Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Evil Conference

Here's a thing I wrote on Kasey's alterna conference blog on workshopping (in response to Jane's proposal):

I'm not skeptical. I'm genuinely interested in the matter of pedagogy and, as poetry is to such a high degree wedded to education, it's important to think about it. Perhaps it could even be a theme for the conference.

Too often discussions of pedagogy at AWP or MLA type of events fall back on "this worked for my class" or "this was useful for my students." Without any critical inquiry into what "works" means or for whom it works.

Often it means: I got them to repdroduce poetry I like - whether Lyn Hejinian or CD Wright). Often it means: I convinced students to buy into a contemporary idea of poetry - that poetry can be reduced to style (and that that style should show mastery etc - qualities inherent in the monoglossic workshop paradigm).

Also, most discussions of pedagogy tend to fall back on the metaphor of initiation - the point of teaching poetry is to bring people into the world of poetry, as if it was this separate little world (which it then becomes).

I think it's important to bring those critical considerations into the classroom. And also, not to think only of style, but also what art can do and how it can accomplish that - or other concerns that are not exclusively stylistic (and also how these things interact - how Kafka's penal colony can be abour aerial photographs of bombed-out cities).

(My friend Johan J├Ânsson always says: American poets are naive about the political power of poetry, Poetry is actually a form of cowardice.)

I also think it's important is to bring in literatures from other cultures and languages ("languages" in the wide sense of the word, including other media) - without erasing the translation process - to avoid a trap American poetry often seems to fall into - playing the illusion of a national canon, the national language.

Finally (for now), the infrastructure of the workshop - criticizing poems, perfecting poems - tends to reify the idea of the poem, and I think that makes me claustrophobic. Or the idea that the writer who's being "workshopped' can't be part of the discussion - she's "dead" so to speak. The context is supposedly neutral (the hygienic workshop space). I think it's important to undo those paradigms - let the writer discuss her work, have the students develop critical tools for thinking about poetry etc.

Those are just a few ideas.

Jane, I'm not saying your class would fall into any of these traps. I don't know anything about your classes. I'm just saying, it's be good to discuss the matter.

One last thought (which really was my first thought): who would this workshop be for?


Blogger Max said...

My biggest issue with poetry workshops has to do with the way participants are (generally speaking) compelled always to take issue with the work under consideration. The assumption is: "there is something wrong with this poem, otherwise I wouldn't be reading it right now." And sometimes it is easy to compartmentalize and describe things which don't seem "effective" (this is the key term for most workshops I've been part of), but more often than not, you find yourself pulling criticism out your ass, stuff that can only be accounted for as a matter of taste, etc. And by this, I mean to emphasize that I've done it too. I think this system of workshopping compels all participants to commit guilty acts.

It seems to me that the most neutral workshop format (and by neutral, I mean helpful to the widest possible range of writers) is the descriptive workshop. People read your writing, describe via verbal and written comments their subjective reception of the work (by which I don't mean "I like it" or "I don't like it", but rather "this is what I perceived to have happened"; "this is the effect it had on me"; "this is what I think it 'means'"), and then you use this data as best suits your purposes (which also includes potentially tossing the data into the nearest wastebasket).

But there are, of course, problems with this method. I think it favors style, structure, form, etc. over content. It is also not very easy to tailor and/or make interesting for each individual being workshopped. There is the opportunity for people to say "I think you meant X" and for you to learn that people perhaps missed Y, so you need to go back to the drawing board and tweak things (or perhaps you like that it unintentionally means X and don't have to do much revision at all; or perhaps you don't give a shit what it means, so both X and Y, as well as F and T and B, are fine readings). But simple, and even complex, descriptions often lack the oomph that might lead to a more revelatory, useful workshop experience. I guess I favor it because it attempts to go beyond issues of taste, of "I like/don't like this." Instead, it says "here is what the piece does ... if you wanted it to do that, congratulations ... if you didn't want it to do that, my condolences."

I'm ambivalent when it comes to the teaching of texts in a workshop environment. I can generally do without it, but if it proves helpful or somehow meaningful (not just "let's read this and see if we can all write mimetic poetry in order to practice our 'craft'") then it's fine.

