Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Practical Poetry: Critique: Workshopping with knowledgeable peers

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
    There are two major differences between the online and academic approaches.  The first is that high end Internet forums involve critique after one has learned the craft.  The typical MFA class practices critique either before or instead of technical study.

   The second distinction involves Content Regency.  Because most business card poets don't study the elements of craft there is nothing other than content (e.g. plot, theme, genre, moral, allusions, et cetera) on which they can base their criticisms. If you have a point to make or a story to tell and you can operate a spell checker then--presto!--you're a poet!  This is the essence of Convenient Poetics.

    With apologies for singling her out--this attitude is universal in the PoBiz but, if we think about it, all negative examples are cruel--here is a Question and Answer exchange from an interview with PRISM Poetry Contest Judge Rhea Tregebov:

Question"What makes a good poem for you?"

Answer"One that engages the reader on all levels: intellectual, ethical, sensual, emotional."

Contest Judge Rhea Tregebov
    Well, this excludes just about every classical or contemporary poem worth reading.  Whole genres, beginning with comedy, are removed from consideration.  No "Miller's Tale" here!  Romantic poems and elegies need not apply.  Most troubling is the bookburner's favorite expression, "ethical".  WTF?  Whose ethics?  Does this mean that poems reflecting the sexism or racism of an era aren't "good"?  So Shakespeare was...a hack?  Speaking of bookburners, I assume that an unapologetic declaration of love for a repressive, murderous theocratic tyrant wouldn't qualify as "good".  Nor, I assume, would a politically and morally ambiguous requiem for a controversial leader (unless the judge shares the deceased's politics?).

    What happened to the quaint notion that poetry writing contests (and editors and critics) should honor excellent poetry writing?  With no mention (or knowledge?) of technical aspects, couldn't someone just cut up their "intellectual, ethical, sensual, emotional" prose with linebreaks and submit it?  In short, which of Ms. Tregebov's requirements has anything whatsoever to do with poetry?

    Obviously, our "Squirriculum" would follow the online critical forum's example of informed critique.  The focus should be on technique, including two elements that other approaches ignore:  performance and presentation. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
     Ideally, all of the students would have Internet access, allowing them to record their performances, upload them to YouTube "privately" (i.e. such that only those with the URL can locate it), and then email the text and YouTube URL to the other students beforehand.  In any case, they'll be doing it live in front of the class, with the text displayed on a monitor or projected onto a screen.  The first lesson the students will learn is the value of preparation--of memorizing their words so that they can perform them.  There is no substitute for "looking the bastards in the eye" to gauge their reactions.  Failing that, the students can learn how to avoid staring at their prompters, the key being big fonts and peripheral vision.  This is something they can practice, the audience yelling "Eyes!" whenever the speaker loses visual contact with them.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #27
     At this juncture we need to discuss an integral aspect of art, that being value added.  Your words should add to the significant value of silence.  Writers understand that performance enhances text but the opposite is equally true.  An opera singer can make a telephone book sound lovely.  They can even make the names sound rhythmic, simply by timing the stresses.  However, they cannot make the text interesting.  The more coherent and meaningful the writing the more attractive the performance.  If a medium does not add to the final product it can be deleted or modified;  we can all think of silly music videos that add nothing to the songs or book-based films that should have been shot with guns, not cameras.


    The bad news is that, beyond productions of Shakespeare, there are very few acceptable performances of poetry to be found.  Most are either dull readings or OTT slam bluster.  The good news is that any fine performance--theatre, movies, television (yes, I said television), standup or storytelling--can serve as an exemplar, its features including:

  1. Credibility - The sounds, gestures and facial expressions make it seem like the person is making the words up as they go along as opposed to reciting them.

  2. Voice - The speaker sounds consistently like the person who would be telling the story.

  3. Clarity - The words should be clear and not rushed like a slammer trying to cram as many words as possible under a time limit.  Establish the difference between shouting and projecting.

  4. Modulation - The volume, pace, tone and urgency of the performer follow the plot--buildup, climax and anticlimax--rather than the usual soporific drone of the typical reader or the constant shouting of the typical slammer.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #1

    The need to "own an audience" is what distinguishes poetry from what careerists produce.  As important as the ability to recognize good from mediocre or bad is to an editor or contest judge, it is that much more integral to a poet.

    Suppose a person were able to predict that more than 90% of people, including more than 90% of poets and every other significant demographic, would prefer Poem A to any other published poem listed.  What would this prove?

  1. That great poems exhibit certain shared traits;  or,

  2. That "it's all just a matter of taste!"

     Students who reply #2 need to be studying Statistics, not poetry.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #15
     Attendees can begin their critical approach to poetry by studying the "Laws of Poetry".  At the very least, they should understand that even the most profound or inspirational prose doesn't become poetry by inserting linebreaks.  At the moment, the fact that this proviso (i.e. that poetry should actually contain poetry) excludes more than 99% of the "free verse" and "prose poetry" being written and published today is not our concern.

