poetry, Uncategorized

Putting the work in workshop

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The great thing about writing workshops is hearing other people’s responses to your written work. For instance, during today’s workshop with Amy Newman at Glen West (see photo of workshop locale– GORGEOUS), our group responded to one of my pieces that I had begun to feel wasn’t very good. I had submitted this piece to five or six journals over the last few months, only to receive rejections every time. I knew something had to be glaringly wrong with it, but my editing and revising sensors were just not catching it.

Instead of hearing how terrible this piece was, I was greeted instead with adulations accompanied by helpful word-by-word analyses. The one problem found in the piece was a single weak verb that I had somehow overlooked. That one word aside, my workshop peers pointed out a variety of strengths and merits of the piece that I had never even considered. I left feeling not only relieved, but strengthened.

In a truly supportive and functional workshop, the members build one another up like this one did. Yes, weaknesses and flaws are addressed, but likewise, poems’ assets also get a fair shake. I feel privileged to have received a scholarship to attend this week-long engagement, and hope that the positivity and encouragement continue all seven days. What an incredible opportunity!

poetry, Uncategorized

The Blessing and Curse of Subjectivity

Again I find myself apologizing for a rather extended absence from the blogosphere; I just completed another intense 10-day residency in University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. During those days, I was privileged to sit in workshops with fellow writers and hear their opinions and suggestions regarding my work. Some, as you might imagine, were quite good. They made my work more concise, clearer, and cleaner. Other suggestions were less fruitful, demonstrating only that the reader was unfamiliar with certain literary tools/devices, or that they simply had divergent poetic sensibilities from my own.

For poets, both the pleasure and the problem come from the realm of subjectivity. Over the last three semesters for instance, I’ve had three different writing mentors. All three are well-known and celebrated contemporary poets with extensive publication histories, award-winning books, and other laurels. Each one has brought a new and valuable gift to the table, and each one has had his or her own personal preferences about what poetry should look like, sound like, feel like, and be. Mentor One had different “rules” than Mentor Two, and Mentor Three has already discarded some of Mentor Two’s hard-and-fast standards. Some like language poetry, others despise it, favoring neo-modernism instead. The list goes on and on.

These vast variations among “experts” have led me to one solid conclusion: Poetry is entirely subjective. This is not a new truth. In fact, it’s one that we were advised about from the very get-go of this MFA program. But the reality of subjectivity is just now beginning to truly evidence itself for me personally. What one editor loves, another hates, and what one professor praises, another scorns. The same could be said of my fellow students in the program — because poetry doesn’t really play by any concrete rules, one workshop participant can be just as right as another in saying yea or nay to different constructions, images, parallels, or rhymes. Some reasons for critiques have a stronger tradition than others, but nobody gets excluded from having his or her say-so.

As a right-brained creative, I like the abstract notion that poetry can be perceived and valued in so many different ways. However, as a rule-follower and a structure-lover, I find myself desiring certain definitive, concrete absolutes within poetry simultaneously. It’s a perilous and paradoxical predicament, and not unlike those faced by certain other professions — what one doctor sees as incredible treatment, another calls quack medicine. What one lawyer claims is an excellent defense, another decries as logical fallacy. Those of us in the arts, however, are especially prone to the whims of individuals’ opinions: People at the top of the literary food chain have absolute mindsets about what makes great work, and woe to the poor soul whose words fail to comply with those perceptions.

The happier side of this question coin, though, is certainly worth examination: If a reader LOVES your writing, he or she will tend to LOVE it completely. Fan followings are created upon this same psychology. There exists very little grey area between the emotional responses caused by a poem. Either the reader identifies with it and embraces it after a couple of read-throughs, or he or she casts it aside as unworthy. Sure, some folks will say, “Well, I like this piece, but it’s not the poet’s strongest,” but at the end of the day, they still follow your progress and like your Facebook page. One less-liked piece won’t totally alter overall perception (unless you really step in some deep kimchi).

The question poets are tasked with asking ourselves is this: Is subjectivity our friend or foe? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.” The artistic tastes, whims and preferences of other individuals result in publication, awards, fellowships, and the other markers of a writing life. Equally, those same sentiments result in harsh critical reviews, rejection letters, and workshop ugliness. Working in the humanities demands understanding and contending with humanity — its flaws, its beauty, and yes, its unpredictable subjectivity.

poetry, Uncategorized

Preparing the MFA Mind

As I spend my last day at home before the big Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing residency, I’m taking a few last minutes to brush up on all the reading I’ve done before this point. Everything from Aristotle to Billy Collins has been thrown at me in preparation for this upcoming session, and I’m proud to say that I’m ready.

Which leads me to a bit of history: Prior to adulthood, I was not always the exemplary student. In junior high, high school, and even as an undergraduate, my performance was, shall we say, lackluster. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work; it was that I lacked motivation. If I didn’t see the need for learning something, then frankly, I didn’t learn it. Daniel Pink talks a great deal about motivation in his book Drive, and in many ways, I am the poster child for his theories: If I like it, if I want it, if I enjoy it, I’ll do it. Likewise, if I am given autonomy to perform tasks (academic or otherwise), then I am largely happy, and I will produce. However, the flip side of this coin also holds true. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to overcome my own resistance to math, in particular. My mind simply does not operate in mathematical ways, even though I can be very logical and reasonable at times. Also as an adult, I have had to face the truth of maxims that my parents constantly threw at me: “You might not LIKE it, but you still have to do it,” and “We do what we HAVE to do so we can do what we WANT to do.” So, when an unpleasant task comes my way, I have learned to discipline myself, break chores into pieces, and do all those things that my mom and dad (for years) tried to persuade me to do. For me, changing required firsthand experience — all the idioms in the world don’t replace real-world encounters for learning purposes.

In my first graduate program, which was in education, I earned a 4.0 grade point average. Here again, it was subject matter that I enjoyed, and which I decided to pursue. In addition, I was paying for the education myself. Straight A’s were my own personal expectation and goal (not anyone else’s), and therefore, I fulfilled that aim. Now I find myself having to persist in this MFA reading, as well. While many of these reading selections are interesting, I notice that I have to force myself to stay aware and absorbent to the ideas presented on the written page (especially Aristotle). By steeling my mind to assimilate the learning that I personally want, I am preparing to reap the benefits of an education that I have tailored to my own interests and needs. My eventual goal is to teach at the college level, but to get there, I have to pay the piper first. I suppose now would be a good time to stop procrasti-blogging and hit the books. Brain, don’t fail me now!