Poetry Workshops and the World

New Santa Fe Poet Laureate critiques poetry workshops

In the first line of her poem “Poetry,” Marianne Moore writes “I, too, dislike it.”

Yes, that’s right—one of the great modernist poems begins by castigating poetry. Moore goes on to detail in witty metaphors her case that poetry can be oppressive and pompous. Poetry at its best, however, is striking and penetrative. Poetry that’s truly important, Moore writes, maintains “a place for the genuine.” But poetry that doesn’t aspire to be both creative and genuine, or as we might colloquially put it, “real,” is plain useless.

Every criticism Moore implicitly launches against poetry has been applied over the past several decades to poetry workshops.

According to Michael McGurl in his book, The Program Era, creative writing programs as we know them began after World War II, precipitating a change from a culture that emphasized how “those who can’t write, teach writing,” to a culture where learning how to write and finding a career path revolved around MFA programs. Today, there are hundreds of creative writing programs, some particularly Ivy League and prestigious. MFA programs created the template for today’s traditional methodology, which I will call simply the “workshop.” If you write at all, it’s fairly inevitable you have been in a workshop built on practices and committed to tastes inherited from someplace like the Iowa School of Letters, as its teachers approached writing in the 1950s.

The problem is that, in addition to all the other ways that the country is patriarchal and oppressive, who goes to college in America is class-tiered. And who is admitted to prestigious schools and MFA programs is socially, ethnically and racially stratified. It raises severe questions pertaining to how well (or badly) the workshop model has served everyone. Yet it’s influenced everything. Most notably, the traditional workshop standardized a heavily edited style of writing that enhanced the acceptance of minimalism, the so-called streamlined read that appealed to the predominantly white American middle class while demeaning oral traditions, dialect writing or certain kinds of experimentalism.

The situation may have improved somewhat by the 1990s, by which time the master-teacher model had relaxed somewhat to the teacher and consensus model (the teacher provides the primary critique, but students can also offer comments and criticisms); nevertheless, I remember MFA programs were a hot topic at the time, and the essays contesting their value left no doubt: Many students hated them—especially, yet hardly exclusively, minority students. Workshops, they discovered, sometimes numbered among traumatizing experiences.

The first poetry workshop I stumbled inside, sometime in the 1990s, baffled me. I barely understood an arcane vocabulary including words like “caesura,” “parataxis” and “end stop,” and no one bothered to explain them. Blind obedience to the jargon appeared more important than achieving general understanding. Everyone else seemed accustomed to the artificiality. Or were they? The number of contentious anti-workshop essays being published at the time implied many students were faking it.

I remember having numerous conversations with workshoppers who were vexed whenever the teacher blithely commented, “Does everybody understand that?” when referring to some phrase like “the Myers-Briggs test,” yet didn’t spend a minute unpacking it. The assumption being that white upper middle class references were normative. I tried on a few occasions to contextualize my writing within ethnic experiences. Not a good move. I was accused of “explaining my work.” The workshop experience at its worst resembled a culturally biased IQ test.

Issues like these have reached a climactic point. And they’re addressed head-on in a recent book by educator Felicia Rose Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Chavez lays out her blueprint for a new kind of workshop she practices with undergraduates and high school students; she forthrightly states that workshops have been destructive experiences, especially for writers of color.

A prime example is the tradition of “silencing.” It’s nothing more than the expectation writers have to sit in silence while the class critiques them. But for writers who face oppression in their daily lives, it’s a mind game, comparable to being handcuffed and arrested. Silencing, Chavez writes, “is to assume a position of passivity. Writers of color must sit silently and take it. ‘It’ being the often tactless, likely longwinded, and predictably ignorant, critique of their peers and the workshops’ leader.”

Should we abandon silencing? No doubt many scholars defend it as a means of training creative writers to be critical, objective—or tough. So how do all the arguments add up? I say Chavez has written an important book, if only for revealing how the workshop model is a choice. It is one variable among many. It is possible to completely abandon the teacher model by having all participants lead the critiques dealing with their own work. Think about it.

You can stick to the traditional model (which I don’t suggest).

You can follow Chavez’s model.

You can pick and choose among the many techniques.

Or you can discover your own.

Chavez has done something important by highlighting that the workshop itself is a creative process. Like the creative process, the workshop may need some rigor, yet it is killed and rendered mechanical by too much.

And so I hope to facilitate a workshop myself. I begin with the assumption that the workshop requires both guidance and participation, but also that it is meant as a learning exchange which, at its highest level, is an experiment in creating an egalitarian aesthetic. Which means? I enter the classroom on the first day, hoping you want to speak to me, and, from my perspective, wanting to discuss your poetry is an extension of wanting to talk to you.

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