Literature cannot exist in a vacuum. Everything which is written and put out into the world is a product of a history of other works; it comments on, and is shaped by the culture and context which created. I’ve been thinking about this more than usual after David Herd’s visit. Through is grounded in a place, in a context. Herd saw something happening in the world which demanded to be recognized, recorded, and he felt the need to do what he could to bring it to light through his work. We talked with him in class about what we, as poets have the right to write about. By the end of his visit, after hearing him read and speak to the work he has done on Refugee Tales, it became clear to me it was less about a right, but about a responsibility to say what is difficult. Continue reading “What we have the right to (ekphrasis, epigraphs, artistic responsibility…)”
Looking through the feedback I received in my last workshop, no less than three people made note that they’d be interested to see me write a villanelle. I will be honest, before being reminded of the form when we talked about Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” in class, I wouldn’t have been able to think of what it was off the top of my head: a poem of 19 lines, five tercets and and one quatrain, often in iambic pentameter, often with an ABA rhyme—and utterly dependent on two refrain lines, so you’d better get them right. It’s not a form than I ever felt overwhelmingly drawn towards, but I’m guilty of thinking that way about anything that isn’t “whatever-feels-right” free verse. In any case, as far as I’m concerned one is a suggestion and two is a request, but three is a challenge.
I’m a talker; I like to talk. I’m also a fan of thinking out loud, discovering thoughts and ideas as I say them — very often it feels like the space between a thought and the words hanging in the air are indistinguishable (this has it’s pros and cons).
Needless to say, I love workshop. Sometimes I come in feeling like I haven’t had an interesting thought all week, but all it takes is hearing one of my peers’ sharp observations to set me off in a hundred different directions! I end up leaving class in the evening more awake that I was when I got there. The way I learned poetry, both to read and to write it, began in class workshops. Now, as I’m coming to the end of my time in college, I wonder what I will do without it.
It feels like a contradiction. Poetry forces me to take the time to say things that I know I’d botch on the first try. It demands revision and reflection, makes me hang on to words instead of letting them all fly away. In a very short time it’s become something very important to me. Yet, despite all the introspection involved, I think of it as a social thing. We talk about writing being personal and vulnerable, which it can be, but it also flourishes most when under the scrutiny of our fellow writers. My experience of poetry has become very closely tied to the idea that I will have this community of people to share it with, to offer me perspective, and motivation. I don’t have anyone outside of this little pocket of student-poets who think, and talk, and care about poetry in the same way.
It can seem like the Venn diagram of people who read poetry and people who write it is a circle; Lord knows I read exponentially more poetry now that I’m trying to write it than I ever did before. It feels important, because of this, that we know each other, and know how to find each other.
I want to know: Do you have a community of poets, outside of workshop classes? Poet-friends, online acquaintances?
And: What do you do to keep yourself sharp when you’re the only one reading your poems?
Being in the first round of workshops, I’ve spent the week picking through this summer’s sparse drafts, trying to decide if it is disingenuous to try and spruce one up just a few days in advance.
I have found it helpful to resist the urge to bring my ‘best’ or favorite poem of the moment for critique. You don’t need to impress anyone, especially if trying to do so is going to limit your growth. It can be helpful, of course, to workshop a ‘favorite’ – if you’re too close to something you don’t see its flaws, and a good workshop-and-revision can push a good poem into ‘great’ territory.
For me, it’s a matter of being realistic. Am I going to take criticism well? If not, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. This is less a case of me being super defensive about certain poems as it the fact that there are certain subjects that I treat rather preciously, and while they may need (major) refining, I have to make a call on whether or not I’m going to do that through a workshop, or on my own time. I’ve come to think that, while all poems can benefit from a workshop eventually, some are too early in their lifespan. I’d rather let them develop a little more first.
Then there are the times you bring something you know you need help with; the trouble poems. Maybe you’re frustrated and you’re looking forward to seeing it dissected for all its flaws – that can be fun. Or maybe you’ve got a poem that you’re nearly ready to give up on, and are banking on the possibility of someone else being able to tell you what to do with it.
All of these are equally legitimate candidates for workshop, in my opinion. However, I am here to speak as a proponent of that strange and specific kind of poem that has surprised me again and again by coming into its own through workshop:
The dead-end poem.
They’re the ones I don’t expect to go anywhere; the ones that get thrown down as a warm-up or forgotten about for months. My least favorite children, if you will. I don’t know what it is about them, but again and again the best and most satisfying revisions have come from those underdogs. The accidental successes. Maybe it’s because I’m not so caught up in what I’m trying to do, or that I’m more open to making changes based on critique. I’ve also theorized that, for me at least, it feels more authentic when I stumble into meaning. In any case, the ‘dead ends’ are very often not dead ends at all.
I’m always interested to see what people bring into workshop. I think it says something about what you want for your writing, what you want to gain.
What do you guys think – do you like to bring in the sensitive stuff, what you’ve agonized over? Or do you bring the poems you hate
just to have the satisfaction of other people agreeing with you in the hopes that you’ll glean some ideas on how to fix them?
What do you bring to workshop?
I’ve been thinking about my last workshop piece. It felt like two poems stitched together, and that’s because it was. I lean heavily on certain aesthetics and imagery we all already know I have a soft spot for, and I keep trying to use them as a crutch or disguise to talk about other things that, if I’m frank, I don’t always want to talk about.
