Tag Archives: Workshops

More, More, More

“In reality the duty of a writer – the revolutionary duty, if you like – is that of writing well.”

                                               –Gabriel García Márquez

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“A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start.”

                                                   –Clive James

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“Less than fifteen per cent of the people do any original thinking on any subject. The greatest torture in the world for most people is to think.”

                                                                –Luther Burbank


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Aspiring writer? I have my suspicions, especially when those words come from an adult.

Enough. Writing is the most difficult work I know.

Ben Jonson: “For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style.”

Rilke, easily quoted, but the question must be honestly, ruthlessly assessed: “There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

I know, along with Flannery O’Connor, “that few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a ‘killing.’ They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.”

Whitman, also easily quoted: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.” But I question how seriously he’s taken.

Tess Gallagher: “When you start reading in a certain way, that’s already the beginning of your writing. You’re learning what you admire and you’re learning to love other writers. The love of other writers is an important first step. To be a voracious, loving reader.”

We aren’t suffering a shortage of writers—but a dearth of expert readers. Aspire to be stellar in your reading, unmatched in your discretion. Everyone’s a writer, only when the writing’s left behind.

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There’s easy money to be made, playing it safe, writing for personal gain, conducting feel-good workshops, hosting family-friendly readings. This, from Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists, which clearly extends to the arts and higher education:

“One well-publicized finding is that although the developed Western nations have become better off in a financial and material sense, they are not any happier than they were decades ago. In fact, in The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy (2010), Michael Foley argues that modern life has made things worse, ‘deepening our cravings and at the same time heightening our delusions of importance as individuals. Not only are we rabid in our unsustainable demands for gourmet living, eternal youth, fame and a hundred varieties of sex, we have been encouraged—by a post-1970s ‘rights’ culture that has created a zero-tolerance sensitivity to any perceived inequality, slight or grievance—into believing that to want something is to deserve it.’ Moreover, ‘the things we have are devalued by the things we want next’—another consequence of capitalism.”

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On the insulting notion that everyone’s a poet:

Sir, These are delicate matters; we all desire

To be told that we’ve the true poetic fire.

But once, to one whose name I shall not mention,

I said, regarding some verse of his invention,

That gentlemen should rigorously control

That itch to write which often afflicts the soul;

That one should curb the heady inclination

To publicize one’s little avocation;

And that in showing off one’s works of art

One often plays a very clownish part.

                  –The Misanthrope (translated by Richard Wilbur)

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“Without resistance you can do nothing.”

                                     –Jean Cocteau

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“You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”

                                                                                            –John Berryman

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Safety First

Two for Philip Levine:

“A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.” (Saul Bellow)

“There’s never any final certainty about what you do. Your opinion of your own work fluctuates wildly. Under the right circumstances you can pick up something that you’ve written and approve of it; you’ll think it’s good and that nobody could have done exactly the same thing. Under different circumstances, you’ll look at exactly the same poem and say, “My Lord, isn’t that boring.” The most important thing is to be excited about what you are doing and to be working on something that you think will be the greatest thing that ever was. One of the difficulties in writing poetry is to maintain your sense of excitement and discovery about what you write. American literature is full of people who started off excited about poetry and their own contribution to it and their own relationship to poetry and have had, say, a modicum of success and have just gone on writing poetry as a kind of tic, a sort of reflex, when they’ve lost all their original excitement and enthusiasm for what they do. They do it because they have learned to do it, and that’s what they do. You have to find private stratagems to keep up your original enthusiasm, no matter what it takes. As you get older, that’s tougher and tougher to do. You want to try to avoid, if you possibly can, the feeling of doing it simply because you can do it.” (James Dickey)

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“When the poet stands at nadir the world must indeed be upside down. If the poet can no longer speak for society, but only for himself, then we are at the last ditch.”

                                                                                                 –Henry Miller


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“What began as a healthy reaction, a turning away with relief from sterile academic rhetorics, had proliferated in an unexampled production of notations: poems which tell of things seen or done, but which, lacking the focus of that energetic, compassionate, questioning spirit that infused even the most fragmentary of Williams’s poems, do not impart a sense of the experience of seeing or doing, or of the value of such experience.”

                               –Denise Levertov, “Great Possessions” (1970)

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Our days of protest are far from over.

What steps to stanch the hemorrhaging?

A fine irony, the assigned reading of Czeslaw Milosz’s “Ars Poetica?” in the writing program I attended, a program insisting that a fresh poem be delivered with about the same regularity as a bowel movement. Final stanza:

          What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,

          as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,

          under unbearable duress and only with the hope

          that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

Serious poetry—writing that requires reading—unlikely comes after a day spent at the amusement park. Definitely not ten minutes before class or workshop. Writing programs may advertise, as one of their ostensible aims, improvement. But the programs are tethered, symbiotically, to publication—and the little magazines with their attendant staff display faint or zero interest in improving a poem. (Count how many rejections contain the least bit of advice.) “Our editorial decisions have more to do with our own tastes and preferences than the quality of your submission….” One vote for sweet, one vote for salty. Loudest wins.

A distressing sign of our times…ignorance and inability (i.e., gross incompetence) presented so casually. It’s nothing to boast about—lacking adequate means to determine the quality of a poem, story, essay, song, painting, photograph, film.

“Mediocre people support mediocre people, and they support mediocre objects.”

“Poems that demand—and reward—rereading are rare, almost extinct.”

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A poem is always married to someone.

                           –René Char

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