Prose Feature: “Isn’t Our Life Enough: Three Takes On Workshop” by Chad Davidson, Patrick Scott Vickers, and Nicky Beer

September 27, 2013

Can You Relate?
by Chad Davidson

Chad DavidsonChad Davidson is the author of From the Fire Hills (forthcoming 2014), The Last Predicta (2008), and Consolation Miracle (2003), all three from Southern Illinois UP, as well as co-author with Gregory Fraser of two textbooks, including Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). His poems have appeared in AGNI, Boston Review, DoubleTake, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. He is a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta.

Don’t get me wrong. I always want my poems to be relatable. I want people to relate to them. I want relations all time. We all do. Nothing is worse than not relating, not having any relations. But, please, don’t tell me that you can’t relate to a poem.

Having taught poetry workshops at the university level for the past fifteen years, I am inclined to say (and of course have a vested interest in saying) that they work. When run well (and sometimes even when run poorly), they generally produce savvier writers, more experienced readers, and more compassionate collaborators. And having read enough snarky poems by unimaginative people about how bad their students are, how they trust the spellcheck and end up writing papers about the famous Irish poet “Yeast,” I am disinclined to poo-poo the very students who present me with a teaching job. (And let’s face it: it’s a good job.) I was in fact one of those students not terribly long ago, who bumbled into a poetry workshop and there fell in love with art. So, in a sense, I can relate.

But still: can we just stop relating to poems?

Here’s the rub: whether or not someone in a workshop relates to someone else’s poem is of very little consequence to me or to the poem. It’s the reader’s job to go in there and get some of that relation. A failure to relate, in my book, is a failure of the reader, not the poem. There may be all sorts of other problems with the poem, but relatability is never one of them.

Example: I am not a Danish prince with an existential (if quite eloquent) crisis. Hence, I cannot relate to Hamlet. Neither am I a whiny, self-important, late-medieval Tuscan on a journey through hell. Hence—mi dispiace, Dante—sorry, buddy, but can’t relate. I’m not even Catholic.

I know those examples represent a healthy dose of hyperbole—which I can very much relate to—but the point is still valid, seems to me. Just because you haven’t pushed a dead deer, one with a living fawn still warm inside, over the edge of Wilson River Road, doesn’t mean you can’t relate to William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark.” And even if you’re not a teenage girl who’s made out with a bunch of other teenage girls in some parents’ basement, doesn’t mean you’re incapable of relations with Marie Howe’s “Practicing.” And let’s be serious: who could relate to any Wallace Stevens or Emily Dickinson poem? Have you personally called the roller of big cigars to whip those concupiscent curds (nasty little curds)? I venture a no. Did you hear a fly buzz when you died. I think not.

Put another way, the idea of relating to a poem is absolutely the lowest common denominator of judgment. More so, it’s just a cover for what we really mean: I don’t understand the poem or I am uncomfortable with the poem or, perhaps most disturbingly, I just don’t care about the poem. All of those questions we can handle in a workshop. That’s in fact what the workshop is for. I say this simple thing at the start of every workshop I teach. You may think the workshop is about making your poems better. It’s not, at least not directly. We were not there with you when you wrote that poem, and many times the workshop criticism will seem scattered and counterproductive to you, the author. We hope some of our criticism helps you, but frankly it’s not our first priority. You’re only one person in this class of ten or fifteen or whatever. Our primary interest lies with the rest of the group, of which most days you represent a part. (Even in advanced workshops, we spend a great deal of time with each piece and take part in all sorts of other activities, so you will probably workshop—at most—three poems.)

A few times during the semester, you are going to volunteer to relinquish your part in our conversation by becoming that about which we converse. You offer up the conversation piece (your poem), and the rest of us attempt to hold a meaningful discussion about it. You—sorry, buddy—are out of the picture that day. We will not relate to you, at least not directly. If we help you, great. If we don’t, oh well. Mostly, we do (and we mean to). We’re much more interested, however, in what it means to offer valuable criticism, to build a critical acumen, an interiorized editor who can be summoned at will when your own draft sits in front of you, and you want to make it better. One way to do that is to stop each time someone offers a bit of anemic criticism—I don’t think this part flows well or I love this part or I can’t relate to this part—and try to ratchet up the specificity. The workshop, in that sense, is really more about your critical skills than your creative ones.

But any artist worth her relations knows her critical and her creative skills are interrelated and mutually dependent. Can’t you relate?

