A Critique of Culture: Navigating the World of Workshops

In the past, I have been careful about writing about the current poetic trend of workshop culture. Running workshops is a primary (and much-needed) source of income for a great many professional poets. Sometimes it can become a means of gaining personal prestige. There is certainly a market for workshops. A great many people want to learn how to write poetry, and that is a good and noble goal, but there is a difference between learning how to write poetry and attending a workshop.

A student learns how to write poetry by applying themselves to the study of poetry, by reading vastly, deeply and well. A good student reads considerably more than they write, and they read the classics as often as the works of their contemporaries. A student of poetry (of any age – we aim, as poets, to be master and student at once, and all our lives) might apprentice themselves to a recognized master, might show their work to those masters (assuming that the master in question is still alive) and, if they are enrolled in a degree program, they allow their work to be parsed by their lecturers.

Some poets meet in small groups (also called workshops) though these are often meetings of peers, without leaders, dedicated to discerning the intent of the poem and helping it (as an individual entity) reach its full potential.

Some workshops are led by one poet who is dedicated to helping beginning or intermediate writers discover and develop their own unique voices, allowing them to sprout their own, instantly recognizable poetic thumbprint. This is a difficult variety of workshop to run because the leader must divorce themselves from taste, and sometimes from their own philosophy, and view each poem as a perfectible object, detached from the context of personality. The leaders of these workshops do their best for forms, themes, or subjects that they find distasteful. They must encourage high literary quality, individuality, and eschew the easy vice of complacent conformity. This is difficult work, and the poets who can manage it earn their money.

Some poets meet in larger groups (online or in flesh) led by one ‘recognized’ voice, following one vision of what a poem ‘ought’ to be, adhering to one idea of the themes and images that are ‘suitable’ for poetry. Sometimes these leaders are incapable of discerning the difference between ‘good poetry’ and their own personal tastes. These workshops often become a faddish cult of personality, and the workshoppers tend to develop into little more than mediocre mimics. This would be the kind of workshop to avoid.

Luckily, this third variety presents a number of easily recognizable symptoms that should make it a little easier to avoid them. I’ve cobbled together a list of observations here, feel free to add any of your own that you feel I might have missed:

1) The insistence, blatant or subtle, that poetry has rules that a poem must adhere to (in every case) in order to be ‘successful’. One ‘rule’ that is often trotted out is that every line must begin and end with an ‘interesting’ word, regardless of the rhythm or intention of the poem. There are poems with ‘dull’ individual lines that context elevates to brilliance. I was reminded today of William Carlos Williams’ wonderful ‘This Is Just To Say’ which uses very ‘ordinary’ words to tremendously powerful effect.

2) The insistence that all poems must be plain-spoken, that in order to say anything meaningful the diction must be entirely unornamented, belonging purely to the present day. Milton’s diction is occasionally ornate, but one always understands what he is saying.the ideas are clear, and beautifully presented.
3) The demand that every poet write with an open thesaurus by their elbow, translating every word into needlessly obscure text that boggles the brain and ensures that everyone knows that the poet is, indeed, very clever.

3) The leader picks prompt that reflect their own limited imagination and either overtly states or implies that these are the only ‘appropriate’ themes for poetry to pursue. Some of the good workshop leaders use prompts, but these are usually based in the visual arts. Some of them do use themes, but if the leader of the workshop reacts badly to your exploration of what a theme could mean (if, say, the theme is the body and you write about decomposition) then you are probably in a bad group.

4) Forms are either not encouraged or, if they are introduced, you are not encouraged to experiment with them. In such groups it is shocking (to me) how rarely the workshop leader acknowledges that Free Verse is, itself, a form.

5) After a few weeks you notice that besides sharing similar themes the poems begin to share a sound, a tone. If any poem in the group looks like it could (conceivably) have been written by any other poet in that group get out. Fast.

6) The poems produced in the workshop begin to sound like they could have been written by the leader of the workshop; after a traumatic brain injury. This is, most often, the trend introduced in number 5, brought to fulfillment.

7) The perceived approval of the workshop leader becomes more important to you than the success of the poem. Political alliances are formed within the group, focusing on interpersonal power. If the quality of the poems you are creating begins to matter less than interpersonal popularity or status within the group, or if you begin to see the production of quality poems as a means of gaining these things, you are learning to be a politician, not a poet.

Rules are often poetic shorthand, an easy way of pinning down elusive ‘literary’ quality. Unfortunately, in order to mount a butterfly, the entomologist is required to kill it. It’s much better to leave the poor things alive, even if they shag themselves to death while the wind whips their wings ragged.

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5 thoughts on “A Critique of Culture: Navigating the World of Workshops

  1. I’m glad to say that this doesn’t represent any of the workshops I’ve attended. I’ve seen the marks of it on submitted poems when I’ve been editing or judging – what Susan Hill calls ‘the cold, dead hand of the bad creative writing course or workshop’ (though the former is a different thing that varies enormously).
    What workshops can offer is permission to write – enough confidence to put pen to paper. I sobbed myself to sleep the night before I went to university, assuming that I was too stupid to go. Once I got there, it took about five seconds for me to realise that my assumption was wrong. I wrote poems and short stories but never showed them to anyone, assuming again that they were worthless. The encouragement and help I’ve received at workshops has been invaluable as an antidote to that, and without it I would never have dared to enter the world of sharing poems. Reading widely didn’t help me to talk to others about my poetry. I was scared to go to that first workshop – but what if I hadn’t? Maybe the world of poetry could do without my voice, but there are others who have been helped similarly. I’d hate poetry to be left solely to those who don’t need help with their confidence.

    • By no means am I anti-workshop, Cathy. I acknowledge that they can be very helpful. If I believed otherwise I would not have praised those workshop leaders who, in my words, ‘earn their money’. This post was designed to help people seeking out the workshop experience separate the wheat from the chaff. If your work is improving, you’ve found a good one. Keep it up.

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