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?