Something we’ve struggled with this semester, both as peers in our workshop commentary and in relation to our own work, is separating the poet from the poem. We talked in class about ‘fudging the truth’, how once something becomes a poem, it should not, and cannot, try to be completely truthful and authentic to the poet’s reality.
I don’t have a problem with that; even in the middle of writing it, I could tell my most recent poem was veering away from its origins in my real-life experiences, and that’s okay. I’m left with this dilemma, however, one that I feel I have very often, where my writing seems to be trying to say something, but I don’t know what that something is.
I’m excited to work on it, but find myself at a loss. When I manage to write something I do like, I often feel as though my writing is cleverer than I am. So I’m left with this, a half-formed amalgamation of things, ideas stitched together, that’s taken on a life of its own.
How do you wrangle your Frankenstein’s monster?
“the em dash is a people pleaser and will not turn down any of your numerous requests to use it even when its presence is not needed which is why you must be the adult in that relationship”
At twenty-one years old I’ve yet to send a single email that took me less than fifteen minutes to write.
After shooting off a careless email (because I’m tired and I have things to do) I sit, bleary eyed and full of regret. I’m looking at the redundant mess of a sentence that I, an alleged writer, have created. I’ve made an abomination of the English language
It’s irretrievable, of course, already sitting in their inbox. This is the future of communication! It’s not like I have four weeks to agonize over its transit via Pony Express. It’s been half an hour and I’m still thinking about it, how this is the only representation of myself I have given to another human being, who I have not met. This is all they know about me.
This is what happens when I don’t agonize over what I’m doing, apparently.
My usual email-writing process goes like this: write a list of the things I need to say and/or ask. Write a sentence or two for each item. Make sure to make a new line when I change subject so that it’s easy to read at a glance. Figure out what an appropriate salutation to use – do I Ms. or Mr. them? Can I use their first name? ‘To whom it may concern’? Does anyone really start emails with ‘Dear,’? I check to make sure I’ve spelled their name correctly. I check again. Rearrange sentences. Make sure it still makes sense after I’ve re-arranged it. Spell-check again, because I’m still a sloppy typer. How do I thank them for their time? Am I supposed to have a professional looking email signature? I should really get on that. Read it out loud. Should I thank them again or will it be too much? Never settle on what closing sounds the least stilted – ‘Sincerely’? ‘Best’? Or is just ‘Thanks’ fine?
Give or take a few steps depending on how much I want the recipient to like me.
It’s honestly not unlike how I write in general. I double-check lines and phrases as I write them and lose steam because I should have just thrown down something, anything to get the feeling out (I think that’s why I write shorter poems – and even then I get the same feedback, that I start strong and peter out around the end). Even after all this time listening to folks expounding the importance of revision, I’m stuck with the idea that becoming a good writer, a good poet, means that someday I’ll be able to transmute things directly from brain to page in perfect form, divine inspiration-style, the first time around. It’s irrational, and can’t help but feel like it’s hurting me as a writer.
It’s something I don’t have a solution for, but I’ve been trying things out. I started in the biggest marker I have; sometimes I can’t fit more than a sentence on the page. The lines are ugly and not even close to poem-worthy, but it’s fast, ugly and satisfying. I’m going for quantity with these, not quality. There’s a specific kind of burnout I’m trying to avoid, where I sit on ideas with the intention of letting them stew, waiting until I find the best way to go about realizing them, only to lift the lid off the pot to find that they’ve boiled away to nothing.
There’s a lesson I’ve been trying to teach myself lately, one I’ve never quite managed to put into practice, both in writing and in life: something is better than nothing. Partial credit is better than not turning it in; showing up unprepared is better than not showing up at all. Trying is something. Something is better than nothing.
As you all know, our class shares a folder via Google Drive, and cached within are our writing exercises, all neatly tucked away in folders labeled with each poet’s name. Of course the point of all this is to share our work, so on some level it’s obvious – any one of you is free to see what I’ve been writing, and vice versa.
Yet I can’t help but feel like I’m snooping when I click on someone else’s folder. I feel weird even saying this, like I’m admitting to leafing through your diaries, even though I’m fairly certain that it’s allowed, and that I’m not the only one (please say I’m not the only one!) doing it.
So yes, I scroll through your weekly poems, see the different ways we interpret the prompts, notice who has more consistent style and whose one-off experiments are vastly different from what they submitted to workshop. At times I want to ask – why didn’t you bring this poem to the class? Did you ever come back to this piece? I want to know if you like the poems I like, or if you just wrote them to write them, to have something to turn in on time. There have been instances when a poem catches my eye, and I like it so much I want to grab the person responsible, and tell them – but many of you I don’t know so well, and we don’t really talk outside of class, so I lose my nerve. I wonder who will mind that I’ve been sticking my nose in things.
I think you all should know that sometimes, if I don’t know what to do with the week’s exercise, I check to see if any of you have done it in a timelier manner than I have, for inspiration. And, in my private poems (more private than those in a digital folder, the kind that live in a red notebook in my bag) I take your line breaks, your themes, images, the occasional, meaty two-or-three word phrase – and I try them on for size, like we do with the poems from the reader.
I don’t post them. But I do wonder how you feel about that.