Sunday, January 21, 2007

Poetry Workshops from 1987-2007, Part II

Part II

The first question for a reader coming across a poem in workshop might well be, if you came across this title only, what would your reaction be? Imagine it in a Table of Contents. What poem would you be expecting to have follow this title? And then, looking at this poem, what do you receive? This might begin one of my favorite conversations: The Big Poem-Title Conversation.

And then, what is the propelling force of this poem? And then a second question, what is the center of gravity of the poem?

Questions such as these, hopefully, help steer the conversation as large as possible, away from the line editing of the poem at hand and toward talking about its poetry. Of course, the poem’s what we have, so it remains our focus, but I enjoy workshops most when participants characterize the poem at hand into larger constructs—what world does this poetry reveal?—what are its inclusions as well as what are its necessary exclusions?

What does this poetry allow itself to say? What does it exclude from its world? And the attendant questions: What is this poem looking at? What is it looking for? Which will give us something of the seen of the poem. And, What is this poem listening to? What is it listening for? Which are harder, more abstract, and often more profitable questions.

Some of these conversations end up concentrating on form, some concentrate more on the philosophy in the work. It’s important, of course, to keep bringing the conversation back to the specific poem, to where the specific words on the page make for the possibilities of the poem’s thought . . . and how these words might be thought about differently—how different words, different moves and decisions (what to show and what to tell, and when) at any given point take us, as readers, to very different places.

This is why I like to have discussions in fairly wide circles around the places in poems where people get snagged. If we can describe and discuss our reactions with the audience of the author, we can perhaps give the author a lot of data to take back to this poem and to future poems, and we, as readers, can practice approaching each poem on its terms, enlargening our frame of reference for approaching future poems as readers and as writers.

It’s important for me to keep reminding myself when workshopping poetry, that whatever is in the poem is part of the poem for some reason. Why is it behaving the way it is? Maybe it knows something I don’t know. Maybe I’ve taken a wrong turn in my reading . . . maybe it’s taken a wrong turn in its enactment. The only thing we can do is guess why the poem has gotten itself to this place where, in our reading, its come undone. What brought it here? And then, what stopped it?

- Could it be the FORM: Received form or occasional form, the sound of words, the lilt or meter or rhyme causing the poem to forget that words, not only are things, but that they also refer to things.

- Or the THINKING: The poet preceding the poem. The poet knows more about the poem than the poem does. Or, we, reading the poem, get the feeling that the poet knows more about the poem than the poem is showing. Is the poet wanting to create a story through suggestion? A story that the poet perhaps knows and is hoping the reader will guess? If so, why?

- Could it be an OMISSION, then: Where is an omission evocative and where does it conceal? Does it seem an enactment of the mystery of living in a finally unknowable world, or does it seem a trick or puzzle, with an “answer” buried somewhere? What is the proper care and feeding of the fragment?

- Or could it be simply a RANDOMNESS: Chance bringing one a tonally off or dead moment or image? A mistyping? I don’t know how many times I’ve been part of a long conversation about some part of a poem, only to have the poet later say it was a typographical error.

The point in workshopping poetry is to imagine voices. To court possibility. What is this poem listening to? What is it listening for? Here we are asking these questions in order to see how the poem wants to take shape, and how the poem, or the next poem, might change in concrete and radical ways.

And often, there’s this antic impulse that says, whatever the advice that’s offered is, perhaps the opposite (or oppositional) advice is best. Whatever the advice offered to the poem is, perhaps the poet should do otherwise. This is why it is so important, I think, to have conversation around the poem situated in this creative space, this open art space. What is the possible to say? If the space is welcoming enough, the generative conversation can go in speculative, interesting directions.

So, back to the small, when we come to a breakage in a poem, we usually take four general approaches in our suggestions:
- Cut it.
- Mend it.
- Add something.
- Do nothing.
. . . any of which, at any moment, might be something interesting for the poet to hear. The author, being the owner of the words, has the final say, but the author doesn’t always know best, being, consciously or unconsciously, filled with intentionality. But we don’t always know best either. Hopefully though, we, as readers—trying as best we can—can approach, or help the writer approach, a necessary level of objectivity regarding the work. Leaving what the poet might be listening to, and toward what we might conceptualize the poem as listening to.

When asking questions of poems, I have the workshop, as much as possible, question not just the poem, but the basis for our questioning. We can move through all four general approaches, but we also question our approaches. The fourth move, the “Do Nothing” approach is often the hardest to speak toward, because it calls on us to fall to the poem, or to look above what the reader thinks is a breakage to a possible earlier breakage we read over. It’s good to remember that at times, the breakage that we see will no longer be a breakage if something earlier in the poem is changed/clarified/added to/or cut. A breakage can go away if the title changes, say. Hypothetically, if a reader says the problem is “why did this red bird suddenly appear?” And then the poet changes the title of the poem to “The Sudden Appearance of the Red Bird . . .”?

