On Writing Poems, Workshop, and Reading Like a Writer

ON WRITING POEMS, WORKSHOP, AND READING LIKE A WRITER

Reduction of the Flesh from Health and Beauty for Women (1923)
Reduction of the Flesh from Health and Beauty for Women (1923)

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To introduce my students to the expectations of the course while providing them with some insight into the process of reading, writing, and workshopping poems.

On Writing Poems

In this course, I will not assign topics or subject matter for your poems. This is meant to give you the greatest freedom on the page to discover your obsessions and “fundamental orientation toward language,” as psychologist D.W. Winnicott calls it. (Poet Tom Sleigh eloquently talks about this concept in relationship to poetry.) If you want to spend all semester writing poems about abandoned amusement parks around the world with lots of white space and dashes to indicate absence and something severed or cut off from the world, go for it. As long as you turn in at least twelve lines on time for each of your seven poem assignments, I have no qualms about the subject matter or style. Some of you may find that your natural orientation toward language is one of concision and twelve lines is all you can muster; others will write voluminously. Some with short lines, some with long. That said, don’t worry about “finding your voice” in this course. In fact, I hope that many poets don’t ever “find their voice” but rather chase the echo of the voice they have in their heads. That way they don’t get too comfortable with the way they write, and they are free to keep challenging themselves to create something new every time they sit down to the page. So every time you write about an abandoned amusement park, challenge yourself to make that poem as unique as that locale.

Some General Rules About Writing Poems

  • Always put your name on your poems. We’re going to have a lot of paper floating around every workshop week, and we want to be sure we know who belongs to the poems.
  • Do not write with end rhymes. Only the truly skilled will be able to handle full end rhymes with any kind of zest and originality. For the rest of us, we’ll be forever shackled to “moon” and “soon.” For the purposes of our class, we’ll write primarily in free verse so that you can get into the habit of writing regularly and freely. That said, if you want to continue studying poetry, I encourage you to investigate form, prosody, and rhyme on your own or in a Form and Theory of Poetry class.
  • Please only use standard fonts. That means Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial, and maybe Cambria, Baskerville, Caslon, or Book Antiqua. If you turn in a poem in Comic Sans, Papyrus, Chiller, or similar fonts, I will return it to you until it’s in an appropriate typeface.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever put your poems in different colors or accent them with clip-art. This isn’t fun. This is distracting and irritating.
  • Eschew abstractions. Yes, some of the very best poets do engage with abstractions, but they do it in ways that engage the tangible. “Love” in Sylvia Plath “set [her] going like a fat gold watch.” It didn’t “descend from the cerulean blue heavens on the wings of temptation.” Fat gold watch = good writing. “The cerulean blue heavens” and “the wings of temptation” = terrible, terrible. For the purposes of this course, I want you to use clear, specific, and significant details. Fat gold watch = clear, specific, and significant detail. Love = abstraction. “The cerulean blue heavens” and “the wings of temptation” = flowery, overblown, cliché, abstract, highly coded, unrealistic, and uninteresting language. We will talk about this throughout the semester.
  • Slam poetry and spoken word are compelling art forms, but they are not a part of this course. Think about it this way: You wouldn’t expect to make sculpture in a painting class, so why would slam poetry—a form of performance art—fulfill requirements in a class about poetry on the page? If you want to talk about slam or spoken word, please make an appointment with me, and I’ll be happy to talk about these topics.
  • Always read your poems aloud when you write, edit, or revise. You’ll be surprised how much your poems will begin to engage the part of you that’s geared toward rhythm and sound. You’ll hear internal rhyme and hear where the poem slows down or speeds up. You might even find where there’s some grammatical hiccups, and it allows you to distance yourself from your head. When you read aloud your poems, you become audience to your own poem. This distance will make it easier for you to recognize what’s working and not working, too.
  • Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. This phrase has been in almost every writing workshop in the last one hundred years, but it still remains true. Say you love one section of your poem and you’ve crafted a compelling narrative around that section, but the section you love so dearly derails the narrative by waxing poetic. You may have to remove it to save the poem. But hold onto it. You never know when a new poem might come out of it.
  • Sometimes the best revision is to start a new poem. Regardless of whether or not a poem makes the cut, you should learn something from the process of writing it and sharing it with others. What we learn from one poem we take with us into the next, and the next, and the next. We’ll talk more about revision as the first one’s due, but keep this in mind throughout the semester.
  • Your poems don’t have to be perfect. Isn’t that a great feeling? This is a workshop after all, and everything should be in progress. Don’t turn a poem in that you feel is finished, because you’ll likely find that it’s not. This only leads to disappointment. Besides, when your peers are asked to comment on something, they will. Even the most famous poems would be taken to task in a workshop setting. But that’s okay. This is a place to receive constructive criticism. Not praise.

