Empowerment through Language...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Complacency Is a Slow Death - Last Part (for now...)

Our workshop met for the last time yesterday, a 6-week cycle of sessions that I hope directed the writers to new ways of thinking about their work and, for a few, created fuel for new poems and directions.

They took the assignment seriously. Each brought a revision of my poem or a complete rewrite as they would envision it, as I had instructed. Several were still reticent to mess with my poem, others were quite comfortable taking it apart and making it something different and new.

I learned a lot about what the poem may be able to accomplish and why. I also recognized how completely buried I had become in the clever language that enamored me in the first place. It has been more than 2 years since the first draft and at least 18 months since the last so now I have a remarkably clear vision to rely upon in bringing the poem to its potential. I appreciate the efforts of each of the participants and I trust that the activity gave them something to consider as writers and editors.

I spoke last Saturday to my dear friend, Phil Alexander. We make a habit of sharing a weekend morning of puttering in our respective homes, his condo apartment in Brooklyn, my Victorian home in Syracuse, our headsets in our ears or phones on speaker, coffee cups probably in hand, and the little chores that need to be met.

We were talking about process and writing. I was discussing the purpose of being a poet and suggested that it is simply to make art, to investigate and experiment with language. Phil added that it was to use language to share a thought, feeling, or inspiration. I countered that I considered that the goal, but that to make a poem is about the discovery of the possibilities of language as a painter discovers the possibilities of paint in the experimentation. To me, in this stage of my life as a writing artist, the goal is secondary to the making; the product is secondary to process. 

Then Phil suggested that the poem communicates to another the essence of the artist and the artist's beliefs and understanding. I suggested that, to me, that is the mission. The process is for the purity of making art. The goal is to make art that another responds to, and the mission is to make art that translates meaning and experience to others in a valuable and conscious way. In speaking with my dear friend, once again, I clarified my own mission statement. Thanks Phil!

Thanks to those members of my poetry workshop too. Not only did they share process and craft with each other while they created new work, they also supported my efforts to continue to be a teaching artist. I am blessed with abundance in this life because I have such people to share it with me, who believe in me, who see me through, and show me the way to all things, including the potential of my own work.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Complacency Is a Slow Death - Part 2

The workshop conversation regarding critique and how we may learn from each other, provide new lenses with which to observe our own work was such a prod to me that I chose to take a tact that I have done before: I distributed copies of one of my own poems that is particularly troubling me and assigned the homework for the week - rewrite the poem. I instructed the workshop members to take full liberty. They were to read the poem and try to find a better way for the poem to reach its potential. There were no restrictions on how to do this.

I have done this before, mostly with introductory classes after I have driven home the revision process and its value. I have received comments from colleagues that this is "brave," "courageous," even "How can you do that? I never could." 

I don't see why this is so brave? I want to drive home a number of points: I am just as prone to be stymied by a poem and the best way out is someone else's perspective on the poem itself and as well as their sense of the craft; although we honor the work, it is not so sacred that we can't let people play in it a little bit; and the process of discovery is the point. If I grant permission to mess it up, then have at it with hole heart and see what may be found. 

Additionally, in having to reinterpret a poem, or to reflect the style of another poet, one gains as well. Having to respond to a poem by another writer in this way eliminates the emotional attachment that blocks some writers from comprehensive revision. The habit of revision must be cultivated and this is a fine exercise to support that cultivation, or so I believe. Plus, I am not so attached to my poem that I mind new interpretations. If I do not find anything that I value in the comments, it is my choice to not employ them, as is always the case with workshop comments. We, the poets, must always listen and then determine which of the comments support the essence of the poem, if any, and then make some changes based on what was gleaned.

I am looking forward to the results of the assignment. We will meet on Thursday for our last session of the summer. We will compare and contrast all of the interpretations of my poem and I will listen well. Then maybe I will distill all the comments in a way that I find the success that has eluded me thus far. I will report out to the blogosphere later in the week and share what resulted from this little foray.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Complacency Is a Slow Death

This summer, as I focus on teaching adults rather than classrooms of school kids, a conversation surfaced in the poetry workshop regarding critique and suggestions from one writer to another.

One of the workshop participants took issue with another participant for the habit of offering rewrite suggestions. He felt that it was against protocol to rewrite another poet's work. This gentleman stated that he was very interested in receiving "harsh criticism" but that no one should rewrite his draft. Meanwhile, another member of the workshop was grappling with receiving comments from the other writers that did not suggest options for revision; he felt that simply stating what a reader felt was or was not successful does not deliver enough to help him make critical decisions for the growth of his work. He wants to be given examples of "how to fix it."

Here we have the age-old debate concerning workshopping. Workshop is the best way for any writer to take the work to a "control group" to ascertain its effectiveness and strengths. It is necessary to maintain an air of mutual regard. It is also supremely important to remember the difference between "critique" and "criticism." The difference also connects directly to ego issues on both sides. There must be an air of safety and respect among all participants for a beneficial exchange. A skilled facilitator will set that tone in the beginning and expect it to be maintained throughout the life of the workshop.

