Want Fries With That?: The Short-Order Poem

This is an excerpt from a longer essay I wrote for workshop.

I am a notoriously slow poet. I revise and revise, and I do so over long stretches of time. I’ve made steady but excruciatingly slow progress at building a body of published work, so I’ve had to come to terms with this fact.

At first, I was worried that I was just lazy. A professor I had once insisted that, unless one wrote every day, one is not a writer. I disagree. I also think it is unhealthy to link our identities to our jobs–even to our deepest callings–because our products become shorthand for who we are. We are more than just our poems.

Some days, one must read, think, experience. Grinding out a bad journal entry or exercise may be ink on the page, or it may be an exercise in futility. Thankfully, the man who coined the phrase and its attendant criticism of the “McPoem,” Donald Hall, also offers the advanced course in becoming a poet: “This is your contrary assignment: Be as good a poet as George Herbert. Take as long as you wish.”

When I write, I do so with only one overarching aesthetic or ethos: to try and write just one good poem that might stand for the ages. This is a lofty goal, one which may seem born of hubris or a completely unrealistic idea of one’s actual worth as a writer. However, this standard can also be completely freeing.

As long as I am honest with myself–and I have no one but my own conscience to whom I can answer here– I may indeed stand a very slim chance of writing that poem. I also accept that 99 percent–even 100 percent–of what I write will never come near that standard. But it puts all the awards, all the hierarchies, all the career-climbing in perspective. Should the poet who signs onto Hall’s advanced course pick up any of these goodies along the way, he or she will have some lovely souvenirs from the journey. Whether he or she ever arrives on Parnassus is not something the poet is likely to know in this lifetime. If the poet can accept such uncertainty, then the poet embodies Keats’ negative capability, which is a prerequisite of the advanced course.

There comes a time when talking about something and doing things that are related to it take away from doing the thing itself. I have reached that point as a university workshop student. I would rather work closely with one or two or three close poet-friends who are insightful readers, in the spirit of service to the poem, than continue to take part in the fossilized ritual of strutting our little tarted-up beauty-pageant drafts down the center of the table, as if we were some pack of overzealous, trashy stage mothers.

As this was the last required graduate poetry workshop of my entire life, I was determined to get as much out of it as possible by taking a different approach to presenting my own work. I decided to bring work-in-progress that was neither dialed-in on deadline (with the exception of one reluctantly-submitted first draft) nor ready for the contest-circuit envelope. This semester, I made a conscious decision to show my ugly children, my ragged seams, and to see what transpired.

What I discovered was enlightening. The quality of criticism was somewhat more substantive on the whole, and thus far more useful to me in developing my own work. I also found that people were less tentative in offering their critiques, perhaps because they finally saw that I am not some unfeeling McSonnet-stamping machine that plugs into the die, the stencil, the template, the stereotype some students might have about people who write formal poetry. Imagine what workshop might have been like had everyone committed to risking failure instead of chasing “success.” Failure, as I tell my own students over and over again, is a natural part of the learning process. If we always get A’s on everything, then we’re not learning anything; either we don’t need to be here at all or we’re not risking enough.

Why didn’t I trot out my most polished, most praiseworthy efforts? Here is a revised version of a manifesto I wrote along these lines early in the semester:

A Brief Workshop Polemic

Freezing art in the icy prison of rubric doesn’t create better art.

At the same time, certain points tend to come up repeatedly at a given level, in a given workshop, in a given poet’s work. The points may or may not be the same for undergraduate and graduate poets.

Art and polemic dance a weary, wary knife-fight.

Lecturing a poet on what you perceive as the poem’s political, moral, ideological failings does not absolve you from understanding why the poem poses a political, moral, ideological question.

Could it be that the poet deliberately employed a particular epithet to create a particular effect–besides that of aiming it at the reader as a weapon? Why might the poet have done that? Suppose the poet was smart enough to realize that that scary word is an epithet. Suppose the poet belongs to the class of people the word represents, those in whose name the critic throws his or her mighty shield of ideological correction. Suppose the poet is not the poem. Suppose, also, that the critic is not the poem.

No word is off-limits in poetry. Censorship and poetry are antithetical. It’s all in how the word gets the job done. It may be doing a job for which you’re not hiring, but for which a position exists.

In workshop, describe what the poem is doing. Observe it dispassionately. De scribe it from several different angles. Don’t evaluate it. Don’t pass judgment on its judgment. Don’t write a different poem on top of this one. Look not only at the pieces of the mosaic, but at the grout that holds it together. Move pieces around like you’re building a flagstone path, not a cinderblock wall.

Write in a style completely unlike your own. Choose a poem as model when the Muse is unavailable. Play with other poet’s figures, scansion, line lengths as you generate new work. Sometimes imitatio generates more creative and interesting results than ex nilhio.

Be brave. Bring to the table the raw, the unfinished, the problematic, the non- award-winning, the crapfest, the experiment, the mad dream, the ancient stillborn draft. Dare to be imperfect in workshop. Dare to tweak and to seek praise on your own time, not the workshop’s.

This polemic or manifesto also serves as a draft teaching philosophy for creative writing at the graduate level. I want to clarify that of course I understand the necessity of the Workshop 101 rule about bringing polished work to workshop. Undergraduates have not yet acquired the discipline of revision and need to learn that poetry as an art form is work, not merely transcription, free association, or private journaling.

