Poetry Workshops from 1987 - 2007, Part III
So then, what do we do in workshop? What practical things can we do to move through the massively unpractical activity of art production?
The way I approach the daily activity of the workshop is evolving. And I always like having conversations with others who facilitate workshops, about the sorts of things they bring. In the interest of sharing, then, here are some (almost!) practical things that I like to bring to workshops. I would love to hear what others do (hint hint).
First, poems in a poetry workshop are part of the process of poetry-making for each poet. In this way, each poem brought to class is transitional. All poems are potentially of equal importance to future poems from the poet. In the light of this as a process, here are a few things I sometimes ask workshop participants to do:
1. Bring in a group of poems per poet to talk about together. My thought is that this might help us address the poetry, the larger interests of the poet. We want the poem, the future poem, to shock itself into the new. The now. To startle the reader by startling—in our reading—the poem itself. In what practical way might this be applied? One way, would be, that we could look for places where the poems are moving, or potentially moving, out of their habits of seeing the world. This would be another way of conceptualizing the moments, two-thirds of the way through many poems, that the poems seem to be changing their focus. Rather than consider this a moment for normifying revision, this might be seen as the true moment where the poem is revealing its newness . . . when what the poem thought it was talking about shifts. But, more importantly, I think, is that when we start to look at several poems together by a poet, the poet begins to conceptualize the poetry into larger constructs, the book, yes, but out of the tyranny of inspiration and into the commitment of poetry. That’s the theory, at any rate.
2. Poets present each other’s work by situating it in context. By context, here, I mean within the world of other poems. Poems that bear a family resemblance to the poetry of this poet. These are non-evaluative responses, and are meant to describe the project, or envision the project of this poet’s work. Not just what propels the poem forward, but what propels this poet’s poetry forward. This conversation is descriptive, not evaluative. And often, description of a poet’s work in context can be just as interesting and generative as close reading. One of my favorite things to do in workshop is to bring poems that seem to share the context of what the poem at hand is up to, and, as well, poems that take a radically different journey. For a poem of shared endeavor, I might bring for some poet, a poem by Mark Halliday, say. But then I might also bring some James Tate or Dean Young, to show, if not really a radically different journey, perhaps a divergent tone, or way of thinking about the subject, the landscape, from a different location.
3. Ongoingness. We can ask ourselves, “what is closure?” by evading it. We can read Paterson. Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous.” Ashbery’s Flow Chart. Or any number of other closure-evading projects, including the poetic series. An obvious choice being Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” Or Olson’s The Maximus Poems. Or Martha Collins’ Blue Front, or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.
4. Subject Matter – Science, Philosophy, History, Myth, Painting. Which is, I like to have us encounter things that aren’t poetry, but to encounter them generatively, not academically. To illustrate quickly, what I mean is not to read these texts to study, necessarily, their arguments, but to investigate these texts for what they might mean for the production of art. Take science, for instance. Reading that the world we don’t see, the quantum world, functions under rules that are completely different than the world we experience with our senses, could potentially open a world of possibility for art.
Questions that might surround outside readings might be: How does reading this book on science, philosophy, etc., prepare the next poem to set forth? How does this book change the context of the next poem’s journey? Filling one’s context with other things, science, history, politics, painting, as well as filling one’s context with previous poems, and talking about what those poems have investigated, seems a good idea. But, just as important, I think, is a radical unknowing, the exploration of the unlanguageable . . . taking a walk, say. And then to make the theoretical turn back from what one is doing to why one is doing it. This is the who of who one is as a writer. This is also the thinking behind the value of revision. So what about subject matter for poets? It is what it is. But it cycles through different poets in radically different ways. Think of the poetic possibilities of science in the work of Bin Ramke and Linda Bierds. Or for Thylias Moss and Albert Goldbarth.
But, is seems, even in overtly narrative poetry, that narrative is not the finality of action—not the outcome—or almost not. It’s a difficult balancing, which is what I have the most fun thinking around. What might an Impressionist version of this scene look like? A Cubist version? A Pop Art version? Questions such as this might not, in the end, mean much for the poem at hand, but they can be generative for future poems, for us as well as the poet under discussion.
