A Sense of What Matters: A Conversation

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Adrian Koesters Banner BWEditor’s note: RWW faculty member, Fleda Brown, and RWW alum, Adrian Koesters (2007), graciously shared this intimate conversation that honors the ongoing bond between student and mentor—a testament to the collegial relationships writers can form.

Adrian Koesters: Fleda, some writer-teachers can’t wait for the day when they are left alone to write away without those other distractions. How does your writing keep you wanting to work with students?

Fleda Brown: Distractions? Email is a distraction. The flu is a distraction. But people who want to want to write better poetry? No chance. I didn’t ever take a poetry workshop, myself. I was working on a Ph.D. in literature, and although I’d rather have been writing poems, I figured I also needed to read a lot, and I needed a job when I finished, so the Ph.D. seemed the best course. The time it took me to learn how to approach my material, how to push myself in ways that would improve my work, was much longer, I’m sure, than it would’ve been if I had sat in some classes with some good poets.

Every time I learn something about my own work, I’m hoping to be able to use that knowledge to save someone from having to take the long road I took. Writing is always self-taught, but if there’s someone whose work you respect who can say to you, “Try this, even if it’s uncomfortable,” you can learn faster. It all seems a part of the same process: teaching and learning. I have profound respect for poetry. I most likely won’t be remembered as a poet fifty years from now, but I feel a responsibility for the transmission of, I’ll call it a reverence for the art to the next generation. I do not take this lightly. Good poetry can save us, in some real sense. It isn’t so much the craft that I want to transmit, it’s a sense of what matters, an attitude toward the work.

And, too, when I’m working with a student who’s clearly given over to poetry, lusting after it, willing to sacrifice for it, I’m changed by that; I’m called to my best—my best work, my best thinking. So it works both ways.

So, Adrian, what did you think you’d get out of the student-teacher relationship with me? How did the actual experience differ (or not) from those expectations?

AK: Well, you know this story already, but when choosing a thesis advisor time came around, Judith wrote to me and said, “Fleda Brown will be joining the program, and I think you two would work well together.” That sounded good to me, until I read The Devil’s Child, and then I thought, “Oh, crap,” except “crap” wasn’t exactly the word I thought. I got to residency and said to Judith, “You know, I’m not sure that’s such a great idea after all,” because I had not met you yet, and I thought I would be in for a year of working with Ellen Bass or something—not that the poems were like that (oh, on the contrary!), and I’m sure Ellen Bass is a wonderful person, but I had an image of the subject matter turning into therapy, and the thought of that was hideous to me.

But then we met, and right away I knew I’d be not only lucky, but very lucky indeed, to work with you.  I knew that from the respectful way that you spoke to me not only about work, but about everything. Having had a kind of crumbled academic past, I told you that being able to complete the critical essay was my main worry, and I’m not quite sure still how you did it, but you gave me enormous confidence that this would not be a problem, and about a third of the way in, I knew I could do that part of it. I think it was the draft where you said, “Ah, now you’re cooking,” and I thought, “I’m cooking!” And then it just took off (and I’ve used that phrase hundreds of times now with my own students, and it seems to be a kind of magical incantation with them, too). So for this part, I anticipated that it would be painful in just about every way, and it turned out to be painful in just about no way at all.

With the creative thesis, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, except that I thought I was done, and you quickly let me know, that although I had enough poems for a thesis, I was really nowhere near done. I was surprised to feel as defensive about it as I did, and I’m not sure if you saw that. But again, I felt enormously respected—even when you were unequivocal about when something was not working; you communicated this with such a light hand that I still find it quite remarkable. It’s what I try to emulate in workshops now.

Fleda, what are some of the best moments that you’ve had as a writer and a teacher? I know likely some of these will sound mundane on the page, but I’m always interested to hear about those transparently wonderful moments that are almost sacred to you as a teacher.

FB: This is hard to answer, because a lot of what happens, I don’t know at the time; for instance, you hid your defensiveness and how you got past it. The best times, as you guessed, seldom show up in ah-ha moments. I’ve had several very gifted students, but I also seem to remember the ones I’ve been miserably frustrated with, because no matter what I said, no matter how I showed what might be done, no matter how many models I referred to, the work didn’t change a whit.

The ones whose work has most excited me seemed to intuit by themselves what needed to be done, but they did that partly because of what they heard in the workshop, and what I said. They may have gone in an entirely different direction with the suggestions, but they actually did transform their work. I saw some poems of yours perfectly revised. This kind of work comes from those who are so involved with the work—not with group praise or my praise—that they dive back in and re-make the poem.  Those are the moments I remember, seeing a revision that has remarkably turned the original poem on its ear. I’ve had a couple of students over the years who didn’t need me at all, and maybe not the workshop (they now have books), but they seemed to want the energy of the situation.

As a writer myself? The moments are many, but small. They have to do with individual poems, a line that finally works itself out, to my joyful surprise. The end of a poem that I had no idea where it was going suddenly announces itself to me. Or just an image or situation that occurs, and I know I can work with it.  I tend not to want to articulate these moments, because they’re magical, and the good fairies might flutter off if I disturb them with description.

I’m curious, Adrian, how do you feel your work was changed by our time together? And also, what were the low points, and how did you get past them?

AK: That’s a really great question, because one thing that changed a good bit was that I was able to acknowledge that my creative side and my intellectual side both exist, both are valid, and both need nourishing. There were many times when you’d suggest something very slight and a light would go off, and somehow I just knew what had to be done—it was at a highly intuitive level, and when I can work out of that, it’s the strongest place for me. Again, I keep using the word respect, but I think it’s something beyond that, a skill that must develop over time and experience, and that’s knowing when to interject, and when to hold off. (I’ll also say that I’ve had one mentor or reader after another who is incredibly skilled at this; it strikes me deeply anew each time I encounter it.)

That has given me many insights as an editor, too—I feel I’m much more skillful now with others’ work, because I can trust that just being on the train and pointing out what I see going by is often much more helpful to the writer than letting them know exactly how far they have to travel to get to St. Joe, or whatever it might be (I use St. Joe as an example as it’s the one train ride I was ever on where we wound up having to go backward to get to where we were headed—very painful).

 For sure, there were low points—most if not all of them in my head, the kind of objectifying and commodifying talk you do to yourself because maybe the universe isn’t battering you enough already. “I’m too old for this,” “I’m not talented enough for this (or insert your favorite invective-laced phrase),” “Nobody’s going to want to hear what I have to say, or “My work isn’t sexy enough for the market.” In my case, I’ll be very honest and say that deadlines were what kept me going forward; if I knew it was a choice between tolerating that pain and shaming myself by not doing the work, I went with the discomfort. And then you shoot over the thing, and you’re in another place, and it goes on.

 I agree with you that as a writer, these moments of recognition are small, often nearly imperceptible, but when they happen, they are glorious. And better not to talk about them in too much detail!


Fleda Brown’s eighth collection of poems is No Need of Sympathy, from BOA Editions, LTD, published this October. Her collection of essays, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, with Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea, was published in April 2013 by Autumn House Books. Her memoir is Driving With Dvorak (University of Nebraska Press 2010). She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware and past poet laureate of Delaware.


Adrian Koesters holds an MFA in poetry from RWW and a Ph.D. in English (fiction and poetry) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches writing and is the host of the online reading series for Prairie Schooner magazine. She has been  an assistant editor for Ted Kooser’s syndicated newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry,” and is a fiction editor at  A River and Sound Review  journal. Her first book of poems, Many Parishes, was published by BrickHouse Books in 2013.