Reinventing the Workshop

I have to say it. While there is plenty of value in doing it the old fashioned way (you writers know the way I’m talking about), I must confess that it turns me on just a little bit when an instructor takes a new approach to the workshop. I think I mentioned this in my Alan Shapiro post. Well, tonight, I had a thrilling mini-workshop experience with one of the poets that George Mason University is looking to hire. I was about to type her name right here, but I hesitate to do so because of the politics of academia. Regardless, the workshop was like none that I have experienced before, and it was good.

Dare I say great?

If you’re not familiar with the conventional poetry workshop, it usually goes like this: The poet reads the poem out loud. The poet then shuts up while the others discuss the poem, what they think is working, what they don’t think is working, etc. The discussion follows its natural meandering course until the students can think of nothing more to say, and then the poet is asked if they have any other questions. This format serves the purpose. You get honest feedback on your work, you get the chance to see what crazy things people read into your writing that you might never have even known were there. You get a few brief moments where you’re not expected to say anything, in fact, it’s almost like becoming invisible (unless, of course, you’re like me and have the tendency to smirk a little bit when they get way off base).

Alan Shapiro took the layout and shifted it around a little bit. Instead of the poet waiting until the end to voice concerns about the work, after reading the poem aloud, they explain a little bit about their intentions for the piece, ask about areas they’ve been finding difficult, or any other questions they’ve been struggling with in the writing process. They are also allowed to speak or answer questions during the discussion. I felt that doing it this way provided a more direct entry into the poem and eliminated that awkward pause that always happens after the poet finishes reading when no one really knows how to start the conversation ball rolling. And people were still able to talk about the crazy things they saw (or didn’t see) in the poem in the context of “if you didn’t want me to think this, then why did you put it in there?” or something.

The workshop this afternoon was even wilder. It’s rather difficult to explain. We began in a freewrite. That’s where you write whatever comes into your head (perhaps on a given subject) during a predetermined amount of time. When the time is up, you are done. The freewrite topic was “basic elements of poetry.” After we finished writing, we went around the room to share some of our opinions on the subject. We then took these “basic elements” and applied them to some poems. One of the poems was mine, one was from another student, and one was from Lorine Niedecker, one from Robert Hayden. We then discussed all four poems somewhat simultaneously. Even though they had radically different strategies from each other. But talking about them in terms of the elements we had already touched on made them all connect. It was amazing.

I was also enthused because this potential faculty person, who doesn’t even have the job yet, wants to see a revision of my poem. Now that means I’ll have to really work on it, and play with it the way that she suggested, but it was really flattering and encouraging to see her care so much. I don’t know much about how the final selection process is going for the English Department, but even if this person is not hired, I am so glad I got the chance to meet with her and work with her, however briefly, because it is not a workshop experience that will be soon forgotten.


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