Monday, February 20, 2006

What I do on my summer vacation

So I'm reading through the current issue of Poets & Writers, and noticing that there are approximately six bajillion ads for various summer programs -- conferences, workshops, pretty much any variation on that theme you can imagine. Conferences where you go and listen to other people talk and schmooze with agents and editors. Workshops at universities and in resort towns. Summer programs where you take what you've already written and go to get it critiqued, and summer programs where you go and write a whole bunch of new stuff. Places where you have to apply to get in and places that will let anybody in so long as they shell out the money. And I'm looking at all these ads and I'm thinking, man, what a racket.

Now, I love summer workshops. I've been to the Indiana U. Writers' Conference, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, the Split Rock Arts Program in Minnesota, and the Fine Arts Work Center summer program in Provincetown -- and I've had a great time at all of them. I've worked with some terrific teachers: Carolyn Kizer, Lucia Perillo, Michael Carey, Kate Green, Cleopatra Mathis, D.A. Powell, and others. I get a little something different out of each workshop I attend, too. When I took a workshop with Carolyn Kizer at the IU conference, back in 1981 (I think) when I was twenty, just being taken seriously as a poet and having my work discussed was a trip and a half -- not to mention the readings every evening; it was the first time I'd been immersed in poetry for a week like that, and it felt amazing. I remember that Kizer used one of the poems from my manuscript as a jumping-off point for a discussion of whether political poetry could be good poetry or whether the politics inherently compromised the art -- because that was a topic I cared about pretty intensely, I was thrilled that my little poem sparked off the discussion.

But you know, there is this stereotype of the middle-aged, usually female, usually crappy poet who attends these summer workshops & conferences, collecting t-shirts and names of famous poets she has worked with along the way. And it kind of scares me to think I might be That Person. God knows nobody at these summer programs is going to disillusion someone by telling them they're a crappy poet; they want to encourage you , keep you coming back and paying money. These programs are huge cash cows in many cases, I'm sure. (Then again, why tell someone they're a crappy poet if writing poetry makes them happy, makes their life better? Just don't encourage them to send out their work for publication, spare the poor editors, but writing crappy poetry is not the worst hobby a person could have.)

Now, I don't (usually) think I am That Person. I take my work seriously (too seriously, sometimes). I read a lot of poetry, which often seems to be how you can distinguish a middle-aged-lady-crappy-poet from a "Real" (oh, there' s a dangerous word) poet. I get published here and there, which I take to be a possible sign of non-craptastic-ness. But still, as I shell out my hard-earned cash for workshops and prepare to make my middle-aged way across the country yet again, I wonder about these things sometimes.

Anyway, that's neither here nor there, nor is it the post I started out intending to make. I've been thinking about my various summer-workshop experiences, and about what makes a good summer workshop, and how that's different from what makes a good, say, MFA workshop. (Not that I've been in an MFA workshop, but I've been in plenty of undergrad workshops, and a grad-level workshop that was full of MFA fiction students, etc.) Part of it is, of course, the immersion factor. There's a big difference for me in attending the IU conference, where I come home for dinner most days and come home at night and my regular life sort of intrudes a bit, versus going out of town -- but even attending the IU conference is a bit of an immersive experience. When it's good, it's intense; when it's not as good, it's just exhausting. I have had the experience of being so fully immersed in poetry that every slant of light, every blast of the foghorn on the Long Point lighthouse, every walk up that one steep hill in Iowa City makes my skin feel like it's about to burst with poems. Images start falling into lines inside my head without me even consciously manipulating them. It's an amazing feeling. I don't know if I could bear to live that way 24/7 for more than a few days at a time, but for those few days, it's pretty incredible.

The workshop itself, I think, has to be different for a short one-week experience than for a semester-long class or a multiple-year program. You've got a bunch of people who have probably never met one another before and very possibly will never see each other again after the week is over; creating an atmosphere of intimacy and trust has got to be the first order of business. Depending on the workshop, you may have a pretty wide range of experience levels; you may have people with MFA's sitting at the same table with people who've never been in a workshop before. That can make things rocky, or it can create all kinds of interesting tensions and energies. At its best, I think a summer workshop can be like a great one-night stand (not that I'm an expert there!) -- you go immediately to this intense level of intimacy, and you sort of have less to lose by exposing yourself because you have the safety of walking away when it's over. Or the illusion of safety, anyway.

I think the summer workshops that work best are the ones that are structured around a particular aspect of writing, or a particular theme, or have some sort of focus besides just "okay, we're gonna workshop everybody's poems for a week." Which doesn't mean you're not going to explore other topics or aspects (D.A. Powell's workshop last summer was ostensibly focused on revision, but goodness knows we talked about a lot of other things besides), and which doesn't mean a non-thematic workshop won't sort of organically develop its own flavor and focus as themes and topics arise from the poems and the poets in the room. (The way Lucia Perillo continually returned to the idea of mystery, for example.)