I guess it's really the whole "craft"-based approach to workshopping that bothers me ... the approach that makes you feel like a fool if you don't have your nose stuck in books of poetry all day long, if you perhaps spend more of your time reading fiction or watching films ... that you are somehow less-astute, less aware of your "craft" (as if all of these artforms were somehow separate from one another).

It's time to go to bed.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

I told Donald that he needs to "get a divorce from god."

He took this comment swimmingly well---

7:53 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I agree with the urge to correct - that's part of a whole reification of the poem - the poem as a product that we produce. It's a problem in itself. Plus nobody really finds that discussion interesting or helpful (at least not at the graduate level). Most workshops I've been in it's been pulling teeth.

I absolutely disagree that one shouldn't read texts in workshops.

I think that's exactly the way to go, that's how you get away from the workshop production line. If there's one thing students need to do it is read more, and read more widely.

However, a lot of workshop students seem to not want reading in the workshop. Absolutely perplexing.

I had a class with Lyn Hejinian in which she had us read really fascinating theoretical articles as a way to develop some critical terms for thinking about the poems, but very few of the people in the class seem to even have bothered to read them, and even fewer wanted to participate in the discussion. Very strange.

I guess you'll have to explain why you don't want to read in class.

4:54 AM  
Blogger Max said...

that's how you get away from the workshop production line.

But it seems to me that there are any number of other methods we might use to "get away from the workshop production line." Why readings? It seems to me that, whenever people encounter a problem like this in academia, the instinct is to say, "OK, let's step back a minute and get our bearings ... by reading a lot of stuff we don't normally read!" The general assumption is that a vigorous bout of reading will cure all that ails us (and our flawed constructs), but rarely is it ever demonstrated exactly how this curative will be applied to any real effect.

a lot of workshop students seem to not want reading in the workshop. Absolutely perplexing.

Why is this "perplexing"? There is always reading in a workshop. We read each others' writing. Does our own material somehow not count?

Every time "outside" reading has been introduced to me by a workshop instructor, I have always felt like it was sort of a babying move. Almost like remedial undergraduate workshop. The implication seems to be that they (the ma-/paternal writing professors) know we (the fledgling kiddos) don't actually read anymore, and so they must lower the bar and inflict some good ol' fashioned learnin' on us. This has always seemed kind of patronizing to me, because I think it's rarely the case that we (the kiddos) don't read anymore, just that we don't read the same things, or that we have new/different ideas about what's un-/important to us as a generation.

I know this is going to sound incredibly absurd (it even sounds that way to me), but reading is vastly overrated. I think texts of all types are equally capable of broadening our sensibilities as poets. Which is why I've always cringed at the idea of limiting outside readings in workshops to poetry, or theoretical texts about poetics. Why not bring in film or music or photographs or video games? This is what perplexes me.

she had us read really fascinating theoretical articles as a way to develop some critical terms for thinking about the poems

My problem with focusing on theoretical texts is that theory, more often that not (dare I say always?), is concerned with creating boxes. So no matter how many boxes you present to your students, you're still operating within a framework of boxes, which is, I think, inherently stifling. There is no adventure -- nothing alive -- in writing a poem and then reading a piece of theory which describes exactly what you've just done, what it's called, what its constitutive features are, why it's deficient/successful, or why it's the "new thing"/"on its way out", etc. There seems to be a point at which any "broadening of horizons" that comes from reading theory is outweighed by its stifling effect on the actual process of creation.

This also opens the whole can of worms about which theory the instructor chooses, why s/he chooses it, and what s/he leaves out. As you recall it, the texts Hejinian had you read were incredibly interesting, but for everybody else, it seemed that the opposite was true. What you appear to be assuming is that the other peoples' objections to these texts were based primarily on laziness, and by extension, the unwillingness to give the texts a shot. And you may know this to have been the case. I wasn't there, so I have no clue. But what if the real beef was with the particular texts Hejinian chose? The very act of a professor presenting such texts implies that they have a certain importance/value that other texts do not. This is, of course, a big problem if we view workshops as communities containing individuals who deserve a certain level of, for lack of a better term, satisfaction from the process. I hope we would agree, in other words, that workshop communities should strive to create, internally, atmospheres which provide a reasonable level of satisfaction (fulfillment, etc) to participants. I'm not quite sure how having a writing professor curate a theoretical reading series moves us in this general direction.

I guess you'll have to explain why you don't want to read in class.

