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The Defense of the Poesy Workshoppe

By Paisley Rekdal

workshop blackboard sign

This week I’ve been thinking about Alan Davies’s wonderful and provocative recent post in which he discusses Sarah Schulman’s new book The Gentrification of the Mind. I’ve been thinking in particular about how her argument about gentrification and writing workshops (from what I understand of it via Davies) resonates with me, and also doesn’t.

First, let me say that I immediately went out and ordered this book but haven’t yet received or read it. So if I misread her basic points, ignore me.  I will of course defer to Alan, who actually HAS read her book.

That said, what I understand of both Schulman and Alan’s argument is that the workshop is a place where writers (and writers’ imaginations) are gentrified much in the same way that neighborhoods are gentrified.  The writing workshop, likely led by a white, middle or upper-middle class writer of certain prestige and economic privilege, implicitly imparts her imaginative constraints on her students through her own aesthetic evaluations of their work, and by reinforcing what might be the homogenous and even aesethetically conservative values of the other students in the workshop.

This, at least, is what I get from this series of questions that Alan quotes from Schulman’s book:

What is this thing that homogenizes 
complexity, difference, dynamic dialogic action for change and replaces it with sameness? With a kind of institutionalization of
culture? With a lack of demand on the powers that be? With
containment?

Well, that answer is obviously me. Or you. Or whoever it is leading today’s Workshop of the Damned.

I get this argument. Maybe like you, I was “raised” in workshops where issues of race and class and politics were verboten. It wasn’t like someone took us all into the gym one day to tell us about the birds and bees of poetry, that one day we would find that very special someone with whom to fulfill all our secret aesthetic projects and that, when that day came, it would probably be better if we used protection and did it in private: no, it was far more implicit than this, and shameful. People would make little comments about how a line or two that revealed the race of the speaker was “not musical enough” or that a poem that specifically addressed the president in non-laudatory terms was “strident” or “didactic.” And sometimes, which was worse, these criticisms were true. I think it was likely true because we were never taught HOW to write the poems that examined race and class and gender and politics in ways that were successful, or musical, or powerful, or anything other than throat-clearing attempts to bring the writer’s individual mind more deeply into the poem.  Hell, we didn’t even READ those kinds of poems in workshop, no matter how many of them were out there in the world.

There’s a good argument to be made that, when it comes to politics in poems, we are still living through the post-WWII values which characterized American Cold War culture and which came to a head with the McCarthy trials, one of the first pronounced and prolonged periods of time in America where pro-Communist or at least anti-capitalist political poems were looked on not just as aesthetically distasteful, but actually dangerous. I mean, look what happened to Langston Hughes and so many of the 1920’s Social Realist poets. That’s the first long wave of artistic gentrification, and our teachers’ teachers (and, by extension, all of us) went through it. Now, as Schulman seems to be pointing out, we are essentially continuing it by refusing to invite (or even admit) radicalism into the writing workshop.

I agree that the workshop model, in its determined attempts to make its students aware primarily of the defects of their poems, its evolving communitarian definition of what defines the “successful” or “aesethetically pleasing” language of a poem– which is the workshop’s structural necessity–runs the risk of creating a static and even homogenous lens through which a poem gets observed, of negating radicalism because the outlier has little place in an educational model where the majority, not the minority, gets heard.

Essentially, sure, we could be McCarthying ourselves.   This is, I think, what Schulman means when she compares neighborhood gentrification to workshops, where, like the gentrified neighborhood, there is a “removal of communities of diverse classes,
ethnicities, races, sexualities, languages, and points of view… and their replacement by more 
homogenized groups.”

 This gets even sadder when we realize that the students who are increasingly in our workshops are themselves of diverse classes, ethnicities, races and sexualities. Not only have we created an educational model that historically hasn’t accommodated them, but we are cultivating a model which may be potentially damaging to them.

I saw this first-hand eleven years ago with an MFA student, a young woman from a ranching background who wanted to write narrative poems about gender and class and what it meant to be a woman in the West, growing up doing “poor men’s work” on a ranch.  Many of her teachers and fellow students at the time—a powerful, vibrant, extremely persuasive group of voices—convinced her that both her aesthetic and her subject matter weren’t “intellectual” enough. She wrote a long essay in my class about it, entitled, “How I was Robert Creely-ed Into Submission.” Her MFA thesis, which I helped to direct, was filled with poems stripped of any characters, narrative, event or language that was recognizable from when she entered our program.

In her case, it was what some might term the aesthetically “conservative” elements of her poetry that were radical; now the explicit writing of a gendered experience in language that her family and friends back home could understand and relate to had been slowly excised from her vocabulary. (This raises an important point, too, about what constitutes as “radical”: of late, I suspect our aesethetic ideas about radicalism have gotten structurally narrower, thus eradicating certain avenues of “radicalizing” poems, or at least making the possibility of radicalisms difficult to achieve.) I wouldn’t doubt that the writing of this thesis caused her trauma. I hope she got the courage to throw it away.

