Thursday, August 31, 2006

On Workshops: Write Better (& Be Original)!

So it seems something like 99 percent of poets these days have gone through the college creative writing workshop . . . and I've heard the "workshop system" talked about for years now, how bad it is, and how great it is.

Where workshops, in general, err, I believe, is in their over-reliance on the directive to “explain more,” when what they really mean to say is “write better,” which, though truthful, is not of very much help. To say “explain more” is an easy way to say something when the poem at hand isn’t working: reveal your thinking. “Explaining” tends to turn poems into little essays. Revealing one’s thinking needn’t be a goal of poetry. The worthwhile experience of poetry should be the goal of poetry. But to say, “give me a fuller experience of poetry” seems too abstract, so people say, “explain more,” as if we were in a math class: show your work. Look at all the great poems around us. How interested are they in explaining more? “Explain more,” I think, is code for “I feel excluded from what’s going on,” which is a response that seems, on the surface, more confrontational than “explain more.” But, as a response, opens the text in ways that might be productive for the author to visit. “Explain” gives the author one option. A more specific response of the reader’s relationship to the text, leaves the author a gamut of responses.

“Show don’t tell” is a similar move. If the poem isn’t working, if what’s being said is what’s always, or already, been said, then to say “show don’t tell” is a way to tell a poet that the poet must add something original. The original doesn’t necessarily need to be a “show” moment, but “show” moments are easier to add than original “tell” moments. To tell a poet to “enact” or “reveal something necessary and original” might be more than a little daunting. It’s much easier, and perhaps friendlier, though at least a bit disingenuous, to say “show don’t tell” and “explain more.” Show: add images. Tell: let us know why you’ve added those images. Show & Tell, would be a better directive. But then there’s the next question of “show what?” And “tell what?” Indeed. Where does “how to write” link up with “what to write about”?

The second classic move (that I've come across anyway) that workshops make is similar, it’s the “find your voice” move. This is actually, I believe, a move that is more daunting than it needs to be. There is no “voice” to find. Telling one to “find” one’s “voice,” is simply an overly packed metaphor for telling poets to put words together in a way that is both strange and pleasing. It’s a way to attempt to counter-balance the overly reductive “explain more” and “show don’t tell” by adding this rather impossible directive, which is that you must study, and work into being, the mystery of the poem, or the poem’s suggestiveness.

How can one go in search of mystery or suggestiveness without it being a rather cynical process of adding tricks and/or allusions to deleted situations? One doesn’t “find one’s voice” by showing. By pointing. One must enact some telling—finding a voice through showing, in the end, becomes heightened showing—either through antic, made-up images, or reductive, over-modified images. Either you’ll end up with mad yaks dandling on the roof, or you’ll have dove-gray hills of peace. In the end, neither is all that helpful. On the one hand is the constant hum of the simply absurd, and on the other is the constant hum of the generalized, abstract projection of the self onto an over-modified landscape. One is relying on bells and whistles, the other is cloying.

What they really mean by all of these directives, I think, is that you have to get to a place in your writing where you have some notion of what is and what is not successfully real and lived in your art. Something like that, anyway? And you have to be able to put words to your experience of language and living, which is your writing. And all of this sounds abstract and impossible, and workshops tend to bend back to their name: WORK and SHOP.

The valuable role of the workshop is to hold you to it. To hold you in a situation where you are forced to live in language in a social context, and to have to say things, and to sit there while things are said. To have you invest yourself with the reductive directives that you must see through, and then know, finally, that there is a bit of something in them, if only a whisper. The move really is one’s own, within the poet.

And then you must find some poets who write poems you admire. And when you do, you must look at what they really do, not at what we or they say about the doing. Think about it. Talk about it with others. And then dive from it into the writing itself.

Anyway, that's what I'm thinking about as I'm getting ready to head to a creative writing class. Let's all wish ourselves luck.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

John Ashbery at 80

John Ashbery will be turning 80 next year. He’s been publishing books of poetry for over 50 years, with plenty of champions and detractors. As for me, I find his poetry persuasive. It enacts what I suppose might be called the “democratization of difficulty.” Which is, the Modernists (whom I also, by and large, like very much, yippie for me!) wrote difficult poems (we’re told), and readers often had the feeling that they, the readers, just weren't smart enough to catch all the allusions, etc., but if they were, it would benefit the reading of the poem, and make it all resolve (I’m still waiting for a good explanation of this, by the way). Well, Ashbery has changed all that. His difficulty is open to everyone. There is no book to which he's referring (or, as is often the case, he IS alluding to something, but if you catch the allusion it’s as helpful as finding out which magazine Richard Hamilton found his objects to cut out) . . . it's all fishing in the day, its imagination and anxiety. I’m thinking, today, of his work as the poetic equivalent of say Jasper Johns or Claes Oldenburg. Or the aforementioned Richard Hamilton.

