Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Do poetry workshops do anyone any good? Iowa...

(University of Iowa campus, Iowa City)

Are MFA Programs Killing Poetry? Do poetry workshops do anyone any good?

Serving on a panel, The Professionalization of Poetry, with David Alpaugh, drawing on David’s essays in the Jan/Feb and Mar/April 2003 issues of Poets & Writers Magazine. Others on our panel include Michelle Bitting, MFA candidate at Pacific University, Oregon; and Rebecca Foust, winner of two Pushcart nominations.

Marin Poetry Center, Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission, San Rafael, CA. Thurs., 7:30 PM, Feb. 21.

Topics for panelists:

1. Do poetry workshops do anyone any good?
2. Are MFA programs killing poetry?

3. Would those who choose poetry as a "career path" benefit by getting a "real job"?

4. Is the poetry publishing scene a scam?

Starting with #1, the answer is, Yes... for me personally. Why? Well, need to back up for a moment.

I began writing while serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. A landing ship (LST 914, too small to warrant a name), large as a football field, lots of space, lots of privacy, lots of time to wander around in our bare feet... very casual duty... early 50s, McCarthy era, but we were something of a hippie ship, so, with access to a typewriter, a library (I was ship’s librarian), I got to read (Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Melville, Carl Sandburg) and write.

I was 18, just of high school, and thought what I wrote deserved a larger audience. At the very least I wanted feedback from other writers, teachers, perhaps an editor... I had never seen a poetry magazine, had no idea there was such a thing, though I’d grown up in Chicago, home of Poetry. Our little ship had a subscription to Time Magazine and that’s the one magazine I read and that’s where I sent my first packet of poems. A playful editor responded with a rejection note in rhyming couplets. I took this as encouragement and, in truth, am still pro-Time.

My first experience with a poetry workshop was at the University of Iowa, which I attended with the G.I. Bill and a fellowship, courtesy Paul Engle, the Director. Engle had taken over from Karl Seashore who, as David Alpaugh notes in his essay, helped start the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1936-- ).

John Berryman and Robert Lowell had taught there shortly before I arrived. W.D. Snodgrass, a graduate, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Heart’s Needle. Philip Levine, Donald Justice, Robert Mezey, Henri Coulette... they were the ones who sat in judgment on the poems presented and set the standard which, at that time (1956-58), was formal formal formal.

In my poem “Iowa Writers’ Workshop—1958” (Collected Poems, p. 76-77) I refer to them as "the four crows."

“...Ours is an age of light. Our crows*
Reflect the age, Eisenhower-Nixon
Colored stripes, rainbow solids, blacks & whites.

"Ruffling their wings, Mezey, Coulette, Levine
Refuse to vote. [i.e., comment on a poem under discussion]

“Page four, 'Apologies to William S.'
Apologies, our third sonnet...”
And those who teach, who write
And teach, the man at hand, apologize
For themselves, and themselves at hand.

[later – same poem]

“...One has written
Nothing new, and it is inconceivable
That one would, or will ever write again.

“...Page one. Walled-in glances at the author.
And then the author disappears,
The poem anonymous.
Voice. Voices. There are voices about it:
Anonymous. The self. A sonnet’s self...

“The room is filled with it. It is a bird.
It sits beside us and extends
Its wings. Mezey hits it with his elbow.
The bird shrieks and sprawls
Upon the floor. We surrender

"We surrender to its death. The poem breathes,
Becomes its author and departs.
We all depart. And watch
The green walls take our seats. Apologies.
Brooks & Warren. DuPont. Edsel & Ford.”

The four *crows? At the time (c. 1958) I was researching and writing poems about birds, "The Apteryx," "The Dodo..." as for the crow, one has only to turn to Wikipedia...

"Corvids and man

"Certain species have been considered pests; the Common Raven, Australian Raven and Carrion Crow have all been known to kill weak lambs as well as eating freshly dead corpses probably killed by other means...

"Crows make a wide variety of calls or vocalizations. Whether the crows' system of communication constitutes a language is a topic of debate... Crows have also been observed to respond to calls of other species; this behavior is presumably learned because it varies regionally. Crows' vocalizations are complex and poorly understood. Some of the many vocalizations that crows make are a "caw", usually echoed back and forth between birds, a series of "caws" in discrete units, counting out numbers, [sounds like poetry to me!] a long caw followed by a series of short caws (usually made when a bird takes off from a perch), an echo-like "eh-aw" sound... These vocalizations vary by species, and within each species vary regionally. In many species, the pattern and number of the numerical vocalizations have been observed to change in response to events in the surroundings (i.e. arrival or departure of [other] crows).

"As a group, the crows show remarkable examples of intelligence, and Aesop's fables of The Crow and the Pitcher shows that humans have long viewed the crow as an intelligent animal. Crows and ravens often score very highly on intelligence tests. Certain species top the avian IQ scale. Crows in the northwestern U.S. show modest linguistic capabilities and the ability to relay information over great distances, live in complex, hierarchic societies involving hundreds of individuals with various "occupations", and have an intense rivalry with the area's less socially advanced ravens.

