what that means, and then I ask them to write a poem with that form in mind. They take the spirit of what we’ve talked about and make it their own. If they write a strict ballad, I’d be interested to see what they did with it, but I’m just as interested to see how they break the rules. Poems are almost always about how you show your reader you know you’re breaking a rule, and there’s a reason why.
Is there a particular ballad poem you enjoy teaching?
There’s one I’ve used in class for a few years now called “Ballad of Birmingham,” written by Dudley Randall in the 1960’s. It’s about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, and it’s told as though one of the girls who died in the bombing is asking for permission to go to Birmingham that day. And the tragedy of the poem is that the mother is going to find out that her daughter is a victim of the bombing. In terms of the ballad itself, it’s a strict ballad. But it’s this strange and interesting juxtaposition, because it’s written by an African-American writing in a traditional English form. The subject matter was very contemporary, but the ballad makes it sound like this old story everyone knows. It approaches a very complex subject in a limited amount of space and gives us deep insight into that subject. That’s what I’m interested in bringing into a classroom. It gets the students thinking, “If all of that lives in this poem, how can I do that with my own work?”
What inspires your own poetry?
I keep a notebook of ideas, because I’m not always sure what’s going to prompt something.
I often have students do 10-minute free-write sessions, which I then use to start our discussion. Meanwhile, I do my own 10-minute prompt, and I just write down whatever comes to me. Last December during a class, I’d started writing and a student showed up late. I could tell he was wearing Axe body spray, and it suddenly led me into this completely new, specific direction: about being in the soap and deodorant aisle at the store, wondering what soap to get, and how that’s tied up with ideas about masculinity. That eventually got formed into a poem, and I revised it from there.
What was it like serving in the Navy?
So I went to prep school in Oklahoma, where at a young age my peers seemed to have a sense of what their lives were going to be like. There was the idea that you finish prep school, go to college, then settle down and get a reasonable job. Choosing to enroll in the Navy took me away from that set path. Being at sea is an experience that forced me into these moments of boredom and socialization that I can’t envision having experienced if I hadn’t been in the Navy.
Choosing to do it really formed who I am now, but on the other hand, I don’t know if I’d want to do it again. I’m grateful I made that choice, but at the time I wasn’t really happy.
The first book of poetry I wrote is called Calenture, which is a type of delirium that sailors who have been at sea for a long time can experience. They look out at the sea thinking it’s dry land, and then jump off the ship trying to pursue it—but it’s still just ocean.