10 Ways of Looking at the Reaction to Mark Edmundson’s “Poetry Slam” in Harper’s Magazine

and other poetsphere kerfuffles

Grave of Bai Juyi by Elizabeth Kate Switaj

WWBJD?: What Would Bai Juyi Do?

  1. Denunciations elicit more responses than nuanced criticism. While at first this seems unfortunate, it reflects a very good thing: that poets are emotionally invested in poetry.
  2. When such denunciations repeat familiar complaints, rebuttals are easier (and faster) to write.
  3. Precisely because neither the complaints nor the responses are anything new, poets’ replies allow them reaffirm their memberships in various poetry communities.
  4. Meta responses like mine allow their authors to reaffirm their positions as outsiders in what (I hope) is a kind of hip way.
  5. Acknowledging the identity that this kind of response reaffirms my having positions me as an exceptionally honest and perceptive critic (I hope).
  6. [Let’s just pretend I’ve gone down all the infinite steps in the rabbit hole that last point opens up.]
  7. The more replies poets write to the original article, or to the replies to it, the more necessary it becomes to respond if one wishes to appear au courant.
  8. This becomes a process of canon formation if it goes on too long.
  9. Authors of later responses can depict themselves as especially reflective.
  10. But the fear of being the last one to speak eventually causes the discussion to die down.
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Sunday Small Stone 60

Super Moon

Perigee Full Moon, 2012

after the supermoon
fog too thin to hang
around for long

sips itself
from douglas fir & lily

and cones fall down

I love writing small stones.

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Women as Bodies: The Vice Spread

Vice Magazine has now taken down its fashion photography spread featuring reenactments of women writers‘ suicides. In their statement, they suggest that they were trying to do something creative, something that pushed the boundaries, and that in attempting to do so, they made a misjudgment:

The fashion spreads in VICE Magazine are always unconventional and approached with an art editorial point-of-view rather than a typical fashion photo-editorial one. Our main goal is to create artful images, with the fashion message following, rather than leading.

Anne Sexton, leaning back on a chair, in front of a desk with a typewriter and many books.

Anne Sexton

I won’t get into the issue of defining art or “art” vs. “photo-editorial”. What I will say is that if this spread is art, then it is bad art. There is nothing unconventional it. There is nothing unique or unusual in focusing on the suicides of women writers, even to the detriment of a consideration of their work. Michelle Dean writes of the photographs Vice published:

The images are not particularly shocking or revealing. Probably the best compliment you can give them is that they don’t “glamorize” anything. They are bland, anesthetized, boring. The clothes in them are equally drab, and appear to be randomly chosen, without connection to the horror the photographer indifferently depicts.

What these images in fact do is to combine two modes of limiting women to the role of “bodies”. In focusing upon their suicides, without any consideration of the experiences that led them there and how they expressed their sufferings, the photographs emphasize women’s bodies becoming corpses. Wordless. Literally. The unspeaking body of the dead woman is combined with the silenced body of the fashion model. Models can, of course, speak, but they are not thought of as speaking subjects.

Vice turned these women writers into wordless objects by combining two very common ways of focusing on women as bodies instead of as thinkers and speakers. What would have been unconventional would have been to find a way to combine these depictions of women as bodies with women as creators of and with language. What would have been original would have been to find a way to show these women writers as both remarkable artists and embodied, instead of participating in the long tradition in which women’s bodies and the ends of those bodies are used to distract from their writing.

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How to Use Creative Writing Workshops

This summer, thousands of ambitious writers will move to new towns and cities in order to pursue their MFAs. Others will start (mostly) online programs in the fall. All of them will be subjected to workshops. These are two strategies that they can use to make those workshops spaces for creative growth and to resist homogenization, as well as some thoughts about what those of us who teach creative writing can do to encourage such approaches.

It’s better to give than to receive.

Focus more on what you have to say to your co-learners about their work than on what they have to say to you. I am not advocating this approach out of an idealistic notions about community, cooperation, or sacrifice. Commenting on peers’ work forces you to formulate and state your own poetics. Done right, it forces you examine and interrogate your poetics. Do not be satisfied with saying that a line sounds or does not sound musical; figure out why. When you find a part of a piece that departs from craft standards, or that you otherwise dislike, consider whether what seems to be a flaw has a function in the work. Examine, also, the politics and ideas of the piece. How are they connected to technique? If you cannot answer these questions on your own, ask other students what they think.

The easy way for teachers to encourage students to focus more on the feedback they give is to increase how important that work is for students’ overall grades. Evaluation should reflect the importance of different aspects of the course, but creating this kind of external motivation is not enough. Teachers need to model the sort of feedback we want to see, as Paisley Rekdal describes doing:

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.

There also needs to be space for the generation of fully considered critiques. Students need time to spend with each others’ work before being required to come up with responses. I like to have students write a few formal responses as part of this process and to add hybrid elements to in-person classes that allow students to discuss work at any time. Finally, asking students at the end of the term to reflect on what they learned from commenting on others’ work encourages them to see giving feedback as an act that benefits them.

Be a contrarian.

When you receive feedback on your work, no matter how well-considered it is, you have to decide what to do with it. Your choices are not limited to following or ignoring advice. More often than not, as a student, I decided to do more of whatever my peers disliked. If they thought a poem should have a more conservative structure, I splattered it across the page. If they objected to specific words, I made them end-words in a sestina. I didn’t just do this because I was a rebellious little cuss, though at barely 5′, I was and am that. Rather, I saw that the things that struck others as wrong were my only chance at having a distinctive voice. By definition, these were things that others were not doing, so I wanted to figure out how to make them work.

Contemporary wabi-sabi tea bowl

Contemporary wabi-sabi tea bowl (Photo credit: ottmarliebert.com)

Now I subscribe to the notion that perfect craft and perfect poems are inherently impossible and would be boring anyway if they could be achieved. What interests me is creating fascinating flaws in my work—imperfections that make the work part of the world. Wabi-sabi aesthetics have influenced this pursuit.

Teachers can encourage this kind of resistance in responding to feedback as well. Simply stating that it is a possibility can have an effect. We can also ask students to write a piece that goes against the feedback that they have received, or generate prompts that go against popular attitudes expressed in comments.

How have you used creative writing workshops?

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