Thursday, July 2, 2009

Love the people, but not too much (a note on workshops)

A qualification for the job of poet is past experience with surging affection for the masses, to be Walt Whitman, loving as many varieties of man and woman as observed -- and Whitman was near Aristotelian in his level of insight.

Embrace the people? I'm all for it.

Remember paradise, when everything is dewy and new until a "but" and a mist creep into the book? Here it comes.

But don't expect them people, those masses, to love you and more importantly, don't care what people think. Some of those people, a few of the masses, will be poets who take and revere workshops. Who have believed what various professors or facilitators tell them. As if they were camp counselors such "guides" suggest everyone venture onto the bridge crossing dangerous cold rapids (of artistic expression - whee!) and, yes, feel the spray on cheeks, the penetration of air into limbs.

Well and good, except that guides stop there, maybe not there exactly, I mean, they don't necessarily leave students midway on the bridge -- the lack of symmetry would be disquieting.

The problem is they, workshop facilitators, rarely encourage poets to be who they are. Memorize a poem, rewrite poems in reverse order, discover the thing you must say in every poem -- every workshop leader has her trope or gimmick or schtick. Which is super except that it is formulaic. Oddity and imperfection are rarely encouraged - anywhere - and in fact make teachers and many students, fellow workshoppers, nervous.

Nurturing oddity could be another gimmick, true. How many hipsters have tattoos on their necks thinking that's what makes them unique. (The tattoos may be things of wonder, but that's all they are, things of wonder, not signals of immortal oddity. Isn't 'thing of wonder' enough?) But nurturing the poet to be who the poet is, well, that's a neat trick.

Groups by their nature are herds, packs with alpha dogs and peer pressure. Beyond, or preceding, realms of poetry I love group dynamics -- the flash and interplay, but have not found that satisfaction in a workshop (one workshop on poetry in the world, and one fiction workshop in graduate school . . . I have an MFA in fiction . . . although class time was minimal for me, by choice).

All I'm trying to say -- and this follows an unemployed day in which I luxuriated in companionship of an original, a friend, and heard music of another original, the musician Toshi Reagan.

Very yes very yes very few achieve the fame of Zora Neale Hurston, Emily Dickinson or Joseph Cornell, three artists who were outsiders in the sense of being undeniably original. That's not even the point, fame is not the point, fame or reputation are games, shams, carrots, unpredictable and baffling. What is not baffling is the satisfaction of following instincts - - and devoting a lifetime to discovering uncovering those instincts is a life well lived.

Joseph Cornell, "Cockatoo with Watch Faces"

No comments:

Post a Comment