How much work could a workshop shop?
It occurs to me nearly a week into this guest blogging gig that I’ve done nothing to introduce myself. Maybe the obvious – I’m a poet with Red Hen Press – was always apparent, maybe not. I now teach creative writing and literature classes at the University of Louisville after having been on the faculty at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon for ten years. I also write fiction and do a lot of book reviewing, and my next project with Red Hen is an anthology and introductory poetry-writing textbook, all in one.
But what does this have to do with the title of this blog, though? (Even if learning more about me is actually the whole purpose of the blog and why I’ve delayed so long in sharing that seems weird.)
I began by indulging this impulse to introduce oneself, to self-identify, to explain, apologize and make excuses because I think that’s the primary and motivating force behind the workshop setting in the introductory class. I think the reason the workshop in the intro class becomes so high stakes (and thus keeps the conversation from becoming as productive as it could be) is that, perhaps more than any other academic experience, it is the individual self that is on display and under scrutiny. And though a major goal, ultimately, of the workshop and considerations of revisions generally is to begin to separate the originating self that produced the poem from the public artifact of the poem, in the introductory class students are not yet ready to make that separation.
And that’s why in my introduction to creative writing class when it’s your turn to be “workshopped” (ack. is that a word?) you get to talk. Not a ton, but some. And, you actually get to talk first.
On the point of talking first, students don’t get to backstory and explain the whole poem (the way, for instance, we all do when we present a poem at a reading, thereby corralling the appropriate emotions in our audience), but I do ask them two things. First, I will have selected one of the five poems they’ve turned in with their “packet” of poems for the poetry unit (I should make clear here that much of what I’ve said in the posts this week refers to my experience teaching a three-genre, introductory class). Then I ask them to select an additional poem of their choice for consideration. I like the buy in this gives them to the process.
Second, I ask them, prior to discussion, if there are corrections or a minor revision they need to point out. I was stunned to find out, for instance, that at one point the main reason students often capitalized the first line of their poems was because they didn’t know how to turn “auto correct” off Word. This bit takes care of any irrelevant comments about surface errors introductory student responders are likely to make and which are — in the introductory setting — beside the point generally. Further, if during the course of the workshop if the class clearly “stuck” on some point of information, I will ask the poet to clear it up for us. It might be small – such as a historical or geographic reference of some sort in a poem that is critical (and, thus a great teaching opportunity for using epigraphs) – or large, for instance: are you talking about your girlfriend or your mother in this poem?
In any case, I believe that the point a workshop must make about the poem being able to stand on its own is made very clearly by the conversation that precedes the poet’s explanation, and almost always it is a relief for everyone to clear up the confusion. The workshop then unfolds much more productively.
The hazard to this method (with which some of you will not doubt disagree) is that some students will volunteer too much information; will offer immediate responses even when a responder is following a line of critique that is informed and appropriate; or will even correct responders unprompted – all of which can shut down conversation. Fortunately, the naturally chatty students are also the ones most amenable to being prompted to please hold comments until asked.
In my experience, this opportunity to explain and identify intentions helps tremendously with the primary anxiety and obstacle in the beginning workshop: students’ inability to separate the poem (faulty, broken, insufficient – as writing always is) from their own identity, which they largely perceive as whole.
I am certain, though, that there are differences of opinion about how to make a workshop, work; when students should talk and when they should not. Any apologists for the silent approach? You’re free to speak.