It's not so much that I don't want to read in class, but that I've not once seen it implemented in an effective way. It seems like workshop reading always amounts to a reinforcement of the craft-based system, where the assumption is that the only way to write "successful" poetry is by reading poetry/poetry criticism written by others. This premise has always seemed completely flawed to me, and because it's always taken for granted, I've never once seen the premise itself explained in anything resembling a convincing fashion.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Just to be clear, I'm not trying to say that readings can never be implemented in useful ways. I'm just not so interested in trying. I feel like this is always where we throw our attention as a sort of default response to dissatisfaction with how things operate in classrooms. It deserves to be questioned. And furthermore, I think we need to be asking ourselves why we separate poetry from fiction, or screenwriting, playwriting, non-fiction, creative non-fiction, etc, etc, etc.

If a poet can ask him/herself what a grocery list means to his/her poetry, I think it's safe to say that the issue of genre is wide open, and that if we're going to cheat always toward poetry/poetics in our readings, this is the act that requires explanation, not the other way around.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Have you ever read anything I've written about education on this blog? About poetry? Have you read anything I've edited (such as Action,Yes)? Certainly seems like you haven't.

I think it's healthy to realize that "Poetry" is a historical construct and clearly I'm not advocating a North Anthology approach to poetry.

Having said that, I think it's essential to read a lot of varied texts. You always have "boxes". Reading more texts, watching more films etc just give you more boxes to work with.

A lot of people show up at grad school having been taught certain things about poetry etc. I think it's the job of the teacher not to "satisfy" the consumers (uh, students) by reinforcing all their beliefs but to challenge them. Ask them to consider other boxes.

Choices are made. I chose to go to school. I was chosen to get into Lyn's class. I chose to take Lyn's class because she's an interesting poet. She chose some essays to read.

Somebody chose what videogames would be available to you.

You have a weird concept of "theory." Whatever theory class you took was poorly taught if it was just a matter of applying theories to poems. This was stuff like Umberto Eco writing about language.

5:28 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I think it's the job of the teacher not to "satisfy" the consumers (uh, students) by reinforcing all their beliefs but to challenge them.

Oh, please. This is such a ridiculous response. You'll notice that I said "for lack of a better term" in connection with this in order to hopefully avoid such a distorted reading. I'm not arguing for workshops as community service (a la composition/rhetoric people who believe we should be teaching students how to write for the workplaces they'll inevitably inhabit). I'm arguing for workshops as writing communities, where we attempt, just as a general fucking axiom, not to toot our own horns non-stop at the expense of others. If somebody's consistently not getting anything out of the experience, and this is honestly not due to their own laziness or unwillingness to try things, then I think there are major problems with how things are working.

And by "not getting anything out of the experience," I don't mean that we must maintain a workshop atmosphere that is painless for all involved. It has never been my experience that workshop students connect having their feelings hurt or hearing new ideas with "not getting anything out of it." It is when unhappy overtures become the norm, or when workshop seems geared toward a specific something that leaves several students in the dust and benefits only a few, that this feeling emerges.

In my own experience, it has never gotten to the point where ideology or aesthetics are being forced. But I've definitely been in situations where I've thought to myself again and again, "Reading and responding to this stuff would make a great class all on its own, but I simply don't know what to do with it at all in terms of the workshop." Reading in workshops is often just a poorly managed process.

Now, you may feel that your theory of implementing readings in workshops avoids this altogether. If so, please explain how this works! I really do want to know. That's what having a conversation is all about.

(And please, don't tell me to dig over your publications in order to find the answers. If you really care to talk about this, you'll treat it like a real dialogue. If not, you'll be out a sparring partner, because that just isn't my thing.)

Other than that, I don't really think we're in distinct disagreement. I am sorry that I haven't read your entire online oeuvre. I was hoping you'd be willing to recapitulate some of it as part of an immediate dialgue, not ask me to clarify my views, and then say that it's obvious I've never read any of your work on education or poetry or stuff on Action, Yes.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Oh, and "unhappy overtures" is just my way of saying "shit that doesn't work." It doesn't mean, and should not be interpreted as, "making people sad."

8:21 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


When I said have you never read anything I've written I mean on this damned blog, which I know you've read because you've responded to it! That is to say, I've always questioned the idea of a pristine separate Poetry.

12:31 PM  

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