A lot of this was my fault. I was one of her workshop teachers. I was on her committee, and I had the power to NOT gentrify her language by helping her insist upon her right to create what she wanted to create. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a teacher, and I think this was one of my worst. And the only vaguely redeeming thing about this event was that this mistake prepared me NOT to make a similar mistake, four years later, in another workshop where I could also have remained silent.

In this workshop, a young poet brought in a gorgeous love poem filled with, to put it bluntly, really Orientalist imagery. The writer was white, the beloved addressed in the poem of unspecified race and ethnicity, and the language steeped in so much “exotic” Asian imagery that Edward Said would have rolled over in his grave.

What struck me was how the students in the class started workshopping the poem. As in all the other classes I’ve either attended or led, my students immediately went for the basics. They talked about structure, metaphor, clarity, line breaks, rhythm. They talked about everything EXCEPT for the big Asian elephant in the room, batting its almond-shaped eyes at us, wondering why the hell no one had yet noticed him. Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty. Finally, I just cleared my throat and started talking about what the poem, consciously or not, was actually saying.

I broke the poem down, slowly, line by line, image by image, asking the class to discuss the issues of race and writing: what was this language really doing in the poem? What it was hoping to achieve, what—to an audience full of people that might not be in this workshop at this time—might it sound like?  I went on like this for ten minutes, being respectful but pointed about the arguments about race that the poem was making through its aesthetic choices. The students blinked at me. When I finished, there was an uncomfortable pause. The writer was furiously taking notes, nodding and wrinkling his brow. After a few awkward seconds, the spell was broken and the rest of the class plunged on, back to the language, the structure, the rhythms, everything about the poem EXCEPT for the issue of race. It was as if that poem, that part of the poem, had never existed. Race was gone again. The uncomfortable moment had been dismissed. It had, according to the workshop, never even existed.

Perhaps we could read this as a perfect example of what Schulman is talking about. For a moment, I myself thought the whole attempt had been a mistake. But when I finished speaking, I caught the eye of one of the students in class—a young Asian American woman who hadn’t spoken a word during workshop.  I wasn’t sure what she had really thought of the poem, what she was thinking now about my little performance, and I wasn’t sure I hadn’t just made her feel much worse about being part of my class. She looked at me, smiled slightly, and for a few seconds I got to see total, piercing, grateful relief radiate from her face.

That alone would have made the discomfort of that workshop worth it to me, but do you know who else was grateful for that workshop? The writer, who it turns out also was worried about that particular language in his poem, and came up afterwards to thank me for taking that time with it.

This gets to the part of Schulman’s argument that doesn’t resonate with me.  Increasingly—and, yes, after classes or on student evaluations or in my office hours—I actually see a real hunger for the opposite of gentrification among my students. Many of them are hesitant to talk about it in class, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to talk about it at all, nor that their imaginations have been so white-washed that the conversations aren’t taking place privately. We are, I think, at a crucial stage in re-imagining the writing workshop. I don’t believe that it is the writing workshop itself that creates gentrification, though that is a real risk that the model runs. It is the kind of student and teacher that engages with the workshop that makes the model corrosive or successful. When we argue about the abstraction that has become academic diversity or Affirmative Action, I think specifically about the two instances I’ve discussed here, because these are just two ways in which diversity has tangible results. It is also important to consider that the workshop also can become the space in which ideas of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and diversity are discussed safely, are NOT ignored, are NOT relegated to the “secondary concern pile” that comprises so much of our professional life. The workshop, more and more, might actually be the ideal place in which we can combat the gentrification of creativity and the writer’s imagination, encouraging the radicalism(s) of language by refusing to “overlook” the poem’s implicit, as well as explicit, meanings.  In this sense, bringing back that tired old question—“What does this poem ‘mean’?” which currently annoys so many of my fellow poets—may be a necessary step to encouraging, not negating, radicalism in poetry. I think, in fact, that we are seeing this increasingly with the writers out there in the world who ARE tackling previously “taboo” subjects, many of whom are products of writing workshops and are continuing themselves to teach today.

So perhaps what I am doing is NOT defending the poetry workshop as it stands generally but what the poetry workshop of the future can be and is becoming.   I think Alan is essentially making one of the best points there is for conscious expansion of the creative writing workshop either into communities that aren’t traditionally served by universities or, even better, for expansion of the workshop model by bringing into universities those groups and classes of people who are normally “outside” our idea of literary communities. If you want to defeat the gentrification of the imagination, you have to see that a community of the imagination is not defined by discrete neighborhoods but is, in fact, an infinitely expanding collection of possibilities.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 15th, 2013 by Paisley Rekdal.