Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Stella Apostolidis
So I took the class because there was nothing else offered that semester that seemed even remotely interesting. My choices were slim. I mean it was Advanced Latin for Geeks, Bowling for Advanced Dorks, or this: The Creative Self. Even though I had always looked upon poetry as a non-serious art, a flaky girly thing to do, I had done my fair share of writing, mostly put into teenage angst ridden song lyrics, but still, how different could this be--I could probably just use my old songs and hand them in as new poetry. It was senior year in High School, and frankly, I was sick of being part of this innovative new humanities based school where everyone was almost too bright for me. I just wanted at least on easy class, and this sounded like the key to a class where I wouldn’t have to think too much. Instead, it turned me into one of those creative writing whores I had always made fun of. It was solely her doing, Ms. Rizzuto, the orange headed teacher that became my mentor, my muse, my subject.
From the second she walked in, she began to inspire me. She shuffled with her papers in a way that made us all wonder whether it was pure disorganization or classical genius. Her hair aflame spirals of pure citrus fruit, her long flowery skirt welcoming every bored teen aged eye; she woke me up. The woman woke me up from the longest sleep I had ever had. Rizzuto, Rizzuto, Helen Morrissey Rizzuto. I remember her icy blue eyes and how she almost flew up at times when she got really excited about some poem or character sketch. She walked in and immediately asked us what we thought about poetry, about fiction, about the world, about ourselves, about love and sex and how we wanted to express that to the world. And so for a first assignment, she asked us to write about something we loved, a particular thing that ignited sparks in us at the very mention of it. And I wrote about my piano. And I poured my heart out into this poem, and not once did she make me recognize the fact that I supposedly hated to do this--writing, schoolwork; she had a way of making us all forget that we were “doing work”. And anyway, so I poured my heart out into this poem, and I thought this was the best poem ever, and I thought I would win the Pulitzer prize---and I had used every cliché in the book. Hold on, cliché? What’s cliché? “But, Ms. Rizzuto, these are my emotions, literally flowing out of my heart onto the page, withholding my innermost deepest passions and desires.” She didn’t buy it--Thank God! “Stella, work outside what you already know, use a metaphor that you’ve never heard before, don’t use the word passion or desire or love or heart or caress or ...........”
I didn’t get it, poetry without heart? So I redid the assignment, as a matter of fact, we all did. Because we were all 17, and we all were at a point in our lives where we hadn’t yet realized that cliché was a dirty word.
The weeks went by, and we were all enamored by the course, and enamored by Ms. Rizzuto. She was this kind, nurturing inspirational mother who had free verse orgies in the classroom and said it was okay to use fuck in your short story if that’s the word you felt really worked. She let us write about what we wanted to write about but always gave us an assignment, “Just in case we needed a push.” And she encouraged and praised honest writing, and didn’t always demand you needed, “a thesis, and 3 reasons why your thesis has any relevance or validity.” And she encouraged us to go ahead and write while she was teaching a lesson, if that’s when you felt inspired then, so be it. And she introduced us to style and voice, encouraged us to develop our own voice, and when our own voice sucked, she just gave it back to you and told you to free write for a while until your real meaning leapt out at you. She made us rewrite Poe and Plath and Rukyeser. She even let us plagiarize and use the first sentence of that famous Shelley poem in our own. She was the one who only gave you a final grade, rarely gave an actual number to represent your self worth with periodic tests, actually smiled when you walked into class and most of all, when you wrote something really splendid, she put a PH on your paper. And this made you glow for days. And this meant that your poem was publishable, at least in our school’s literary magazine, The Phoenix. And The Phoenix had won lots of awards the previous years. And she let poems about masturbation get published in The Phoenix.
So you can only envision the joy I experienced when I got my first Ph on a poem I wrote. A poem about mother, a poem that would make my own mother cry good tears. But then, when she wrote me a note on one of my last poems of the semester: “Stella, I think you would be great as a coeditor in chief for The Phoenix--let me know if you’d be interested.” Interested? I practically flew up into the air and down into her arms to give her a ingenuous teenage bear hug.
This woman made me worship her. It was her sublime understanding of the creative arts, of teaching, and of learning that made me respect her. I think she was the first teacher who truly broke off my childhood fantasy that teachers eat and sleep at school. I realized that she did have a life, and a very exciting one at that. Me and my best friend, a true prodigy of Ms. Rizzuto’s, who turned out to be a beyond-talented writer, would sneak into her office and look for all the chapbooks she had published, and sift through them to sample her writing. We would sniff the pages as if a narcotic, perfect-writing perfume inhabited the pages. She made me enjoy the process of creating a huge pile of shit just to extrapolate that one shiny diamond that I had swallowed accidentally. She always stressed originality and taught you how to get there, and though none of us were by any means, poetic geniuses by the time we graduated high school, she made me fear the page much less that I realized my fellow peers did when I entered college. I even wrote poems about her, “ I devoured the sweet ice blue when it whispered to my impressionable hand...where is the school that taught her soft denim eyes how to think...maybe it was her fireplace hair, burning yet warm that made her hand crafty and her mind wander....I was a petal on her large ripe stem. Creativity grew out of her stalk and made me realize a pen is not just an inking device but an unconscious river, streaming about rocks, pebbles, finally seeping into her ocean of accomplishment...”
So I became an English major in college even though I had always thought about music, and I had some professors who were as nurturing to me as Ms. Rizzuto, but when I entered into a classroom where a Nazi-esque British literature professor resided, I thought that perhaps she had done me an injustice. Perhaps she made me dependent on her inspiration and exercises to the point where if she, or another encouraging teacher was absent, I could not write. And this has been the case since high school. When I have an stimulating teacher, one who praises me, who lets me be open, I excel. When I not taking writing classes, my writing is poor, stagnant, void of any originality. And let’s take this past year while I was working on Wall Street (can you say the coldest place on earth when it comes to the arts or even real human compassion, let alone inspiration?)--I wrote about 3 pages all year, all consisting of complete crap. But this past week alone, first week of grad classes, I’ve written more, and maybe not better yet, but at least more, than I have this entire past year. Now does this make me a dependent writer. A writer that cannot function without a muse? That will be my next exploration..... Can I survive as a writer without a Ms. Rizzuto by my side, breathing literary genius into my otherwise ordinary words?
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