How to Bear a Workshop

I had a wonderful 10-minute conversation with the teacher of the workshop I started attending late last summer. We spoke largely about how difficult it is to bear listening to criticism of one’s own work — how hard it is to separate the poem from the poet. And also how necessary it is. She described for me some of the things she did during her first workshop at Radcliffe 25 years ago. They were petty, but they worked, and they hurt no one. I’d be interested in hearing how other people manage to keep mum while the best-intentioned of colleagues make suggestions for how to make a poem better. I’m thinking of putting a stone in my shoe, literally biting my tongue, or doodling the price of the workshop in the margins, as a way of motivating myself to stay silent and as receptive as possible.

What are the things you’ve done to keep yourself mum during workshop? The pettier and the sillier the better.

Quantity, Quality, Dubious Dichotomy

About six months ago I joined a writing workshop. I’m still not sure whether it was a good decision or a bad decision. One the one hand, there’s the whole “make me a better writer” argument. On the other hand, I find myself cringing from imagined criticism before I write a single word.

Maybe I was better off posting mediocre haiku after mediocre haiku and getting random praise of dubious sincerity from strangers I met on the Internets.

I’ve written and rewritten this third paragraph three times now, not sure exactly how to say what it is I want to say. Did Emily Dickinson agonize over her verse like this? Do I really want to be Emily Dickinson? Her life kind of sucked.

I leave the workshops variously energized, exhausted, and frustrated. For a while I was sure I wasn’t coming back. But then I was accepted for publication somewhere, and asked to read somewhere. I felt like I’d broken through some kind of barrier, one composed mainly of my own hang-ups.

The workshop leader herself is expansive, creative, extravagant. She has lived the kind of life I thought I wanted to live: professorships at this university and that university; poet in the schools; workshops in France, in Maine, in Taos NM. She has written books of beautiful poetry. I want very badly what she has, but I’m not sure what that is.

After the first class, she said, “Wonderful! You are a wonderful poet, a wonderful critic!” At the beginning of the new term, she said “Welcome home,” and gave me a hug.

And then proceeded to rip into my poem when it came around the table. Is it just me? Am I being too much of a sensitive poet? Finding a reason not to walk the road I’d fantasized about for so long? Even after reality-checking with a friend, who agreed that she does seem harsher toward me than the other students, I don’t know. Can’t articulate it. Can barely articulate it in this post. Have no idea how to ask for things to be different — or if it’s even possible.

Polishing the Stone, Perfecting the Craft

I was quite regular with my posts but have gotten rather shy of late. In September I signed up for some sessions at this workshop. It’s the largest commitment of time and resources I’ve dedicated to a writing workshop of any kind since I was an undergraduate. I had a lot of trepidation about doing so. My disillusionment with the whole workshop-academia-publishing machine can probably best be summed up by a meme that was going around the Tubes a while back: Emily Dickinson attends a writing workshop.

On the other side of disillusionment, of course, is truth. On the other side is the way things are. And on the other side of it, I still care about writing. I still do it in spite of the paltry rewards because it’s a reward in itself, because writing — especially writing poetry — lets me see the world more clearly. After some years of healing in various venues, I’m ready to ever-so-gently consider how best to polish the stones I picked from the riverbed.

Chaucer’s Virtue, Dr. White’s Bathwater

“of switch vertu engender’d is the fleur” is one of the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Even though I haven’t read Chaucer in years, I hold his work — and the Canterbury Tales in particular — very close to my heart, in part because it was probably some of the first college-level literature I ever read. In high school, AP English was famous for a few reasons. For an aspiring writer like me, it
represented the apex of academic achievement in high school. But it was also notorious because of the woman who taught it: Dr. White. No one got to be head of my high school’s English department without earning a PhD, and the head of the English Department was usually the only Doctor in the building. Dr. White was a towering inferno of a woman, lumpy, swarthy, with a mass of greying black hair spilling down over her bona fide hunchback.

My brother and his friends told stories about her, imitating her screeching voice and her derisive comments. I was entranced. I wanted to be her — I wanted to have a doctorate in English, head up the
English department of a fairly well funded public high school, and I wanted to teach other people about Chaucer. I wanted to bathe in poetry all day.

Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t get my wish. It might be sour grapes, but looking back over the course of my life and talking with other poets has helped me realize something I didn’t get when I was 17: that poetry is a rare, intense, sweet thing, like chocolate. And like chocolate, I find it best served in moderation.

National Poetry Month for the Lazy and Persistent

It seems that some writers can just up and form close friendships — whole schools, even — with other writers. I wish this were more often the case with me. If it were, perhaps I’d already be published and successful and happily ever after by now. I alternate between blaming all writers everywhere and blaming myself. But maybe, as with most things, it’s not a black-and-white proposition. And maybe– just maybe — casting blame is not really all that productive. Perhaps I get my gold star just by persisting — in reaching out, making connections, and nurturing writerly friendships — in spite of failures and disappointments.

