POETRY WORKSHOPS – sea-change or algal bloom?
"I write for myself and strangers. The strangers, dear Readers, are an afterthought."
In exploring the origins and educative functions of the poetry workshop, I'm acutely aware it represents merely one flourishing element in a cultural food chain whose biology is highly complex and constantly in flux. Workshoppers commonly express mixed feelings about the various groups they've encountered, while poetry's mainstream commentators leave the workshop strangely uninterrogated - like a ghostly St. Elmo's fire in poetry's rigging, it either remains undisputed as the hallowed corposant of democratic creative development, or else is ignored as just another load of distract-ing and misleading Castor et Pollux. These are more than adequate reasons for making a dialectic analysis of the subject, for using binoculars as well as microscopes.
A good cast-off point is to note that in the mass commodification of our culture, escalations in activity don't lead, necessarily, to improved quality. Cable TV is ample evidence of that. The superficial froth of workshops and competitions undoubtedly reflects a temperature rise in the marketing and packaging of poetry. Sometimes, it all smacks of the scratch-card mentality, literature's answer to the National Lottery, the "Yes, it could be YOU" fix. Hence the workshop addict, the competition junky. The poetaster rushing out for gallons of Castrol Workshop-GTX when their Muse is a write-off at the foot of the cliff. Looking on at the feeding frenzy, Yeats might well have commented "They are too many". This somewhat brutal initial course of assessment needs, however, a second landmark. Seamus Heaney provides it, assuring us that the ground-swell of composition within schools, colleges and workshops is demystifying poetry, thereby prising it from the tired grip of the intelligentsia. He writes convincingly of his sense of liberation in seeing his ordinary world creatively expressed using his own language.
My first question surfaces. Are workshops being generated at the tip of an accelerating interest in literature which has profound consequences for mass consciousness, or are they the conduit for the expression of an activity that has, more or less, always existed? Whichever case holds, swelling poetry's output will only be subversive - or just plain marvellous - depending on its social context. Pouring ourselves into more and more poems makes dubious headway if nobody reads them. By raising the question of poetry's readership I am, I know, dusting down that tiresome Old Tar you might rather cross the street from. But he has considerable, and recurrent, cause to hold us with his glittering eye.
On this matter of reading let me scupper, immediately, any misunderstanding. I acknowledge that the simple act of writing - whatever we read or fail to read - can be a life-enhancing enterprise, and one that is ultimately and inherently private by nature. And yet, however we view that act as a necessary prerequisite for heightened perception or self-esteem in a writer, it may not always be a sufficient one. Even now, Jackie Kay muses: "You feel it [poetry] doesn't really belong to you. You wonder: when will I be found out?" In spite of crucial challenges to the poetry establishment (for instance, those precipitating its modest acceptance of women writers), perhaps certain core attitudes to poetry (elitist, coterie-driven) haven't really changed. And even if everyone can pen a poem, whence discrimination, in its more positive sense? I wish I could say workshops contribute unambiguously and affirmatively to the early-postmodernist grail of a truly emancipated populace; but it's just as plausible they're little more than a self-administered sop against social scurvies such as conveyor-belt education and post-employable ennui. Dare I go as far as to suggest that there could be some water - just a drop or two - in the hypothesis that one effective means of preventing people from radicalising and owning poetry is to get them incessantly to write?
