Tuesday, January 22, 2019

some thoughts on workshops

For some reason, this time of winter--this grey snowy weather and the beginning of the spring term-- always reminds me of my very first poetry workshop as an undergrad. I had taken a fiction workshop my second semester at RC (see my earlier post on the Hemingway/Faulkner debate) but this was the first time I actually showed anyone the poems I'd been writing and they were bad. At the time, surely, I thought they were genius.  I'd gone from writing spare, skinny minimalist poems with social messages at 19 to writing Dickinson-esque rhyming pieces at 21.  In that, they were good, I can rhyme really adeptly and have a decent ear for rhythm.  But they were so bad, but actually pretty decent for bad poems.  Or maybe good in their badness.
Mind you, at this point, I hadn't a clue what contemporary poetry looked like of any persuasion. Also, the other work in the class was similarly bad, but in different ways.  Much of it looked like the sort of verse you would expect a group of 20 year olds to be writing. There was a lot of goth style lyrics, a lot of diary entries. It was a night class, so every week I would bring my stack of workshop poems home and  delve in enthusiastically while I ate dinner, filling my mom in on whatever had been said or written about my terrible poems (which I'm sure was super boring for her).  As with my grad school experience, there wasn't much agreement or knowledge on what a poem was supposed to do or how to do it, so I doubt my carefully made notes on other poems made much of a difference.  But I made them every week, usually right away, and then would wait impatient for the next week's class. I'm pretty sure I was using a typewriter then to bang out drafts.  On some, you can see my liberal use of correction tape and white-out  Somewhere in my files I still have pretty much all of these pieces, some photocopies, some on the original filmy typing paper.  I wouldn't really start hanging out in the computer labs on campus until my final year and typing up poems there.

I think the big difference here was how nice we all were about our awful poems.  Even the professor, who sat through our horrible verse weekly and was encouraging--to some more than others. We would take each piece on it's merits (what little there were) and try to help the author achieve something they were going for--whatever that was.  And maybe grad school is supposed to be more excising and honestly cruel, but I never felt like I was under attack in that undergrad workshop--no one laid into anyone else, and we all hobbled along with our faulty verse and at the end went our ways.  As far as I know, no one but me went on to do poetry professionally, but at least a couple I suspect still write in secret.

I know that criticism helps you become a better artists, but I often wonder how much workshops as they currently are structured snuff  a lot of people out. There were times in my first couple of years where I felt not merely that I was being criticized, but explicitly attacked.  I watched other classmates walk out of class and burst into tears.  Some people are serious assholes and workshops give them a chance to really lay into other people's work to settle out petty differences and  jealousies.  Some of the most interesting work in my program came from people who walked away entirely after the experience.

I often feel the moment workshop came closest to being useful was when we went around the room talking about what we regarded as a successful poem.  Everyone's answers were different, and offered so much in the way of how to view and comment upon their work.  We had to shut the conversation down to move onto that week's critiques due to time, but I wanted more of that in my MFA program and less of the thrashing about blindly.  If a group of ten people all have highly different ideas of what poetry is supposed to do, what poetry even is, how can you speak the same language when you talk about it.

I think about this when I consider workshops now.  Considering my MFA hangover the first few years out of the program, I'm not sure I would want to endure a workshop ever again, as a participant or as a facilitator, but still in my head is the idea of a dream workshop that takes these things into factor somehow. Where people can grow instead of being shut down.

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