Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Who am I but my own critic?" Bringing Spring (and All) into a graduate workshop

I mentioned my undergraduate workshop last time, in writing about Kaia Sand's new book. That workshop is focused on place; these first two weeks, students are taking photographs of their neighborhoods (nothing touristic! everything ordinary!), in preparation for getting beneath the image, into history. The graduate workshop, being more advanced, has a less relentless focus to it, at least in my design, but the reading list proposes an agenda, nonetheless. The readings, in that supremest of fictions--alphabetical order--are as follows:

John Ashbery, Three Poems, Ecco Press
Teresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, University of California Press
Paul Hoover, Sonnet 56, Les Figues Press
Susan Howe, Singularities, New Directions
Ron Silliman, Under Albany, Salt
Derek Walcott, Omeros, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
William Carlos Williams, Imaginations (for "Spring and All"), New Directions

All of these works are self-reflexive, works of poetry but also about it. These are works of poetics as well as collections of poems. Each of these poets holds a mirror to his or her text, but the mirror doesn't just reflect what it sees. This is an argumentative mirror. "This is what I see, and this is why I see it," might be its mantra. Their "why" is also an argument. "It must be so!" (If you can't tell I've been reading Spring and All today, I sure can.)

Why ask advanced writers to read these books? A couple of reasons. First, many of the best writers in our program are writing blind, like fast horses heading toward the finish line (a degree, damn it!), but without a strong sense of why they are doing what they're doing. My program is not alone in sometimes encouraging this sense that the writer not only need not know such things, but should also take pride in not knowing them. It may be hard to teach mystique, but it sells. No mistake that the word "mystification" also comes to mind.

My second reason has to do with that simple word "workshop." The word (not "wordshop") suggests a carpentry shop where someone has tools and materials and works them into something pleasing and/or practical. Carpenters work first as apprentices; so do writers. That makes me into the master carpenter, adept with the tools of the trade, and them the acolytes, still blistered by unpracticed uses of hammer, screw driver, level. (The level is sometimes what I think most matters in workshops, alas.) I'm skeptical about workshops. It's not that I don't like furniture, mind you; it's that I don't like to think of poems as furnishings. Furniture is too easily dozed on.

The Iowa workshop describes what it does in amazingly unambitious terms on their website. Rather than proclaim the rank ambition of the workshop, they merely suggest what they can do to "encourage" writers, if not "make" them. Their placement of the verb "to learn" in quotes marks the following passage with irony as much as realism:

"As a 'workshop' we provide an opportunity for the talented writer to work and learn with established poets and prose writers. Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can 'learn' to play the violin or to paint, one can 'learn' to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well."

After decades as the ur-workshop, you'd think they could craft a better sentence than that last one about "processes of externally induced training," which suggests the warning on labels, "for external use only." The "ex" and the "in" seem to clash, and the last phrase suggests an explicit lack of a guarantee. "Take at your own risk" might accompany this bit of medicine. Now I'm sure there are absolutely wonderful teachers and workshops at Iowa; I, who never took a single workshop in grad school, could have used a few. But this milquetoast description might cure us of our literary exuberance even before we set foot on Iowa City's river of ice.

So the poets we read in English 713 are intended, in the logic of the course (a logic that never plays itself out logically, in my experience of teaching), to disrupt the mechanism of the course itself. For what can a master carpenter teach his apprentice but techniques, angles of sight? The apprentice imitates the carpenter who imitates the guy he apprenticed himself to. Just ask Plato how many times that activity is removed from the Idea of a bed! And just ask William Carlos Williams what he thinks--avant la lettre--of the graduate poetry workshop. I hear him chanting, "Kill! kill! let there be fresh meat . . . " (Imaginations 90). Or, to the extent that the workshop is the spawn more of Eliot than of Williams, the good doctor mutters about "plagiarism." He feels the "handcuffs of art" around his wrists (not so good for a writer, or even a typist).

The goal, then, is something of an anti-workshop. Of course we'll talk about each other's poems and make suggestions for revision and think about showing and telling and all those enumerable qualities of poems, but I hope we'll also blow those things out of the water. For what writers need to think on are issues that are nearly impossible to teach (outside the focused theme-driven course), namely problem, content, ambition, demand, desire, effect (and affect). Kenneth Burke's situation strategy is a good starting point: what is the problem you want to try to solve in your writing? From there, it's wise to approach the workshop, as well as our poems, with WCW's violent skepticisms about art.

I'm not talking the kind of skepticism that is merely anti-academic. Here WCW finds himself one among many in a tradition of hating tradition's seat of power, the university. Just today, the political blogger Andrew Sullivan linked to a poet who complained

"The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist."

Leave aside my wonderment at mention of "lavish grants" (where can this poet-edit girl get one?!) but the notion that the university stifles innovation is frankly an old one. This screed could have been written by WCW; it's not as good as one of his bilious tirades, but it will do. I'm not going to touch "the broader public," because I find that the broader public for poetry tends not to like what I find important anyway. Even my colleagues within the concrete tower that is my office building don't read, let alone teach the stuff. But I do think that workshops can effect a dampening of talent rather than an explosion of it.