There are those who believe that there is no place for one poet rewriting another's work but I do not concur. In fact, my answer to the first gentleman was "Yes and no." No to the concept that a poem brought to workshop is so sacred that it cannot benefit from the ways that other writers may see the potential for the language and offer suggestions in tangible ways. Yes to the point that if, in the editorial suggestions, the person offering critique changes the context of the poem, that is not appropriate. We must strive to maintain the intention of the poem, but to provide viable options for the poet to consider. Then it is the poet's choice as to which suggestions will help deliver the success of the poem for the greatest readership.

In workshop, a poet has two jobs: to fairly offer critique to peers that will show a writer how much the poem is connecting with readers in a positive manner and to listen to comments about one's own poem in order to weigh the considerations fairly in developing the work. The fundamental difference between the words critique and criticism is that the first is a positive commentary that provides a constructive opportunity for discovery in the work; the second is based in negative response and can be hurtful. There is no place for criticism in workshop but critique is the foundation of the workshop process.

I have often heard poets who participate in ongoing workshops say that they were not planning to attend a session because they did not have any work to share. This misses the first responsibility of a workshop participant, that which each writer brings to the others. This is based on just getting one's own needs met without reciprocity. I believe it is a selfish  indulgence and negates what we all give each other in the workshop process. It also negates the ability to hear something regarding craft that will teach or illustrate something that may be incorporated in one's own work as the commentary flies. As members discuss one poem, all that craft discussion is applicable to the whole. Listen well.

Two other elements of a successful workshop experience are that of nonattachment and the willingness to revise for discovery. Do not bring a piece of writing that you are delighted with and feel is complete. If you are so satisfied, fine. Send the work out to be considered for publication. Mail it to your mom. Don't bring it to workshop for a pat on the back; stretch your arm over your shoulder and give that to yourself.

Do bring a poem that you either believe is very close and could benefit from the last phase of tweaking so every word brings value to the whole or bring a poem that stymies you. Make the workshop experience productive, one that shows you new approaches and opportunities that will benefit your poetry.

You must be able to develop a thick skin, a nonattachment to the work that will give you free reign to discover what the poem wants to be more than what you believe it is. We must be the navigators, holding the map and watching the road, but we benefit by letting the poem be the driver.

This nonattachment features strongly in the profile of a mature writer, one who knows that it is not about the end product as much as it is about the process. The life of the writer is of writing and creating but many seem to think that it is about publishing and there is a crush to meet that goal that results in work that is almost meeting its own potential but falls inches short of the true finish line. Again I ask, "What is the rush?" Honor the poem first! Take the time to fully serve its potential. Be willing to cut and change, to look up words and search for the perfect synonym. Be willing to let the poem fully evolve and take its time in so doing. Be willing to allow others to offer suggestions that they recognize, potentials they witness, in the off chance their vision as a reader will give you a key to another door of possibility for the life of your poem.

And for heaven's sake, never indulge in complacency. If you cannot be open to grow and experiment, you are not a poet, you are someone who writes poems, and that difference is as vast as the two definitions I cited above. There is no place for complacency in making art.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What a Difference a Day Makes - Some Thoughts on Memoir

This summer I am teaching another in a series of memoir workshops. My approach in this class is somewhat different from previous classes. Instead of offering a number of writing prompts and approaches for initiating the story lines, I asked the participants to determine a thread or theme for the entire 6 weeks, creating the goal of a completed piece or series, declaring the outcome of success and achievement from the start.

In reading memoir in the last few years, I keep encountering the profile of the privileged woman with a loyal and committed husband, a successful career (often as a freelance writer), even a great cat or dog, and a malaise that can only be satisfied by taking a year off in some exotic land or ritualistic endeavor. Of course, there is likely the complaint of a decrease in discretionary funding but it will all work out because these women also have book deals.

Another model for a successful memoir is often the pot-boiler tell-all that shares the sordid and painful details of a troubled life, the horrid things that an individual has endured and every skeleton uncloseted for the shock value and loads of book sales, especially if the author is famous or the child of someone famous.

Then there are the exceptions to these two examples, the well-written, touching, and authentic sharing of one's personal story. Anne Lamott is a prime example; Patti Smith, Stephanie Hubbard, Kathleen Norris all meet that mark as well.

Everyone's story is important. We are losing the stories of previous generations, the ties to our families, our heritage, history itself. Start your story. Start it simply...what was the first day of school like, your first job, your first date, how did you learn to cook, describe the bathroom of the home you grew up in. Dedicate a file folder on your computer. Purchase a spiral notebook or a blank journal. Don't worry about whether or not you are a "good writer." Write the way you would tell a friend. Just start...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Found Post: "Sunday - The Night Before..."

