Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.
The plastic surgeon had thumbed three syringes of lidocaine into my cheek and made his first incision when he asked me what I teach. It was late spring 2013, and this was the first of several surgeries I’d have in the coming year and a half to remove melanoma, expand margins, and later reconstruct what another doctor called my architecture. “Oh-eh-ree,” I said, drooling-numb, but he didn’t—or pretended not to—understand. He squinted at his work, like a copyeditor examining a comma, and warbled, “Come again?”
My lips refused the consonants, especially that p, but after several gos, a few tugs on my cheek, and the doc’s distracted grafts of discernible words onto my guttural sounds (chemistry? herbology?), he gasped into a full belly laugh, the scalpel bobbing above my right eye.
I’m not sure how I would’ve made an expression then, or what it would’ve conveyed, but he caught it. “Ohh, you’re serious. Sorry, ” he switchbacked. “I just didn’t know that anyone reads that anymore, must less teaches it!”
That cosmetic surgeon, more anti-Muse than Jacob Marley, wraiths into my mind every time I encounter and attempt to answer the question Is poetry relevant?, a favorite wheelspinner among cosmopolitan op-eds. Although the doc’s latex-pinched fingers anviled my head against the exam table as he excised the mole, my shoulder devil still swaggered—Tell him, “Hey, buddy, I deal in real beauty”—but even that defense seemed to helium up the misconception that the work of poetry is delicate—lace doily stuff.
Prior to going back to clinical surgery, I’d spent thirty minutes or more with patients who were open—even loud—about their Botox and lipo treatments at the receptionist’s window. The waiting room had felt more like that of a salon or spa than a doctor’s office: all gossip, emery boards, beauty magazines, and cell phones. I’d passively protested by re-reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And the irony wasn’t lost on me.
Later that day, I wrote a poem that exemplifies the essential connections I’d like to make between my work as a poet and as a teacher, and, in its discussion, offers one of my student’s rebuttal to the doctor’s dismissal of poetry.
I’d like to share the poem for you now, and then I’ll illustrate some of the practical and conceptual ways teaching has nuanced my writing and clarified my feelings about poetry’s relevancy. The poem is called “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” and it begins with an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”
Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
No one else with a book, the slick
weeklies gossip amongst
themselves on the side
tables as the ticker rolls the Dow
Jones downdowndown under
a profile of the marathon
bombers (the older, a boxer). Jove
argues for the removal of a race
of peoples that do not please
him: What is past
remedy calls for the surgeon’s knife. He will take a hunk of my
cheek (cancer) and though I can’t
see mid-procedure, I imagine
the site as an apricot, bitten.
This, a survival mechanism—
romanticism. David says, If you’re out
in public and you don’t want anyone to talk to you, bring a book
of poetry. Even as I enter the confidence
of the room, I avoid my
reflection in the window, for there,
most of all, I see myself as only I can,
as only the eye will have me—
as light, as light alone.
I chose that Bishop quote not only because of its situational associations—she’s looking at a National Geographic while waiting on her Aunt Consuela at the dentist—but because of its implied self-assessment: if she scarcely dared to look to see what it was she was then, then we might assume she does look to see what she was, and therefore is, in the poem.
In my poem, I wind up on the notion that all we see of ourselves is really just light, something untenable and transcendent. In this way, all our memories of self and personal experience are memories of light. It makes what we witness—violence, racism, greed, the degradation of our own bodies—both less threatening (it’s just light) and more so: What are we dealing with if we’re not dealing with something that we can trap, contain?
Although “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” doesn’t take on teaching as its dramatic situation, the way that Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942” or Claudia Emerson’s “Student Conference” do, the poem outright invokes advice from one of my own teachers and teaching mentors—David Wojahn, whom I assisted in two classes and who served as my thesis adviser in grad school—as well as exemplifies both practical and conceptual effects on my writing of teaching, namely a shift toward musical plainspokenness and the realignment of empathy’s presence and function in my poems.
