Some basic thoughts on the workshop

I know I’m not the first poet with opinions about the concept of a workshop.  Many have written for or against the concept, while of course having a certain idea of what a workshop is and what it entails.

I think it is true that a workshop won’t necessarily make someone become a better writer; that said, a workshop can help one learn how to judge poetry, how to assess it and think about it.  At least, that is what is intended.

Many workshops, in my experience, are run with certain assumptions in mind about what poetry is and what it sets out to do.

I think it’d be better for the workshop to explore the “do” itself.  To consider the work the poem is doing.  Examine the mechanisms, not be mechanics making “repairs.”  As workshop members, we are not there to privilege ourselves to be able to reconstruct the work (though if we do, it should be in the explicit spirit of examining an alternative mechanism…and one mechanism is not inherently superior to another one.  Good judgment comes from understanding context).

The workshop, it seems, is often run with conventional poetry in mind—what I mean is, poems that relate linearly to the poet.  Because the poet is an independent variable acting on the dependent variable called “poem” in this situation, the poet editing and revising does not dismantle the system/equation/relation between poet and poem.

But when the poem relates to the poet laterally—or, when the poet is one of a number of variables at work in creating the poem—revision is not so simple.  Let’s say the poem is an erasure that the poet makes by following a specific process—picking out every third word from a source text, let’s say.  A comment in workshop that questions word choice in this instance would not be helpful to the essence of the poem, the mechanism of the poem, the equation of the poem.

Such unconventional poems cause a shift in what sort of feedback is valuable to the poem.  Someone could still indeed say that a word choice or linebreak is odd, but if it exists because of the poem’s method, while that feedback may be interesting, it is not useful.

How useful should feedback be in a workshop, by the way?  Is workshopping a poem more of an exercise for enriching those who did not write the poem than an exercise for benefitting the poem itself?  Perhaps ideally a balance of both?  What I mean is, I feel that I certainly get something good out of pondering another’s work, and that in itself can be a good enough reason to be in a workshop/for a workshop to exist.

I do think that if the focus of a workshop is to be analytic more than prescriptive, there can be room for a diversity of poems, whether the poems are conventional or unconventional.

Should a workshop aim to welcome all types of poems or should it aim to welcome only certain sorts of poems (on the basis of theme or form)?  Perhaps sometimes one or the other, depending on the participants or context or span of the workshop?  Advantages/disadvantages to this?

If a workshop is to succeed in being more analytic than prescriptive, what does this require of the participants?  What do the participants need to know in order to be analytic and convey their analyses?