In the process of tweaking the blog site, I discovered this last post that I did not publish from the school year. I still want to share the sentiment, even though it is now summer and this moment is long gone. It is like my own blogosphere time machine. Please enjoy:

This is the time of year when the drive from Syracuse downstate to teach for the week is the most subtle and encouraging. The snows are not so far behind that there is no evidence. The trees along the hills and shoulder have a hint of green, as if someone sifted pale green powder over the branches. Others are tinged red as malbec. Everything is waking up from the hibernation and the sun will soon be gold again, instead of silver.

I will start my last residency of the school year tomorrow. I will meet approximately 75 more 3rd graders at another school. I will invite them into the magical world of my poetry game and I will likely succeed in getting them all playing with me. I am probably at my best with 3rd graders. I have an appreciation for every age group with whom I work and share poetry. Each age, even generation, brings something different to the experience. But when I am in elementary schools, the imaginative play is still there. And, given this time in American education, it is probably the most valuable thing I can offer the teachers and students alike - the chance to find another way of learning with creativity and imagination. We are all hungry for it these days but it is more noticeable in our schools.
There is a thirst for the opportunity to teach with a freedom that teachers once had. So I get to deliver a few moments of play and poetry together. I get to laugh and bounce through the room and prod and pose countless questions. With 3rd graders, I get to invite them to think of themselves as quite extraordinary and offer them a special mission. Inside that new grouping of words rests the solution to a mystery. The words are not always attainable in the first reading and that is not a bad thing. That is an opportunity to put our detective skills to work.

In the "Poetry Detectives" virtual video game, the full impact of the premise is realized with elementary students. They are willing to buy my spiel...they put on their "official, imaginary, invisible Poetry Detective thinking caps" with flourish. They brandish their "official, imaginary, invisible Poetry Detective badges" as they claim their identities as word sleuths. Then they peer through their "official, imaginary, invisible Poetry Detective magnifying glasses" as they ponder every word; their first hint in the game being that there is never a word in a poem by accident. Each word the poet selects serves a purpose in determining what we think the poet wants us to know, feel, think, or understand from reading the poem.

In middle school, the video game construct works well but we lose the imaginary play that makes it so vibrant with the younger children. The competition takes precedence over the imaginary factors. The students still strive but in a different way. 

High school is different still and the coolness factor creates greater hurdles to leap to create and sustain engagement. But the metaphor still works.

On Sunday evenings, I start to think of the smiles, the questions, the schedule, refreshing my memory of the school map, etc. I think about the cafeteria specials that each school is noted for. I remember the names of staff members such as the Library/Media Specialists, the school secretarial staff, the front desk security folks who check my license and welcome me in. Soon it will be time to boot up the game.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Fate, Discovery, & Sunday a.m. Television

I woke to a gray, heavy July Sunday morning, thick as flour, damp to the nose, quiet. I am reading Patti Smith's tender memoir, Just Kids, and I waited to make coffee for at least an hour. Then I infused the moist air with the incense of coffee perking, the syncopation.

Next, I immersed in my weekly ritual, "CBS Sunday Morning." That program always airs something that makes me wonder, something that makes me more aware, and always an amusement, along with a thoughtful meditation on humor.

Afterwards, I stumbled on "Kool: Dancing in My Mind" on Sundance. Choreographer and director Robert Wilson documented his journey to find his collaborator from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Japanese dancer Suzushi Hanayagi, with whom he had lost touch.

His dear friend, a dancer, an artist equally gifted in both Japanese traditional dance and the most avante garde modern, was in a facility in Japan for elders with Alzheimer's. Graciously and gracefully, the 30-minute documentary illustrates the essence of their art as dancers and philosophers, and how they collaborated to make dances. The reunion and its implications were poignant. The dance expansive and impeccable.

I adore any book or video that illustrates the creative process, no matter the artistic discipline or medium. In this film, it was Robert Wilson's articulation of making a dance, making a piece that caught my ear. Dancers make a piece; poets write one. The context for me is one of active involvement somehow. Making a poem opens the potential for the work to guide us more than writing a poem seems to imply to me; it expands the promise, the vow of discovery.

At the beginning of the film, Mr. Wilson avers, "The most important thing, as an artist, is not to say what something is; because, if we know what it is we're doing, there's no reason to do it. The reason to work is to say What is it?"

Anyone can be safe in making art. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe danced that difference between each other and within themselves, I am learning. Safe is okay for some but seems somehow mundane to me, at this point. Writing a poem seems safe. Making a poem must somehow involve taking a risk, refusing complacency.

The making of a poem is about process. The writing of a poem is a concern rooted in product. Again, I am prompted to my repeated question of myself and to my students, "What's the rush?" The act of making a poem is the glorious mystery of what it will achieve, given its own journey, what it make aspire to express. In making a poem, the poem is the driver, the poet holds the map and navigates. Our fingers dance what the poem asks of us, leaving a notation of that choreography on the page.