Friday, March 30, 2007

Another Way to Think of It

Three paintings by Jules Olitski

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, or clarity of purpose. But when we talk of the poems we ourselves love, the ones we return and return to, we often speak as one haunted, as one enthralled.


At 3/30/2007 2:40 PM, Blogger C. Dale said...

Ah, you have hit upon what it is I distrust about workshops!

At 3/30/2007 9:53 PM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

But that discrepancy is perfectly understandable, isn't it? The workshop is for making a poem better; the poems that thrill us are already great.

At 3/31/2007 5:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


But this "better" seems to be of a reductive sort, that will have a hard time helping a poem be "great." Don't you think? It seems more like the workshop, rather than helping a poem be "better," is really there to help a poem not be "worse," or somesuch.

It's something of a cliche, and talked to death (but without much change in our workshop attitudes), that if one takes a "great" poem to workshop, the workshop would kill it, by just these sorts of reductive directives.

It's an old complaint, but it's still a complaint.

At 3/31/2007 11:46 AM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

John, I see your point. Perhaps I am coming from the way my writing group in Basel works: one of our suggestions is that one should only bring along work that one is not sure about, that feels problematic in some way. So one is hoping that the readers will spot the trouble spot or spots and make good suggestions. And as a result, if a poem is already thrilling me, the author, unconditionally, I don't workshop it!

At 3/31/2007 11:52 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

A workshop with a good leader can be a lovely tool for beginning writers who have promise but no real idea yet of how to harness it. A workshop with good participants can also be valuable to a more accomplished poet who uses it for very specific purposes (another form of letting trusted readers see the draft). But overall, yes, why would a poet who knows what he/she is doing subject poems to a process whose raison d'etre is that the poem is broken and needs to be fixed?

At 3/31/2007 12:46 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Steven & Andrew,

I suppose workshops could work that way, but it's been my experience, well, my academic experience, that participants try to either bring their best work to workshop, or, more commonly, whatever they're currently working on . . . and if the poem can be talked about in terms of "unify your images" or somesuch, then everything works all right, but when the poem is quirky (and maybe in need of "help" or maybe not), the conversation, rather than assist the quirkiness, or mystery, seems to usually (I think because it's easier to think of language as a communication tool and not an artistic one) try to dull those elements that might make the poetry, in the long run, better (even if those aspects aren't working well in the poem at hand).

Does that make sense? It's difficult for me to find the best words for this. I think of someone like Dean Young, perhaps. Or better, Martha Ronk. How does this sensibility get framed in a workshop setting? I don't have many positive experiences in such moments.

Perhaps I'm asking more of the workshop than it can provide. What I'm wanting is a set of questions outside of who-what-where-when-why-how. Or perhaps not. Perhaps those are still interesting questions, but not interesting answers.

It's fun to talk about fractures and mystery in essays and in general, but on the ground, on a daily basis, it's difficult in a workshop. Usually, they were looking at me like I had three heads.


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