Example poetry

poetry workshops and the world |

In the first line of her poem “Poetry”, Marianne Moore writes “Me too, I don’t like that”.

Yes, it’s true, one of the great modernist poems begins by lambasting poetry. Moore goes on to detail in witty metaphors his case that poetry can be oppressive and pompous. Poetry at its best, however, is striking and penetrating. The poetry that is really important, writes Moore, maintains “a place for the authentic.” But poetry that does not aspire to be both creative and authentic, or as we might colloquially put it, “real” is simply unnecessary.

Every criticism Moore implicitly launches against poetry has been applied in recent decades to poetry workshops.

According to Michael McGurl in his book, The era of the program, creative writing programs as we know them began after World War II, precipitating a change in culture that emphasized that “those who cannot write, teach writing” to a culture where learning to write and finding a career path revolved around the MFA. programs. Today there are hundreds of creative writing programs, some particularly Ivy League and prestigious. MFA programs created the model of today’s traditional methodology, which I will simply call “the workshop”. If you’re a writer, it’s pretty inevitable that you’ve attended a workshop built on practices and committed to tastes inherited from a place like the Iowa School of Letters, when its teachers tackled writing in the 1950s.

The problem is, besides all the other ways the country is patriarchal and oppressive, who goes to college in America is ranked by level. And who is admitted to prestigious schools and MFA programs is socially, ethnically and racially stratified. This raises serious questions about how well (or poorly) the workshop model has served everyone. Yet it influenced everything. Most notably, the traditional workshop standardized a heavily modified writing style that enhanced acceptance of minimalism, the so-called simplified reading that appealed to the predominantly white American middle class while demeaning oral traditions, dialect writing or certain types of experimentalism.

The situation may have improved somewhat in the 1990s, by which time the master-teacher model had softened somewhat to the teacher-consensus model (the teacher provides the main criticism, but the students can also comment and criticize); nonetheless, I remember that Masters of Fine Arts programs were a hot topic at the time, and essays disputing their value left no doubt that many students hated them, especially, but not exclusively, students of the minorities. The workshops, they found, were sometimes among the traumatic experiences.

The first poetry workshop I came across, in the 1990s, baffled me. I barely understood a mysterious vocabulary including words like “hyphenation”, “parataxis” and “final stop”, and no one bothered to explain them. Blind obedience to jargon seemed more important than general understanding. Everyone seemed used to artificiality. Or were they? The number of controversial anti-workshop essays published at the time meant that many students were faking.

I remember having many conversations with facilitators who were upset every time the teacher blithely commented, “Does everyone understand this? Referring to a phrase like “the Myers-Briggs test,” but I didn’t spend a minute unpacking it. The assumption being that references to the white upper middle class were normative. I have tried a few times to contextualize my writing within ethnic experiences. Not a good move. I was accused of “explaining my work”. The workshop experience at its worst felt like a culturally biased IQ test.

Problems like these have come to a head. And they are tackled head-on in a recent book by educator Felicia Rose Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Class. Chavez presents her plan for a new type of workshop that she does with undergraduates and high school students; she bluntly states that the workshops have been destructive experiences, especially for writers of color.

A prime example is the tradition of “silence”. This is nothing more than the expectations of writers to sit in silence while the class criticizes them. But for writers facing oppression in their daily lives, it’s a mind game, akin to being handcuffed and arrested. To silence, writes Chavez, “is to adopt a position of passivity. Writers of color should sit in silence and take it. “This is” the often tactless, possibly endless and predictably ignorant criticism of their peers and the workshop leader.

Should we abandon the silence? There is no doubt that many scholars advocate it as a way to train creative writers to be critical, objective, or tough. So how do all the arguments add up? I’m saying Chavez wrote an important book, if only to reveal how the workshop model is a choice. It is one variable among many others. It is possible to completely abandon the teacher’s model by having all the participants carry out critiques of their own work. Think about it.

You can stick to the traditional model (which I am not suggesting).

You can follow Chavez’s model.

You can choose from the many techniques.

Or you can find your own.

Chavez did something important by pointing out that the workshop itself is a creative process. Like the creative process, the workshop may need a certain rigor, yet it is too much killed and made mechanical.

So I hope to lead a workshop myself. I start from the hypothesis that the workshop requires both advice and participation, but also that it is intended to be an exchange of learning which, at its highest level, is an experience of creating an egalitarian aesthetic. . Which means? I walk into the classroom on the first day, hoping you want to talk to me, and from my perspective wanting to discuss your poetry is an extension of wanting to talk to you.


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