When we read texts in poetry workshops, we tend to read toward a revision of the poem that yields a story that all can follow. Toward a narrative, a certain coherence. But when we talk of the poems we ourselves love, the ones we return to, we often speak as one haunted.

If we, in poetry workshops, when reading poems, look for ways to reveal the fragments of the poem, and to let the breakages speak, we might find our poems becoming larger. So rather than asking a poem to yield itself to our ideas of a necessary surface unity, we open our thoughts to looking for a deep unity behind fragments, our questions and our enjoyment might possibly be enriched.

This sounds all well and good, but it’s more than a little abstract. How to make it more concrete, or as concrete as possible, is our job in the workshop.

And what of asking what this poem is listening to? Listening for?


At 1/21/2007 11:17 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Yes, yes, yes. Something like this should be handed out to every workshop in America. Especially the questions of the first four paragraphs, and this line: "The only thing we can do is guess why the poem has gotten itself to this place where, in our reading, it's come undone." And the four possible approaches.

I'm in the middle of dropping out of my local workshop because it doesn't do these things--much too fixated on line edits and making things easily understandable. We've had some good discussions, but far too much "I don't like this phrase," sans explanation, or niggling about one word for 10 minutes at the expense of the poem at large. Of course, since it's a read-and-respond-right-away format, I shouldn't have expected much.

At 1/21/2007 6:05 PM, Blogger Penultimatina said...

I am going to reread both of these posts tomorrow morning, as I sit down at my desk to annotate two classes worth of poems (one mfa, one advanced u.g.). Has anyone else really written about this before?

The biggest problem I've experienced personally is folks just not reading my poem, or not working to read it. The poems I like best do take some work. I like subtle connections and strangeness. I guess those things don't always lend themselves to insta-critique.

In the classes I teach, I dislike it when a "culture" develops where the students applaud each other for obvious missteps, and then disagree with me en masse. This only happens with undergrads, of course, and never with the really good ones. It makes me want to flip my desk over and start foaming at the mouth.

I'm entering year fifteen of workshops. It's kind of scary thinking about the next, oh, twenty or thirtysomething before retirement.

At 1/22/2007 4:29 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Steven (& then Mary!),

There's no subsitute for those moments, those days, where the good conversation develops. I wonder how one might do a study of the workshop to find the elements that create these moments. It seems even in workshops where the dynamic is off, there will be a few of these days. Usually when I hear people speak of them, it's only anecdotally.

And it's true, as you say, Mary, about the subtle way workshops often DON'T work. My poems didn't do well in most workshops either. Perhaps for this reason? I'd like to think so, at least.

It's something like the same dynamic as reading poems for a literary journal, I think (the situation is different, but it seems the interaction is similar). How closely, how slowly, can one read when there are a couple hundred poems on the table in front of one? So a certain ammount of surface work or content flourishes get rewarded over more subtle, more finally important, effects.

At 1/22/2007 5:30 PM, Anonymous Paul G said...

Hello All -- I stumbled into the first post about workshops and recovered enough to come back for the second installment.

Workshops for writing students are like the elephant in the room no one talks much about. I taught a very successful workshop to high school students that ended up more effective and inspiring than any I took in graduate school. I learned that the initial focus on constituent elements -- in my case I chose image, phrase, line, and then imaginative leap -- and exercising those elements first helped prepare the students for poems. Try articulating what makes a "good" image, or what makes an "effective" phrase. Establishing these kind of aesthetic discussions produced a strong sense of solidarity -- "we're all slaving in the same direction" (teacher included) -- so that when critiques of poems came, not one person could say, "I don't like this phrase," without a rash of interpretation and evaluation of language accompanying it.

I only choose the high school class as an example because they were even more likely to have a full-scale rebellion as to what's "good." Also, they are some of the toughest ones with which to have a workshop that doesn't devolve into students "applaud[ing] each other for obvious missteps." Finally, there is a tendency for teenagers to not want to read closely and skim -- but when given some sense of fundamental tools, they can and do learn to apply criteria generated by the class, more rigorously than any criteria I ever encountered in university workshops, to each poem that enters the fray.

The funadmanetals, by the way, could be anything -- narrative arc, transitions, stanza, word choice, phrase. They really are just places for each class to focus in order to get some sense of consensus of a place to start. The good conversation moments develop soon enough when the class begins to have its unique solidarity with poems, poetry, and the performance of writing.

Sorry for posting so long as your guest.

At 1/22/2007 6:52 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I had a teacher once who said, about workshops, "We're all stumbling around in a dark room here, but I've been here a long time and have learned to feel my way a bit."


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