Workshop Blues

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With my usual trepidation, I’m reading manuscripts, sharpening my perceptions, concocting exercises to prepare myself to lead another brief poetry writing workshop.  I’ve been a participant from time to time in the kind of leaderless, round robin cabal that often springs up when writers know each other, live close by and like to talk about both the age-old issues (like “who do you perceive as your audience?” and “why rhyme?”) and the immediate ones (like “wouldn’t an iambic verb carry the melody better here?” or “will this metaphor bear so much repetition?”).  The conversations usually helped me for a while, then sputtered out and began to seem like a task.  However, it’s been two decades since I was a participant.  Confession here: I’ve never actually been a student in the kind of semester-long for-credit college workshop (which might have saved me plenty of time), but I’ve taught some forty of those and been the leader of another thirty or so short-term, no-credit, for-the-art-of-it workshops.  What I’m headed for this weekend should be familiar territory.

Despite the fact that I’m a seasoned workshop leader, I’m always concerned that I’ll seem too ruthless, no matter how gently I try to break the news that a particular phrase is a cliche or that the whole sentimental content of a poem is bringing long-dead fish to the party.  There’s a delicate balance between being admirably honest and being harsh, and in a brief workshop, it’s hard to know how much criticism a particular participant can take.  Truth is, there’s a point for each of us when quantity trumps intent, and too much of even the most gentle criticism can begin to seem cruel.  What’s a body to do?  Seek the middle ground, straddle the fence, try to tell as much truth as the situation will bear.

My usual plan is to let the participants do the obvious work, while I walk behind, wiggling the switch, letting it crack now and then, even giving myself a touch or two.  It’s always a comfort to remember that this usually works; the stronger or more artful or more teacherly students will take to my mild guidance and do most of the talking, and when it’s time for me to sum up, I’m less the muleskinner than the mediator.  Of course, I can’t let my attention stray or fail to hear the nuances.  “Vigilance” is the watchword.  Sometimes someone will throw a live grenade into the action, and I have the job of getting the pin back in.

Happily, I have been supplied in advance with poems by the participants, and I’ve had time to peruse them, and as I did, I began to remember so many of the ingredients of the witches’ broth that makes a poem.  My rememberer rouses, and I start thinking, “I know how to do this.”

But it’s not a foolproof plan.  Three times my taking the backseat hasn’t really worked, and in all three cases the workshops were not as productive or provocative as I’d hoped for.  In one small workshop, the more skillful and erudite students simply tuned out when we came to the work of the weaker students.  Even when I called on them by name, they had little to offer.  Most of them had been in workshops together before, and the better students were simply tired of repeating basic advice.  So the buck stopped with me.  In another case, some of the students thought my comments were too demanding, so they became more a support network than a critical community.  They came to like everything their peers wrote.  I like to see a balance between these two, but I really don’t like to be the sole provocateur: it can result in an adversarial dynamic.  Two of the students in that second group made it a point to tell me that this workshop was usually taught by X, who was much more encouraging and thought the poems before the group were generally very good.  (If you notice that all this sounds generic — no descriptions of site, no atmospherics or humorous asides — it’s because I don’t want to punish any cats by letting them out of the bag.  I’ve tried to put most of the details behind me.)

Those two are far in the past, but about half a dozen years ago I went to a private retreat and directed a small workshop whose four core members (in a class of 7) had been in previous workshops together and were pals.  One of them was often paid to be the teacher, but in this case she had enrolled as a student because, as she said, she “respected my work so much.”  By the second day, that respect had turned to scorn.  This usual mentor for the group was certain that I was not only prejudiced against the content of her work but that I was part of a conspiracy to deny publication to the writers of the area they all hailed from.  When she wasn’t scolding, she was sulking, especially when I admired the work of other members.  When I praised hers, she still didn’t seem satisfied.  The great misfortune was that most of the other members were afraid of Ms. X, who’d been published a bit in the region, was clearly aggressive and would surely be their teacher again, probably soon.  Another, who didn’t seem to be afraid, told me she was embarrassed for Ms. X and felt sorry for her.  I remember we did a lot of exercises in the second half of the workshop, and I left feeling I could not claim success on this occasion.

But why am I telling you this?  I have some time to plot and design, learn and scribble, and I should get to it, make my notes, muster my resources, steel my nerves and still my soul.  After all, “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” as I like to begin a workshop, and I’m now confidently remembering how that poem can lay a foundation almost no one can crack.

However, if anyone out there is listening amid this dog days’ haze of a week, let me know what workshop tactics or approaches have proved to be the most or least valuable to you.  It’s not to late for me to alter my course, though the destination remains the same.

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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2 Responses to Workshop Blues

  1. Davis Enloe says:

    I have been advised more than once that it’s best to just “tell the truth and get out of the way of the consequences.” As pure and simple as this sounds the hard part is getting out of the way of the consequences–particularlly when you’re sitting around the same table in the same room in a poetry workshop. Having just completed a workshop phase of a well-known conference Rod’s concerns resonant with me. About one year ago I was loading a 600 pound motorcycle onto the back of my pick-up to travel to a well-known poetry conference that I was excited to attend. I was not happy with how it sat in the bed of the truck. So . . . I backed it out to reposition it more in the center of the bed. When my foot slipped off the ramp the bike did just what it was supposed to do and I did just what I was supposed to do. The bike flipped over and I jumped. Two realities came to me after this traumatic event in which I severed my right knee’s patella tendon and have spent the last year rehabbing it. First, young men land on their feet and old men land on their knees. Second, writing poetry is dangerous work.

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