Sunday, March 27, 2011

Writing Prompt #1: Worth a Thousand Words

Aaron Siskind, San Luis Potosi 16, 1961

"[t]he Photograph does not call up the past . . . [t]he effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed"

— Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

"People take pictures of the summer / Just in case someone thought they had missed it / Just to prove that it really existed   // People take pictures of each other / And the moment to last them forever / Of the time when they mattered to someone"

— the Kinks, "People Take Pictures of Each Other" (view here)

Proverbially, a picture is worth a thousand words, and while I'm not going to ask you to write that many, for your first prompt, I'd like you to respond poetically to photography.  Pick one, or maybe two photographs — preferably ones that are one the web, because I want you to include it with your poem — and spend a little time meditating upon them, free from distraction, then start writing down your impressions.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Hartford, 1980

Is there are story being told here?  Are there small details that we need to be reminded of?  What do you see in this photograph that no one else would see?  What does it remind you of?  How would you describe the qualities, the textures, the colors of this image?  What sort of rhythm does it have?  If you choose two photos, what sort of relationship or dialogue might exist between them?  Is this a personal picture?  If so, what feelings does it stir in you?  Why is it important?  If it's not a personal photo, then invent a personal connection.

Helen Levitt, New York, NY, 1971

Jot down your initial impressions, then start crafting them into a first draft of your poem.   Take a little time away from the photo (maybe a day or so) then come back and see what you have to add or subtract.  Post your finished poem along with your image(s) (preferably embedded into the thread) to Blackboard before Friday's class, and we can spend a little time talking about them after the day's workshops.

[ note: you shouldn't write about the photos I've posted here.  They're simply intended to give you a few ideas in terms of the sorts of images you might want to choose: a portrait, a scene, an abstract image, etc. ]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Workshop Format and Responsibilities

Welcome to our poetry workshop!  I hope that the next ten weeks will be a productive and exciting time for all of us.

Given my past experience with workshops of all sorts, I've come to realize that the truest value of the time we'll spend together isn't so much the work that we'll do in and of itself — the poems we'll write, the feedback we'll give and receive — but rather the relationships that will begin here and carry on into the future, as well as the habits we'll develop, the objective self-assessment we'll learn to perform, the things we've never tried before that we'll do here because we're forced to.  Towards that end, I've tried to structure this workshop so that you'll get the most out of our limited time, but also be well-set to carry on independently after the quarter is over.

In an ideal world, this workshop would be twice as long and half as many students in it.  Because that's not the case, we'll try to do our best to ensure that everyone is able to have as many opportunities as possible to receive feedback on their work, and in addition to formal workshop time, there will be plenty of exercises for you to take part in over the course of the term, receiving more informal feedback from me as well as your classmates.

We'll have to run a tight ship in regards to scheduling this term, therefore discussions of student work will be timed and limits will be strictly enforced (though it pains me to do so).  If we keep on schedule, we should have enough time for all 20 students to have a poem workshopped for 3 periods of 12 minutes each this quarter — and with this time limit, we'll be sure to have extra time to discuss readings, exercises and our final projects.

It should come as no surprise to you that your final grade will be largely dependent on the quality of the work you produce this term, and here are some of the assignments that will factor into that:
  • your response to our initial workshop questionnaire
  • the three poems you present during your workshop sessions
  • the poems you present in response to our various supplemental writing prompts
  • your final portfolio, which will consist of 5-7 poems with revisions and a self-assessment
  • the chapbook that you'll create and distribute at the end of the quarter

Because everyone comes to our workshop at different points in his or her writing life, there's no objective standard applied when evaluating student work.  Instead, what I'll aim to measure is your openness to the workshop environment — i.e. your willingness to devote serious attention to the assignments, be self-critical and accept constructive criticism, and above all demonstrate a marked development throughout the course of the term.  Moreover, your efforts towards your own work aren't the only reason why you're here: to be a good citizen of this workshop, you'll spend almost as much energy addressing the work of your peers as you do your own.  Specifically, here are some of the things you'll need to do for your classmates:
  • you'll provide a thoughtful and constructive critique of all poems up for workshop on a given day, making use of the comments function in Word (select text, then go under Insert > Add Comment); after you add your first, a comments toolbar will appear) to add marginalia, notes, suggestions, etc. as well as writing up a more substantive response to the poem approximately 150 words in length.
  • you'll serve as "lead reviewer" for the workshops of three of your peers' poems — this means that you'll a) write a longer, more detailed critique of the poem being discussed (approximately 250-300 words) and b) start our discussion of that poem by speaking to the poem's strengths and weaknesses for 2-3 minutes.
  • you'll show up to class each day prepared to actively take part in our class discussions

Finally, a word about aesthetics: each of us is continually developing our own idiosyncratic poetics, and the diversity of our perspectives should be a strength for our workshop, however, an important part of constructive criticism is making an honest effort to understand the author's intentions and work within that context, and the same goes for form, scale, etc.  If your tastes run to the traditional side, but you're responding to the experimental work of a classmate, it's probably not the most helpful advice to casually suggest that she implement strict iambic pentameter; likewise, suggesting a long, rambling addition to a poem working in a minimalist fashion probably won't help much.  At the same time, there may be cases where you feel that radical changes are necessary, and if you can explain your convictions behind these beliefs, you may very well be doing your peer a great favor.

