In the Spring of 2013, I taught the worst undergraduate poetry workshop ever. The students were marvelous and curious and smart; the writing distinctive; the books were scintillating; the visiting poets I brought wow, wow, wowed us; the final projects demonstrated learning and promise; and the camaraderie was memorable. Everything came together. Why then was the workshop so awful? Because all of the above assessments were mine, based on my aesthetics, to make me happy, and far too much of the learning was merely parroted. And I didn’t realize until later that summer how much I had fallen for my own image in the mirror of my pedagogy. It wasn’t a workshop, it was a self-portrait.
Of course, criticism of the standard workshop method, the “workshop poem,” and the Po’ Biz remains a commonplace in higher education, low-hanging fruit. I have eaten such plums: they are not delicious. Nevertheless, I would like here to enumerate even more criticism of the workshop, in the name of teaching a better workshop. What follows is a critique of a peculiar system of learning in which I believe, and in which students prosper. I offer, then, some issues that I haven’t seen discussed as much as I’d like, and I do so trusting wholly that the internet will protect me from the spurious anti-intellectualism, ad hominen whining that runs rampant in so much of our social media. I trust, too, that many good teachers of writing have already addressed my concerns in their classes, and for these teachers, the oddments I offer will seem simplistic and self-evident. But maybe not.
Contrarily, ultimately, I shall offer my optimism: I believe that the workshop, and some version of the standard workshop method, are right for the teaching and learning of poetry writing. So there. As a graduate student colleague once declared of my poems in Denis Johnson’s workshop, millennia ago, even of this compost, a pretty petunia might yet grow. (Not to dishearten, but that colleague became a powerful literary agent.)
Here are a few of my concerns. Following each, I offer remedy, mostly approaches that I have begun to explore in my teaching over the past two years. My hope is that these musings inspire and incite more than dictate... the ideas, dear people, the ideas...
Old New Critics
The standard workshop method assumes that the poem exists in a vacuum. Sure, readers are expected to Google what they don’t know, and provide a gloss on allusions or esoterica, but mostly we’re close-reading based on the idea that the text is self-contained, all of its meanings waiting to be divined. In this procedure, the poem could be a poem written in any moment, last year, five years ago, next month, and by anyone in the room; the poem’s hiding everything we need to figure out the poem, and we’re all scientists of the poem, committed to its self-contained (yielding and un-) truths.
I don’t know about you, but I gave up reading this way twenty-five years ago, when I discovered Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination—gosh, even the most doleful literary critics rarely default to New Criticism exclusively any more—and yet I continued to act as though such hermeneutics best suit the teaching of creative writing.
One way to address the matter: shift the conversation away from the assumption that the poem knows all. Which is not to suggest that the critique of the work be eliminated, but that “what works/what doesn’t” need not be handed to the poet like a prescription at the end of a class session. Instead of laying claim in the name of explicating try asking: What’s the poem about on the surface? What’s it really about? Distinguish between content and subject. What assumptions about language, and power, may be read in the poem’s procedures? Why this poem now? What’s been left out of the poem? What are the poem’s formal ambitions? What’s remembered about the poem later? What image abides? These questions necessarily recognize that the poem exists in a cultural context, in an historical moment, and aspires to a condition of art.
There are many such questions to ask, as a way to speak to the poem’s purview without sacrificing rigor—and ultimately, if the questions are well-asked and pursued thoughtfully, the poet may feel empowered fully to write, revise, and write again.
Oh, the lives we lead. No one believes that we’re pure products of our childhoods, and yet, that assumption pervades what’s not said in workshops. Autobiography necessarily complicates our abilities as writers to revise, given the connection between the life and the text, but even more of a problem, early poets usually believe they are the “I” in their own poems—this despite the workshop’s default terminology, using “the speaker” to differentiate between author and character, a move that for an early poet simply glosses over the problem. As such, early poets may read their colleagues’s poems as thinly veiled forays into the autobiographical, the presumption a cherished secret. Of course, these early poets are right, and the “I” is an attempt to contain and perform the “real” person—it’s true in my poems too, when I’m not fanatically inventing speaking selves, further complicated by my enthusiasm for fictional childhoods. But even still, there are other ways to think about the self, and other ways to approach an early poet’s work of art. The self in a poem is not only a palimpsest.
Ask the poet at the outset what she or he wants from readers, and from the workshop. Ask the poet to identify what she or he was trying to work on, what couldn’t be fixed, or what feels right. Yes, use the word “feels.” Ask the poet the “secret title” of the poem, that is, the title she or he uses when thinking about the poem. Ask the poet to identify the moment in the poem of greatest invention—and don’t define “invention,” so that the term can be treated formally or semantically. Ask the poet to identify who in her or his life should not read the poem, using initials if need be.
In other words, before the critique begins, acknowledge the living artist’s role in the production of the work of art. Turn the subsequent conversation to include these ambitions.
When validation of the living writer-in-the-room becomes part of the workshop, the opportunity arises to shift focus from the autobiographical past to the artistic present, while keeping an eye on the changeable future.
In the standard workshop method, the poet reads the poem aloud, shuts up, we talk, bingo, the poet takes home a broken poem, diagnosed, the poet unhappy. Are all poems broken? Need this be the only approach to a poem that’s not yet succeeding?
