NOTHING PERSONAL: SOME THOUGHTS ON THE POETRY WORKSHOP by Jessica Colley
(PI News November/December 2009)
After an hour of concentrated debate and close reading, a group of poets at the Dromineer Literary Festival in early October heard something unusual. For anyone who has become accustomed to the vague praise and impractical suggestions on offer at certain writing workshops, poet Vona Groarke’s next statement was as refreshing as plunging into the icy Irish Sea.
The poem up for discussion contained a problematic first stanza. Members of the group had stated their case as to why the poem actually began at the second stanza, why the personal material of the opening might not be contributing to the poem. In response to the poet’s explanation of the background of the poem, and the importance of those events in his life, Groarke responded with, ‘So what?’
A silence fell over the room – no one had any experience of the correct etiquette after a statement of such nontraditional clarity. Groarke was suggesting that the raw material that contributes to our poems is not a poem in itself. And while these emotions, losses, and events may be significant to us personally, they might not be doing our poems any favours. We need to learn to separate our poetry from our personal lives. This may seem like common sense, and yet how often do writers ignore this maxim?
During the next tea break I started thinking about why we attend workshops and what we hope to gain from them. Workshops at festivals are a special breed of their own; a one-off chance meeting of strangers, unlike the continuing dialogue achieved in writers’ groups or university programs. So why spend a Saturday morning in a room full of unfamiliar faces, when we could be at our desks with a pile of books and time to write?
The answer is for pleasure. We spend significant time alone writing, and the simple act of gathering to discuss craft, obstacles to progress, and our mutual love of language can carry us through times of frustration. We can bring a poem that (we hope) is almost complete, and with the help of the workshop, finally finish it. Alternatively, we can choose an early draft of something new we’ve been working on, and discover the many directions it can take. And yet, do we ever know what we’re signing up for when we join a new workshop?
There are flaws in the workshop system which we all have to cope with: participants who share lengthy life stories to make an irrelevant point, the poet who alw ays brings a too-polished piece anticipating praise, or the writer who brings just two scruffy photocopies of a poem for a workshop of twelve and expects comprehensive feedback from everyone.
Yet the compensation comes in the form of those moments that remind us why we workshop. With one line altered, even with one word changed, a poem can reach its full potential. For the first time in a poem’s life, we may see others gaining pleasure from its shape, its language, its allusions. Despite the pitfalls of workshops, we keep returning to them because they offer the promise to breathe new life into our work.
Another question Groarke asked during the workshop was, ‘ How is the poem comfortable?’ With this question, the poem was given some sort of predestined existence. I started thinking about chromosomes and personality traits – could a poem have all these things too? Does it just take a bit of nurturing of a poem to find out how it must develop into the form in which it is most ‘comfortable’?
This reminded me of how infants have an incredible ability to communicate their needs to parents, and how parents develop an instinct towards meeting these needs. At the Dromineer Literary Festival I began to hope that although I might be a ‘new parent’ with my writing, in the future I might be able to listen more carefully to what my poems are saying. Sometimes this doesn’t equate to what makes me, the poet, most comfortable. It can be difficult to remove personal, or self-indulgent elements from our poems. When I’m staring at this particular type of line during revision, I can hear the voice of a poetry professor in college who told me, ‘Poetry isn’t therapy.’
The format of the workshop at Dromineer was fresh as well. Groarke not only had the poet read their piece aloud to begin discussion, but followed that with a second reading by another member of the group.The act of hearing your poem read by another poet – who wasn’t familiar with the line breaks and had to attend to the clues of punctuation on the page – was enlightening.
Another typical problem with workshops often comes next: that first few minutes of polite praise that normally follows the reading aloud, the ‘pat on the back’ phase that eats into the precious two-hour time slot. Then what usually happens is that the discussion progresses into an in-depth analysis of your poem just as your fifteen minutes runs out and it’s time for the next poet. While we do need time to manoeuvre through the trajectory of the poem, I personally would rather take two minutes to do so quietly, and leave as much time as possible for critical work. This misuse of time wasn’t at all the case during Groarke’s workshop – and I was struck by her ability, even during her opening comments on each submission, to pinpoint the exact moment of ‘wobbling’ in the poem.
Of course our own lives and the lives of others provide the substance for our work; but that Saturday morning in Dromineer reminded me that poetry, in its craft, isn’t personal. ‘So what?’ is a difficult but necessary question for those of us who consider ourselves emerging poets to ask. A poem needs to be able to stand on its own two feet. As the poem’s parent, it is my job to sculpt it to do so.
Jessica Colley is a freelance travel writer and developing poet. Her work has been published in literary magazines of her native USA. She blogs about travel, writing and living abroad at www.thegreatamericantraveldream.com