"...Crows will engage in a kind of mid-air jousting, or air-"chicken" to establish pecking order..."

Crows, poetry workshops and pecking order...

I’ve studied in and led poetry workshops since 1956. In fact, in 1968 I happily returned to Iowa to teach. Some of my best friends—and worst enemies—have been poets. The pie is small. The rivalry is huge. And I compete. But it’s not so much the rewards as the fact other people care about writing, that my writing benefits, I find, from association—positive or negative—with other writers.

Crows, poetry workshops and pecking order... I edit a feature for Web Del Sol / Perihelion. It’s called Writers’ Friendship and has to do with the relationship / what it’s like for one writer to sustain a friendship with another. Lola Haskins, a fine poet who teaches Computer Science at the University of Florida writes:

"For example, when I meet some poets, I get the feeling that they’re sizing me up to see if I’m any threat. If the verdict is that I’m not, then they relax. If they decide otherwise, they clam up and start looking over my shoulder for someone more useful to talk to. Sometimes, it goes much farther than this, perhaps even to the point of paranoia. For instance, ...a few years ago, when two poets came to my town to teach in the writing program, I thought, great, more poets, and bought their books. But not only have they not been polite to me--without ever exchanging more than ten words total with me in all the years since they’ve come, they put me down to their students on a regular basis. So why are they doing this? I’ve decided it’s because they’re protecting English, which they see as their territory. It seems such a pity, but I know it’s not an isolated case. I’ve heard other stories like that, where certain writers seem to have peed on their four corners, to make sure interlopers are aware that only they, the purveyors of urine, and their students are welcome within their borders. And if someone tries to cross that line, he or she finds out what that odd odor means and, to mix a metaphor, in spades."

So, back to the original question, Do poetry workshops do anyone any good?

Is there value in hanging out with some of the best teachers and writers in the country? Iowa may have been a mixed blessing for me--in the late 50s with my ragged verse--but it was, overall, very much a blessing. The community of writers, the contagious passion for writing and for poetry itself... overall, speaking for myself, the answer is yes yes yes.

David Alpaugh's Professionalization of Poetry


Roy said...


As the organizer for the "Professionalization of Poetry" event, I should perhaps clarify that the series of questions Robert lists ("Do poetry workshops do

anyone any good?", "Are MFA programs killing poetry?", etc.) come from the flyer I designed for the panel discussion. The questions were intended to be

provocative rather than nuanced -- let alone fair to David Alpaugh's original article, which, though passionate, never goes so far as to claim the MFA

programs are killing poetry, or that workshops do no one any good.

Poetry feedback can come from a variety of sources, and in a variety of forms:
1) one's family and friends;
2) fellow poets to whom one sends one's work;
3) published reviews (for those famous enough)
4) writers' groups;
5) college, or privately offered, courses that attendees pay for;
6) poetry retreats;
and so on.

Of these sources, the first three go back a long way, and were available to Pope and Dryden as well as Eliot and Pound. The latter three forms are, by and

large, a 20th century phenomena.

It's surely obvious that some feedback is going to be helpful to poets, no matter what their level of achievement. More difficult to answer, is the

question of whether the institution of workshops (5 and 6 above) is such a good thing. For instance, is Robert Sward's poetry better than it would

have been had he not attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop (but, say, still had feedback from friends, reviews, etc.)? This is very difficult to answer,

notwithstanding Robert's subjective sense of having derived some good from the experience. For all he knows, his poetry might have been better had he

not been harried by those annoying crow teachers.

It should be added that one might benefit from a workshop experience not by writing better poems, but by writing more poems – poems that get written

that would not have gotten written without the motivation of the workshop.

Assuming that workshops constitute a general benefit, does there come a point of diminishing returns? After enough time do they lose their effect? Or would

we writers do well to join a workshop permanently?

Yet another question has to do with whether institutional workshops have benefited poetry in general. It's hard to doubt that workshops have generated a

wider interest in poetry. This might be thought an obviously healthy development. But maybe workshops just encourage more dross, making it harder to locate

the high-quality stuff?

Then again, to some extent workshops may cater to the vanity (not to mention the wallets) of the attendees, promoting not an interest in poetry in general,

but a sure-fire way of obtaining an
audience (however small) for one's own productions. My own experience is that most poets are far more likely to turn out for an event where they get to read

their work, than to hear others.

In the end, my sense is that the institution of workshops may be a double-edged sword with advantages and disadvantages, but that to answer the more general

question as to the impact of workshops on poetry in general in our culture, some sort of empirical sociological research would need to be carried out.

--Roy Mash

MichalClark said...

The Iowa Writers' Workshop is a two-year residency program which culminates in ... or a book of poetry) and the awarding of a Master of Fine Arts degree


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large, a 20th century phenomena.

It's surely obvious that some feedback is going to be helpful to poets, no matter what their level of achievement. More difficult to answer, is the

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