Guest Post, Grant Clauser: The Curse of the Workshop

The Curse of the Workshop: Fighting the Inner Critic


If I count my first undergraduate creative writing workshops and go all the way to the present, where I run a monthly workshop group with friends, I’ve been poking and prodding at peers’ poetry for nearly 30 years.  Some of that has been as an equal participant, and others as a teacher guiding newer poets in this or that direction. All that time sitting around a table trying to offer constructive observations has to do something to a person.

In fact, I know exactly what it’s done. It’s made it increasingly hard to read poetry, any poetry, without trying to fix it. I’m not sure, but I believe often that’s a problem, and it’s probably negatively affected my appreciation of poetry.  I call it the curse of the workshop. I’ve heard another writer refer to this problem as something like the curse of knowing too much, and I have experience with this in my other line of work.

For the past 18 years my day job has been to write about electronics, and much of that writing is in the form of product reviews. Reviewing televisions had been a specialty of mine for several years, and I’d nitpick over details of the TV’s performance. I spent hours analyzing video test patterns, tweaking settings, looking for errant pixels. Once a fellow TV reviewer confided that he was no longer able to watch TV without watching what the TV was doing. This TV crushes whites. This TV’s processor adds too much edge enhancement. This TV blurs lateral motion.

Old Car RadioAudiophiles, and I know many of those eccentrics, who train themselves to appreciate the fine details produced by high-end speakers and $10,000 turntables, can’t enjoy a song on a car radio because they can’t separate the act of passively enjoying something from actively analyzing it.

I fear the same problem can creep into poetry readers who have spent years practicing their workshop strategies. In a workshop, the goal, generally, is to help other people turn their poems into the best poems they can—sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a built-in attitude that once a fresh poem has been passed around the table, it’s the participant’s job to try to fix it. We immediately launch into judgement mode, picking out distracting lines, unclear images, limp stanza breaks.

Of course, that’s what we’re supposed to do—it’s what all the people sitting around the table are there for, but it can also be counter-productive to enjoying the poem. In a workshop with friends recently, we were discussing a poem, and everyone, including myself, zero’d in on a couple of passages that stood out from the rest—the diction seemed a little incongruous to the subject, and so we did what seasoned workshoppers do, we started changing it. What we didn’t do was stop to appreciate what the writer was doing. After a few readings I allowed myself to release my grip on the workshop model, and instead read the poem for the poem.

And there’s the problem with workshop mode, with audiophile mode, with the curse of the expert mode—we read the poem through our current lens, bordered by our own definitions and rules,  rather than read the poem on its own merits for the pleasure it produces.

A few weeks ago I was watching the Westminster Dog Show (or something similar—I really don’t remember) as each dog was pranced around the course. Judges, poked, stretched and measured the animals, comparing them to their memorized list of perfect attributes for that breed. These were beautiful dogs, well-groomed, well-trained, pampered, worth thousands of dollars, and yet never did anyone just reach out and hug the dogs. I wanted someone to love the droopy ears, the frantic wag, the smell of having just rolled in the yard. But the judges, the owners, the audience had drilled that appreciation out of themselves by knowing too much.

As a reader of poetry, I try to let myself become the dog lover, not the contest judge. I want to be the person driving around with the sunroof open and the radio blasting, not the audio critic taking notes. It’s this way that we get past the work and back into the poetry and remember what brought us to this wonder in the first place.

Guest Post, Grant Clauser: Pleasure in Not Knowing

Rain fell hard most of yesterday and last night. The previous week we had temperatures in the low 90s, but for the past 18 hours the outside has been down in 60s. It’s a nice relief, and we opened the windows (the ones that weren’t facing the rain) to let in some cool air. For part of this rainy day I sat out on the covered porch, watched the leaves on the Japanese maple Saint Vitus in the pelting; watched the bigger silver maple crack and break in the wind.

I love watching rain. I can be easily distracted by it for hours. It’s been many years since my meteorology class in college, but I still have a pretty competent understanding of how storms work. That working knowledge of rain doesn’t take away from its mystery. In fact, it probably contributes to it.

My favorite poems affect me in the same way—with a sense of wonder brought on by their mystery and their engineering. The mind needs to be engaged, and poetry’s mystery is one of the most engaging things I can find. That’s why I find the pedestrian response to poems, the “I just don’t get it” response, so disheartening. Often, it’s the parts I don’t “get” that I like the best. So that begs the question—do we ruin poetry by solving its mysteries?

I know it doesn’t ruirainy-day-1359070-mn my garden to know a little about soil chemistry, that adding eggshells to the soil can prevent calcium deficiencies in my tomatoes. Does it ruin a poem to understand that a poet’s use of the caesura is there to slow down the mind’s ramble, that the poet’s use of the second person is a technique to engage me in a universal idea?

I find satisfaction in knowing how poems work, and why in the same way I’m happy to not get lost in the woods. I can enjoy following blazes along a trail at the same time I find joy in not knowing—wonder at the animal that made that scratch mark or the fire that scorched that meadow.

But is there a line between knowing and unknowing that some readers can’t cross? Probably there are lots of lines, and those vary from reader to reader, poem to poem. It varies based on one’s openness to wonder and unbalance.

What happens when joy in unknowing turns to frustration, ambivalence and resentment? I think that’s where poetry ends, where doubt or displeasure takes over. We don’t like to be tricked, and too much mystery can be pretentious, or worse, hollow.

Some of this probably explains why I like being outside more than anything, especially those places we call nature. However, I often take field guides with me. I may swoon at the sight of a large bird over a lake, but I like knowing its name. This may also explain my library of books on poetics. You can know how a thing works, and still appreciate the magic that it does.

I try to make sure I leave myself open to some joy in mystery every day, and by that, I leave myself open to poetry. I find, usually in retrospect, that the times I’m most caught up in anxiety or stress, the details of negative distraction, that I’m less inclined to appreciate mystery. Those times (when work, life, finances… get in the way) I find it hard to write and hard even to read the things I love.

We, or I, at least, need to remind myself daily of the vastness and wonder of the universe. Call it a prescription to relieve stress if you will. So, rain. Rain falling on my house; rain in the middle of the night; rain falling on a dark Pocono lake.

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