University of Iowa’s Writing MOOC

How Writers Write Poetry

I’ve signed up for the University of Iowa’s free, six-week MOOC (massive open online course) called ‘How Writers Write Poetry’, which started on June 28th. There’s still time to sign up and take part – details here.

iowa moocThere are two 30 minute videos to watch each week, presented by poets who teach writing at the University, which cover different aspects, theories and techniques of writing poetry. After each 30 minute video, a writing exercise is set and there are opportunities to submit work to online workshops and forums so that you can give and receive feedback. So far, lack of time has meant that I’ve opted out of submitting work – and I haven’t got much further than taking a few notes from each ‘lecture’. I’m not sure if the videos will remain online for viewing later (this has been the case with other MOOCs I’ve joined) or perhaps I’ll have a chance to re-visit films I find interesting before the MOOC ends. Navigating my way around the forums wasn’t easy but I’ve noticed that new how-to guides have been uploaded to the site so you might have more joy. As in all things, if I participated more I’d no doubt reap a greater reward but, for now, just watching the videos and making notes is all I can manage – and everything is food for writing, in my opinion.

Writing Process

The poets I’ve watched so far have talked about their own processes for writing poetry. I rather liked Kate Greenstreet’s method of collecting lines and fragments of poems in her notebooks (or on any scrap of paper that she has to hand) and then typing them, as soon as possible, into a document she calls her ‘Epic’. Kate then reads her Epic every day, looking for any two lines that might start a poem. Once she has started using these lines in a poem, she deletes them from her Epic. However, if the poem doesn’t work out, she returns the lines to the Epic document.

Notes about workshopping

Here are some notes I took from Marvin Bell’s introduction to the programme, intended I think as guidelines for how to behave in online workshops but could just as well apply to the way we approach any writing, including our own. They are just key points that stood out for me, that I found helpful and that I might try to keep hold of in my own reading and writing.

1. In workshops mirror what you are hearing back to the writer so that the writer knows if they want to say is being understood by the reader.
2. Find something you like. Start with that.
3. Welcome and encourage surprise.
4. Don’t reflexively dislike something.
5. Art is experimental.
6. Let writing influence you.
7. There’s no right way.
8. There’s no good stuff without bad stuff.
9. You learn more from what you don’t like than from what you like.
10. Try to write poems that at least one person will hate.
11. The ‘I’ is not you but someone who knows a lot about you.

Let me know what you think and leave a message if you’re one of my classmates on this MOOC!

10 thoughts on “University of Iowa’s Writing MOOC”

  1. As the summer hols are looming, this looks exceedingly tempting, Josephine. I’ll check it out 🙂


    1. I hope you get something out of it, Jayne. It seems to be aimed at anyone interested in starting to write so you might find it quite basic. However, I think it’s worth enrolling for Marvin Bell’s video alone, which I found uplifting and inspiring!


  2. I’m so excited about this! Thank you for telling us about it. I have signed up though I’m not sure how I am going to fit it in, as I seem to have overcommitted myself to things this summer, but the opportunity is too good to miss. I see that I have several sessions to catch up on as it already 6th July. At first I thought, ‘dream on, you’ll not be able to afford it’ but it’s free! You’ve made my day.


  3. Hi, I’m on the Iowa course too. Just one more lecture to watch and write notes on. I think I have 3 assignments left. I love the way each poetry group I have come across has its own way about it. Even meeting the same people online is different because the environment is different.

    I managed to get to the Southbank in London to watch Robert Hass, the giver of the first video and evidently hugely famous, I now realise. My first poetry pilgrimage.

    I have a break until ModPo on Coursera restarts in early Sept. I’ll be on the Plus section this time.


    1. Hi there, thanks for your comment. I really haven’t managed to take part in the Iowa MOOC much at all because of lack of time. I’ve only watch a few videos. I will look into re-visiting the course if it remains online. I’ll just have to add it to my growing list of things I’d like to do! The Southbank is a fantastic place, there’s so much going on. Even walking along by the river and soaking up the atmosphere is hugely enjoyable 🙂


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