Monday, March 03, 2008

Workshop Statements of Faith: Monday

In creative writing workshop, because we are all on a journey, all we can say to each other is what we see at one station. We can’t see the arc. Even if we see several things from a poet, we’re still seeing things from a limited time. Maybe two stations. So all we have is the opportunity to see what we think are the strongest methods of forward momentum, and these things that might be playing against the poem. But that is only a guess.

It’s a difficult balance, a poem, between enacting and asserting, which is my slightly complicated version of showing and telling. In many ways all of a poem is telling, as it’s created out of words, but words have differing tones and textures, some more presentational (chair) and some more abstracted (angry). Presentational and abstracted is another, yet another, version of showing and telling.

Show & Tell. We always end up back there for some reason, don’t we? We’ve been doing it since when, kindergarten? And here we still are. And they’re interrelated. It’s NOT show, don’t tell, it’s Show & Tell. Showing by itself is nothing but tables and chairs. Telling by itself is nothing but assertion.

Along with that, though, our moments together are further complicated by the rushingness of a day, and the air of surety that statements tend to create in workshop (as in: drop the second stanza!), when, more truthfully, we are all equally journeying toward something that necessarily recedes—as art is not a destination but a process.

It’s important to have something you’re writing about. Something that you have to choose. Some image horde. And to bring it, as content, up front. What I mean is the occasion of the poem. Some call it scene. Some call it context. For some people it seems to always equal story or narrative, but it’s not that. It’s the need of a reader to find some center in the work. Even fragments circle a center. Sometimes it’s a conceptual center. An idea the poem circles. Sometimes it is images that are drawn from the same site (living room, courtroom, park, train, etc).

But if we say that a part of a poem isn’t working, or that a poem has “missed an opportunity,” we can’t know for sure if one really has—it’s only what we think we’re seeing, what we’re allowed, or are able to see through our participation with the poem—which is—what is this poem’s contract with the reader, with the world—what is the balance?

There is always a balance of some sort between Writer, Text, and Reader in every art object. One could talk about it as Ethos, Pathos, and Logos, but for my purposes, I like to think of the more abstract concepts of Writer, Text, and Reader, as needing to be addressed in the poem.

I’m not being as clear as I’d like to be. I think of it this way:

The author has needs. (Why am I writing this?)
The reader has needs. (Why am I reading this?)
The text has needs. (Am I being treated fairly? [Which is easier to conceptualize when you think of the text as the subject of the text. What is being written about.]

So my use of the rhetorical triangle is, well, a little fast and loose. Apologies to Aristotle, etc.

But how one addresses these is going to vary wildly. What’s important is that they are remembered.

Content can be a way to address these issues, which is why we often ask poets to reveal more content, usually through calls for narrative. But that is only one way. Content could just as easily be an idea that is worked out through images. It could even be heavily presentational. Narrative is only one option, and one I find overused. How about just unifying the images? Scene, not story. That’s how the Imagists worked.

And when we say to clarify, we’re not saying to make something into realism, though it often sounds that way. Surrealism is often very clear. But it’s still surreal, and can be just as unified as realism. And realism, done well, can be just as disconcerting as surrealism.

Anyway. The organic whole.

And then TONE. I’m always coming back to tone, and it’s so difficult to say anything about it, except that it’s a very important part of the poem. First among equals, perhaps. The mix of things that is precisely THIS poetry.

And, as always, I leave myself with more questions than answers.

If it’s true that there is no “correct” in art, how can workshops function? How should we negotiate a new way to go through and around the “fix-it” misapplication of workshops?

What we are looking for is what? Really, what? A more complete are experience? Well, what is that anyway?

And questions for tomorrow:

Where should one have questions in a poem, and of what sort should they be?

Poems are what, really?
What are paintings?
What are the expectations of the art experience by genre?


At 3/04/2008 9:30 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

If possible, I would like your reaction to this:

"If you ask a question in a poem, you should never answer it in the same poem. When you answer a question in a poem, that question should not appear."

I heard this from a presenter at the one and only workshop I have ever attended.

At 3/04/2008 11:29 AM, Blogger Leslie said...

Justin--I don't know about John, but I'd distrust ANY advice that says never. You can do whatever you want in a poem, as long as you do it really, really well.

This too is a rule that has exceptions.

At 3/04/2008 12:09 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"never say never" as the old song says.

But you know, rules of thumb are interesting, they can give one prompts for writing. As in, "Oh yeah? You say I can't do that? Hah! Watch me!"

As for the questions, I'd say if it works to advance something of interest then it's fine. Theodore Roethke does it. I think Mark Strand also does it atleast once. Hmm. I bet there are other examples if I look around.

Why am I here?
You are number six.

At 3/05/2008 10:46 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

It's interesting that you ask that question of expectations by genre at the end, because I'm somewhat bothered by easy analogies drawn across genres (Saying a poetry technique is the equivalent of the 12-tone scale in music or Pollock's action painting or whatever) because they don't seem to consider those different expectations by audiences of different genres. (Some certainly may consider it, but I don't see it adequately done in most of these comparisons.) Abstract visual art certainly gets leeway from audiences in a way that music or poetry don't, for lots of different reasons. Kandinsky and Schoenberg may have been in movements with the same name, but the work of one would be a lot more welcome at a party than that of the other.

At 3/06/2008 8:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed, just look at the continuing flap about these books of "non-fiction" that keep getting outed as, well, fiction.

And why does that genre shift change the expectations of readers? Why do they feel so betrayed?

Remember how mad Oprah got over the spilt million pieces?

At 3/06/2008 3:28 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I posted this on Greg Rappleye's blog, but I think most "memoirs" fail for me because (A) it's obvious aspects of them are made up, so I have to judge them as novelistic fiction, and (B) most of them are badly written judged as novels.

I want to write a book that features, I dunno, dragons and spaceships, and try to sell it as a memoir.

At 3/07/2008 3:23 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I think that's already been done, as there's a whole industry of abductee memoirs out there.

Frey, was that his name? I picked up that book in library once (back when it was still non-fiction) and was just floored with how poorly written it was, and how much it read like very, very easy fiction.

At 3/07/2008 8:05 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Yeah, but I think the abductee memoirists may actually believe it. I'd be writing deliberately full of shit. (Which I believe has also been done, but it would still amuse me to do.)


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