5. I like to use portfolios. In the portfolio, I think it’s important to have us all think about our own work in context, or to create a context for our work. Toward that end, I like to have poets write reflective essays. Or call them manifestos, or seminar papers. And also toward that end, I like to bring various manifestos, or essays on poetics, to class. Manifestos, and essays on poetics, are tremendously interesting to me, both for how they describe and situate the poetry they endorse, but also for how they are often undone by examples. Along with this idea, I’ve used course packs in the past, or an anthology such as The Best American, or a brand new one like Legitimate Dangers, which I’m working with right now. We can talk about what’s there, and what’s not there. The argument that is the anthology. The anthology, in some cases, as manifesto. The politics of canon formation. Weinberger’s American Poetry Since 1950: Outsiders & Innovators comes to mind.
The workshop is a context, I keep repeating. And context, to some measurable degree, forms the person. How does the reading construct the poet? As a poem is a phenomenon in context, what a poet reads and exists through has meaning, carries meaning to the idea of future work. Reading lists are therefore important things. You become what your context demands of you. So, in order to write different poems, place yourself in a different context. Different texts. A more difficult context. “A mythology reflects its region,” Stevens says. The believer sees belief in everything. Or the economy of belief. Different texts cause the poet to sharpen the difference, or to embrace some moves of the difference. To be influenced, one way or the other.
Here are a couple revision strategies I like to bring to workshop: This first one has the poet take all modifications out of the poem. What do you have left? In two days, and without looking at the previous draft, put what is necessary back. After, compare the two. What has changed? (This can also be done with any signature strategy a poet uses: simile, for instance.) In the second revision strategy, the poet is to read the poem aloud. Then turn the page over to the blank side. Without looking back, write the poem again. What has remained? Why? These two strategies are meant to get at the center of gravity of the poem.
The tension between the desire the poem has to enact a scene as well as to render a narrative, seemingly autobiographical, situation.
Essays I often like to use in workshop include, Stephen Burt’s “The Elliptical Poets,” Charles Simic’s “Negative Capability & Its Children,” Mark Strand’s “Some Notes on Craft,” A.R. Ammons’ “A Poem Is a Walk,” Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure,” and Ron Silliman’s “The New Sentence,” to name a few.
For generative purposes, I have workshop participants purchase a Little Memo Book . . . 3 X 5. I have them write odd phrases in it over time. Anything they overhear, read, or think up that might possibly be of interest to their work—or anything that strikes their fancy. We work with this and share phrases/scenes/etc. I use this for various reasons . . . to work against writer’s block is the most important one. And one we spend quite a bit of time in classes discussing.
I think of a poem as a wholeness (even a fragmented poem is a wholeness) because it is itself. My questions, and the questions of the workshop, are toward how (and then why) do the parts contribute to this wholeness . . . the singularity that is this discreet act of language. No matter what the center of the poem holds – even a de-centered poem – the parts enact it. And if there is an “it” to enact, then it must, if it is successful, be a wholeness. Even if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice, as the band, Rush, sings, way back when. This is not saying that there isn’t an antic aspect to these parts contributing . . . that there isn’t a contradiction in parts . . . as well, there’s a way that wonderful phrases or images, etc., can be placed in a poem for no other reason than the fact of their presence. That still contributes to whatever it is we say is the poem’s wholeness.
There must be some way, in the economy of the poem, to gauge if the poem has been successful or not in its forward movement? That is the continually open question. Another way to phrase it might be, when faced with new art, with respect to what can one validate it? Perhaps this, from LeCorbusier, might be a way: “Respecting the forces of nature is superior to respecting tradition.”
CONCLUSION as repetition: Here are a couple thoughts I like to stress in workshops:
What does the poem allow us to say, about it, about the world? The world that is the poem . . . the alternate world-creating power of language enacting its space before us. And then the world that is NOT the poem . . . our lived lives in this daily, pedestrian world.
What does this poem allow us to bring back from the poem-world to the daily world? That is, I think, what people talk about when they say one is—or that one might be—changed by art. When the art spills over into the life, the life is shifted a bit. Perhaps not permanently, and perhaps only slightly, and certainly not every time, but changed nonetheless. Even if it quickly reverts. And what, then, does the poem not allow us to say, to bring back to the world?
Remembering that a poem is not a math test, and that one need not show all of one’s work, it is important to note that poems are, and therefore the workshop itself is, a dwelling in possibility, which is the most important value the workshop has, in my estimation. And then, to repeat myself, our questions in workshop become, finally, questions for our own poetry: how to be a good host to the poetry before us, how to be a helpful ally to the voice that is this poetry.