That's where I'm looking to Williams for an ally--and later on to Howe and Ashbery and Cha and Walcott and Silliman--in my effort to make the workshop into a place where poems are dynamic creations, not snapshots to be carefully painted upon by a toucher-upper. Even if I cannot give the workshop form new life by utterly destroying it, I can put in the back of students' minds the worry that what happens in a workshop can be counter-productive, as well as poetry-affirming. If a workshop convenes to talk "about" a poem, then I want to get us away from that preposition. "About" is not active enough. It's part of the larger term, round-about, which sounds like beating around the bush, drawing "around" into the same sphere of not quite getting AT what we mean to do. "Writing," writes WCW, "is not a searching about in the daily experience for apt similes and pretty thoughts and images" (120). "Like" is a brake, where WCW means to go full-on. The fullness of his writing conveys ideas to the reader as if they were IV'ed to his typewriter; something of D.H. Lawrence's "blood knowledge" occurs in the transaction between WCW and his reader. Everything is dynamic.

And so I'm obsessed with the workshop as a place where we engage in process and where we talk about (ooo that word again). Paul Hoover's Sonnet 56 is on the syllabus as a model for what I am asking each student to do. Pick a poem you want to live with for an entire semester; each week run that poem through the filter of a different form. Hence, what is first free verse or even prose (one student has chosen a Stein prose poem) becomes haiku, becomes sestina, becomes a voice mail message, becomes a grocery list. In these translations, these transactions, these transformations of one text into many others I hope the students learn something about poetic form (what they're supposed to learn in classes like this one) but also a great deal about the energies that can erupt when variations are born (or adopted) of themes.

I have yet to figure out how to lead a workshop discussion in a such a way that we move from the larger issues of ambition, scope, content and so on, organically into the necessary concerns with wording and punctuation, but this semester may provide me a forum for trying to figure that out. Where to start? With word, phrase, line, and then to idea!? Or from the largest scope of the thing down to its miniscule embodiments of poetic energy? In conversation these directions always criss and cross in ways necessary and annoying. But it will be my job to keep our eyes on the prize, the poem that matters (both as material and as claim on its audience to think about the world without the "emptiness" of over-used language. "There is no confusion--only difficulties" (140).

Unlike Andrew Sullivan's poetry blogger, I don't give a damn if my students know a few names of great poets. I want them to know something of poetry as process, as movement, and yes, as contagion.

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the

is how the first poem in Spring and All starts. Nothing quite moves as quickly as the flu or a poem. Let us learn us some poems this semester and fill our classroom with their contagion.


A brief addendum to recent dementia blogging. My weekly phone call to my mother was unusual this week. For years now she has lost language, until her speech consists of only several phrases that I call "language lab English." "I'm so glad you called and everything's all right" has been the most she has said in a couple of years; usually that sentence comes in two or three segments, not one line. But today she said, "I'm just sitting here talking to the people around me." Astonished, I asked what she was talking to them about. "The state of the world," she said. And she was, in that phrase, so much the person she always was. Engaged in the world. "It's not so good now, is it, mom?" I responded. In the old days, what followed would have been a litany of complaint about contemporary politics, but for now that mere statement about "the state of the world" seemed a blessing. No disguise.


Marcus Au Young said...

"(E)xternally induced training" reminded me of "enhanced interrogation techniques." And I cast my vote for general to specific in our poetry workshop; I prefer the direction of that kind of struggle.

Peter Forman said...

Susan, your approach to the (un)workshop reminds me of the personal trainer who warns, "your muscles get used to the same repetitive exercise and progress then halts. We're going to work those muscles in ways you've never before imagined." I suspect my poetry's beer gut is in grave danger. WCW already has us questioning the traditions of art.

Anonymous said...

"Nothing quite moves as quickly as the flu or a poem." As a newborn of that "contagious hospital," I appreciate your kinetic approach to our workshop and am thrilled to be a part of the movement. Like Clarice Lispector wrote: "Word is my fourth dimension...I want plasma, I want to feed directly from the placenta." If not from the placenta, then your idea of poetry IV'd into our computers, wrists, or notebooks certainly works.

Put on the coffee, Susan! This semester is going to be absolutely wonderful.


a.k.a. "Joe" said...

Say, Susan, could I have a look at the syllabi for these courses? I always struggle with making time for both the students' poems and the "what is poetry" and "why do you write" conversations. I'd be interested in seeing how you set it up.

(BTW, I must have K. Sand's new book - the check is in the mail!)

susan said...

Yes, of course, Joe. And thanks in advance for the moolah. It's a good book!

Patrick Gillespie said...

//Leave aside my wonderment at mention of "lavish grants" (where can this poet-edit girl get one?!)//

Right now, $25,000 Dollars a year sounds lavish to me. I could live on that with maybe just a touch of carpentry here & there. But I could see how that might be considered chump change by others. Maybe my standards are low.

//Unlike Andrew Sullivan's poetry blogger, I don't give a damn if my students know a few names of great poets.//

I don't either.

And I'm sorry to read about your mother, I went through the same experience.

[And Andrew Sullivan's blogger would like to thank Andrew Sullivan for allowing him to post here. : ) ]

susan said...

Thanks for writing, Patrick.

Adam Aitken said...

I studied a traditional canonical post-Eliot curriculum and did writing workshops on the side, for no award towards my degree, and what I remember is the conflictual nature of the workshops. I met writers there who did not teach or study at the university, as so were refreshingly free in their readings. I have now published four books and am part of the scene. I never received an award in creative writing until I did my PhD in creative writing. My point is that writing creatively is constrained by degrees and institutions because the people you meet in workshops are overly constrained by understandable needs to complete degrees. they also tend to congregate with people with similar concerns. It's like a health debate in the USA when all the debaters are wealthy enough for private health insurance.

susan said...

That's quite a comparison, Adam. My workshops usually include folks not in it for a degree, but not many. So how can an academic like me infuse the energies you refer to into a workshop on the inside? How can I be the Teddy Kennedy who is at once wealthy and engaged with the world? How to break the constraints after we discover them?