Meet Ph.D Tony DeGenaro
Meet Tony DeGenaro, poet and graduate student instructor at Wayne State University. Originally from Ohio, Tony moved to Michigan after earning his MFA from the University of San Francisco. In the Fall of 2017, he started the graduate program at Wayne State, pursuing a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Rhetoric & Composition. On top of writing and performing poetry, and earning his professional degree, Tony also teaches Composition and Creative Writing courses at both Wayne State and U of M Dearborn. His poems have been published in a wide range of venues, including the latest edition of the Wayne Literary Review.
When it’s not a life-changing book, it’s often an incredible English teacher that inspires a student to pursue an English degree. For Tony, however, it was a completely different story. “When I was five, I saw the Star Wars movies for the first time, and from the time I was five to when I was in the 6th grade, I wanted to be a character in Star Wars. Not a very good career goal,” he said when asked why he decided to pursue poetry. “A lot of people answer this kind of question with like, ‘I had an English teacher that I really loved.’ A very positive experience. Well, in 6th grade, I had an English teacher that I hated. She was so mean. She wasn’t supportive; she wasn’t encouraging.” One day, Tony’s 6th grade English teacher introduced a writing contest to the class, and he decided to enter. “So, I wanted to win the writing contest to spite my mean English teacher, and I did,” he said. “My first published poem is in the Anthology of Poetry for Young Americans, printed in 2002. I was in 6th grade; 11 years old. It was a poem about unrequited love. That was kind of where I think it all started. I stopped wanting to be a Jedi knight or a star pilot and was like, ‘I like writing. I’ll just do the writing.’”
Though Tony has since come to love teaching, he didn’t always see himself going into academia. “I did not always want to teach,” he said. “But I’m glad more rational impulses prevailed because I really could not imagine doing anything else now.” Tony is currently teaching a Spring/Summer creative writing class at Wayne State called Introduction to Imaginative Writing (ENG 2800). Unlike typical intro to creative writing courses, Tony’s class focuses more on the steps that take place prior to the actual writing. The assignments involved are designed to help students think about where, and how, writers can draw inspiration. “We sort of imagine that writing happens in this kind of fantastic stroke of inspiration that occurs and you’re able to create these beautiful works, but really doing creative writing is more like going to work in a factory,” said Tony. “And, you know, it’s not fun to think about it like that. We want to think about the writer as this sort of isolated, tortured individual who is just burdened by seeing the world in a certain way, and that’s not really it at all.” So far, Tony and his students have been looking at current events, watching movies, listening to music, and reading contemporary books to try and trace where the real person behind the work of art found the inspiration. In the Fall, Tony will switch gears slightly to teach Introductory College Writing (ENG 1020) courses.
When it comes to creative writing, it’s not uncommon for a student to experience roadblocks when deciding what to write about. To those experiencing an inability to write, Tony suggests taking a different approach to think about writer’s block:
If a student came to me and they said they had writer’s block, I would accuse them of something that happens a lot in baseball, which is where a guy will go up to the plate and, in that hitter’s mind--in Miguel Cabrera’s mind--he is trying to hit a home run to win the game. And, when you’re trying to get a home run to win the game, you’re going to miss the ball every single time. That’s what writer’s block is. So, my advice to that student would be, “Don’t try to hit the home run. You’re not trying to win the game, you’re trying to take your pen, put it on the page, or put your fingers on the keys, and produce.” If you don’t try to make a home run every time, you’re going to hit the ball; you’re going to get on base, and that’s all you have to do. The first draft isn’t supposed to be a home run; it’s supposed to suck. It’s supposed to be really bad. So that’s what I would say. I think that writer’s block is not about the inability to write. I think it’s about our inability to take risks and fail, and no individual should feel bad for doing that. Especially in school, [people think] they’re not allowed to screw up, and that’s dumb because failure is our greatest teacher.
When he isn’t teaching or writing, Tony enjoys going to baseball games at Comerica Park, watching his favorite movie Twister, and going on walks. He also still loves Star Wars and rewatches the series often, though he has since given up his dream of becoming a Jedi.
By Amelia Mazur