Lillian Bertram, Thinking Out Loud about the Workshop—Again.

29 Jan

Lillian Bertram Thinking Out Loud about the Workshop—AgainI recently returned to the joys of higher education as a student. I spent a short time on a teaching fellowship, teaching bright-faced undergrads at Williams College and it was the best time of my life. Returning to school to get a PhD was the “practical” thing to do (not in the context of the “real world”, of course, but in the context of the “MFA will soon show its obsolescence on the job market” world[1]) and it is something like subjecting oneself to being run over by a truck in order to one day hopefully re-experience the joys of walking. Getting thrust back into school, in particular the workshop, is a difficult adjustment for reasons which I will briefly try to enumerate here.

This time around I find myself increasingly unsettled by the discourses of desire that crop up in workshop; discourses used without any critical discussion of why they are being used, where they come from, their purpose, etc. Surely this has been the case in prior workshops that I have been in, but it didn’t unsettle me until now. I am surprised at how often I hear things like “I would like this more if….”, “This would be a better poem if it did ____________.” What does it mean to the poem and to the poet that someone would like his or her poem more if it did something other than what it was doing? And what does it mean that a person “wants” the poem to do X/be Y? Without any real discussion of where it comes from, what it is doing here, how it affects the process, or that it has even joined the conversation at all—Desire comes into the room and sets up her/his influential shop. I’ll pose a question I don’t have an answer for: What is the place of want in the workshop?

What can be troublesome about reading a poem and saying in the workshop that “I want this poem to do/be _________”is that it takes the emphasis off the poem as presented. The subject of the discourse, and the discussion of the poem, becomes the person who is speaking. The discussion is couched within the framework of that person’s individual desire, which itself is situated within all sorts of contexts that influence the reading and discussion of a poem. The same goes for concepts of “betterment”. Too often it seems that comments like “This would be better if…” typically ignore the poem’s current attempts at being the best version of whatever it is trying to be and project some detached abstract notion of the speaker’s sense of betterment and poetry. And if a reader can’t quite figure out what the poem is trying to be in its current state—well, that’s a great topic for discussion!

It is often said that one brings to a poem everything they have ever read and know about poetry.  One might also bring what he or she ate for lunch to the poem—who knows. If this is the case, and if we agree upon it, then I think that at the very least a workshop might be better served if, at the start of it, there is some discussion as to what that “everything” is for the individuals concerned.

But back to the trouble spot—the attention of the poem being displaced off of the poem.  I don’t think this has to be troublesome. It might sound like I am contradicting myself, and maybe in some ways I am, but I think that what we desire from a poem or want a poem to do can be part of the discussion about the poem, and a meaningful part at that. I think this is most likely to happen when the workshop space itself is contextualized to encourage and support that kind of theoretical discussion. In some places I am sure this happens and these questions are openly discussed, but in workshops where it doesn’t, it might be time.

This is why I think context to a workshop is helpful. Too often workshops begin at a trot with the poem-writing and -shopping and no critical reflection on the workshop space and the participants within it. When we show up at a workshop, especially in an MFA or PhD program, there is the sense or expectation that we know what is going to happen when we gather around that table, and that we have all gathered there for similar, if not the same, reasons. There are a lot of assumptions:  we are all going to be cordial, no one is going to make a personal attack or micro-aggression and if so, such a move won’t go unaddressed; no one is going to “explain” their poem or run to its defense with things like “you’re just a shitty reader, that’s why you don’t get it” or talk during the no-talking-by-the-poet segment.

But we aren’t all there for the same reasons. We might not even all agree on the merits and purposes of a workshop, much less on whether or not the so-called rules make sense. Some of us might think the workshop is a place to “fix” poems, others might think the workshop is a “lab” for experimenting with writing and reading, and others might come to it thinking the workshop is a place for rich and focused discussion on the very acts of reading, writing, and workshopping.

