One of the workshop participants took issue with another participant for the habit of offering rewrite suggestions. He felt that it was against protocol to rewrite another poet’s work. This gentleman stated that he was very interested in receiving “harsh criticism” but that no one should rewrite his draft. Meanwhile, another member of the workshop was grappling with receiving comments from the other writers that did not suggest options for revision; he felt that simply stating what a reader felt was or was not successful does not deliver enough to help him make critical decisions for the growth of his work. He wants to be given examples of “how to fix it.”
Here we have the age-old debate concerning workshopping. Workshop is the best way for any writer to take the work to a “control group” to ascertain its effectiveness and strengths. It is necessary to maintain an air of mutual regard. It is also supremely important to remember the difference between “critique” and “criticism.” The difference also connects directly to ego issues on both sides. There must be an air of safety and respect among all participants for a beneficial exchange. A skilled facilitator will set that tone in the beginning and expect it to be maintained throughout the life of the workshop.
There are those who believe that there is no place for one poet rewriting another’s work but I do not concur. In fact, my answer to the first gentleman was “Yes and no.” No to the concept that a poem brought to workshop is so sacred that it cannot benefit from the ways that other writers may see the potential for the language and offer suggestions in tangible ways. Yes to the point that if, in the editorial suggestions, the person offering critique changes the context of the poem, that is not appropriate. We must strive to maintain the intention of the poem, but to provide viable options for the poet to consider. Then it is the poet’s choice as to which suggestions will help deliver the success of the poem for the greatest readership.
In workshop, a poet has two jobs: to fairly offer critique to peers that will show a writer how much the poem is connecting with readers in a positive manner and to listen to comments about one’s own poem in order to weigh the considerations fairly in developing the work. The fundamental difference between the words critique and criticism is that the first is a positive commentary that provides a constructive opportunity for discovery in the work; the second is based in negative response and can be hurtful. There is no place for criticism in workshop but critique is the foundation of the workshop process.
I have often heard poets who participate in ongoing workshops say that they were not planning to attend a session because they did not have any work to share. This misses the first responsibility of a workshop participant, that which each writer brings to the others. This is based on just getting one’s own needs met without reciprocity. I believe it is a selfish indulgence and negates what we all give each other in the workshop process. It also negates the ability to hear something regarding craft that will teach or illustrate something that may be incorporated in one’s own work as the commentary flies. As members discuss one poem, all that craft discussion is applicable to the whole. Listen well.
Two other elements of a successful workshop experience are that of nonattachment and the willingness to revise for discovery. Do not bring a piece of writing that you are delighted with and feel is complete. If you are so satisfied, fine. Send the work out to be considered for publication. Mail it to your mom. Don’t bring it to workshop for a pat on the back; stretch your arm over your shoulder and give that to yourself.
Do bring a poem that you either believe is very close and could benefit from the last phase of tweaking so every word brings value to the whole or bring a poem that stymies you. Make the workshop experience productive, one that shows you new approaches and opportunities that will benefit your poetry.
You must be able to develop a thick skin, a nonattachment to the work that will give you free reign to discover what the poem wants to be more than what you believe it is. We must be the navigators, holding the map and watching the road, but we benefit by letting the poem be the driver.
This nonattachment features strongly in the profile of a mature writer, one who knows that it is not about the end product as much as it is about the process. The life of the writer is of writing and creating but many seem to think that it is about publishing and there is a crush to meet that goal that results in work that is almost meeting its own potential but falls inches short of the true finish line. Again I ask, “What is the rush?” Honor the poem first! Take the time to fully serve its potential. Be willing to cut and change, to look up words and search for the perfect synonym. Be willing to let the poem fully evolve and take its time in so doing. Be willing to allow others to offer suggestions that they recognize, potentials they witness, in the off chance their vision as a reader will give you a key to another door of possibility for the life of your poem.
And for heaven’s sake, never indulge in complacency. If you cannot be open to grow and experiment, you are not a poet, you are someone who writes poems, and that difference is as vast as the two definitions I cited above. There is no place for complacency in making art.