Monday, September 14, 2009

Workshops and Woodchucks

Classes have begun in full, and I’ve decided to audit one last poetry workshop. That word “workshop” has always tugged at me partly because of its similarity to “woodchucks.” Once I think about that, I start creating asinine substitutions to the woodchuck tongue twister such as: How much work would a workshop shop if a workshop could shop work? And then I wonder if that's such an asinine question. How much work should a workshop shop?

A few years ago I started writing that dreaded workshop poem—partly out of the pressure of a weekly due date. As I talked about in Town Creek Poetry Review: “I became quite skilled at writing that 12-18 line poem with a couple of arresting images to jump start it followed by dash of meaning (often about the impossibility of meaning) and eureka, poem.” I like how in this workshop our professor Art Smith requires that we bring in two poems every two weeks. This seems like a good strategy to counter the workshop poem as it will allow for more risk and experimentation since we won’t feel the need to impress with both. If one fails, great. There’s another.

But this issue of failure and the workshop is an important one. Richard Jackson wrote a great article called “Sketch for a New Poetry Workshop” where he talked about how workshops often miss the point.  “The last thing that often gets discussed is the art of the poem.  Or sometimes the opposite happens: the discussion plunges into talk about particular words, line breaks, images, or the like, with no sense of the poem as an artistic whole, a made thing.” I agree with Jackson and definitely want to hear my poem discussed as a whole as well as in the particular. To be more specific, I want to hear when others think my poem just needs to be chucked. I write enough so that admitting to a poem failing doesn’t bother me.  That just means I’ve written outside my comfort level, so the risk of failure might be a bit higher. There are problems with what I’m suggesting. Many writers could say that the poet is the one who needs to determine when to abandon a work. Also, if I assess in any honesty how bad my poems were when I started writing, I’d have to admit that every poem should have been abandoned. Somewhere in that process of polishing up the bad poems, I started to write some decent ones. Maybe what I’m saying is that now I would like to hear my poem as a whole discussed before issues of line breaks and clarity. 

I’m not sure what the ideal workshop would be because each writer in there would imagine a different ideal. And this ideal changes over time. I’ve thought that in a workshop I run, I would ask each poet to begin by posing the question he/she is wondering about with the poem. Still, despite all these questions of how to run a workshop, I keep coming back to the workshop itself—which says a lot. I’m looking forward to workshopping away with my fellow poets. It looks like we have a good crew with Darren Jackson, Kierstyn Lamour, Michael Hudson, Rebecca Warren, and some newcomers to the program whom I excited to get to know: Jaron Birkan, Sean McDougle, Christian Gerard and Birkin Gilmore. 

PS This picture is from the fiction workshop last fall.

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