Featured Faculty: Professor Barbara Blatner
Professor Barbara Blatner teaches in the Yeshiva College English Department. An accomplished playwright, poet, and composer, Professor Blatner has taught in YU since 2002.
Arthur Schoen: Can you tell us a bit about your life story/background? Where are you from originally?
Barbara Blatner: I grew up near a village about five miles south of Albany, New York called Slingerlands – have you heard of it? – in a stone and wood Frank Lloyd Wright-ish house my father designed. My mother painted, wrote, read furiously, and as a golfer won the Women’s Northeastern Championship twice. My father, also an avid golfer, was an architect whose work is now on the National Register of Historic Places. For twelve years, I attended the small all-female private day school, the oldest continually operating girls’ school in the US, the Albany Academy for Girls. My mother, sister and cousins also went there, my father designed the present school building, and so I have a prodigious affection for a place that schooled me beautifully in literature, writing and music. Several teachers at the Academy stood squarely behind me as a young artist and I am forever grateful for their support. I have returned to AAG to give a talk about art-making; I composed and performed with a 6th grade chorus AAG’s bicentennial song.
I am wonderfully married to my fiction writer and architectural illustrator husband Arthur Dutton. We moved to New York almost fifteen years ago so that I could teach at YU and pursue playwriting in a larger theatre galaxy than the one we left behind in Boston.
AS: You studied in Vassar College as an undergrad. How did you decide to attend a small liberal-arts college?
BB: My mother attended Vassar; I was attracted to her legacy. When I visited the campus, I fell in love with the massive stone gate entranceway, and tall, thick trees that were apparently decisive in keeping Vassar in Poughkeepsie, away from moving to New Haven to merge with Yale. I chose Vassar because the music department was strong, and Latin, which I loved in high school, was taught there. Grounding in that ancient language gave me a sense of words as infinitely plastic energies.
AS: Your bachelor's degree was in music composition. How did you get interested in studying music? What sorts of different things have you done with music? Do you still compose?
BB: I am told that in my crib I moved in rhythm to Tchaikovsky’s music. I began classical piano lessons at age five; Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, Bernstein, Bartok became heroes. As a music composition major at Vassar, I wrote everything from fugues to aleatoric and atonal music. After college, I played piano in lounges, joined a band, formed a jazz duo and taught piano. I continue to write songs, theatre scores, and incidental music for occasions. Dr Lin Snider, Director of YCDS, and I are now writing a children’s musical together, and I have been pianist/musical director in several of her musicals at YU (Newsies; 1776). Although I have felt torn at times between music and writing, I keep music in my life because it is an undeniable pulse in me and a conduit to the great pulse of our world.
AS: Your graduate education was in English and Creative Writing. What led you to switch the focus of your studies from music to English? In your own work and life, do you find any relationship between those two different sorts of "arts" (music and creative writing)?
BB: After Vassar, I was accepted by Boston’s Berklee School of Music, and BU’s M.A. Program in Creative Writing. Music or writing? I was at a crossroads. I realized both were essential to my blood, but decided to do music informally and pursue writing and the teaching of writing formally. Music shows up in in my verbal rhythms, in songs and spoken verses in my plays, in my sense of musical texture and movement in storytelling. The finest writing IS music; I hope that some of my work at least approaches that state.
AS: You earned a Doctorate of Arts in English. How does this degree differ from the traditional PhD degree? Did it involve more teaching (rather than research)?
BB: Yes, SUNY-Albany’s D.A., which no longer exists, is not a research but a teaching degree. My courses were in writing and the teaching of writing, my thesis a collection of poems, my oral exam a presentation of twenty books that I felt had influenced my writing in some way. Great fun!
AS: In YU, you teach courses in creative writing, including play writing and poetry. On some level, I think most of us assume that there is some concept of inherent creativity - that some people are simply more "creative" than others. Do you believe that anyone can produce creative work? As a teacher, what do you do to try to coax creativity out of your students?
BB: I believe that “genius” is not a person but a quality that any mind, if it is sufficiently free, can flash with. I think fantastic writing can be produced anywhere, any time, perhaps surprising the writer. Look at the ingenious paintings of unselfconscious kindergarteners. But people are pulled by different magnets; those of us who choose to walk the austere path of writing are motivated perhaps by a desire to investigate how syllables might evoke what we call “meaning,” “story,” and by mysterious unconscious motivations. It takes practiced discipline to write, build a table, dig a ditch; I marvel at the glorious range of skills humans possess (and our non-human friends, too, apparently!).
If as a writing teacher, if I can help a student feel the thrill of solving words on a page, help him shed limiting ideas about who he might be as a writer, nurse freedom in his expression and simultaneous respect for rigorous editing into his writing life, I have succeeded.
AS: What might a student look to get out of studying creative writing even if they aren't an English major or even if they might not think of themselves as particularly "creative"?
BB: A lot of being “creative” is what you believe about yourself. If you are sure you’re not creative, you’ll fear a creative writing class. If you’re open to the possibility of gorgeous things flowing from your pen or keyboard, you will welcome the experiment. A non-English major in creative writing might access innerness, self-ness. More practically, writing prepares you for the numerous rhetorical situations, written and spoken, of any job. Any language learning deepens awareness and therefore promotes job skills. But honestly, I’m more romantic than practical, am devoted to art-making as a way to celebrate life, breath, Spirit.
AS: Do you see a relationship between your teaching and your own creative work?