You'll be expected to meet all deadlines in regards to the workshop process.  Poems should be posted to the appropriate Blackboard threads three (3) days in advance of the workshop,  for example:
  • poems for Monday's workshop should be posted by the previous Friday evening
  • poems for Wednesday's workshop should be posted by the previous Sunday evening
  • poems for Friday's workshop should be posted by the previous Tuesday evening

All marked-up workshop copies should be posted by the morning of the workshop, and at the absolute latest (only in cases of extreme circumstances) you should post your comments no later than one week from the workshop date.  I'll keep tally of this throughout the term, and multiple latenesses will negatively affect your grade.  Finally, poems written in response to one of the prompts should ideally be posted within one week of when the prompt is announced.

Here are a few other important policies:

Attendance and Participation: The importance of both regular attendance and class participation cannot be understated — without both, our workshop will fall apart. In most of the classes I've taught at UC, most students have taken our collaborative work seriously and attendance hasn't been an issue.  Ideally, I'd say that you shouldn't miss any classes this term, but I understand that illness, family life and other contingencies are likely to intervene, therefore I think that missing one or two classes (if necessary) is acceptable.  However, students who miss more than five classes will automatically fail the course.  Think for a second about what this represents: if you miss six classes out of the twenty-six that we'll have after today, you'll have lost almost a quarter of the term.

Communications: We'll use a variety of methods to communicate this term.  Because I believe in open pedagogy, we'll be using this blog for the majority of our course announcements and assignments — please use the links above to subscribe via e-mail or RSS, or if you're on Blogger, "follow" this blog so that you'll be kept up to date.  I've created a Facebook  group for more informal class communications and conversations, which you should join as well (there's a link on the sidebar also).  Finally, Blackboard is really dreadful but it does offer a secure and confidential venue for easily posting documents, so we'll be making use of our class forums to share poems, critiques, etc.

Communications (2): Please make use of my posted office hours, the time before and after class,   e-mail and/or Facebook to discuss your performance in the workshop, pose questions you might have, etc. If you're having trouble making a contribution, feel that you're doing poorly, or just not getting  into the spirit of the course, it's better to ask for guidance sooner rather than later. Unofficially, you should meet with me at least once during the quarter.

Days Off: Class will be canceled on a total of three days throughout the term — on Monday, May 30th for Memorial Day, and on Wednesday and Friday, April 27th and 29th, when I have to be out of town, first for a panel talk at UPenn (on Tuesday afternoon), followed by the Post45 Conference in Cleveland (at 8:00 Friday morning).  I think if our workshops are running on schedule, this shouldn't be an issue and everyone will be able to get their full number of presentations in, however if necessary, I'll try to schedule a make-up date.

Final Meeting:  There will not be a final examination for this class, but we will meet during the scheduled final exam period, at which time your final portfolios, self-appraisal and chapbooks will be due.  We'll take advantage of the time for everyone to be able to discuss the process of making their chapbooks, as well as the general lessons you've taken from the workshop experience.  Attendance at this meeting is mandatory (as any other final exam would be) so please make travel plans accordingly.

Technology: In theory, technology is a wonderful thing, but in the classroom, it can be a distraction. Please make sure that your cell phone is turned off (or at the very least in silent mode) before class begins, and keep it in your bag throughout. Texting during class will not be tolerated.  Laptops may only be used by students with appropriate paperwork from Disability Services explaining its necessity—otherwise, a notebook or binder will have to suffice (even if it's terribly old-world).

Special Needs Statement: If you have any special needs related to your participation and performance in this course, please speak to me as soon as possible. In consultation with Disability Services, we can make reasonable provisions to ensure your ability to succeed in this class and meet its goals.

Evaluative Criteria

When responding to your classmates' work, the most basic questions you'll want to answer are:
  • What is the poet trying to say/accomplish here?
  • How well does her or she accomplish that?
  • What elements of the poem help or hinder these goals?
  • What elements of the poem are aesthetically or stylistically pleasing?

If you want a more detailed evaluative rubric, I'm quite fond of the method proposed by Ann Lauterbach in an interview in Daniel Kane's book, What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde:

DK: Is there a method or series of steps that you might recommend teachers to take in presenting "On (Open)" [a poem of Lauterbach's they'd been discussing] to high school students not so familiar with poetry?

AL: A poem is not a puzzle to be solved. A poem is an experience, an event, in and of language. It should be approached as such:
  • What kind of event happened to you when you read this poem?
  • Did you get a feeling?
  • Did you have an idea?
  • Did you get reminded of something?
  • Did you go elsewhere, away from the familiar world into another, stranger, one?
  • Did you look up words and find out new meanings, as you would ask directions in a strange city?
  • Why do you think the poet made this word choice, and not another?
  • Why do you think the line is broken here, at this word, and not at another?
  • How is a line break in a poem different from a comma or a period in a prose sentence?

Workshop Questionnaire

Please take the time to give thoughtful responses to the following questions, posting your answers to the Blackboard forum no later than midnight Tuesday:
  • How long have you been writing poetry?
  • How would you describe your poetics — that is, what are you trying to accomplish in your poetry?
  • Describe your compositional process: when/why/how/where do you write?
  • What living poets have had the greatest influence on you? What dead poets? If none (or in addition to poets), what other sorts of writers/artists/musicians do you admire?
  • Have you ever been published? Do you submit your work for publication?
  • Is this your first workshop? If not, what other workshops have you been a part of (with whom, where, when)?
  • What do you hope to get out of this workshop?