*

Basic Poetry Workshop Etiquette and Techniques
by Patrick Scott Vickers

Patrick Scott Vickers

Patrick Scott Vickers is a technologist and instructor for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of English and the online editor of Blackbird. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Strange Horizons, Mid-American Review, Touchstone, and Miracle Monocle. His Flash art has appeared in failbetter.com. Vickers earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama. He has participated in workshops for writing and the visual arts for over twenty years.

The following are observations I’ve gathered from every workshop I’ve ever been in, from many genres of writing to many genres of the visual and musical arts, over the last twenty-one years, plus a few wise lessons learned from other teachers and popular culture along the way. I’m going to leave out all qualifiers like “I think” or “In my opinion” or “Perhaps” and so on to save space.

For poets:

Sign your name to your poem. Sign your name to your critiques.

Date everything. Notate everything: time, class, teacher, section, college, whatever you think will help yourself or your fellow writer in the future place your comments.

Ask yourself what would you like back in comments from your fellow students. The golden rule does not apply here, but it is a helpful beginning. Know your own moods and obstacles as best you can, and remember that every other writer faces those moods and their unique but just as frustrating obstacles.

Being correct in diagnosing your moods or your obstacles is not important: being able to articulate them in some manner to yourself is essential. To say, “I feel that I’ve been having trouble with beginnings . . . ” to yourself or friends and then to actually explore your writing and discover that no, it’s not the beginnings, it’s the endings that echo back to the beginnings and cause friction, is an observation gathered from taking a stand against oneself, taking the risk and naming the mystery. As one names the boogeyman, the monster in the closet and the monster that lives in your most ancient progenitor and your newborn child, one names what we can, and then we ask for help.

Write your manifesto. Then write its opposite. Name your strengths as weaknesses and your weaknesses as strengths and pitch opposite against clichéd opposite until your fingers, face, and social life turn purple.

Understanding one’s own writing leads to asking fellow writers what they might like in criticism before peppering them with the host of canned workshop responses (more on those momentarily). Given that humans and writers seem to vacillate between giddy and suicidal, please ask your fellow writer which critique she might like, the one that will push her over the brink into total giddiness or the one that will send her to Lowe’s for a variety of supplies. Or whatever balance can be found in between.

Your fellow writers are not just your friends, but if they’re not, then what the Hell is the matter with you? Look around your circle—these are the people who will save you, who will have the honesty to tell you when you’ve gone off the rails, who will walk you back from the edge of the bridge, and who will be starting their own literary journeys, becoming editors, producers, actors, musicians, and, of course, writers. Your professor is great, but look at the ratio of fellow writers to the professor, he or she doesn’t have the time to explore and know your work the way you can with your fellow students.

Form critique groups beyond class. Include as many people as you can beyond your genre, spend ridiculous amounts of time arguing minutiae of the written aesthetic. Shout about the “&” versus “and.”

Be merciless with your time—your time in a school devoted to writing, where you can find people who will debate white space in a poem with you. This time is exquisitely short, poignant and, for most of us, a once in a lifetime event.

Do not compete with your fellow students. They are your allies, as is every writer on the planet. There is more than enough room for all the good writing and all of the great writing. If you must compete, compete against your own heroes, the artists you admire, and the lives they live and led, the work they make and the work that they produced. Learn as much as you can about your idols and heroes. Lean what sacrifices they made, what lucky breaks they had, and as names come up in their lives, trace those names down and marvel at the network keeping even the most isolated of us afloat.

In popular culture the self-abusing alcoholic artist is a terrific stereotype. For us, the real life is that the best art routinely comes from the clear head and full stomach, and no matter how great the artists, once we’re dead, that’s it. No more art from us.

Stay alive and, if at all possible, healthy.

And if it is not possible to stay healthy, work just as hard on your sense of humor as your art and do not stop until you’re stopped by fate and can work no more on either.

~

Learn the language of mechanical poetry criticism: The line, the stanza. The line break. The beginning and the end. Sections and section markers. Epigraph. Epigrams. Epitaphs. Nonce. Ekphrastic.

And learn what a complete sentence is, why sentences exist, and how and why punctuation is tangled with the sentence and with language in general.

