As in most other workshops safety equipment is required; eye protection, asbestos gloves, hardhat, harder skin, and Xanax are just a few of the things that my syllabus suggests. The more serious you are about poetry the more important the suggestions. Poetry tourists* only need bring copies of their poem to hand out.
Everyone in a workshop falls into one of two categories: teacher or student. Teacher facilitates the conversation. Everyone else in the room is a student**. Though this title isn’t always appropriate. I’ve had accomplished poets in workshops. The conversation is the students’ poem. Again, the idea of appropriateness. What is a student poem? A poem that could improve through revision? What poem couldn’t?
In a workshop, the good poems hold their breath.
In a workshop, the weak poems have three eyes - one stares at its author, the second at the teacher, the third eye is always closed.
Are you writing to understand the world or yourself, I ask at the end of the workshop. A poetry workshop isn't therapy, I say at the beginning of the workshop. Before taking a poetry writing workshop a class in living a poetic life should be mandatory. No writing required, just reading, think and an appreciation for the world in every way. Whoever said "I want to live my life out loud" should write the syllabus.
Basically, my workshop runs like this. Student brings in a copy of a poem for everyone. Someone else reads the poem aloud. Have you ever heard your voice recorded? It always sounds different than coming from outside our head. Hearing your poems read by another person has the same effect. It sounds different. The group discusses the poem. The poet whose poem is being discussed is silent. When the poem is published and read by a stranger thousands of miles away the poet isn’t there to explain. We should hear what people think of our poems and how it affects them without our editorial. At the end of the conversation the poet is allowed to ask questions. But not many. I than offer some suggestions for revisions, and poets to read that I feel they might find inspiring.
In a workshop, most poems are narcissistic.
Most beginning poets write poems that contain too much information. So do experienced poets. Most beginning poets use too many words. Ditto for experienced poets.
Perhaps the most important thing a workshop offers is a reason to write a poem. That sentence might be better without the word perhaps. How long should a poet remain in workshops? Until they no longer need a reason to write a poem.
A sense of community. Poetic fellowship. No one should be alone in the world. At the end of a workshop semester the women in the group decided to meet on a regular basis to share poems and camaraderie. They excluded the men. Not fair.
Another workshop transformed into an informal group called “Purgamentum Auris,” Latin for rubber ear or so they tell me. The name is based on a poem I wrote***. I’m flattered.
Students have written poems in my workshops that I wish I wrote. I often learn from them. Their enthusiasm is contagious. There are people who have been in my workshops that I am grateful for their presence. I hope they know who they are. I don’t need to be in a workshop to keep me writing poems. But I do need poets in my life.
* A poetry tourist is someone with no real interest in improving their poems and will never write a poem after the workshop ends.
** I once had a student bring her therapist to class. She had trouble being in groups. The other students thought she was a friend auditing the class. Of course, I couldn’t resist calling on her.
*** Ex Cathedra
What no one knows about me
is that my left ear is made of rubber.
The original was lost in an accident
when I was nineteen. As Dr. Gorlick
sewed it to side of my head
he said it needed to be replaced
every eleven years to appear to age
along with my face. Vanity compels me
to replace it every thirteen.
A rubber ear isn’t as uncommon as you think.
One president and two movie stars had a rubber ear.
The actors appeared together in a movie
without knowing about the other’s prosthesis.
Each morning I apply a lotion to the ear
so the rubber doesn’t discolor. Cell by cell,
the body replaces itself every seven years.
It’s simple science. I laid on my side
as Dr. Gorlick sewed. A nurse held the ear in position.
Lidocaine and something I don’t remember
prevented me from feeling the blood
run down my neck and cheek.
But I could taste it and began to spit.
The nurse put gauze pads
between my lips and apologized.
Things like this happen all the time.
Someone bleeds, someone apologizes.