And as a student coming into a summer workshop, I think they work best when you think ahead of time about what you want to get out of the workshop, focus your energy somehow. You can't cover everything you need or want to learn about poetry in one short week, but maybe you can come away with three ideas about how to approach revision, or with information about several new places to submit your work, or having made a decision about whether you want to try applying to MFA programs, or with a notion about how to go about structuring a chapbook manuscript, or with ideas about how to discipline yourself to write every day. Or you can just go and try to be as emotionally & artistically open as possible and try to keep yourself in that open, intimate frame of mind for as much of the week as you can stand it.

I'm going to think more about what makes a good summer workshop -- I haven't yet talked about what makes someone a good summer-workshop teacher, which is another issue entirely, or about the stuff that happens in these programs other than actual workshops -- and maybe blog about this some more in the next couple of days. But I'd be interested to hear thoughts on summer workshops & conferences in general, from people who have attended them & people who have taught at them -- and maybe from people who don't want to attend them, too; I'm certainly open to the "these programs just want to take your money" point of view, even if it's in my best interest to disagree vehemently. *grin* So: thoughts?


Garbo said...

Anne, One of the main ways you can distinguish yourself from Those People is that you earned the money yourself to pay for the workshop, giving up things you would have liked and even things you needed, to go critique poetry. That's a far cry from Those People, who are doubly foolish for paying to have crappy poetry praised, because their husbands are providing the financial support and encouragement to get them out of the house for a week. Let us not inquire too deeply as to what Hubby is doing once he's sent the "poet" away. . .

the machinist said...

Great post, Anne. I've never done the summer workshops, ony the MFA programs, but it sounds like the first bit of the first semester workshop is quite a bit like your experience.

When I first came to NYU, I had never been in a workshop before, & I was in the room with at least one person who already had an MFA. It did make for some interesting dynamics.

And, for what it's worth, I think the fact you're having those thoughts are enough to prove that you are not, in fact, one of Those Poets.

Radish King said...

I only went to one writers conference, but I went twice to study with the same teacher. It was a conference you had to apply to, send poems, etc. and the application process was pretty rigorous. Still, there were a few people there (both men and women, and of all ages) who seemed to be writing conference junkies. They were all excited about going here in the fall and going there in the winter. They kind of scared me (anything bordering on fanaticism scares me, even little hints of it) but if that's what kick starts your writing, then go for it. Who cares what other people think? Fuck em.

nolapoet said...

A good conference can supplement a MFA program that's weak in your particular area, too.

It's a different aesthetic than what you seem to be into, but I can't say enough good about West Chester for serious study of formal and narrative poetry. The only thing wrong with it is it's getting a little crowded...!

I say try a few, or try one you think is completely different, or go to study with a particular poet whose *work* you admire. Jump-start the batteries, don't be a starfucker, and get the t-shirt if you're so inclined.

Have fun!


Peter said...

I think writing conferences are great. They do somewhat self-select for people who can *afford* them: so you often are missing the younger writers, and the ones who are living on the socio-economic edge, and have less disposable income.
Still they are great for the IMMERSION into the writing life. I have found them *incredibly* worthwhile, both as an attendee, and as a faculty-member. There is nothing like leaving your usual life and routines, and escaping to a world where you are living with other writers/artists, living an almost pure "writing life" (if such a thing exists), even if it is only for a few days or weeks.

Anne said...

Garbo - ha! Actually that's been a pretty small minority of the summer program attendees I've run across, but it probably does apply to some of 'em. I think it does mean something that I do have to sacrifice a bit to do this stuff, though I like to think I'd work just as hard if someone handed me a nice fat grant and said "here, go play with poets in Provincetown." *grin*

Woody - if you ever do want to do a summer workshop, you would likely not be the only MFA-holder in the room if you went to Provincetown! Out of 6 students in Powell's workshop last year, 2 of them already had their MFA. (Hey, you might even know one of them -- Michael Montlack. I've seen his poems popping up in various queer venues lately, and I believe he is still in NYC.)

Rebecca - cool that you went twice to study with the same teacher; I've never done that before & will be doing it this year. Yeah, there are some fanatics, some who are more fanatical about the workshop experience than about the actual poetry, I think. Sometimes I can kinda feed off of their enthusiasm, and when that happens, it can be good.

Robin - I'll look into West Chester, thanks! It's true that I write very little formal or narrative stuff, but it would probably do me good to study it a bit. I think summer workshops can push you outside your comfort zone a bit and that can be seriously productive (and fun).

Peter - VERY good point about the self-selection, and thank you for making it. While there are often a few scholarships available, you almost have to be "in the loop" already to know about them & to apply. (I'm applying for a couple this year, crossing my fingers; if I don't get one, I have to choose between getting my teeth fixed & going to P-town. I think P-town will win.) I've found no shortage of younger writers, but those younger writers are nearly always students, sometimes racking up academic credit for the workshop. Younger writers outside academia, not so much.

