Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bob Hicok - On Workshops

Bob Hicok
from The Writer’s Chronicle

Bob Hicok: I’m happily hostile to workshops. I think they’re wonderful in a lot of ways, particularly given that there’s no alternative in this country. You have a couple of years to work on writing without having to face too many people who doubt the value of what you’re doing with your life.

But I do find myself wondering why workshops are so consistently set up the same way. Why so little variety—always the circle, the mute poet. It’s a received form, one I’m trying to renovate.

Jeanie Chung: How?

Hicok: I’ve worked a lot more with how my students read poems. I ask them to examine the structural issues. To determine what the poem is trying to say, rather than just jumping in with their reactions.

The first time I taught a group of people, I sat down and realized I had no idea what to do. I had no idea what goes on in workshops; I had never been in one. So I talked to people about their poems. The strangest thing for people in that moment was that I expected them to talk, too. One woman asked, “You want me to talk?” and my response was, “Well, you wrote the poem.”

Chung: I’ve noticed in fiction—and I imagine it’s the same in poetry—that the workshop can sometimes end up being a referendum on the piece being presented—“I liked it. I didn't like it.” And really, what good does that do the writer?

Hicok: Right. The tendency is to speak to preference, rather than ascertain what the object is that’s been presented. But if you haven’t assessed it, it’s very difficult to determine if it has succeeded. For example, if you’re trying to write a surreal poem, but you’re doing it in a linear way, that won’t work. Likewise, it makes no sense to criticize a lyric poem for its lack of story.

Chung: How has that approach worked?

Hicok: It has been well received, but it was difficult. It takes effort to get students to move away from jumping straight into like/don’t like, or minutiae—“I thought maybe the poem could use a squid, but I just like squid”—or, most commonly, describing how they would have written the poem. It’s no one’s business to make people write a certain kind of poem, but we can all give a sense of what has been achieved, or not. This clarifies, for the poet, what they’ve done, and broadens everyone’s sense of what might be done.

Chung: You would think that creative types wouldn’t be so rigid.

Hicok: I think a lot of it is a failure on the part of the faculty. If we don’t put the work in with the first-year students, or with the undergrads, then when they become grad students, they’re going to think that they know how a workshop should be run, that it’s primarily about conveying pleasure and displeasure.


I have a few quibbles with Hicok’s take on Workshops, but nothing major. I’ve seen workshops turn into some sort of lopsided popularity contest, or cult of personality. But even then, I’ve seen some profit from that. There’s always something interesting for me in seeing reaction to something I’ve written, or that others have written. I tend to read my things my way, so hearing something, even “I liked it / I didn’t like it” can be instructive if I know enough about who is making the comment. Workshops are such intimate environments.

But yes, that is the least a workshop can do. Likewise with the “how I would have written it” response. That can be quite telling. And can lead to interesting new ways of seeing one’s way into the work at hand, but it can also just reduce the whole enterprise down to workshop friendship gestures.

Thinking of Hicok’s example of the Surreal poem above . . . I would very specifically think that a “linear way” of writing a surreal poem would be a wonderful idea. It sounds like a great description of some of Charles Simic’s work, specifically. Perhaps I’m just not very trusting of “artistic intent.” I’d much more rather predicate the writing of the poem and the revising of the poem on a bit of chance event and method, than the directed approach of “The Is a Surreal Poem [etc.].”

As well, by that same token (One fare: ride all day!), the descriptive/structural approach, which Hicok is favoring here, can be just as unhelpful (or helpful). Just because the artist is trying to do something, doesn’t mean that something is worth doing. Description alone won’t address value. (Which is an aesthetic minefield, of course, so perhaps it’s best we stay away from it—but this is why workshops and artists are always being criticized for not having standards.) We can have bad ideas as well as good ones. Along with that, wouldn’t any suggestions offered (if suggestions get offered in a descriptive space), be, as they are coming from another writer, suggestions about how that writer would proceed?

So the thing kind of undoes itself theoretically, but practically, on a day to day basis, saying that one is stressing a “let’s talk about what this poet’s project is” is much more likely to get interesting responses than “so, hey, did you like it or not?” But don’t we all try to do maintain that approach anyway? Is there someone out there who would argue against this approach in general?


At 8/21/2007 6:39 PM, Blogger Talia said...

I have been pretty lucky I guess, with workshops. I've had good teachers who know how to teach us to criticize, a skill that always needs refining for sake of constructiveness. My first "workshop" experience was sophomore year in photogrpahy class. We literally pinned up our photos and analyzed/criticized everyone's photos. It was an incredibly hard thing to do when your 16 years old, but I think it is one of the most valuable things one can learn...if not for what it does for your artwork, for the sake of accepting and giving constructive criticism.

At 8/21/2007 7:35 PM, Blogger ed said...

Teaching high school students poetry with regular workshops, I've seen how they push talented young writers to take their work and themselves more seriously, but beyond that, I think they lose their value through overuse. One or two workshop cycles (a semester's worth, or a few years' worth with a small group) is probably enough; an MFA is best suited to someone for whom workshops are a fresh experience. I think tutorials are a better use of time, if one is looking for serious criticism and encouragement and direction.

At 8/21/2007 9:00 PM, Blogger i am said...

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At 8/22/2007 4:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Ah yes, wall critiques... I started out as an art major, and the weekly wall critiques certainly did a lot for my thick skin . . . as well, they always made the artist join the conversation, which, as Hicok suggests, is an interesting addition to the experience.


I agree mostly, but I will add that every few years poets should toss themselves back into the experience. There's something about the specific notion of audience that seems to help keep things from getting too abstract.

That said, I havent been "in" a workshop in ten years or so...

At 8/23/2007 7:09 PM, Blogger jeannine said...

Yes, I have also found workshops (and, yes, one-on-one critiques from writers I admire) to be very helpful. And I have seen beginning poets really benefit from being told what, in their poem, worked and didn't - which images were cliche, which were fresh, where people really felt the poem, etc. When a writer starts out, there's a lot of "machinery" or technique to learn about poetry that you can learn from hitting the books but happens much faster from feeback settings - not "did you like it or not" but did this metaphor effectively convey its message, how did this or that element work in the poem, etc. People can write poetry forever on their own and not get any better - I've seen that happen too. Other people can help shake up your style, rethink what you're doing.

At 8/24/2007 4:15 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed. I think some people (well, Donal Hall, in a different post, for example) forget that poetry - as a subject for study - is not just art, but also craft.

Workshops do best at the craft aspects of writing. Structure, cliche, trying on styles, prompts, etc, and usually not as good at the shiftier aspects of art, as in fostering genius, or somesuch.

I've always thought of workshop best as a welcoming space for exploration, which is a place for attempting things, not always a place for achieving things.

So I rather like Hicok's general descriptive approach, which seems in many ways just a creative writing application of Peter Elbow's "Sharing & Responding" structure from composition studies, which I've also liked to raid for workshop ideas.

At 8/30/2007 5:50 PM, Blogger Oliver de la Paz said...

Thanks for bringing up Peter Elbow's piece. As I was reading the Hicok take on the workshop and his methodology, I was trying to put my finger on who he sounded like. Great comparison.

At 9/01/2007 5:32 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Aren't those "Sharing & Responding" bits wonderful imagination exercises?


My favorite though, is "Sharing, No Response."

A lot of useful stuff there.


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