On Writer’s Block

I don’t believe in writer’s block as a phenomenon. I believe that what we call “writer’s block” is simply second guessing oneself before getting anything on the page. Sometimes the best way to start writing is to start writing. Sound like a paradox? It’s like feeling sluggish about going on a run because you haven’t gone on a run. If you don’t know what to write about, go out on the Compass and people watch. Start writing about someone there. Read the newspaper and write in the persona of the Congressman arrested for a DUI. Describe the condiments on the table at The Village. Start somewhere, and you’ll get somewhere. Often what’s troubling us or what excites us most will come out in whatever we’re writing about, overtly or subtly. The roller coaster has to climb the hill before it can achieve its speed.

On Finding Subject Matter and A Poet’s Life (On Writer’s Block II)

A student in a class once asked, “My parents never divorced. I don’t know a single person who’s died, and I’m happy. How can I write a poem?” How can you not? Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” That means both good and bad things. And being a poet doesn’t mean you have to slug fifths, chain smoke, listen to jazz, and say, “Yeah, man.” That’s a stereotype, a hold over from the 50s. (And one that’s brilliantly parodied in Roger Corman’s 1959 B-movie, A Bucket of Blood.) Yes, it’s harder to write a joyful poem than a dark poem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And, surely, you’re capable of great feats of imagination and empathy. Remember Mark Doty wrote: “Literature makes other people more real to us.” I say: Writing poetry makes other people more real to us.

Why Workshop?

Workshop allows you to receive comments from peers about the effects your poem—what’s working and not working—has on a reader. In the same way that Hollywood tests films before releasing them to theaters, you have a “test audience” for your work. As you are all submitting and responding to poems in this workshop, the class should establish a trust that will allow you to be receptive to and comfortable providing feedback. The format should also encourage you to do things on the page you wouldn’t normally try. Additionally, and just as importantly, you will become more adept at talking about poetic craft. In my own undergraduate and graduate workshops, I often learned just as much by reading, thinking about, and responding to my peers’ poems as I did in my own workshops. Therefore, writing your own poems and reading others’ poems are equally valued in this course. Here you will not only become better writers, you will become better readers of others’ work—and your own.

8-Minute Workshop Procedure

  • Poet reads poem aloud for workshop so that it’s fresh in all of our minds. Note: After reading aloud the poem, the poet cannot speak until prompted by the instructor at the end of the workshop.
  • A workshop participant should provide a brief synopsis of the subject matter, narrative (if there is one), and/or the major associative leaps. If anyone else disagrees with the synopsis, that opinion should be voiced as well. Contradictory understandings of what the poem is about will let the poet know that some more work needs to be done to set up the poem.
  • The class should locate and analyze what’s working well in the poem.
  • The class should locate and analyze what’s not working well in the poem. (Hint: Sometimes, asking questions about what the author intends is the best way to reveal a poem’s inadequacies.)
  • The instructor will open up the floor to the poet to ask or answer questions.

What Are Helpful Comments?

  • “The couplets [two-line stanzas] reinforce our attention on the two characters that are present in the poem.” This demonstrates that you’re thinking about how poetic form can support subject matter.
  • “The metaphors here don’t seem to be in the same wheelhouse as the subject matter.” This demonstrates your attention to significant details.
  • “I’m not sure exactly what’s happening in this stanza. I can see two possibilities, which are…” This demonstrates your willingness to engage in speculation and your desire to really understand how the poem works.

