Monday, March 26, 2012

Redoing Workshops Redux

Last year around this time, I posted a couple entries that described a novel writing class I had taught in the fall of 2010. Writer and blogger Cathy Day was kind enough to contact me about that class and interview me for her blog, The Big Thing. After finishing that class it didn't take me long to realize that the novel is not the only long form underserved by the academy. How many students in poetry writing workshops, for instance, are encouraged--or, heaven help us,
required--to turn in long poems? I don't mean poems that run for 3 pages, but poems that run for 10 or 15 or 20. I've never sat in on such a class, and my MFA was in poetry writing. This despite the fact that the long poem for several decades now has been flourishing in the poetry writing world nearly as well as the novel has in the fiction writing world.

I blogged about the origins of my long poem class a couple months ago, so I won't say anything more about that for fear of repeating myself. But I do want to jot down a few notes about how I've organized my long poem workshops this semester. When I taught the novel writing class, I abandoned traditional workshops altogether in order to allow the emphasis of the class to stay on production, not analysis. I really wanted the students to be intent on completing drafts of their novels in one semester, and I knew that couldn't happen if they started fretting over the condition of some ten page section they might distribute to be workshopped. I didn't want them to overthink it, overworry it, become embarrassed, and then shut down. I didn't want them to realize the essential lunacy of what they were trying to accomplish No. They were going to finish these drafts, gol dern it. When I planned out my long poem class, I felt I had to adopt a somewhat similar workshopping strategy. After all, I was asking these students (no, that's not them in the above picture) to compose four poems, each of a length between 8 and 15 pages. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but try telling an undergraduate who has never written a poem longer than a page that he or she must crank out an 8-pager. And not just one 8-pager but four. See how quickly the student turns pale. (This actually happened on the first night of class.) To enable them time and space to compose these long poems, I turned over half the class time each week to writing. Now, composing thirty or so pages of poetry is not quite the same challenge as composing a 55,000 word novel, but I think my students have appreciated, and made good use of, the amount of time we've spent writing this semester.

But, similar to the novel writing class, I wanted to afford the students some peer feedback while they were drafting. I didn't want them to fret over a whole class workshop, but I didn't want them to feel that they were composing in a vacuum. So I put them in small groups (four people max), groups that have met periodically over the course of the semester, the last time will be this week. If we had stopped to perform whole class workshops on each of the long poems, we would probably be somewhere on poem #2 right now, not poem #4. So for the sake of production, these groups have been very useful. But, of course, not every group of students will be as active and as helpful commentators as others. I put myself in one group--I am composing four poems too--and I actively contribute to my group's discussions, but at the same time I am monitoring other discussons around the room. The discussions flag too early too often, and the last couple of weeks my group has been still in the middle of our discussions while the rest of the room is done and sitting there, vaguely bored, staring at us. I know some of the students wish I were providing feedback to them every step of the way, and not just to the one peer group. This is to say that I know my solution is an imperfect, jerry-rigged one, but it's done what it's supposed to: kept the students from freaking out. Kept them writing. (And, maybe too, I want to free them from the tyranny of feedback lust.)

However, I haven't just borrowed my novel-writing strategy lock, stock, and barrel. I've constructed a kind of combination of that approach with my usual workshop approach. What this means is that the week after next we will begin whole class workshops. From the beginning, I wanted to afford the students the opportunity to use each 8-15 page assignment as a section of a much longer (32-60 page) poem. I almost regret that I didn't insist that they all do this (the way I insisted, last year, that all my students start on fresh novels, not work on already drafted ones). And I wanted those students to be done drafting their 32-60 page poems before the whole class got their grubby little, critiquing, weakness-finding paws on them.

But as of now, all four assignments are done. Starting the week after next, for four successive weeks, each group will be whole-class workshopped. How I've decided to do this is to have some one person in that week's group--someone other than the author--set up the class discussion of a poem with a ten mintue or so explanation of the history of the poem's composition: what the student was trying to accomplish, what has been gleaned from the small group discussions. Using these introductions as a framework, the whole class will then begin to discuss that student's long poem, hopefully with a more informed and senstive ear. (Btw, to make room for these workshops I threw out my original idea, which was to have each student present on the longer work by some professional poet. While such presentations surely have merit, I realized that the students could just as easily present on each other's work, which seemed closer to the point of a workshop class.)

I can tell my students are anxious about these whole class discussions. But I am hoping, and expecting, that it will create a nice sense of closure for what has been, for most of them, a rather unusual poetry writing class. I'll let you all know!


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