Even if workshops did indicate a benthic revolution in writing, one should still bear in mind that power centres adapt, that careers are at stake. "Experts" can retain hegemony through intellectual embargoes on a variety of fronts and in their capacity as eventual arbiters of quality. The number of vests of interest a given editor, critic or academic may be wearing isn't always obvious and could seem an issue quite unrelated to workshopping; but it can't completely be divorced from what motivates individuals to run, or for that matter to attend, workshops. To unpack this contention, I must first cite the flood of workshops as strongly circumstantial evidence for what I call a "Poeclectic" tendency in contemporary poetry. Poeclectics isn't a movement as such, but a loose term encompassing the various ways in which a growing number of poets are contributing to a body of work which spans an extremely wide range. As opposed to having a voice, poets seem increasingly to shift voice according to the formal, emotional and functional requirements of the work at hand. The poems, collectively, display a plurality of form and content which partly subverts, partly evades, any consistent theory (or anti-theory). The Poeclectic writer surfs the crest of a competitive, fragmentary, high-turnover art-form obsessed with novelty, whose climate derives from the greenhouse gases of economic and cultural modernization. Meanwhile, flagship publishers lag behind, becalmed among the old principles of homogenisation, centralisation and brand-name authors, these being indispensable to economic efficiency. Returning to the original point, it therefore makes sense to shoal workshops about you (if you're the poet-organiser) so as to acquire territory and ensure your particular strains of alga get into the food chain, or (if you're an attendee) as a means of trawling as broad a sample of potential reader-critics as possible to check your latest effort is, if not faultlessly à la mode, at least adequately ship-shape. In effect, poetry workshops may manifest a stabilising, perhaps even reactionary, backwash against Poeclectic variety. (Footnote *)
Having said this, good workshops provide a much-needed tail-wind for poets in their quest for excellence (or success) in an atomised society where altruistic interest in one's work is hard to come by, and trust and camaraderie can be torpedoed by competitivity and backbiting. The closest thing to an impresario or patron is, for most poets, the lottery of competitive awards or a competition sponsored by some high-street chain store. But then there's that depth-charge of a criticism, along the lines of: "Hmm - this poem sounds a bit workshoppy". Frances Nagle once put it to me as "... the danger of writing to fit a model of correctness. The irreproachable, but dead, poem". The Indian novelist Kiran Desai makes a similar point about prose workshops in the States: "I think that when everyone in the group, including the professor, says `Now it's OK', you're bound to end up with something dreadful". (The Times (Higher), Aug. 15, 1997). When does the (supposed) stabilising effect of workshops become the landlubber's hugging of the shore, a subconscious fishing for compliments, a bleaching out of (to use Ian McMillan's phrase) poetry's Factor X? Both the workshopper and the Poeclectic, in their respective dialectic ways, may be party to a Zeitgeist in which art is careening towards what the market requires in a world where "culture" and "market" are becoming increasingly indistinguishable. Is poetry being harpooned by our age of cultural industries, reduced to a blubber of workshops and the snack-size McPoem?
I don't say any of this through cynicism or sensationalism, nor am I implying that workshops aren't mostly launched with the best of intent. I'd be in the vanguard of conceding there are first-rate workshops about. But my ambivalence concerning the role of workshops in advancing poetry, and the linked consideration of readership, demand further attention. Indeed, the findings of several recent reports by Arts Boards support the thesis that our so-called revival in poetry appears to be writing, rather than reading, led. The Arts Council of England have gone as far as acknowledging the possibility of a "crisis in reading". Perhaps there's a key contradiction being enacted here: at a time when increasing numbers of women, the retired (voluntarily and otherwise) and the dispossessed are breaching poetry in a quasi-political act of self-definition/representation, it's precisely now that people - apparently - aren't reading it.
This may have something to do with the alliance between postmodernism and consumerism which distilled a chic cult of Self. The once redemptive notion that things can't entirely be known has mutated in certain waters into a certitude that there isn't any point in trying to know, or even into a malodorous smugness that things needn't be known at all. All that matters is personal opinion, or choice. Art is being tainted by this attitude, and furthermore will fail to nourish a society in which personal development, however radical, is rehearsed in mutually-disinterested solipsism. Claims that poetry workshops embody a kind of postmodern U-boat assault on the literary establishment through liberated self-education can therefore be countered with the alternative interpretation that they signal a systematic and ultimately alienating extension of market forces into private and creative consciousness. If it's now possible for patients to be "clients", it's not unreasonable to ask whether workshops nurture a new and demotic sense of community in poetry or if they replace that community (or cater for its absence) with a novel cultural product. There are those - it appears - who've succeeded in reconstructing the workshop into a haven of satisfying social and artistic interaction, as in the case (I'm informed) of at least several women's self-help groups; but what of the others who cry from the depths (or is it the oubliette?) "What community?"