There is no harm in deviating from an accepted term or grammatical structure, but know why the choice was made, have a reason, make every deviation an intentional act, because again, while it’s unlikely the reason will be correct, the very act of naming the impulse gives you, the writer, the one who wields the world through words, a word of appellation to apply, reject, or bury deep in the backyards of our childhood homes.

The first step of admitting there’s a problem is admitting there’s a problem.

The first step of owning a success is knowing a success.

As a critical technique, sometimes asking a poet why a certain word or phrase is in a poem will reveal that the poet has never really thought about it. Inspiration had struck, or the part being questioned was deemed unimportant compared to the through thought of the poem, and so placeholder language exists in a poem in workshop.

Usually, it’s enough to write such things down, not bring them up as discussion points, unless the point in question pertains to a much larger ongoing or very recent discussion.

Save all mechanical aspects of the writing of poems, from the misspellings to the grammatical stumbles to the line breaks to the way the poem is spaced on the page for written comments. Assuredly the person you’re critiquing is as smart as you are, learn true editing marks, or make your own marks clear and legible, and the parts of the poem being edited clear and connected to their respective marks. Do not waste time with these marks: underlining with no comment, a drawn smiley face with no comment, a heart, a frowny face, an arrow, a stamp, a doodle, an elaborate illustration of the poem’s subject matter.

These beloved reading marks, for that’s what they are most often—the marks left by you, the reader, while reading, should ideally be translated into something useful for the poet being workshopped. Myself, I do not particularly mind being shown a grammatical mistake or spelling mistake, but if that’s all I get back from a fellow writer, I’m deeply disappointed. If that’s all you’ve got for your fellow writer, save you both the time and you stop writing such errata and stop giving it to your classmates.

Trust them, they are smart people.

In addition to a solid, thought-provoking comment, a host of my spelling mistakes pointed out to me is fine. The difference for me is one of respect. I take the editorial marks as a help to speed myself along in revision, and I take the thoughtful comment as a gift, knowing that a classmate has pondered, however long or short, to come up with something more than this should be it’s, not its. In art school the saying was, Technique is easy, Idea is hard. I can learn to spell. I can use any number of tools to help me. For that matter, if it’s an average workshop, I have probably learned from at least four people that its should’ve had an apostrophe.

~

On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with writing I loved this line! next to a particularly powerful line.

BUT WHY? Why did you love that line? What was it in the poem that led to that scribble? Was it the single line? The rhythm? The fact that the line reminded you of a good memory? A bad memory? A good meal? What the poet needs to know is the why not the the fact of the love of the line. We’re always being told to show not tell but then we allow ourselves to tell during our comments to each other.

But who has the time? I mean, to really ponder a poem and articulate what one likes or doesn’t like about a poem will take so much time! Perhaps. But it’s like any other exercise, it gets easier. And besides, most poets would prefer one carefully articulated point about a single motion/part/line/word in their poem than a host of vague Good Jobs and Loved It!

~

Particular sins:

If you happen to be in a workshop where each student has to read the poem aloud, take pity. Never criticize the reading of the poem or feel compelled to tell the reader, “You read through the line break in line three.” There’s a special place in Hell for that comment.

There’s a time for criticizing performance of poetry, and generally workshop is not that time. Of course, there are workshops on performance, and of course, there is nothing wrong with a teacher asking to have a poem read again. There is also nothing wrong with a student having a fellow student read aloud for her unless forbidden by the exercise at hand. Writing is hard enough. We write alone. If the lesson the teacher wants to teach is one of performance, then there should be a different time, and if the lesson the teacher wants to portray is that reading aloud is an effective way of self critique, that too can be taught without making a poet suffer.

The reason one doesn’t criticize a reading within a standard workshop is that there are too many variables at play, the nervousness of the reader, the rustling papers, the poor lighting, the poor attention span of the readers, the fact that each listener has her own concepts of how long the caesura of a line break should be, etcetera etcetera.

Workshop time is precious.

Weigh your comment inside your head carefully. Is it for sure a comment that would contribute to the spoken discussion or would the comment work just as well on paper? This holds true even if there’s no verbal discussion going, and it doesn’t look like any is going to start. There should never be a discussion about a poem “just because.” If the written comments are clear and careful enough, that leaves more time for other poems, and a workshop should also never be so formal and regimented that two weeks hence a poet could not bring back a previously discussed poem and say, “Now that I’ve had some time to think, notice how the issue in this poem echoes the issues we’re talking about tonight . . . ”

~

Questions to bring to the poem from sculpture:

How does the poem activate its space? What three dimensional space exists within the poem? How does the point of view move? How does the reader fit into that space? How did the writer? How does the poem exist in time? As an ongoing event or a piece of an ongoing event with a hinted beginning and a presumed life after the end? Imagine the characters/ideologies/concepts at the end of their day, and at the beginning. Are they the types to turn to face a dawn or to look at their long shadows?