Shift in Diction
Back when I was in graduate school and my primary job was to write, David suggested that I read texts that were in, what he called, “English that isn’t English.” This meant Scots-language poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Kathleen Jamie; the Matthew’s 1537 Bible; and early translations of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century Germanic witch prosecution manual, and the Turba Philosophorum, an early alchemical text from the 10th century. The texts’ language and, in some cases, their content reinvigorated language’s inherent mystery, that alchemical reaction between sound and meaning, and re-formed the traditional bridge between poetry and incantations, spells, etc. The effect was not unlike that of repeating a word over and over again—banana, banana, banana, banana, or, for you Tennessee Williams fans out there, “Stella! Stella!” It gestures toward the effacement of meaning and the solidification of the word into thingness apart from what it signifies. I want my poems to retain mystery, and to be both about the words and what the words convey, but many of the poems I wrote in graduate school, that later landed in my first book Signaletics, absorbed archaic, obscure, and esoteric language from my reading. Here’s a short passage from another poem that takes reading as its subject matter, titled “Reading Joyce on U.S. Flight 2309.” And, as an aside, I can’t help but wonder how much of a co-conspirator Joyce was in this dictional antiquarianism . . .
Behind you, encorona, the sun,
& I in the grass, looking up, saw a plane
insectile (without my glasses)
fly through your head
in one ear & out the other.
An illusion. The first love poems I knew were
prayers. What then of free fall’s
rash grace, wings sheared & released
into other trajectories? (Daedalus winds
the alleys, gathered as wreckage
in the arms of a harlot.)
“Encorona”: in a crown of sunlight! that nearly scientific “insectile”! These dense linguistic renderings forfeited the attention of some readers, particularly casual ones who value the kind of poetry that penetrates the blood-brain barrier of emotion in seconds flat. (My book’s emotion has more of a extended release effect, and often manifests itself as anxiety about violence in the Middle East and, closer to home, against the body and identity.) In an ultimately positive review of Signaletics, one reviewer suggested the missteps in the book were those places when I used “five-dollar words.”
I still believe this dictional maneuvering was appropriate for the project, as many of the book’s poems situate forensics or, at the very least, the body as its subject matter. The use of such diction mimicked the effect of coming to an obscure piece of “evidence” and having to make sense of it from its context. Additionally, it insists on language’s sovereign thingness—a body itself with tandem mysteries.
Although I wouldn’t go back and change a thing about that first book, I don’t think I could ever write the same poems again. Perhaps it was the death of my half brother in April 2012 followed by my diagnosis of stage-4 melanoma—really misdiagnosis, at least of its severity—in May 2013. Around the same time, however, I also began teaching with regularity, first at VCU and later as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.
In the classroom, I found myself realigning my linguistic tendencies in order to make the theory and craft of writing accessible and relevant to my students. I began to value and the teachability of and to spend more time with poems my own post-gradschoolian tastes splashed the “dull as bathwater” judgment on. Suddenly plainspokenness, especially the way it subverted my students’ feelings of inferiority and gave them access to an art form that they’d previously thought archaic in and of itself, became as rich as the elaborate linguistic confections of poets like Hart Crane or H.D. I found that plainspokenness also, in its way, taught students how to read more labyrinthine sentences with totemic diction, at least in how it increased students confidence in their abilities to read poetry. One poem that I teach often—which was also taught to me—is by Belle Waring, who passed away earlier this year, that begins its first sentence in the title:
It Was My First Nursing Job
and I was stupid in it. I thought a doctor wouldn’t be unkind.
One wouldn’t wait for a laboring woman to dilate ten cm.
He’d brace one hand up his patient’s vagina,
clamp the other on her pregnant belly, and force the fetus
through an eight-centimer cervix.
She tore, of course. Bled.
