A Student Cried in My Poetry Workshop

Every Wednesday at 11 a.m. I have a two hour and forty-five minute poetry workshop with thirteen other students.  We spend the first hour of every class discussing a book assigned to us weekly by the professor.  Then we workshop seven poems, each student turning in a piece to be discussed every other class.  Pretty simple.

This week something happened.  We were workshopping a student’s poem.  It was about something (I’ll just omit everything explicit about everyone and anything in this class) and followed a similar pattern to some other poems this particular student had turned in for critiquing.  People started talking about the poem in the customary manner, which is pretty much everyone suggesting different cuts, extensions, and changes that need to be made.

Then something happened.  I’ll preface this by saying that, without great exception, pretty much every student turns in the same poem every week.  Subject matter and stuff alter a little bit, but approach and word choice and style all seem pretty constant.

Okay, so the thing that happened was like this.  A student’s hand was raised and my professor called on that student.  The student looked at the professor and said something like, “Can I address [the poet] directly?” and the professor said, “Yes.”  Then the student looked at the poet and said something like, “When are you going to stop writing poems about [common subject matter and conceit in student’s poetry up to this point]?”  Everyone was silent and looked around uncomfortably for a few seconds.  Then the poet said something like, “I feel like every workshop is a battle and everyone wants me to make different changes and attacks my work.”  The poet’s face became very flushed and tears started to form in her eyes.  I looked around the room and then several people began talking at once, trying to explain that it was okay and that the instigating student was out of line.  I also tried to calm the poet down by saying something like, “Keith Waldrop won the National Book Award and everyone hated him,” but that didn’t come out quite right and my professor made sure to add, “Not everyone hated him.”  At the end of class the professor asked the poet to stay and talk.  I did up the buttons of my shirt and left quickly.

After leaving the class I could not stop thinking about what happened.  Both sides seemed a little fucked.  On one hand, the instigating student should not have bluntly and directly confronted her want for more variety in such a manner.  It was imprudent and insensitive and created an uneasy environment for the class.  On the other hand, the poet should not have taken this comment so personally.  It is important to separate one’s self from his or her work and view it objectively in order to be able to improve and develop as a writer.  It is also important to not take every criticism to heart because one person’s opinion is not diktat.

The class in general is not harsh, and the professor works to validate and commend all the students as much as possible (unlike my fiction professor, who bluntly says “This does not work as fiction.”), but the problem with undergraduate creative writing seems more in the students’ perception than their ability to write.  Though the crying student was by far the most interesting and extreme reaction thus far, it was not a total phenomenon.  Most students appear visibly pained and angry when receiving criticism.  Others have interrupted a workshop, trying to explain the purpose of a word or a style that was lost to the readers. Then, when discussing writing that is not one’s own, comments such as “I didn’t understand this, therefore the poem was not successful” and lengthy digressions into the annoyance of seemingly arbitrary capitalizations are quite without apology.  I try my best to make positive and/or helpful comments, objective statements, and maintain an unassuming expression during my critiques.  I’m not sure if the issue is maturity of character or unbridled attachment to their writing that makes undergraduate creative writing students so emotional and temperamental, but there is something there.

Regarding a discussion of Keith Waldrop’s recent National Book Award Winning collection Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, which we read as a class a couple weeks ago, several people questioned the merit of “collage” in poetry.  Waldrop had drawn from three novels in creating the collection, editing down and combining short phrases to create three new books of poetry.  Several students believed this to cheapen the work, and called it meaningless and impersonal.  Some said they could not connect with its style and upon learning its origin, disregarding its belonging to the Waldrop in any way.  It is very clear, then, that taste and personal relatability have the greatest effect in shaping the opinions of those college consumers.  And in this light, it comes as no surprise that students should be so attached to their own work—how it relates them to existence and connects them with others.  If this is crushed, then they are crushed.

Personally, I try to do everything to avoid that sense of building up an attachment to my work.  I write what I feel like writing.  I edit it, and I find it interesting to see how others would edit it.  I edit it more, then.  My greatest gain in this workshop, the first of its kind for me, is my desire to not become an entity connected with my output.  Every other week, I work to turn in a poem in a different style.  So far I have turned in a poem similar to some of my previous publications (no capitalization, line breaks at natural breathing points), a prose poem, a weird-shaped poem, an abstract narrative poem, and a poem with a lot of enjambment, divided into three sections.  I have also been writing a lot of list poems, but have yet to turn one in for critique.  When I walk back to my apartment, sometimes I walk with other people from my class for a little while.  One person said something like, “Are you experimenting?”  I tried to answer that, but I felt confused.  Shouldn’t everyone be experimenting?

In the end, it seems that everyone is at fault.  Neither student should have reacted so harshly, and the workshop needs to evolve into an environment of careful and intellectual support if anyone is going to become a better writer.  And that’s the goal, isn’t it?  Sometimes we question why anyone takes a poetry workshop at all.  But, in reality, most of the students in my class probably won’t even be writing poetry five years from now.

I went to see Sam Lipsyte read recently, and when asked about his experience studying under Gordon Lish, now renowned as one of the most significant, and brutal, editors in the modern literary community, Lipsyte replied that he went into the class with the knowledge that it could be devastating.  He continued to explain the he knew he was ready because he was broken, and willing to be broken.  And maybe that’s the mindset everyone needs to take on in a workshop.  No one is entirely self-assured upon entering a workshop.  Be open to new writing, harsh criticism, and the acceptance that not everything you regard holy is truth.

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[David Fishkind is a nineteen-year-old student of English and Creative Writing at NYU. He has been published throughout the Internet, in some literary journals, and by himself.]