Saturday, October 13, 2007

Richard Hugo - On Creative Writing Workshops

Richard Hugo (1923-1982)

The Triggering Town, was the first book on Creative Writing I ever read, over 20 years ago now. People don’t talk about Richard Hugo much these days, but they should. The scope and activity of his poetry, and the warmth and honesty of his prose should both stand as models.

Here is an excerpt from his 1980 Address to the AWP Conference

Why are we writing? A silly question, granted. We write because we can’t stop, or as Bill Stafford says, for the same reason we talk. But there’s an even more serious answer, and it is one that has evolved in our time. We write to validate our lives, our relations with the world and with each other. Literature will have to take care of itself.

In Bill Stafford's fine essay, “Whose Tradition,” he points out quite rightly that today we do not come to our own writing through literature but rather come to literature through our writing. The idea that reading precedes writing always struck me as silly anyway. Now that is becoming clear. As Stafford puts it:

“Today students all over the country are entering poetry, the reading and writing of it, as an immediate part of their lives. They lavish around in the lines; they swim in the language. They are finding their own central impulses and inventing their own felt sentences in ways other than assumed in the past. It is simply not true, for instance, that young students rely on a knowledge of 'literature' to enable their entry into poetry—rather, it is the other way around. They rely on talk, their own, and the talk around them. Their writings, and speakings, are like little explosions of discovery, and they delight in those little explosions in talk and in writings of those ignorantly delighting around them.”

Despite the accuracy of Stafford’s paragraph, obstacles to good writing remain. The very things one must do to write are things discouraged, no matter how inadvertently, by the world in which we live. Perhaps that accounts for the growing interest in writing. Ortega y Gasset has pointed out that modern societies manage to perpetuate themselves by preventing the individual from taking a stance toward the world. And it seems that our relationship with our world is jeopardized in a thousand insidious ways that were not the inventions of any one mind, nor governmental plots, but simply evolved from many circumstances, one of those circumstances being the sudden increase in world population. Literary tradition, which must survive if we can help it, is not all that may be threatened by demographics and complicated social forces. It’s hard to take a stance in an overcrowded and constantly changing world: where are we?

To write we must take a stance and that stance must endure for the duration of the poem or story we are writing. I would have said years ago that to write a good poem from circumstances that were emotionally loaded with the personal feelings of the writer would take a long time, years of accumulating technique until the technique became a part of the poet and the poet could forget technique because it would now be there when needed. How many times I’ve been surprised by young poets who can write solid poems out of deep personal losses and experiences fairly soon after the loss or experience has occurred. To write such a poem you must either discover your relations with the “subject” and then have the courage to stay with those relations for the duration of the poem, or you must create those relations and then stay with those. Either way you are taking a stance in a world that is telling you not to.

Just how much we, as creative writing teachers, […] help student writing is problematical. If not one good piece of writing ever came out of a creative writing workshop, the workshop would still be important if it allowed students to bring their lives and their relationships with the world and each other, and to realize that those lives and their relationships mattered.

A poem from the immediacy of the poet’s life, as Bill Stafford says. So our new responsibilities I hope become clear to us even if I’ve but touched on them here. The new responsibility of helping to perpetuate English departments and the traditional teaching of literature. And that is a new responsibility. And the other responsibility, really an ongoing one, and in some ways as old as poetry itself, but new in its present form because of changing circumstances in our lives and in the traditions of education: the responsibility of creating and maintaining a place where people can bring the immediacy of their lives and language, and can create or discover a stance that will enable them to create out of those lives and words.


Here’s one of my favorite poems by Richard Hugo:

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?

Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.


At 10/13/2007 8:41 PM, Blogger ed said...

Here here, John. Hugo is such a central figure to so many poets who might still count themselves young that I know his work will find its renaissance in time. "Degrees of Gray" alone should fasten him to whatever memory of poetry there is in the future.

At 10/13/2007 10:58 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Agreed. If he had lived, I think he'd be talked about as much as Charles Wright or Charles Simic. His poetry is right at the pivot of experience/autobiographical poetry and langusge-focused poetry.

it's a tonic for the troops . . .

At 10/14/2007 2:42 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Good stuff. Thanks, John...

At 10/15/2007 5:36 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

The Triggering Town is the best guide for writing I have ever read. Granted I haven't read but 4-5 which focused on poetry, but it was my first, and still remains the one to beat.

A friend of mine had William Stafford attend his annual writing conference, and he told me this story:

The subject that year was voice. William was the last to speak/present, and after everyone else had said their piece on how to find/create their voice---you know, exercises, insights, other strategies, the first words out of his mouth were to disagree with everyone else. He told the audience they already hada voice, and trying to'find' it was a waste of their time.

My friend said it was one of the most brave and dynamic things he saw in all the years he has been involved in writing for William to have disagreed with all of his colleagues the way he did.

At 10/15/2007 9:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Bravo to William Stafford on that one. I agree. This whole metaphor of "voice" is such a blind alley. It makes it easy to pretend one is talking about something when really one is not.

At 10/16/2007 5:23 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I definitely agree on voice. Voice is what happens when you write what's right for you. That's all.

At 10/16/2007 9:01 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

An honest question to all, since you are all more experience poets than I am. I have recently been caught up in this idea of "finding my voice." Really, I AM trying to find out what feels right for me. Is it a problem if my voice swings in a bipolar (or tri-polar, etc.) way from day to day? Monday I'm confessional, Tuesday it's lyrical/image-based poetry without a present narrator, Wednesday it's more modern. I am thinking about grad. school. Am I making a false assumption that I need a cohesive group of poems with a consistent voice to apply for an M.F.A.?

At 10/17/2007 4:44 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That's a great place to be, I think. We put too much emphasis on this voice thing. Think of Berryman shifting into the dream songs . . . or Plath's break into Ariel . . .

Forcing oneself into a single way of processing language (which is all voice is), especially when done too early, can keep people from experimenting, finding other ways into what language can do, can be.

On the other hand, some people who are reading your MFA packet might think that if you don't show some consistency, that you're just a good student, doing what others do, and that you're not being an "artist."

I'd suggest, in an MFA application, to split your odds. Make a packet of your strongest work, no matter what the "form" . . . and organize them into, hopefully, an arc of some sort, so that it doesn't just look like a buffet.

And then in your Statement of Purpose you can address the shifts, but don't say "voice." Instead say something like "trying out the various paramaters of the Post-Modern dilemma, in order to find a stance that holds."

At 10/18/2007 5:28 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

Thanks for your great response, John. I appreciate your insight and your willingness to answer my question.

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