So far, and to gain initial bearings, I've been looking at workshops from a distance, as though they were a homogeneously characterisable entity. Obviously, and in detailed fact, workshops are almost as diverse as their organiser-participants. The existence of typologies can, nevertheless, be proposed. One minimum distinction (or categorisation!) I now need to make is between, firstly, poetry venues and college-based courses within which formalised workshops are one element and where directed creative writing may be much to the fore; and, secondly, more local, self-defining, self-directed groups of the type that congregate in pubs, community centres, libraries and drawing rooms, typically basing themselves on the common model of a limited-agenda read-around.
A key nutrient sustaining the spurt of growth in workshops of the first sort is that freelance poets - myself included - have sensed the upsurge in interest and, despairing of finding any support elsewhere, turn to workshop organisation as a source of income. Educational institutions and arts bodies have picked up the signals too, hiring prestigious poets and setting up workshop-based courses and events to ride the tide of enrolment. The specific slant of these workshops often ties in strongly with the wider agenda of the leader and/or the establishment to which the workshop is affiliated. All of which helps us to understand the glut of supply in this area, but not the demand. In my experience such workshops are popular in that they secure access to a market leader (the poet-organiser) and promise to set an experienced hand on the helm in one's own writing or educational progression. They afford structure, kudos, authoritative endorsement, some guarantee of minimum standards, and are likely to book one's passage into further resources. Combined with other forms of guidance such as tutorials and seminars, these workshops have established a strong presence in mature education. It's only a matter of time before someone realises - if they haven't already - that there might be a neat few bob in launching a Which Workshop? magazine.
Workshops of the second variety can offer a natural and easy way to embark on a more public poetic scene, and give the attendee an unquestioned right to air work regularly within a familiar format. It's easier to shop around for groups of preferred personality and accomplishment, or who share a common objective. There'll be differing rites and conditions of entry, flexibility in the level of commitment and, in all probability, far lower capital outlay than for poetry courses (or golf!). These workshops by-pass the white-collar, academically-based tradition of British poetry and generate mutually-consenting captive audiences. For those who've missed the literary boat, or who are out of their depth in Academe, such workshops may represent an aural form of "publication" - perhaps the only form - they can regularly achieve.
There are two further sub-divisions into which workshops of this category naturally fall: those genuinely open in character, where expectations tend to be slight and new members can quickly shove an oar in; and those set up and maintained through invitation only, for which continued approval is essential. Open workshops, though arguably of a radical democratic nature, are also profoundly problematic: there is (at least initially) no exclusion; but most lack the process skills or time to deal with difficult passengers or conflicts of interest. These workshops can provide nuclei for new proto-communities in poetry, but are likely to suffer from high turnover and fatigue. Smaller, self-aggregating troupes avoid many of the dissipations of personality management. I also have a strong suspicion, and it seems fairly self-evident, that as writers become more successful they tend to shift the workshopping of their own poems from open to closed workshops, and (even more obviously) seek increasingly to use their skills in institutional workshops of the first kind where the pecuniary rewards and prestige are greater.
Once we begin to apply this kind of microscope to workshops, swarms of questions appear. Do the various workshop types reveal differing levels of the "hobbifying" of poetry into an opsimath middle-class-white extension of pottery or DIY? (I'm not alone in noting the relative absence of young people and minorities at many writing workshops). Are modular workshop-based courses as much a navigable route for the literary dabbler into the shallows and backwaters of university/college life as they are a democratising form of assisted self-education for the developing writer? Is the co-ordinator building awareness, or a CV? Have workshops arisen to provide one means by which the disenfranchised and failed can gain a sense of purpose and belonging, to meet a lack of deeper exchange between poets, or as a reciprocal collusion which legitimates self-absorbed dilettantism? Are workshops of the populist mould one aspect of a new social cathartic?
