Wednesday, February 13, 2013

from the archives: bread loaf, workshop two

originally posted on independent study, 8/14/09

Today's workshop continued the conversation on figuration and grounding. I am beginning, more and more emphatically, to agree with those that posit MFA programs ought to focus more on the ability to read and comprehend, more so than the workshop-based model. Or, as I'm discovering here, use the workshop as a place to train writers to become better readers. She threatened an air-horn noise if we wander off to things that resemble suggestions, bits that reflect our own aesthetic. I believe I was beginning to do this more after Kimiko Hahn's Palm Beach Poetry Festival workshop; my comments on peers' poems were often reflective of my own tastes or these line-edit reactions as opposed to: This is what I see and this is how I see it and you can use that as you see fit.

Questions raised during discussion (and of course, there was often reminders that these were not judgement questions, as whenever there is a rule, there is often a writer who can break it in an incredible manner and even more often, these questions don't imply judgement or rule-making but ways to tease out what's going on with the poem--how it's working, how it should work harder):
- What's competing with the surface? Is there anything underneath?
- Is the figure or the ground controlling the structure?

We started class looking at moments from the past day and a half--discussing tone in relation to different readings and lectures. We also took a look at an excerpt from the daily newsletter ("The Crumb") which are excerpts from manuscripts:

"I pushed up my sleeves (having mistakenly worn long sleeves and long pants), scrubbed my arms clean, and then plunged them into the warm liquid whey. The sweet, tangy aroma enveloped me as the curds slipped around my skin like tiny minnows. We gently stirred, using the age-old method, as opposed to paddles or automated blades employed by many cheese makers."
-- From Lessons in Cheesemaking by Sheila McGrory-Klyza

This piece is focused on the ground, so when the simile comes in, it's figuration to get to the ground, and because it is passing (as in, not part of the pattern and variation), it is texture as opposed to form.

She quoted Robert Frost as saying, "Tone is when you can hear the neighbors through the wall." You may not hear what they are saying, but you can certainly get the tone.

And a list, of sorts, to categorize:

figurative - literal
interior - exterior
invented - accessible
vehicle - tenor
trope - (literal)

So then, if we are unsure where ground or figure is within a poem, it becomes difficult to parcel out the rest.

How then, do we know if punctuation, for example, fits under the category of "form" or is that a part of "texture"? She explained: If there is pattern and variation, then that is form; if it is without but still pleasing, still noticeable, then it is texture.

Another larger discussion was on these three sorts of poetry: dramatic, narrative, and lyric. The dramatic is a form that now belongs mostly to drama and prose, an element rife with conflict and protagonist-antagonist relationships. The narrative, once our epic poems, are steeped in time. And if a poem does not have a clear narrative, Voigt explained, you have an opportunity to get the reader to see what you want them to see when you when them to see it. And with Sappho began lyric poetry. The lyric, she said, takes us out of time and is "singing out of a single moment."

A few other bits:

When we read the poems aloud, she wanted us to "read the lines"--as in, how the poem was lineated--to exaggerate those pauses, in order to "hear" the pattern. When we read final drafts, she told us, read as we pleased. But while revising, this is incredibly helpful. Her variation on the who-reads-the-poem was to have one of the people who didn't write the poem to read it first, then discuss (for something close to an hour, forty five minutes per poem), then have the poet read the poem as a way to "sew things up."

She spoke of recoverable and non-recoverable syntax, especially in regards to Emily Dickinson and the dash. There is a book called A Poet's Grammer which she recommended. She recommended reading Brenda Hillman in regards to dismantling syntax.

She said, "The pleasure of enjambment is being pulled across the page."

Consider difficulties in point of view (and consistency within): where would the camera be pointing?

In closing, Voigt gave us another real-world example to help smooth out the vocabulary she's trying to build in us: A grocery list. The list itself is form, but the order of the food is the structure, and often it is a dysfunctional structure. As poets, we might impose form on it--organizing it by geography or alphabet, say.

It looks like I might be up first in our next session, which is on Sunday. Two days to roil my gut.

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