And now that I think about it, I have had a number of successes. There’s the small group that grew out of connections made at Poetry@Prose which has been meeting regularly. I’m a part of it, but not the owner of it. None of us are. We just keep showing up and plodding away with our careful little poems, shining them, polishing them, picking out the gems and nurturing each other’s work with praise and gentle, gentle suggestions.

Alas, not all interactions go so well. Writers can be a prickly, solitary lot. I know this because I am a writer. About a week ago, I got an email from a poet whom I admire a great deal. She and I also met through Poetry@Prose, but we’ve had much greater difficulty following through on a mutual desire to collaborate — or even to meet up in person. This email asked if I would like to engage in some mutual support around National Poetry Month. (That’s April, the cruellest month, in case you weren’t keeping track.) Being the technically apt person that I am, I saw that she bcc’d me, which implied I wasn’t the only one she’d invited. I replied with a hearty yes, and since the bcc implied it wasn’t a private party, I cc’d the two other members of my writing group, recommending them as kind and generous fellow writers. She replied that she wasn’t up to emailing drafts out to strangers — a sentiment I can certainly understand and identify with. And then the whole email chain just sort of went… downhill.

A quick phone conversation probably could have sorted out the whole thing. But for a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. And so two well-intentioned writers found themselves smack up against the limitations of written expression. Both of us fell away from the interaction exhausted and disappointed. I can only hope it hasn’t completely poisoned what tenuous connection exists.

One benefit of the whole thing, however, is that it’s gotten me thinking about National Poetry Month (or NaPoWriMo for the more abbreviation- and internet-enabled among us) before the month actually starts. Back in November (aka NaNoWriMo) I attempted a poem-a-day writing challenge that crashed and burned in the ruins of, well, what usually happens in November. But I’d like to try it again. And I’d like to do it lazy and simple — an approach that doesn’t come naturally to me. I’d love, of course, to do it with a group of supportive fellow poets but I’m not sure such a group exists — at least not for me, at this particular dot on the timeline. So I’m going to try my hand at a haiku a day for the month of April. In the spirit of lazy and simple, I’m going to post these haiku only Monday through Friday, and only for the month of April. Feedback is welcome, as long as it’s positive or in the form of haiku itself.

Poem a Day November — Day 1

Yes, I know I’m late. All I have to say about that is “fuck you, November.” Although October was more of a bitch this year than November so far.

I’m more of a poet than a novelist, so I’m doing what some poets have started to do, which is write a poem a day in November instead of the insane marathon of a 10,000 word sustained narrative.

I fully expect this month’s poems to be mediocre in quality. As Julia Cameron said, “rest on the page.” A single haiku is better than silence — at least in this scenario. If you want the good stuff, buy the chapbook. Assuming it’s ever actually published. [Update: It WAS published!]

still waters of the pond
turn the eye inward
leaves a carpet of yellow–
sun on the ground
turn the eye outward

Rita Dove

Rita Dove may have been one of the first published poets I saw as a real human being rather than a sort of mythical demi-god. Sure, Adrienne Rich is still alive, but I’ve always seen her as much more removed and unattainable — in that regard, she’s in the same category as Eliot and Pound and Bishop and Millay. But Rita Dove, for some reason, seems like a real person, someone I might actually be able to meet and talk to one day. Perhaps it’s because she was poet laureate of something or another when I was in college (the U.S. maybe?). Perhaps it’s because I always associate her with a joint project I did with another student, and I still vividly remember that woman’s frustration with me for not being as on-the-ball as her. She also introduced me to those little sticky flag things from Post-It. They cured me of my archivist-horrifying habit of dogearing pages — plus, it’s easier to find a yellow flag than a dog-eared page. I have a package of them in my desk right now.

So. Rita Dove. In an interview in some literary journal, probably conducted because she was the poet laureate of something or another, she talked about learning to leave the end of a poem open, rather than sewing it up with a final sewing-up type line. I think about that a lot when I’m writing poetry. I try to leave room for the poem to breathe at the end, rather than making it a self-contained little jewel. A stale cream puff. Some poems lend themselves to open-endedness more than other poems.

Continue reading “Rita Dove”

Poetry is a Gift Economy

And so is spirituality. That’s why I quit my gig as the About.com Guide to Pagan/Wiccan Religion. It started to be about the money instead of about the service.

From What to Wear During an Orange Alert’s interview of poet Reb Livingston, via the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative

Poetry is a gift economy, nobody is making much/any money off her work. Some make livings teaching or editing at mid-sized to large publishing houses, sometimes poets get paid to speak, most make their living (or the bulk of it) doing something completely unrelated to poetry. Almost nobody is surviving on royalties and poetry book sales. So one must remember that every publication, every invitation to read, every review — those are all gifts. Do you want to be the asshole who shows up to every Christmas empty-handed and leaves with a bag full of presents? I don’t. I pride myself in being a completely different kind of asshole. You don’t need much or any money to support other poets. […] One can discuss and promote other poets and books on her blog, speaking at conferences, during her own readings — there’s all kinds of ways to contribute back to the general poetry community. One’s greatest gift is her time, energy and passion.

(DIY Publishing Linky)
(Whole interview with poet linky)

Where were these people when I was getting my B.A. and whingeing about not being selected for Senior Comp?