BB: Absolutely! In every class, I’m thinking with my students about writing, then harvesting all that for my own work. Teaching for me counters the isolation of writing, turns my obsession with writing craft and process into a social communing.
AS: Through the years, you have seen a lot of your own work - including plays, poetry, and music - published and performed. Can you describe the feeling when you see other people working to perform something that you put your heart and soul into creating?
BB: My first produced play went up in Albany at a playwrights' theatre I founded with an actress friend. Seeing my script incarnated by actors was initially terrifying and surreal: what I had carefully carved in my head was strangely embodied before me. I wore dark glasses to opening night! After that first shock, I loved seeing my work on. There’s always a lag, though, because the ideal production you imagine never aligns with what you see onstage. But that mismatch is an interesting life phenomenon, yes?
AS: Take us inside your creative process. How do you begin a play? Do you wait for an idea or character to come to you? Do you begin with a specific plot in mind? How long does a typical play take you to write? Is there any formula for any of this or does it totally vary from time to time?
BB: I have no formula; I might know the plot before I write, I might discover the plot after years of burrowing blindly forward like a mole. Not knowing can be vital to my process, the state John Keats called “negative capability,” a fertile receptivity to what comes. I often flash on an idea for a play overhearing a conversation on a NYC street, reading something in the paper. In terms of finishing work, “How do you know when a poem is done?” I once asked an Irish poet elder. Looking at me quizzically, he replied: “When it’s done.” Sounds like a Zen koan, but I got it: there is no formula, and that’s why the process, as long as it takes, and I can take years on a play or poem, is exciting.
My process: quickly writing by hand a first draft, then revising and revising, adding, subtracting, brainstorming, cutting, standing back and seeking again the “beating heart” of the piece. Also, my husband’s feedback is a must; he knows where I struggle in my writing, can say: you’re doing that again – try this instead…he really is my collaborator and often I can’t proceed without his input. I do the same for the novel he is working on.
AS: Can you tell us about some interesting projects that you are currently working on?
BB: I am now finishing a play I have worked on a long time, Clearing, about an Afghanistan vet undergoing a hallucination/flashback to a traumatic combat event. I am proud that I have almost finished what was formerly a high energy, character-rich but chaotic play, in terms of storyline. And as I said, I am working with Dr. Snider, co-writing book and writing lyrics and music for a kids' musical called Heartsong. I plan to write a folk musical based on the picaresque American folksong, “Betsy from Pike.”
AS: Could you tell us briefly about the different classes you offer in YU?
BB: I teach First Year Writing and creative writing courses (Playwriting, Introduction to Creative Writing, Poetry Workshop). The creative writing courses are joyful, full of discoveries I make alongside and because of my students. First Year Writing is more difficult to teach, but I am very process-oriented and seek to empower young writers to develop and grow their own most effective writing practices.
AS: What led you to come to YU? Has your experience teaching in YU differed from what you expected coming in?
BB: I very much wanted to move to New York to pursue playwriting, so when I saw the position at YU advertised in the Times, I put all my intention toward getting the job. YU has been a gratifying place to teach since classes are small, and students, for the most part, are vibrant, engaged. I am Jewish but practice no formal religion. At YU, I learn a great deal about Judaism from students and faculty about the meaning of terms and holidays. I am moved by how my students are sustained by their Jewish communities; I wish I had had more of that growing up in a secular home.
AS: You have held a wide range of teaching positions in a diverse array of contexts, You have taught ESL, creative writing, and literature. You have done graduate teaching, adult education, and writer's residencies. You have taught in traditional colleges, community colleges, and high schools. In all this teaching experience, have you found that there is some quality to the teaching that is really the same every time, or is each teaching position just a whole new adventure?
BB: Your wonderful question travels far and wide. Building relationships in the classroom is what I value most; I’m not a fan of virtual learning, though I’m aware of its benefits. Another thread through my teaching is that I aim to encourage creativity and creative problem solving in every student, so that perhaps a writer can write something he believed impossible.
AS: Have you noticed anything in particular that distinguishes the YU student (for better or for worse...) from students you have encountered in other settings?
BB: The homogeneity of YU’s student body produces visible, hearty comradeship. Guys here recognize and salute each other as members of the Jewish world family; I love that sparking. Sometimes, though, YU students, surrounded as they are by peers like themselves, (I’m generalizing here) seem walled off from our motley country and world. How do our students maintain their unique identity AND leave YU as world citizens? What boundaries do I, as a teacher, push at, where do I pull back?
AS: As a Washington Heights resident, do you have any advice for our readers about making the most of their time living in this neighborhood?
BB: What an educational adventure it is to be a white, middle/upper middle class Jewish person observing and interacting with people of color in Washington Heights! If I were queen of YU, I would require every incoming student during orientation to watch a video of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first hit, In the Heights. Seeing this vivacious musical opened windows for me onto the neighborhood I pass through every school day as I walk from my apartment on the west side of 181st Street to Belfer Hall. Like you (I am assuming now), I am a stranger to the Spanish music, families strolling arm-in-arm, street vendors selling jewelry. Explore west AND east of Broadway. Notice shops, clothing, street life, listen to sounds and conversations, even if you don’t understand them.
Washington Heights is layers deep in stories of immigrant life, German Jews, Irish, Hispanics. Go to the East River and over the Highbridge pedestrian bridge. Go to the Hudson and radiant Fort Tryon Park sunsets. Slow down, take a break from your stressful schedule, wander, talk to neighbors, dream them, dream with them.
Thank you so much for this very honoring, thoughtful interview.