Each of these questions, no doubt, opens a porthole on the complete panorama. With respect to poetry as a hobby/sport, for example, workshops demand little equipment, limited physical alacrity and offer substantial psychological returns, particularly if the group self-publishes. As far as social catharsis is concerned, it's uncanny how closely some workshop set-ups resemble those of group therapy. Many people feel marginalised by modern society or have specific and personal tragedies with which they are struggling alone. What's more, the mass response to Princess Diana's death betrays a submerged, more universal sense of grief and dislocation which is desperate for a channel of expression. Emotional pressure of this kind can propel some astonishing writing among poetic initiates; but I at least as frequently come across workshoppers who display that peculiarity of character which insists upon reading, then proceeds to broadside any criticism, however gentle or constructive. This latter behaviour implies a powerful, twinned desire both to be heard and to gain approval, irrespective of the quality of the work. I can't find it in me to condemn this, especially as such instances are rarely clear-cut; but I'd query whether poetry workshops provide the best medium for social healing and wonder what's achieved, if anything, for literature more widely.
Whatever the psycho-social origins of workshops, then, I maintain a yawning suspicion of any "buoyancy" in poetry that isn't anchored in sustained reading, or at least an ongoing interest in peer work. What's clear to me from more than a decade of involvement in workshops is that a lot of its activity is about caulking one's own poems against the high seas of publication rather than making links with other writers' works. Even within the cult of Self it pays, if you're trying to get published, to do some market research and quality control: the workshop can accommodate this without the imperative for study, lending itself to the rudderless or insecure enthusiast as a means of buying cheap shares in Hemingway's crap-detector. There's an unhealthy laziness, or anxiety, that creeps into some workshop situations, where the author elicits help to rewrite the piece to a publishable finish in situ, or responds to a key criticism by seeking some Plimsoll line of alternative options the others will collectively tolerate. The sense one gets from this is that the product (the poem, or its publication) is beginning to press-gang the process (of which the poem is the evidence we can share, and for which reading is an essential input). Robert Frost had a point when he declared "Poetry should be common in experience but uncommon in books". Optimists, though, might maintain that socio-poetic theory could mirror socio-economic theory here, with poetry having its own equivalent to Adam Smith's "invisible hand", through which the cynical pursuit of personal production and achievement unwittingly benefits everyone.
The problem is, Smith's putative paw looks to me rather like the lottery one: all glister and no substance. The commercialists may in fact be gaining that upper hand, but Gore Vidal proffers another, pointing out: "You can't have great literature without great readers". Vidal resides on the far side of the Pond and probably had the American novel in mind; nevertheless I do believe his view is profoundly, if accidentally, relevant to workshops over here. Lacking the ballast of a broad, astute and up-to-date readership, contemporary British poetry could be in danger of capsizing under the weight of its writing. But then, as if to upend any possible conclusion I might achieve on the matter, Oscar Wilde mischievously comments: "We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it". Said some time ago; but Wilde travels well. As does Epictetus: "If you would be a reader, read; if a writer, write."
Taking all souls on board, I've synthesised the personal view that poetry - at least some of it - should be popular and popularly read; but if it sails too close to popular taste, if it relentlessly pursues that Great White Whale of popularity, it can founder on the prevailing ideology rather than slice through it to arrive at vital (possibly unpopular) truths. One such truth is that popularity has become erroneously equated with accessibility: we're close to forgetting that difficult work can be popular, though admittedly only for a public rehearsed in poetry's codes and rewards. The novel aside, Woolf's "common reader" and Modernism's "ideal reader", if they ever truly existed, are drifting towards the visual and combinative arts - film in particular. Which leaves us with the problematic manoeuvre required of poets and groups who do have a proselytizing vision, along with all associated educationalists: how far to push out the Good Ship Popularity without it losing sight of its essential moorings. It's a talented and centred writer, and a rare workshop, that can transcend a populist market agenda (implied or otherwise).