He's creating a complex, inexplicable tone in his poems, and moments of high clarity (clarity of his purpose, and his human world view) amid the evasions (or perhaps, amid the inclusions). In a similar way that much of Pop Art existed in a de-re-contextualized space of neutral (celebratory? satirical?) engagement. Cool, they called it.

Anyway, I’ll be thinking a lot more on this as I’m trying to organize my Ashbery thinking. So here’s one of the poems from his most recent book, Where Shall I Wander.

Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had created,
reminisced about other, different places —
but were they? Hadn’t we known it all before?

In vineyards where the bee’s hymn drowns the monotony,
we slept for peace, joining in the great run.
He came up to me.
It was all as it had been,
except for the weight of the present,
that scuttled the pact we made with heaven.
In truth there was no cause for rejoicing,
nor need to turn around, either.
We were lost just by standing,
listening to the hum of wires overhead.

We mourned that meritocracy which, wildly vibrant,
had kept food on the table and milk in the glass.
In skid-row, slapdash style
we walked back to the original rock crystal he had become,
all concern, all fears for us.
We went down gently
to the bottom-most step. There you can grieve and breathe,
rinse your possessions in the chilly spring.
Only beware the bears and wolves that frequent it
and the shadow that comes when you expect dawn.

Interviewing Whitman

So this old news is old news, but I saved it way back when and just foung it again on my computer. The more interviews change, the more they . . .

May 6, 2005
N.J. Student Finds 1888 Whitman Interview
Filed at 10:21 a.m. ET

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Walt Whitman is considered one of America's greatest men of letters, but he had some surprising advice for two aspiring scribes: Don't become a poet.

The advice is one of the tidbits Whitman left for posterity in an 1888 interview with the student newspaper at The New Jersey State Normal School, now called The College of New Jersey.

The interview was recently discovered by Nicole Kukawski, 21, a junior who sifted through old copies of The Signal while working on a literature paper about Whitman's thoughts on education reform.

''It was really painstaking,'' Kukawski said, ''but it also turned out to be worth it.''

According to the article in the February 1888 edition of the paper, two young men visit Whitman at his Mickle Street house in Camden, where the elderly writer discusses the education of a writer.

He tells them to practice their craft and to break conventional models instead of writing traditional ''poetry.''

''First, don't write poetry; second ditto; third ditto,'' Whitman says. ''You may be surprised to hear me say so, but there is no particular need of poetic expression. We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped.''

Whitman advised them to carry a pencil and piece of paper to jot down daily events. He even suggested they get their hands dirty in the mechanics of printing.

''Whack away at everything pertaining to literary life -- mechanical part as well as the rest. Learn to set type, learn to work at the 'case,' learn to be a practical printer, and whatever you do learn condensation,'' Whitman said.

Kukawski said she combed through the newspapers' dusty pages to try to learn about what students at the time thought about education and the famous writer, but she didn't expect to find actual words from Whitman there. Then she saw the interview.

The discovery astounded her teacher, David Blake, an associate professor of English.

''From the perspective of Whitman studies, it's a small discovery, versus an undiscovered poem or book,'' Blake said. ''But thinking this is a junior at the college who found this in her research, this is really exciting.''

The ensuing paper Kukawski wrote about the interview will be part of a symposium the college is holding this fall to mark the 150th anniversary of both Whitman's famous ''Leaves of Grass'' and the college itself.

The New Jersey State Normal School has had several name changes since the 19th century, including an incarnation as the New Jersey State Teachers College at Trenton in 1937 and Trenton State College in 1958. It became The College of New Jersey in 1996.

New interviews with Whitman are unearthed about once a year, said Ed Folsom, an English professor at the University of Iowa and editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. He said there are about 100 known newspaper interviews with the poet.

''They turn up with remarkable regularity, not just the interviews with Whitman, but unpublished letters and other notes of his,'' he said.

Folsom was not surprised that The Signal interview includes the advice to avoid poetry, saying Whitman equated accepted poetry with conventional form and style. But he said the call to learn printing was especially interesting.

''If you're going to write some unconventional stuff that's going to challenge people's thinking, you may damn well need to publish the things yourself,'' he said.

------ On the Net: The College of New Jersey:

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Still thinking.

Richard Hamilton

Just What Is It That Makes Today's Home So Different, So Appealing?

1956, Collage (Kunsthalle Museum, Tübingen, Germany)

I've been thinking a lot about this image lately, and what it might (or could) mean for the writing of poetry. Pop Art, working in the visual, had/has an advantage over those working with language, of course, but even so, what might the poem produced from this imagination space look like?

Does Pop Art (here I'm thinking of more than just the collage aspects) bring us to the work of John Ashbery? That would be the easy assumption. And perhaps the correct one. But Ashbery uses so much connective tissue in his work, and Pop Art, by and large, doesn't, I'm beginning to think it's not a direct relationship. Ashbery mentioned once in an interview that he was influenced heavily by Surrealism . . .

Hello me.

Hello World

Hello world.