Lyle Daggett said...

I went twice to the Port Townsend (Washington) Writers' Conference, in 1987 and 1990, found both experiences wonderful. 1987 I was in a poetry workshop led by Margaret Randall who I loved as a teacher (incredibly open and egalitarian). In 1990 I was in a workshop led by Olga Broumas who I also really liked. The conference has lots of short one- or two-session classes in addition to the week-long workshops (one that comes to mind was a short one on poetry translation, led by William O'Daly, which I liked). Lots of free time if you want it, and one of the most beautiful locations on the face of the earth, on the Puget Sound across from the Cascade Mountains. Waking up to that every morning for a week.

In 2002 I took a great week-long class at Split Rock in Duluth, MN, on Writing the Epic Poem, taught by Sharon Doubiago. I absolutely loved it, Sharon's a great teacher. Extremely encouraging and open to just about anything. Also, I felt, highly rigorous, pushing us to take our poems where we could. (I should maybe say here that Sharon and I have been friends for many years, and this no doubt influences my opinion. Though I'd never experienced her as a teacher before that.)

In each case I became friends with at least one of the people I met in the workshops, and am still in touch with a couple of them after many years.

My experiences have been good. It's true I've also been highly selective. I've taken classes`only from poets whose work I really liked. (I've never been in an MFA program and don't have a grad degree.)

I haven't bought any of the T-shirts (mainly because T-shirts don't hang well on me, shall we say, but I kept the participant buttons from Port Townsend.

And clearly you're not one of "Those People" -- such people (whether real or fictitious) don't ask the kind of self-examining questions you're asking.

Suzanne said...

I'm with Peter. Great topic, Anne.

Erin B. said...

Anne, I've never attended a conference for one of the reasons Peter mentioned, the funds (when aren't they a problem?). But I'd like to, for the experience, to see what such an atmosphere can do to a poet. Socio-economically speaking, I may be young and just learning the joys of bills and payments and rent and such, but by no means am I underprivileged.

Perhaps soon I'll join the ranks of conference goer. For now, I'm concentrating on experiences, revision, sending work out, the occasional meeting with a writer friend in a coffee shop.

And, for the record, if you were one of Those People, you wouldn't have even thought about any of this in the first place. Recognizing and acknowledging our skills and lacks is one way to prevent it from happening. The other is to have a heart, which you obviously do.

Thanks for the thoughts!

K.G. Schneider said...

You make me want to attend a writing conference--just to meet people like you.

What others said: you are not one of Those People.

Regarding MFAs, the weekly workshop experience is pretty darn intimate. You share months together--then semesters--then years--with people who have read your best and worst work, and who have shared the same with you. The week-long conference doesn't offer that kind of staying power.

Nobody needs to get an MFA, of course; it's a matter of druthers. But the peer group experience has been great for me.

I'm amused at the person who said conferences offered the "writing experience"--which would mean to me that everyone sat in their rooms all night frantically typing to deadline. ;)

Anne said...

Lyle - Port Townsend is always one of the ones I think about going to. It sounds fabulous! Maybe someday. And I loved Split Rock, the time I went (even though I made the mistake of running outside right after a rainstorm, in order to look at this amazing double rainbow hovering over Lake Superior -- silly me, I forgot that mosquitoes are the state bird of Minnesota and they are especially active after it rains like that).

Erin - I hope you do get to go to a conference someday; at the right one, I think you'd have a marvelous time.

Karen - the people you meet really are one of the best parts of a conference! Even when I haven't stayed in touch with folks afterwards, I've always enjoyed getting to know writers I would never have met otherwise. And I've had the long-term experience in writers' groups, though I imagine the MFA experience is different from that in many ways -- sometimes I learn the most from people who know my work, but sometimes it really helps to work with people who don't know me or my work, who don't bring any expectations to it. Both, I think, are good experiences.

(And I actually have been to summer workshops that had people frantically typing to deadline! One year at the Iowa summer festival -- this was in the years before everyone wrote on computers -- I remember walking down the hall of the dorm first thing in the morning and hearing several typewriters clickety-clacking away, and loving how that made me feel like I was surrounded by people hard at work. About half the workshops I've done have had "homework" assignments every night.)

Cat said...

Like others, I shriek in horror at the thought that you could be one of Those People. You decidedly are not. The thing, I think, is that they're putting on the clothes of a poet and dancing around in them, while the real poets don't care what they're wearing because they're off thinking about poetry.

I like workshops because they make me focus. And because it's nice to be around like-minded people who know what you mean when you say you really do need to go look at the way the moon slides over the water because otherwise you can't use it in a piece. But jeeze, what a huge racket.