Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In Search of Namaste

People have a lot of negative things to say about the creative writing workshop culture, the worst of which is that all of the writers who go through an MFA or doctoral creative writing program end up writing the same poem or story.
They don’t.
There is also the stereotype of the sniping, competitive workshop, where everyone is engaged in fierce one-upmanship.
I haven’t seen it.
But I do have a complaint about workshop culture. I never really liked all of the nonstop workshopping.
Here’s the thing: by the second workshop session, you can almost predict the responses from each member of a cohort whom you will work with for two or three years. Reader A doesn’t think you pushed the poem far enough. Reader B wants you to experiment with form. Reader C thinks you should be more open-ended. And it’s quite possible that you will receive variations on these responses from this particular cast of characters for every poem you turn in, forever.
Luckily, everyone is quick to point out that they really like your X, but. The “Xbut” comment dominates the workshop, really—there is a smattering of faint praise for a surface feature, and then an explanation of how a reader wants to see more of whatever it is she wants to see more of.
When I teach a workshop, I advise against the Xbut comment. In fact, I advise against “like” statements at all. I’ve never understood why anyone thinks that a personal preference is relevant to a conversation of craft. It’s a first step to gaining a sense of what is working and what is not, of course, but at the graduate level, the conversation needs to go further—and it even needs to start in a further-along place.
“Like” is an unhelpful word, and it’s generally an unexamined one. A negative criticism (and one probably based on personal aesthetic preference) is coming, and the Xbut comment softens it. It’s a kind of workshop foreplay, but as foreplay goes, it’s insufficient. To push the comparison, the Xbut statement is the clumsy boob-squeeze to the coitus of the discussion.
In a workshop, the conversation seldom turns to the most basic element of a piece of writing, and that is what idea is being communicated. We might explore the rhetorical structure of a poem (and this, though welcome and useful, happens seldom), but we generally fail to acknowledge what a poet is trying to say—which is too bad, since most poems rise from some urgency within the poet.
Unfortunately, the workshop can infect the rest of a writer’s life, if we let it. Poems are judged to be good or not by readers, publishable or not by editors, but I find that poems are very seldom heard.
In my daily life, I tend to greet people with a friendly “Hey.” Were I a speaker of Zulu, I would have a completely different greeting: “Sawubona,” which means “I see you” or “I recognize the humanity in you.” The Sanskrit-derived word “Namaste” also means “I see you,” or, more specifically, “My spirit recognizes your spirit.”
Doesn’t the typical workshop offer a sort of good-natured “Hey”? And in writing a poem, aren’t we instead looking for a “Sawubona” or a “Namaste”? This may sound a little bit old fashioned, but I write poems in part to express something I’m feeling. That’s always the starting point. I’m aiming for art, but it’s rooted deep in my spirit, and more than anything else, I have something I’m trying to say—something I’d like for you to hear. I don’t even care particularly if you like the little artifact of the poem. We all like different things. As accomplished as his poems are, I never cared much for Ezra Pound. I have tried, though, to hear him out.
One way I’ve recovered from the oddity of the workshop is to share little poems on social media from time to time. What is most gratifying to me is when someone who isn’t a regular reader of poetry connects with my work. Here’s a poem I wrote in church on Sunday and posted after the service:

Mary of Bethany

In church today a woman
rubbed the bald spot of the man
she loved, and did it all the way
through the message, the offering
and meditation. I know.
I opened my eyes to check.
And isn’t that God, touching us
where we’re most exposed,
loving even our emptiness,
all those places soft with down.

I don’t necessarily consider this little poem to be high art, but I was trying to communicate something I felt, and it turned out that a lot of my acquaintances, poets or otherwise, churchy types or not, connected with those ten lines. We all have a few fuzzy places; we want that caress.

            What’s more, we want to be heard, seen—recognized. Good or bad, like or not, most poems are a human being’s best attempt to tell you something urgent. We’re listening for the namaste.


  1. I am sharing this with my students (with your permission.) I have always felt that first and foremost a poem is a work of art - something that is trying to communicate. In fact, a poem is a conversation with the reader. I would never assume to tell Van Gogh that he uses too many sunflowers - but I would love to have a discussion about why he uses them, how they are used, and what they are communicating. I'm impressed with craft but much more interested in its "story". Thanks for this!

    1. Thank YOU for the kind words. Share away! I'd love to hear their reactions. Your sunflower example is so good; I may borrow that one myself! :)