These are the kinds of things that I think could be, and should be, discussed before a poem even gets passed out. Why are we all here? What kinds of readers are we, or think we are? What do we think the purpose is of the workshop? If we are going to say that the point of the workshop is to focus on the poem as it is in front of us, then that, too, needs to be acknowledged and discussed as a particular kind of approach and context for the workshopping.

Maybe such discussions mean we won’t be “producing” as much throughout the semester or “workshopping” as many poems (and the idea of producing to meet quotas and workshop as a kind of quality control distastefully yokes the supposedly creative environment to the capitalistic ethos…) or maybe it means the opposite. Either way, there are a handful of semesters and a lot of people in close contact that such discussions can be dynamic and ongoing within departments. At the very least, the workshop does seem like the most opportune environment to openly discuss our tendencies as writers and readers and thinkers.


To quote myself: “When we show up at a workshop, especially in an MFA or PhD program, there is the sense or expectation that we know what is going to happen when we gather around that table, and that we have all gathered there for similar, if not the same, reasons.” When I wrote that I thought “gosh, that sounds awfully boring.” The painful part of returning to school has been the boredom that comes with the routine. For some people, sitting in a seminar chair (in some cases the same one) for more than one class after another and passing to the left, passing to the right, is pure joy. For others (like myself), it is torture and I find it physically painful. To add insult to injury, some of the rooms don’t even have windows! Graduate workshops typically run long and sometimes late. You’re there for 3+ hours, in a none-too-forgiving chair with the plush long gone, with a short break somewhere near the middle. Before the semester began I went to get a deep tissue Reiki massage in the anticipation of knowing that the very next day I would, for no less than 7 consecutive hours, be sitting in a chair listening to someone talk about literature, followed by more listening to someone else talk about a different strain of literature, and then go to workshop where we would pass to the left.

As someone who has become more conscious of my body as a living organism that reacts to its surroundings and directs me through the world in such a way as to keep me alive—the seminar room can be sad and claustrophobic and at its worst, antithetical to life. I know this doesn’t go for all rooms or workshops. My friend Michael Martone often takes his students outside, disperses them throughout the building, and maybe even has them run relay races—who knows—and amps up the creative energy. So much in our modern lives is rote. The workshop, for instance, with its formulas and rules, the strictures of its chairs—takes place in a setting (the University) that can’t help but force many bodies into unforgiving routines. When the body is stifled, so is the mind. (At my bleakest moments I am inclined to think that there is nothing “creative”, much less free, about the “creative writing program”.  Even the placement of “creative” so close to “program” invites a laugh.) I am all for mixing it up, for any means necessary to make the workshop (and all classes!) more conscious, dynamic, and experiential environments.


PS: I also advocate modification of the no-talking-by-the-poet-except-to-ask-questions-at-the- end rule. Instead, let’s talk to the poet, ask what his or her goals are with the work and if need be, to (gasp) explain the poem. At some point, workshop students will probably have to talk about their work in an intelligent manner and not just sit mum while hearing others talk about it, so why not get some practice in now?

PPS: Lest I sound all gloom and doom about The Program, I am, for the record, having a blast.

[1] I’m not trying to panic anyone. I don’t have any evidence or proof of this.

lillian bertram but a storm is blowing from paradiseLillian-Yvonne Bertram has been a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference work-study scholar, a writer-in-residence at the Montana Artists’ Refuge, and is a Cave Canem alumna. Her poetry has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Narrative Magazine, Subtropics, and other journals. She received first place in the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars poetry contest, has won the Gulf Coast Magazine Donald Barthelme Prize for Short Prose, and has received second place in Narrative Magazine’s poetry contest. Bertram is a graduate of the writing programs at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was a 2009-2011 Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow at Williams College where she taught creative writing and literature. Her first book, But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise, won the Red Hen Press 2010 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, judged by Claudia Rankine. A native of Buffalo, New York, she is a proud member of the Steeler Nation. You can find also read her blog, find her on Twitter, or on the Facebook.

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