Some Tools for the Workshop

Poetry Ireland News March/April 2013

If Edna St Vincent Millay was right when she wrote that ‘a person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down’, then bringing  [Katie Sheehan] poetry to a workshop is like taking a trip to the proctologist. And the doctor has invited his colleagues, you are a doctor yourself, and everyone involved is allotted time on the examining table. Suddenly we’re all a little more touchy and unpredictable, aren’t we? How, then, to approach the work at hand in a way that preserves everyone’s dignity and sense of common decency? With or without the drama of group dynamics, discussing someone else’s work is always a delicate matter. There is the danger of scaring a poet off. And the danger of reducing a poem to a list of shoulds where there had been an opportunity to explore craft and depth. What if we suspend the idea of improving or fixing the poems on the table and ask what can be learned from them instead? Approaching a poem with the curiosity of a journalist – and journalists’ trusty whos, whats, wheres, whens, whys and hows – opens up the discussion in a way that leaves personal taste and current fashion aside and lets the words on the page do the work of illuminating the practice of poetry.

‘who are you,little i’ – e.e. Cummings

The first thing I learned about workshopping is never to refer to the speaker in the poem as ‘you’, the poet. Even if the poem is autobiographical (which can be risky to assume), the subject matter is often close to the poet’s heart (people almost never bother to write about things they don’t care about). If there isn’t a bit of distance between the writer and her words, she is unlikely to be able to hear any of the other writers’ comments for the roar of personal attack in her ears. Better to ask the poem’s speaker and any other characters, quite independently of the poet, who they are – how they look, act, move, sound. Placing the diction of the poem helps to gauge its fit with the content. The same ideas can mean very different things if the tone is priestly, light-hearted, streetwise, managerial, etc.

‘What we feel most has 
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.’
– Jack Gilbert, ‘The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart’

Somewhere beneath all the metaphors, music and images, the poem must have some main topic, theme, concepts, perhaps even a narrative that pushes it along. What is the poem about then? And how deeply do you have to dig for it? Good poems are often at least a little bit hermetic and demand more than one reading. One of the best things a workshop can offer a poet is to show him whether the space he leaves for the reader is room for interpretation or an invitation to guesswork.

‘In the mirror it’s Sunday,
in dream there is room for sleeping’ 
– Paul Celan, ‘Corona’

When and where a poem is set are deceptively simple features, but they can go a long way toward explaining many of the images and metaphors at work. Context is often what makes a familiar image new and strange. I remember one workshop where a city poet hadn’t realised the foreboding he introduced into his piece with an image of wet hay in the countryside. In addition, tense can change the mood of a piece, and transitions between past and present may or may not be intentional.

‘unless it comes unasked out of your /
heart and your mind and your mouth /
and your gut, / don’t do it.’
– Charles Bukowski, ‘SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER?’

While I don’t advocate Bukowski’s minimum standards on guts, I do agree that poetry demands a bit more fire than most other forms of the printed word. Why was the poem written? And why read it? Whether love or the gods or death or aesthetics, something is always at stake in a piece of poetry, and whether it comes from the author’s mind or mouth or whatever, it’s almost definitely worth discussing.

‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’
– Emily Dickinson

How exactly does a poem do its headsevering work? Often it lies in the basic mechanics. Properties like structure and rhyme scheme (even internal ones) can set the tone of a piece. Sometimes, I like to start counting: How many lines? Stanzas? Lines per stanza? Syllables and beats per line? Often a poet won’t have noticed the work some accidental iambs are doing – or maybe the havoc they are creating. Assonance and alliteration, whether intentional or not, bring the music to what would otherwise be prose. Even isolating and enumerating the nouns and the verbs of a poem can help illuminate what drives the piece.

‘ “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong 
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.” ’ 
– Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘kitchenette building’

When I started attending workshops it was to fix individual poems and to improve my writing. I thought that some day I wouldn’t need other people to show me where a poem’s weaknesses lie or to tell me when it’s finished. Yet, after almost ten years, I still meet a friend every month or two to workshop a poem apiece. I don’t suppose, as Bukowski seems to, that my poetry must need to come into being, that I am its requisite vessel. I’m the one who needs it to help make sense of this life. Knowing there’s at least one reader and a good conversation ahead can be the inspiration it takes to begin another imperfect piece. Unfinished poems are opportunities to discuss not just craft, but the very stuff of poetry, and I’ve found that starting with simple questions tends to lead straight to the guts of the matter.

Katie Sheehan is a doctoral candidate in Trinity College Dublin. Her work has previously appeared in journals such as Poetry Ireland Review, Southword, and The Moth.

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