     In an educational workshop environment it may seem natural to conclude that the purpose of critique is to improve the poet or poetry in general.  Not so.  Those are merely welcome byproducts.  The purpose of critique begins and ends with improving the poem

     Here are some guidelines for workshop participants, largely based on the online workshop ethos developed on Usenet and, later, web fora such as the Poetry Free-For-All, the Alsop Review (Gazebo) and Eratosphere:

  1. The critiquer's job is to improve the poem where warranted and possible

         Critics should not be asked to turn a laundry list into a Sonnet LXXIII, nor should they be expected to improve on a Sonnet LXXIII.  If a poem is perfect or not ready for anyone's attention, starting with the critic's and the poet's, then critics should say that and nothing more.

  2. Avoid the Megalomaniacal Troll

          Students are bound to encounter "MTs" (aka "Empties") who subscribe to [the satirical] "The Dennis Hammes Rules of Poetry" and believe that every molecule of ink that flows from their pen is ambrosia.  There's at least one in every workshop.  If you can't spot your workshop's Empty then it's probably you.  (Just kidding!)

         Those beyond criticism are beyond hope.  Others must recognize that the critiquer is your friend, one who is doing you a favor...and other favors may ensue (see below).

  3. Do not defend or explain your poem

  4.      We're lucky when our poem gets one chance to make its case.  It won't get two.  Footnote any terms or conventions the audience might not recognize.

  5. Try to have your writing make sense

  6.      Even if your work is going to say nothing it should do so clearly.  For example, under repressive regimes poets often won't [seem to] be making their point because they are not permitted to do so.  Their lines are borders, barely containing what lies between them.  Such samizdat poets use code words, symbols, metaphors and references understood by their supportive audience members.  Without these conventional meanings in place the writers would be producing cryptocrap, their audience soon siphoned off by the lure of crossword puzzles and sudokus.  Oh, and that old bullshit-baffles-brains trick of swallowing a thesaurus in order to fool people into thinking you're saying something profound has been done to death.

  7. As a critic or, especially, as a poet, be succinct.

         Enough said.

  8. Do not blow smoke up anyone's ass

         Next to plagiarism, the fastest and surest way to ruin your credibility is to engage in blurbing.  An editor who will cross a street to avoid such a sycophant will often seek out skilled critics, hoping they may have recently encountered a blockbuster unpublished poem, often in a workshop.  Such experts, though rare, can help a new poet far more than vapid praise will.

  9. Do not "crit[ique] the crit[ique]"

         Don't highlight the fact that your perspective conflicts with that of a previous commenter.  Just state your case and move on.

  10. Thank your critics

         All honest perspectives are a useful gift.  Do not whine or whinge.  Do not attack or cross-examine your critics.  Do not list which of their suggestions you will be ignoring.  Beyond honest requests for clarification, just say "Thanks."

  11. Avoid Content Regency

         Concentrate on the writing, not the subject matter.  Poems about Subject A are not inherently better or worse than those on Subject B.  Profound ones are not inherently better than funny or evocative ones.  At most, one might comment about a trend (e.g. "Yet another free verse confessional effort, I see!"), the implication being that if everyone uses the same form, genre and theme the search for originality gets more intense.  Above all, avoid political or personal arguments.  Accept that you may be called on to help someone say something with which you vehemently disagree.

  12. Critique is not interpretation

         Critics should point out where there is a lack of clarity.  This includes unfamiliarity with terms (e.g. don't be afraid to admit that you didn't know that "bone-house" meant "body") or customs (e.g. "Why are the people wearing black to a wedding?").  If explanations are required it will be the poet's/presenter's/annotator's responsibility to detail them.

  13. Critique is not test marketing

         The point of the exercise isn't whether or not the critics like the poem;  we need to hear the critics' best guess as to whether or not the intended audience will like it.

     Participants in these particular workshops will be encouraged to comment on the elements of performance mentioned earlier:  credibility, voice, clarity and modulation.  This is a reflection of the fact that more people will see contemporary poems on YouTube than will read them in books or literary magazines.  Avoid clapping during the performance;  the slam tradition is to show your approval by snapping your fingers instead.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
     While it is hardly their main one, critiquers can serve another vital function.  In the case of Erin Hopson's Great Poems of Our Time: "How Aimée remembers Jaguar", critics encountered a poem that couldn't be improved.  It may seem that great writing makes critics irrelevant.  Not so fast!  Whereas 1,000 blurbers won't help anyone find an audience (if only because the same 1,000 blurbers will each praise ten other friends and fellow alumni in the same breath), one word from a respected, objective critic can rescue a brilliant poem from oblivion.

     Almost a century ago an impatient, surly critic helped an obscure young man work on some verse that had appeared in a church bulletin--this despite considerable differences in theology between the two men.  Theirs was no "touchy-feely" collaboration;  the critic would throw more than just tantrums when he felt the heterometer included too much pentameter.  His role did not end there, though.  The finished verse was about to be rejected by a prominent poetry magazine--at that time "prominent poetry magazine" wasn't an oxymoron--when the critic championed the poem by scanning it for the editor.  The rest, as they say, is history.

      Don't forget to repeat that survey from Lesson #1:

     "Find two mediocre contest-winning and/or published poems that have been blurbed.  Add this poem and this verse into the mix.  Ask your students which two of these poems are better than the other two.  Record your results but do not discuss them yet."

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