Of course, I worried that content here would dispel the immersive attentions of students who find the words “vagina” and “cervix” still funny, but, on the other hand, when I include this poem in a packet, my students always say its among their favorite poems they’ve ever read. They gravitate toward its candid exposition of narrative and the speaker’s fear, not to mention the conversational asides like “of course” that make the speaking feel authentic and, arguably, intimate, as if she’s telling the story to them herself. The poem later notes with some irony that the doctor was an elder in his church and that, upon delivering a stillborn baby, he “flipped open” the blanket . . .
to let the mother view the body, according to custom.
The baby lay beside her.
He lay stretched out and still.
What a pity, the doctor said.
He seized the baby’s penis between his own forefinger and thumb.
. . .
Look, said the doctor. A little boy. Just what we wanted.
His hand, huge on the child, held the penis as if he’d found
a lovecharm hidden in his grandmother’s linen.
And then he dropped it.
The doctor leaves without telling the baby’s father, forcing the speaker, inexperienced and in shock, to deliver the news. With mostly long, end-stopped lines in couplets, the poem doesn’t look like the whittled poetic miniatures my students read in high school, and while it does use literary devices like simile, nothing feels ornamental.
This exposure to and engagement with uncoded diction and plainspokenness—that means what it says and says what it means—particularly influenced my poems about my half-brother’s death and my cancer, including “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s.” Too much poeticizing didn’t seem appropriate for the subject matter, and I found myself—appropriately, as my students had pushed me in this direction—wanting to tell these poems to an audience not unlike my students, who desired vulnerability in both emotion and language. Because of teaching, my relationship to language has pangeacally realigned, away from the interior and intuitive to the conversational and exploratory.
If I had written “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” prior to this shift, I would’ve likely landed on a revelation of an image delivered so that the image felt estranged from the reader through a dictional obscurity, as a means to mimic the speaker’s own feelings of estrangement from her own image. Now, however, I can produce this effect without obscure diction, so that the reader doesn’t have to extrapolate what the speaker is thinking from the image but receives this information from the speaker herself: “I see myself as only I can, // as only the eye will have me— / as light, as light alone.” This, of course, means that the reader doesn’t only have to connect to the speaker intellectually but is actively acting upon an empathetic response.
Empathy and Relevancy
Teaching hasn’t only engineered technical shifts in my writing, it’s also influenced my the function of empathy in my poems.
I once had a student who balked at a short story called “Section 8” by Jaquira Díaz, a fierce rendering of a Latina girl’s struggle with juvie and her sexuality. “This isn’t relatable,” my student scoffed, “I don’t know why we’re reading it.”
At that moment, I banned the word “relatable” from my classroom, as it presupposes that all literature must appeal to all readers’ personal experiences and rejects the possibility that it’s the reader’s job to do that relating. (And it is the reader’s job!) I likewise vowed that all of my class texts would expose students to a variety of voices and backgrounds, as a means to honor Mark Doty’s notion that “Literature makes other people more real to us.”
As I’ve read more diverse texts with my students, our conversations include both craft issues and social concerns. In my fall Writing Poetry class, my students and I looked at poems that were in conversation with the events in Ferguson, poems like Jake Adam York’s “Postscript,” Lucille Clifton’s “Jasper Texas, 1998,” and Danez Smith’s “Alternate Names for Black Boys.” When one student, whose primary class persona was charismatic Devil’s Advocate, then said that he felt that poetry wasn’t relevant and couldn’t enact any change, several other students, all young women, jumped in before I could propose a counter-argument. “If poetry can help one person understand someone else a little bit better, it matters. It’s relevant,” my student N. insisted.
It’s with this in mind that I take to the classroom and the page, with the hope that I demonstrate empathy and generosity in my own work, bridging the gap with my poems rather than delineating the distance, just as my students have done so in our classroom discussions. I believe that my newest poems, those in my forthcoming second collection Groundspeed and my in-progress hybrid book Bluff, make the personal political, after my student’s idea and with the hope that, like one poem teaching us how to read another, knowing me through my poems will help readers know one another.
Purpose: To encourage students to be generous, curious, and discerning readers of poetry and to consider poetry’s impact on culture.
