David Starkey

Poetic Rhetoric: An Interview with Wesley Dunning

Blog Post created by David Starkey Expert on May 5, 2020

Wesley Dunning teaches writing at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His work appears in Blueline, Gravel Magazine, and others. What follows is a recent conversation I had with him:


I’ve always been interested in the cross-pollination between composition and creative writing, so I’d love to hear you talk a bit about your recently completed dissertation, Poetic Rhetoric: Reflections of Six Poet-Compositionists. (Full disclosure: I was one of the six poet-compositionists you interviewed.)


I came into the Indiana University of Pennsylvania doctoral program with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis. I approached my PhD work thinking that now I needed to place all that creative writing work on hold. Taking composition and applied linguistics classes helped me realize that pursuing both disciplines at the same time was meaningful work. A reflection from the late compositionist and poet Wendy Bishop was especially significant to my study: “I do my mixing, not to elevate genres but to intermingle them, not to venerate the poetic or belletristic but to point out that each brings us to our senses though in different modes and tones.” So my dissertation came out of being able to research and practice what was important to me.


What would you say is the unique contribution that your dissertation makes to the field of composition studies?


It’s the focus on the six participants who have all contributed work in composition and rhetoric and published at least one volume of poetry. I interviewed each of them twice and asked them to provide me the handful of texts that they believed most influenced their careers in both composition/rhetoric and poetry. From my discussions with each of them and the works they deemed influential to their career, my dissertation explored their notions of the rhetorical functions of poetry writing, the place of poetry writing in first year writing courses, and what they believed about students experimenting and mixing forms in general education college writing courses. In each participant’s chapter I weaved in relevant sections from their influential works as a kind of organic literature review as well as blended my own poems throughout the prose text to enact my argument.


Obviously, Poetic Rhetoric was written long before Covid-19, but does your dissertation shed any light on how we should be approaching the teaching of college writing during the pandemic?


I believe it asks our students to consider their mindsets and how the work they’re being asked to do in writing courses influences how they think about themselves, how they might communicate different elements of themselves and imagine another’s perspectives in different forms, and what they believe their readers, their audience might value. As many of the wonderful poet-compositionists in my study told me, we’re all being bombarded with so much text on a daily and even minute-to-minute basis that this may be a time when can we begin to process what this overload of text means to each of us right here and right now, as well as in the future.


So “poetic rhetoric” is not necessarily about having a requirement that our students write poems in first year composition?


It’s about inhabiting an embodied frame of mind. It’s an orientation to the work of composing that provides access to elements of the self that other forms of composing do not, a composing process that emphasizes pattern of sound, image, and form. It’s about considering when, where, and why I might or might not compose in different forms.


I’ve heard you talk about the fact that so many great poets have described poetry not in terms of genre conventions, like rhyme or metaphor, but as a way of being in the world. What does it mean for our students to be in the world right now?


Each day is filled with both order and disorder, as poet Gregory Orr writes. There’s the cyclical nature of the world around us—the changing of seasons, day turning to night and back to day, birth and death—as well as the cyclical nature of our own daily habits—waking and sleeping, the back and forth flow of conversation, the hundreds of similar movements we perform over and over again in our places of working and living each day without much notice.


Sounds like the monotony of sheltering in place!


And yet life surprises us every day: unexpected joys and tragedies occur. The whole world experiences a global pandemic. Loved ones are losing their jobs, their lives. Our worlds are thrown into disarray in both large and small ways. How are our students experiencing all of this? How might they choose to represent that experience? What alternatives do they have to provide some kind of textual shape to what they’re thinking and feeling? Exploring the patterns and disruptions of patterns in our lives and in our mindsets through composing in different forms is one value of poetic rhetoric for teaching writing during this global health crisis.