I’ve been thinking a lot about sugar lately. I know these thoughts were prompted by my cooking class. Last Friday we had to go around the room and “name” what kind of snack we’d be. People were cookies, chips, and potatoes. What was I? Baked goods. Specifically? Cupcakes. I blame this partially on my genes. My dad has a think for Hostess cupcakes. Did you know one of those cupcakes equals 2 servings? Yikes.
Anyway. When I was making my power spheres, I used natural fruit juice as a sweetener. I was feeling all health conscious until I realized I’ve been using Splenda in my tea for about two years. Can we say chemicals? So I had to buy a big jar of honey to make my honey wheat bread this weekend, and I decided that I’d go back to it as a natural sweetener. What I find funny about this, is when I was kid my mom used to keep honey in the fridge for her tea. I liked to eat it raw. I mean I was a kid, but it makes me think that sometimes simple is best.
“Poetry is a confrontation of the whole being with reality…It is the basic struggle of the soul, the mind, and the body to comprehend life; to bring order to chaos or to phenomena: and by will and insight to create communicable verbal forms for the pleasure of mankind.”
On a recent evening, I had supper with a friend, a television executive. Like me, she was born in the era of World War II; like mine, her life was altered by feminism. “Tell me,” I asked, “what you remember about poetry and the women’s movement?” I saw memory cross her face, and then she said something remarkable: “The women’s movement was poetry.”
A version of this essay will appear as the introduction to Poems of the Women’s Movement, edited by Honor Moore, which will be published by The Library of America, April 2, 2009.
The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines’ contributors. The indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a monster of the opposite kind—journals that love poetry not wisely but too well.
I’m used to reading articles that attack the workshop and blame it for everything that is wrong with the state of contemporary American poetry. I feel the same way every time I read these comments: I’m over it.
I am a product of this school. I took my first creative writing workshop when I was in high school with a visiting writer. We had to write a brief essay to apply for the workshop and my friend Emily and I were pleased to be among the chosen few. We were put into pairs and asked to free write over several topics. After about ten minutes, our writing was collected and the author chose a few pieces to read from the group. She read everyone’s piece aloud except for the piece Emily and I wrote. I suspected at the time, and still do, that this author didn’t like our story because it was darker and not about horses or teenage love. In fact, Emily and I wrote a story about a young girl loosing her parents. However, this didn’t suit the author’s taste, so we were cut.
While I remember being upset at the time, I think this whole experience is a good representation of what the writing world is like. Basically, stop whining and suck it up. Are there tons of MFA programs out there? Yes. Are they churning out a lot of mediocre writing? Yes. Was there a lot of mediocre writing before MFA programs? You bet. Also, since when did any student take a poetry workshop and then say “Hey, I’m a poet!” I don’t know many. Maybe I’m encountering the wrong poets, but if students are coming out with this gross misconception, then the fault is the teaching not the workshop.
Workshop is a place to build community. It is a place to receive feedback. Workshops do not teach you how to write. Workshops do not make you writer. Also, if people like your poetry, what does that mean anyway? I read reviews in reputable journals like Poetry and these people praise a collection. Two weeks later, I’ll read another review in another journal completely panning the entire book. Guess what? It’s subjective. My first writing workshop experience is very similar to how I feel about submitting to journals. I’ll be thrilled if my work is accepted somewhere, but at the end of the day it is the hands of an editor. Their taste is what makes the journal, so if you fall in line with that on some level, good for you. If not, better luck next time.
All workshops do is give writers (on any level) a venue to receive constructive feedback. If you’re going into an MFA or PhD program thinking that upon completion you’re going to be the next biggest thing in poetry (and what is that anyway?), then you’ve got some things to think about. _____________________________________________________________________