If conventional workshops are of uncertain or limited value, then, to the mature or the subversive writer, what of the raw recruit? Anita Desai believes that workshops can lead to a certain self-consciousness in a writer, which tends to sharpen the critical, rather than compositional, abilities. Her observation, if true, cannot fail to raise complex issues around the formative effects of such a tendency on the fresh writer. It also follows that workshops are likely to be of greatest benefit in the later, editorial stages of writing. As to my own experience, I gained much - in terms of encouragement and technical advancement - not only from my first workshop at the Open Poetry Conventicle, but also as a result of subsequent experiences at Arvon and elsewhere. Unfortunately, positive feedback of this sort is by no means universal, and the ha'p'orths of tar I most desperately needed back then were delivered by seasoned poets who decided to take an in-depth and enduring interest in my work - in other words, via specific personality-driven one-to-one interactions (that is, friendships). I'm still not sure whether workshops generally harbour such encounters, or if my own experience was no more than serendipitous flotsam.
At first sight, meeting fellow poets under any circumstances might seem to provide obvious socio-artistic opportunities; however, workshop contexts and their codes of discourse could preclude other forms of co-relation beginners might wish for, or otherwise be open to. It isn't only among new writers that I've seen evidence of habitualisation into certain interactional modes which are thereafter taken as standard, or even de rigueur. Similar arguments could be extended to other workshop-based activities such as those centering on poets-in-residence and visiting poets in schools, though Ken Smith's work with prisoners and Ian McMillan's with school children provide examples of more encouraging approaches. Ventures like Arvon and Ty Newydd, too, have arguably made a good first tack in facilitating a wider poetry network.
As ever, there's a need for more. And less. There's no substitute for poetic shamans, gurus and soul-mates, yet (thankfully) no institution or "system" can produce them to order. What's required is greater imagination, to extend our vision past the horizon of workshops and university modules and to have the guts and the will to bring any potentialities we might discover there to fruition. For a change we could learn from America's successes (relatively speaking) rather than its mistakes, and build bridges within an atmosphere of co-operation and reciprocal support instead of succumbing to a proclivity to island ourselves off in critical coteries or nescient enclaves. Unlike the USA, though, Britain hasn't had any significant blue-collar tradition in its poetry to assist this process. Perhaps workshops mark the beginnings of such? It is important to acknowledge a strong reaction to our class-fuelled poetic history now exists, and includes a markedly anti-educational-establishment element.
To make progress, therefore, we'll have first to recognise the polarities embedded in our collective and institutional attitudes and priorities in literature, then counter the considerable mutual resistance between them. If we get through that, we'll still have to find a way of wide-berthing the whirlpools generated by global capitalisation of cultural and artistic values. What must become clear to us is that the problems and opportunities confronting poetry aren't just a matter of funding or provision - that is to say, the surge of workshops breaking across the UK is fed and conditioned by diverse cultural and attitudinal undercurrents. There is also much life-work and soul-work to do: workshop-enhanced technique and precision do not constitute poetry's all. Then again, most workshoppers - sensibly - don't seem to expect workshops to contribute to Self. Should they?
Whilst grappling with that question, one interim advance might be to initiate and augment community and residential experiences which shun the ad-hoc, hierarchic, classroom-like structures of some workshops so as to embrace environments inviting more divergent, genuinely democratic interplay. The idea is to encourage artistic dynamics that reach beyond a single poem. Projects such as Atomic Lip and Mannafest are already afloat, and many of these present aspects of polyphonic, choreographed or collective composition in a performance context. Other efforts might involve anti-committee-ist liaisons with a few fellow poets, as in the instance of ShadoWork, a project I recently co-founded. This adopts a "co-vocal" approach to poetry in which poems are rewritten, co-written and intercut in order to sound new resonances beneath language and ego. Through ShadoWork, individuals' poems become the springboard for a dramatic exploration of communal work, where the authorial stance is breached via techniques such as interjection, juxtaposition and vocal simultaneity. Although a performance-oriented end-result has been in mind, the various co-workers have already learned an enormous amount about their own poems and the processes of writing, even at the most fundamental level (the operative syllable here being fun) of hearing their poetry read aloud by someone else or being allowed to witness others compose. The concepts are easily adapted for those who aren't so confident or stage-happy.
