Helena’s syllabus


Thinking about syllabi as I get prepared to teach for the first time this coming fall, it strikes me how a syllabus is as much a matter of choosing what to exclude, as well as what to include. The question that has been posed to me is: what is essential, what does everyone need to see, hear, watch, read, feel, discover? It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what makes something essential to me. Is it what I find helpful to the creative process in terms of craft? Is it what inspires me, pushes me to keep writing? Is it what affects me, changes me, those things that make life worth living?

This document is a collection of poems, written texts, films, experiences that have been essential to my development as a person—or perhaps it is better, a more specific framework, to say—a creative person, a poet. My hope is that perhaps one or two of these things may move someone in the same way that they have moved me. These are things that still live with me, still recur, seem continuous.

(n.b. I’m trying not to feign mastery where I have none. I’m still learning how to be a poet, a person. I think I risk sounding prescriptive at times—which is perhaps the purpose of a syllabus, the more I think about it. Keats’ says “we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us,” and in this way, I imagine we also hate people, especially strangers, who have a palpable design on us. So of course, take this all with a grain of salt.)


on uncertainty, confusion:
Dean Young’s letter to his nephew, Seth
“Nuns fret not in their Covent’s Narrow Room,” William Wordsworth
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
I’m Not There, Todd Haynes
• Stay hydrated, water is so important especially when you’re confused I think

on what is this thing we do anyways:
• “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats
• “Incantation,” Czeslaw Milosz
• “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop
• Audre Lorde’s essays/speeches, all of them
• “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag
• “Ave Maria,” Frank O’Hara

on why we do this at all:
Tampopo, Juzo Itami
• “Persimmons,” Li Young Lee
• “Dream Song 14,” John Berryman
• Because there are people, things, that need to be remembered, honored.
• “Reasons for Attendance,” Phillip Larkin
• “Prelude,” Derek Walcott

on weird days:
After Hours, Martin Scorsese
• Sometimes it is good to randomly do something for someone else (like sending a kind email out of the blue, or buying them ice cream, or giving them a poem that reminds you of them) not only because it is good to do good things for people, but also because it reminds me that I’m a person who is capable of affecting someone in a really direct way, that there are consequences to how I live my life.
• Memorize a poem. Or write it down a bunch of times.
• laundry

things that give me confidence:
• Any song by Red Velvet
• Talking to my mom

for when I can’t sleep:
• “Scheherazade,” Richard Siken
• YouTube videos of AP World History Lectures, or Geometry
• “Domestic Mysticism,” Lucie Brock Broido
• a Jackie Chan movie

on getting better/inspiration:
• “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rainer Maria Rilke
• It’s invaluable to have a friend you trust who questions you, challenges you, makes you want to be better, all without looking down on you.
• stretching and a cold glass of water
• drawing or doodling, something creative that’s different from the thing I’m trying to do.

on a sad day:
• A Buster Keaton movie, any of them
• “Skunk Hour,” Robert Lowell
• I try to go on a walk, especially if I feel like I don’t have time for it.
• Korean Steamed Egg at Jong kak in Baltimore
• Damien Rice, honestly

things that make me cry:
• “Ceasefire,” Michael Longley
Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica
• a really good bowl of soup
• “An Old Love,” Lee Moon Sae (the Fantastic Duo 2 performance, oh man)

on a happy day:
• An almond croissant
• “won’t you celebrate with me,” Lucille Clifton
• spending time with dogs
• a Paddington movie
• soju and friends

a syllabus by Helena Chung