Poetry Workshops from 1987-2007, Part 1
This year marks the twentieth year I've been, in some way shape or form, associated with poetry workshops. To mark the anniversary, I'm going to blab everything I can think about regarding poetry workshops. Bear with me . . .
This, from Theodore Roethke, stands as the most succinct statement of the value of a creative writing workshop that I’ve come across:
“A few people come together, establish an intellectual and emotional climate wherein creation is possible. They teach each other—that ideal condition of what was once called ‘progressive education.’ They learn by doing. Something of the creative lost in childhood is recovered. The students (and teacher) learn a considerable something about themselves and the language.”
I would stress two aspects of Roethke’s remarks. First, the establishing of a climate, a space, wherein creation is possible. It’s a tonal issue, how the workshop is going to feel to the participants. The workshop could be thought of the way Miles Davis thought of a set list: “I’ll play what the day presents.” And this space, this climate of searchingness, this questioning, does not have to mean we reach, or reach for, consensus—dissensus is as interesting—perhaps more so, for the production of art. Disagreement, in a positive atmosphere, can be the most productive, and rigorous, workshop experience.
The second thing I’d like to stress is that by conceiving of the workshop in terms of questions and possibilities, all participants can learn a valuable something about the language and about themselves. Or perhaps, blending it a bit, we can learn about ourselves in and through language. It’s important for us to hear the words in front of us as “real presences,” to quote the title of a book by George Steiner that I’ve used in workshops in the past. The words on the page are instructions for performance, and the poems are only fully poems when they are read, when they are lived. We are coming into contact with live material.
The goal, as I see it, of the writing workshop, is to open the context of the writing, to broaden the discourse community, and to challenge the next writing situation. Workshop participants, in this model, focus more on the idea of the poem making process, than the idea of fixed poems.
In practical terms, when workshopping poems, we get to small moments through close reading. Close reading tends to foreground connectivity, though. It tends to foreground the rational elements of poems: scene, character, etc. . . which is productive, a good first step, but it's not the goal.
And when reading, we get to places in the poems where we hitch up, the famous “this didn’t work for me” places. What’s usually asked, by someone, at this point, is for the poet to clarify. But what is really being asked is more general, I think, less easily addressed.
So the question continues for me: is there a way, through close reading (or around it), to speak of and toward the non-rational elements, or at least the non-quantifiable elements, of the poem? Something that is not reportage, or solely concerned with surface meaning. How can we make room for the associative leaps and bounds of the poem, the magic of the non-linear and necessary turns of phrase? There is a rigor to this, a performative rigor, that we have to bring to the table. The confidence to speculate.
When readers offer advice to writers—when they are trying to be helpful—they offer, of course, what they think are good suggestions. The problem with “good suggestions” in this case is that they tend to be suggestions that the poet make the sorts of moves in the poem that the person offering the advice would make, which tends to be, or to become, a version of “write like me.” This is the biggest drawback to the workshop model, this tendency to blunt the necessary individuality of each participant, and to answer questions perhaps a bit too readily. It’s the one thing I try more than anything to work against.
In workshops, then, I have the most fun, and the most profitable experience, when , or others, bring questions, or pose problems, to attempt to bring the conversation away from this sort of economy—questions leading toward how to be a good host to the poetry before us, how to be a helpful ally to the voice that is this poetry. We talk about the direction in which this poetry wants to be going, what this poem seems to want to do—and hopefully not to force it in a direction, subjective, rational, or otherwise . . . but also to help the writer not force it into a direction, either.
A good, practical goal, of the poetry workshop, I think, is for us to help ourselves be less what we think we are, or should be, in our poems. I think this is a productive goal, because it asks workshop participants to remake, to rethink, their intentionality—it almost sounds like I’m going back to Eliot here. To clarify, then, I don't think the poet needs to remake her or his personality or subjectivity, but, instead to resist pre-conceived notions of what the poem at hand is, or should be. These are questions, finally, for the poem.