Readings:Poetry‘s July/August 2014 issue that includes poems by Dean Young, Philip Fried, D.A. Powell, Traci Brimhall, Devin Johnston, Rosanna Warren, Amanda Calderon, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rickey Laurentiis, Timothy Donnelly, and Alice Fulton
Sharing “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” Assignment
Several volunteers will share their “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” assignment (500 words, completed outside of class) in order to start a discussion on the topic. Students should feel free to debate this question, supporting and/or countering one another’s arguments. Some students may take a more person approach, answering the question “Why is poetry relevant to me, my life?,” whereas other students might consider macro reasons as in, “Why is poetry relevant to society? Our culture? Politics?”
ON POETRY’S RELEVANCY
In a class in which the term “relatable” is banned, it may be difficult to understand why the “relevancy” of poetry is, well, relevant to our discussion. Aren’t these two concepts synonymous? Don’t they both suggest poetry’s ability to appeal to our emotional, cultural, or intellectual needs? Let’s break it down. “Relatability” as a concept, used in comments like “The poem’s subject matter of a child’s dog being run over by a car is so relatable because we’ve all lost something or someone that’s close to us,” has the expectation that, as Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker, “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” “Relevancy,” however, suggests that the work has social or practical pertinence or applications, meaning you can use the poem as a means to access other points of view and to understand your own role in society. “Relatability” is a connection between what you’ve already done and what’s happening in the poem. “Relevancy” is a movement between who you are now and how you can understand what’s going on in the world. “Relatability” is predicated on the past, whereas “relevancy” is predicated on the present and, for some, what’s to come. One looks backward, one looks forward. “Relatability” is passive, and “relevancy” is active.
Patricia Smith’s poem “Skinhead” is in the persona of a white supremacist who says things like:
I’m just a white boy who loves his race,
fighting for a pure country.
Sometimes it’s just me. Sometimes three. Sometimes 30.
AIDS will take care of the faggots,
then it’s gon’ be white on black in the streets.
Scary, right? It may be helpful to know that Patricia Smith is a poet of African descent. So, ask yourselves, why has she chosen to write in the voice of a violent white supremacist? Perhaps it’s an act of empathy, of trying to understand this person, but I imagine it would be incredibly hard to have any sort of tenderness toward such a person. Or: she has chosen to draw our attention to this kind of voice in our country so that we can know about this sort of threat. Or: she has situated herself in direct with white supremacists and saying, “See, I know what you’re thinking.” In that way, it may make her appear stronger for having gone through the writing of this poem, and in some ways, she may have triumphed over this point of view by bearing witness to it. Whatever the reason, this poem is certainly not “relatable” to Patricia Smith or, I hope, to you. But is it relevant? Discuss.
Break up into groups of two or three. I will assign each group one poem from the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry that you read over the weekend. Read the poem, and then compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Now, do the following:
Write down how this poems moves. Is it narrative (it tells a story)? Associative, meaning it jumps around a lot? If it’s associative, consider how the poet jumps between each line? For instance, in “Romanticism 101” by Dean Young, what’s the train of thought that has “Then I realized I hadn’t secured the boat. / Then I realized my friend had lied to me. / Then I realized my dog was gone” all on the same tracks? (How do the boat/friend/dog relate?) Is it literal, meaning it sticks to “Just the facts” or does it employ figurative language like simile and metaphor (as Rosanna Warren does: “still she offered each song, / she said, like an Appalachian artifact.”)
Now compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Does this poem exemplify any of the points in your essays? Why or why not? Be sure to address points made in each essay.
If you didn’t think the poem exemplified some of your points, think of why other readers might find the poem valuable. If the poem did appeal to your points, think about why other readers might not think the poem is valuable? Consider multiple points of view. Write this down and type it up later as an addendum to your essays. Post it to Blackboard before Thursday, August 28th.
ON WRITING POEMS, WORKSHOP, AND READING LIKE A WRITER
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.
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 poetand/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.
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.
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?