Any way you can, teacher, change it up. Conduct a workshop in which only the very best moments in each poem are up for discussion: ask the cohort “What’s the sequel to this poem?” Conversely, “What’s the prequel?” Lead a discussion of the poem’s use of silence—I know, irony abounds, but behave yourself. Ask the question Joseph Brodsky would ask us, when reading Auden, “For what moment was the poem written?” In other words, by any means, while critiquing the poem valorize the effort, and never default to the diagnostic, and never pathologize.
Professor for a Day
I wonder sometimes if I were to close my eyes, would my students still look at me when they speak? (And, of course, how would I know?) Students are so often so anxious to impress—which I certainly felt in the presence of my teachers. Too often, students critique a colleague’s poem while searching for my approval. My authority reigns, and I’m not only talking about the history of gendered power in the workshop environment. Paradoxically, when I move to correct the problem, I perpetuate its condition: by instructing people to talk with and to one another, I reify my ability to give orders.
It’s naturally a huge challenge for the teaching artist, to empower students without sacrificing expertise. Of late, I’ve been trying not to provide a summary at the end of each discussion, i.e. I don’t want the final say. I sit in a different chair each week, hoping to disabuse myself of the inevitability of my authority, and even more hopeful that the students will address one another. I appoint a Professor-for-the-Day—they’re encouraged to call on me as needed—or, alternatively, the person to the left of the poet becomes the primary respondent. I try not to digress on the use of the lower case ‘i’ in Lucille Clifton’s work, at least not in class, even though that information might appear relevant. Instead, I hope to note the phenomenon and then move to another subject, or better yet be moved. I wait an extra week to provide the poet with my written commentary, so that I don’t overwhelm the efficacy of the workshop discussion, or drown out anyone. It’s all so I don’t talk first and last.
These days, from the outset, I warn students that while I think I’m right, I’m asking that they help me to see how I’m not, and that doing so needs to be more than showmanship, or a game. I want us to be wrong together.
A workshop provides an invaluable opportunity to the early poet, to be read by her or his peers. (Note that I’m saying “invaluable,” not “valuable.”) This community of readers becomes a community of writers, ideally, as the cohort furthers the work of the individual artist. I remain concerned, however, that differences among the writers’s and readers’s race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are too easily elided by “larger” aesthetic concerns. In such circumstances, the community becomes amorphous and generic, and the poems offered as the course progresses become written for no one, albeit in the name of social niceties and high-minded ethics.
Interviewers invariably ask who my target audience might be, and for whom I write. I usually respond with a somewhat practiced answer regarding my late mother (a serious reader), the lack of paperback volumes of poetry at the supermarket (commerce), the rise of the internet (democracy), and my interest in being misread productively (accessibility). It’s a canned response by now, despite the fact that some of the details might be more true than others—and I’m sorry, interviewer, if I have given you this answer recently. I hope to do better.
So, is the imagined reader of the poem in workshop... a white, cisgendered male? Is it a middle-aged professor? Is it a homeless person, but not the homeless person encountered in the poem? Is “you” a euphemism for “I”? I ask the cohort to say so—to apply a narratological construct to their criticism, and identify the implied reader. No poem is written for everyone: especially in our cultural moment, a poem is also an act of exclusion. (Think about how pleased we are when a poem today goes viral, which might happen once for every two thousand poems published.) Busting the myth of universality, for me, jibes well with empowering the student writer to believe she or he can write from and to identity politics. Imagining a reader who is not I helps me read the poems of others.
The Human Animal
Here’s the ballyhooed complaint: group-think dumbs down the poem, ignores difference, negates risk, homogenizes aesthetics, etc. Here’s my complaint about expertise, a little different, maybe: in a beginning workshop, especially, the poets have not enough reading experience to contextualize their responses to poems. I also believe that we need to think more about the poem’s possibilities, and do so explicitly in a workshop. I am interested in the wildness of the human animal, and how such wildness is too easily subsumed within an early poet’s apprenticed ambitions.
Whose wildness is this? Surely in some way each workshop catalogues the teaching artist’s aesthetics (which I try to ameliorate, which haunt us a priori). Nonetheless, I encourage my students to “edit against intent,” that is, to cross out words that might make sense, so that different and more fabulous interior values might be attained. This is a kind of expertise to which everyone has access. Such responsiveness teaches the early artist to be alert to accident, and prone to her or his delightful, singular freakiness. For example, if a line were to read, “He was speaking in the purest form he could,” we might suggest the poet considers, “He was in the purest form,” or “He was the purest form he could be,” or “He was pure form.” None of these alternatives must be chosen, of course, but digging into an existing syntax in this way, to mine another ore, can be rich indeed.
Make It New
Gratifications await and treats abound in the teaching of poetry writing. Even in a less productive environment, in the most traditional of critique environments, early poets are still writing cool poems—and talking about cool poems is one of my great joys, a joy I love to share. Can a bad workshop derail an early poet? Absolutely. As a result, I’m trying to learn to ask rather than to say, and to empower each poet individually rather than treat them as though they were all patients, or undergrads at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1975, or half-fledged New Critics. A workshop cannot thrive as a contested environment fraught with privilege and secrecy, with me as Head Ninja. For pedagogy, too, I would add the charge: Make it New.
Cartoons © Felicia van Bork, 2016