That said, graduate students at the doctoral level (assuming that, as MFAs, they have amassed some experience in public readings, community workshops, reading-series coordinating, slush-pile reading, editing, and publishing) desperately need to learn to loosen up. They need to learn that part of being the best sort of professional is learning how not to be arrogant, how not to be exclusionary, how to be both generous and graceful, even if these public attitudes don’t come naturally. In short, the McWorkshop breeds an army of arrogant little posers, all vying for Employee of the Month. It’s time to shut down the drive-through, get rid of the deep fryer, the numbered menu, the plastic tables, and the clowns.

I doubt that anyone here is “too good” for workshop. I think that, because we are a diverse group, we have diverse concerns and write under diverse conditions and constraints. It honestly does not surprise me that single, young, white, middle-class males get the bulk of the attention, praise, and perks. First, their sensibilities are in line with departmental power structures. Second, membership has its privileges–women of color, single women, older women, working women are under completely different constraints, most particularly where precious time is concerned. Generating new work, revising it, and reading in depth and breadth that which is not assigned are exponentially difficult for us, not because we lack either talent or penises, but because we have to work much harder to survive. (On the other hand, we have far more and varied life experience, which leads to more interesting material and artistic approaches than I’ve seen from the other crowd, writing its way through the post-adolescent tropes of chemical haze, cheap motels, and slumming for The Truth.)

I can learn from anyone’s work–whether the example is worthy or an object lesson in what not to do–and I genuinely don’t need workshop anymore. My business is to serve the poem. I am very much a poet of the page, not of the stage, so I am not “in” with the social merry-go-round of mutual admiration that dominates the spoken-word poetry scene. I do not privilege theater exercises over good writing. This is not to say that one art cannot enhance the other; however, I don’t have much patience for bad poems projected by overwhelming stage presence. My poetry seeks a subtler music, more acoustic and intimate than the poetic equivalent of an arena-rock mass product.

I press my ear to the paper, the way one presses one’s ear to the ground; I fine-tune both music and message as it bounces off the stratosphere and crackles through the airwaves, the way I fine-tune a distant radio station’s skipping signal at sundown. When I present my own work, I know that sometimes the signal is alternately breaking up and blasting, or that the listener on the other end might not have the best antenna. That’s OK. I go on sending my signals, sometime by voice, sometimes in the dits and dahs of meter’s Morse Code, and have faith that someone, somewhere is listening, that somehow the message, the poem as artwork, is getting through. I can always upgrade my transceiver. That has nothing to do with the inability or unwillingness of another station operator to do likewise. . . .

In the end, the idea that anyone can teach anyone else “how to write poetry” is dubious. Behind that concept is the looming expectation that one can be taught (passively) how to be a famous poet by being blessed with some magic famous-poet dust from some famous poet-fairy. I think that we can teach each other how we write poetry, whether through example or through explanation, by offering each other specific tools for specific problems. But we must be comrades in the making, as well as comrades-in-the-making. I absolutely don’t mean editing-by-consensus, especially when that consensus is often the lowest common denominator and occasionally misguided by red herrings and personal neuroses. I do mean that we should support one another beyond the cursory and sometimes grudging pro forma congratulations attached to contest wins or publications. “Supporting” each other should include genuine camaraderie: showing up for each other’s readings, publishing each other’s work, sharing the spotlight, being professionals, voluntarily getting together to swap poems, sharing a bottle of wine and something to eat more than once a semester.

As I move out of the strange world of the graduate poetry workshop, I will continue to study why “workshop” as presently conceived of and practiced in this country produces so many McPoems. I think it starts with the idea that, like McDonalds’ “Hamburger U.,” we poets can attend “Poem U.,” with the promise held out to us of a bright future in management someday for those who are willing to act like the manager. What does the manager do? Seek out the young, malleable, and manipulable to fill orders for the imaginary reader-customer. Those who refuse to conform, to wear the uniform, to follow the chart on the wall, are weeded out. So, too, are some who seem somehow different or dangerous because they happen to cook a different style of cuisine, one that is fresher, more raw, nuanced, or blended. In this, the McWorkshop is not unlike much of academe. One begins to understand the contempt, albeit ill-informed, that poets outside the university have for us.

Automatic tasks and a culture of conformity are the defining traits of all institutions. Unfortunately, the workshop as artistic process has itself become an institution in this country. Institutions, while often cast in supporting roles to art, are antithetical to art and to creativity. Too often, those artists who succeed within the confines of an institution–be that a university creative writing program, a conference, a particular “school” of poetry–are those with a taste for power over others.

When a workshop rewards poets through and for the arbitrary exercise of power (i.e., for turning out the most perfect cheeseburgers or selling the most cheeseburgers in the district this month), it forgets that the object is not to sell a product of negligible content, but to nourish and sustain other people. We tend to drown our poems in heavy-handed spices and cheap sauces, but forget that these rancid products coat the tongue with grease, even as we wolf them down. Even as these McPoems begin to putrefy within us, begin to clog our art’s very life’s blood, we believe that we have been fed.

And we have the sensation, albeit fleeting, of complete satisfaction.

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