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The adequately answerable why

If you don’t need to say it, why are you talking?

Because fully formed doesn’t happen without a process to improv and improve. Many failures for decades is the route to success.

Poems that don’t know what their point is take risks, explore. Poems that know their form but not their content or their content but not their form have places to go. They aren’t a spindrift repeating the same notion you went in with until you leave with the same. They broker in the bank of ‘why would you write that?’ with the best answer of ‘because.’

Dan Barden in Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes

It’s the first thing I tell my students: If you could understand, really understand, that no one needs to read your work, then your writing would improve vastly by the time we meet in this classroom again.

Also, that’s the difference between a seminar and a workshop. In my junior honors seminar at Berkeley, we read Paradise Lost because Paradise Lost demands to be read. We may not have known that when we walked in the door, but we sure as hell knew it by June. You could bury that poem for ten thousand years, let it be dug up by a culture that has forgotten our language, and within a decade people would be reading Milton again.

What happened, I think, on the road from seminar to workshop, was that we lost sight of the fact that we must write for an audience—an audience that is us (the people sitting around the table) but also not us (people who are sitting everywhere but at that table).

I’ve written with dead earnest seriousness, taken workshops, given workshops, self-defined as a poet for 25-odd years, but does that mean I’m getting anywhere?

It has ratcheted me open, conveyed me to like-minds who wish to understand similarly, helped me decode humans, amused and entertained me, helped me survive in a very real sense, but the level of craft I still feel like I’m drawing with thick crayons.

People who are starting out seem to be learning to distinguish their fingers from the toes from the blanket. Some people have moved past me to pens and printing but the quill-penmanship level isn’t a person so much as a moment here and there for anyone, maybe even sustained for a few phrases, or whole poem.

If the next poem reiterates, does it work? Or is it a tracework, a copied outline on onion paper that looks the same except the spirit is different?

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3 Responses

  1. Hi Pearl,

    A quick note to say that I’ve been really enjoying your recent posts. Insomniac, I wake in the middle of the night and read by the little rectangular other moonlight of my iPhone.

    Gary BarwinFebruary 22, 2012 @ 2:46 pm
  2. Awesome note there.
    A bit tough, for sure. Many might say ‘limiting’.
    But the fun part is knowing there are
    a hundred answers to “does it work?”.

    I was thinking recently about how you can
    write something great but it doesn’t go boom
    in the reader. That extra 1%. I call it
    ‘picking the lock’. It’s different than writing well,
    more of a “psych”. The whole thing has to have
    a spine under the flesh, something furtive it’s
    up to. And the next one? People are born looking
    the same but they articulate themselves, and then
    they’re something new. Maybe that is some kind of
    measure, starting at A and ending up far from B
    …by the end of it. If a poem is a thought machine,
    what is the trip? (if you go on a trip at all)

    Some people have everything they need in ‘craft’
    but they don’t have confidence to stay with
    their own flow. Seems the larger-scale details
    of ‘craft’ are more thoughts than wordly details.

    Just tossing thoughts..

  3. Glad you’re enjoying, Gary.

    Poem as a thought-machine. If you’re caught in transit, are you stuck in transporter buffers, never able to arrive or return to civilian life, stuck in the machines of process?

    Staying with flow, trusting it, is tricky.



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