What Are Unhelpful Comments?

  • “You need a comma here.” At this stage, nitpicking small grammatical features isn’t useful to the workshop. It will take up time that we could use talking about more important issues that will help the poet in revision and new work. Even if you fix all the commas, it doesn’t matter if the poet has to take apart the poem and start from scratch. But if you must direct the poet’s attention to this sort of thing, write it on your copy of the poem. Don’t be Captain Obvious and point out something that, in all likelihood, the rest of the class has noticed.
  • “We all love our mothers, so we can really see this happening.” See the “On ‘(Un)Relatability’” section of this document. It’s essentially the same thing.
  • “I just don’t like the speaker.” Perhaps the author intended you not to like the speaker. Demonstrate your ability to discuss the poet’s intentionality and speculate as to how the speaker’s “unlikeability” works within the poem.

Some General Rules

  • Always refer to the “speaker”/”character” of the poem. We never assume that Suzie Q. the author is the same as the Suzie Q. of the poem. (Even if we were workshopping Dante, we’d always say “the speaker” or “the character of Dante” in the Divine Comedy.) This helps us focus on the craft of the poem and not the circumstances behind it and therefore protects confidentiality and makes your peers more willing to share their work with you.
  • Focus on how language is working (or not working) in a poem. This takes practice and a lot of experience with reading poetry, but now’s the time for you to start to think about language
  • Workshop is not therapy. None of us are licensed professionals and, besides, we’re more interested in how you put together that poem than what motivated it.
  • Workshop is also not the place for you to exercise your personal beliefs on politics, religion, sexuality, etcetera. When we talk about poems, we talk about how they are crafted, regardless of whether or not you agree with the subject matter. Should I see or hear any response to a poem that attacks the poet’s personal beliefs, I will address this matter, at the very least, with a deduction to your participation grade.
  • On that note, the class should never—never, never—workshop the poet and/or the poet’s beliefs/actions. We will be reading a lot of poets who represent many different aesthetics, beliefs, and lifestyles in this course. If you can’t get past the subject matter or the context, you will never be able to appreciate good poems.

On “(Un)Relatability”

For the purposes of this course, the term “relatable” and all of its derivatives (“I can/can’t relate to this”) is prohibited. The poet Chad Davidson has summed up my concerns about “relatability”:

Here’s the rub: whether or not someone in a workshop relates to someone else’s poem is of very little consequence to me or to the poem. It’s the reader’s job to go in there and get some of that relation. A failure to relate, in my book, is a failure of the reader, not the poem. There may be all sorts of other problems with the poem, but relatability is never one of them.

Example: I am not a Danish prince with an existential (if quite eloquent) crisis. Hence, I cannot relate to Hamlet. Neither am I a whiny, self-important, late-medieval Tuscan on a journey through hell. Hence—mi dispiace, Dante—sorry, buddy, but can’t relate. I’m not even Catholic.

. . . Put another way, the idea of relating to a poem is absolutely the lowest common denominator of judgment. More so, it’s just a cover for what we really mean: I don’t understand the poem or I am uncomfortable with the poem or, perhaps most disturbingly, I just don’t care about the poem. All of those questions we can handle in a workshop. That’s in fact what the workshop is for.

(To see the rest of his essay “Can You Relate?,” go to: http://www.32poems.com/blog/7048/prose-feature-isnt-life-enough-three-takes-workshop-part-1)

Reading Like a Writer

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, reminds us that “language is the medium [writer’s] use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” So, in reading like a writer, we’ll look at language as a set of raw materials in much the same way that any craftsman would look at raw materials. A boatmaker might say, “This wood has a fine grain, except for this spot here, this knot, that’s a weak spot.” What words stick out in the fine grain of the sentence? A cook might say, “Cinnamon and fish don’t go together.” We might say, “This long line that takes forever to read doesn’t go well with your subject matter of a piano falling fast from an open window.” See how that works?