New approaches such as these may turn out to be far more than some idealistic attempt to recover a poetic Atlantis. There are some initial signs - in London at least - of market saturation, with recruitment problems across a number of key workshops. Possible explanations include: the colossal growth of outlets (ie a simple oversupply); or that creative expectations have somehow "moved on"; that poets are turning to the more immediate rewards of performance-related venues; or product fatigue. It could even be evidence of an equivalent to the boom-slump cycle as experienced in many commodified market systems. If this apparent oversupply/recession turns out to be actual and prolonged, then even the most successful organisers may have to find ways to gain a "market edge", either through gimmickry, or by being sensitive to workshoppers' deeper needs.
I have to admit, when all's said and done, that I continue to attend - and run - workshops. They can be useful in minesweeping style and content, or in flushing the bilge from individual poems. They provide some basic social and artistic consort between poets. But beyond a certain point I seek friends and colleagues who recognise my larger intentions, who understand the beliefs, styles, trends and goals in my canon - ideally, who have the courage to insist, the humility to suggest, and the wisdom to tell the difference. I need a space where people say - in sensitivity and security - what they really mean; where we lash one another to the mast against the siren-song of "finished" poems. Too many workshops drift in an ambience where what you get is consistently more important than what you put in. The "shop" overwhelms the work. Moreover, if any of us walks the plank of exile, isolation or outsidership, it should be chosen for its proper role in our creative process rather than imposed on those who won't play the workshop game. It goes without saying that any meaningful contribution here will require from us far more of a plunge than merely perceiving the demand and setting up another workshop in knee-jerk fashion.
That's why I hope writers, and artists from other media, will increasingly get together, individually and between small groups, not to form ghastly crews of expansionism or to populate lily-livered parlours of mutual ego massage; but in generous, sociable and spontaneous response to what words can do. I'm not talking about an artificial gregariousness here. And I certainly don't suggest an elimination from poetry of the crow's-nest or garret, but more properly underpinning them so that we don't all end up sadder and more ignorant. I know I can't prescribe in this; and yet I feel strongly that there's tremendous scope - at the individual, group and institutional levels - to supplement, extend and challenge the conventional workshop, to assist in the endless task of getting education closer to its root, so that facilitators "educe" rather than direct and members participate and share as opposed to present. Perhaps you know a place that's already a bit like this. Maybe it calls itself a workshop. Support it. Be wary. The jury's still out on whether the ubiquitous blooming of poetry workshops indicates a revitalised medium or its deepening contamination.
© Mario Petrucci 2001
This article was first published in Agenda magazine.
Possible footnote, to be placed at * on page 2, i.e after "backwash against Poeclectic variety."
It should be clear by now that I see poetry competitions and workshops as merely two examples of ripples which make evident the larger, commodifying and perhaps reactionary forces at work in poetry and society. Among other phenomena, poetry anthologies and magazines too could be included in this list. In the case of anthologies, for example, an editor of any perception knows the dangers involved but will still find it difficult to avoid an anthology's eminent susceptibility to simplification and packaging for an indolent, indifferent, dilettantist or pick-n-mix-minded readership. Anthologies permit a complicit liaison between editor and reader whereby the editor poses as expert and the reader is able to take in entire swaths of contemporaneity - or so it seems - simply by browsing the one book. The analogous complicities between competition judge/entrant, or workshop organiser/participant, should be evident from the main body of the article.
At their worst, anthologies submit the artform to popularisation in typically advertisement-oriented fashion: poetry and sex; poetry and food; poetry as novelty. And so on. The anthologised poems themselves, often lacking authorial, canonical or other context, usually rattle uncomfortably in the poetic bag, like brightly-coloured sweets. There is a sense in which some poetry magazines fall into a similar trap, resembling mini-anthologies when they attempt to summarise trends in a facile way or to present attractive themes which change whimsically or arbitrarily with each issue or editor. Mistaken or otherwise, the hope is that at their most "genuine" (or shall we say, "useful") the anthology or magazine could lead us to larger, more contextualised bodies of work, just as a good competition or workshop might stoke interest in its celebrated participants and provide a starting point or prototype for more profound and far-reaching creative interactions.