Questions to bring to the poem from drawing:

How is balanced on the page? Where are its thirds compositionally? How does the eye of the reader move over and through the lines and stanzas? Does the white space impede or impel the eye? Take a black sharpie, and after photocopying the poem black out each line, then photocopy the new one. Photocopy several of each. Arrange them into patterns. Is the poem functioning as window or windowpane? Once identified, in what way does the poem reveal or occlude the subject matter? How few words (from drawing, lines) can be used to reveal the whole? How to portray only black and white and how to portray the full range of colors? How to write words that crumble like pastels and chalk?

Questions to bring to the poem from . . . making a coffee, riding in an elevator . . .

Occam’s razor doesn’t just apply to horses and zebras, auroras and aliens, but also to us as writers: we live, however strange our lives might be, our lives; is it necessary to bring some GREAT PERSON’s life into our poem? Some GREAT EVENT? Isn’t our life, if we can learn to see our life with total honesty, enough?

*

What rhymes with “workshop”?
by Nicky Beer

Nicky Beer

Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), winner of the 2010 Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Her second book of poems, The Octopus Game, will be published in 2015. Her awards include a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a Discovery/The Nation award. She is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver.

Among the many subjects that can elicit from me the most spectacular, feline of yawns—the doings of the British Royal Family, the ethics of foie gras, the benefits of hot yoga—over the years, none seems to have the zombie-like endurance in my peer group like debates about the relative merits or deficiencies of the creative writing workshop. Are they homogenizing or democratizing? Elitist or boorish? Cutting-edge or fusty? Poetry workshops seem to be especially subject to anxiety or suspicion, given the elasticity about what a poem “is.” That the general public already treats poetry with a robust mix of terror and derision—regarding anyone who claims the title “poet” to be little more than a New Age charlatan with unusually good Scrabble skills—does little to help. Compared with the more approachable prose genres—look at those novelists stretching all the way to the right margin like respectable, solid citizens!—all we poets seem to be doing in our workshops is killing time until we hit the next opium den.

But I think the pointlessness about debates over the workshop’s right to exist (which inevitably devolve to screeds against MFA programs, the Poetry Foundation, the NEA, semi-colons, etc.) springs from a fundamental misunderstanding about what the workshop is. Given that so many different cultural poetries claim their own thriving, traditional forms—ballad, haiku, blues, ghazal, villanelle—we need to remember that the workshop itself, rather than being a prescribed method or ideology, is a form as well, born of a stricture of time and content. And the persistence of a form does not immediately guarantee the quality or integrity of its content; the sonnet may be venerated, but that doesn’t mean a sonnet can’t be shitty. The best teachers are capable of taking this pedagogical form and using it as a venue to communicate what is sacred about poetry. Like poetic form, workshop, too, can be exciting when a teacher seeks to question, undermine, or experiment with received knowledge about how a creative writing workshop ought to be.

I love what Seamus Heaney says about the last lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”:

[they] do what poetry most essentially does: they fortify our inclination to credit promptings of our intuitive being. They help us to say in the first recesses of ourselves, in the shyest, pre-social part of our nature, ‘Yes, I know something like that too. Yes, that’s right; thank you for putting words to it and making it more or less official.’

Yet credence needs to be given for poetry, and poetry-teaching, that has an opposite effect; this is where the shitty workshop has its value. There is nothing quite like the shattering clarity after a remark from a peer or teacher when I’ve thought: “Wow, I may not know much, but what this person has said is completely the opposite of everything that I cherish and hold true about literature.” Granted, there is nothing more tedious than a person who’s entire sense of self is demarcated by her dislikes, but to have that moment of silent, private certainty, which may be entirely against the authority of the workshop in which one sits, can be an invaluable epiphany. And I have no doubt that I’ve summoned similar feelings in my own classes over the years. If I become a student’s anti-lodestar of all things poetry, so be it. They’re terribly wrong, of course, but I’m happy to be a fixed point in what is often otherwise a maelstrom of aesthetic uncertainty.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com. 

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