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B. H Fairchild Student Work

B.H. (Pete) Fairchild’s Instructor Statement

I should begin by saying that I have come to believe that the workshop is a vastly overrated pedagogical device.  If the instructor allows a reasonably open workshop discussion (and I don't see why he/she wouldn't), the success of the workshop will depend largely on the participants' knowledge of poetry and its craft and their possession of intelligent criteria with which to comment on each other's poems.  I have seen workshops where the participants repeatedly gave each other not only flawed but destructive commentary.  I have also seen workshops that ran beautifully, that eventually ran themselves, and the instructor simply became another participant.   

On the other hand, I think that the workshop can be wonderfully effective when accompanied by mentoring.  So much can be achieved in a short amount of time when I am able to have regular conferences with the writers, answering questions and taking a careful, close look at their poems.  If that happens often enough, over time a mediocre workshop can become a lively, focused, entirely successful one.  That's why, if a writer feels compelled to attend an MFA program, I often recommend a low-residency program such as Warren Wilson or Vermont since the bulk of instruction there is mentoring.  Who wouldn't want to be mentored, one-on-one, for an entire semester by Heather McHugh, Reginald Gibbons, or Ellen Bryant Voigt?

Because of my very modest training in music, I sometimes wish that poetry could be taught the way voice or instrumental performance is taught, working from fundamentals to more advanced techniques and involving repeated exercises.  Anyone who writes a sonnet only once will probably write it badly, of course getting the rhyme right but most likely botching the meter and tying the syntax in knots.  The second one won't be much better, but the twentieth will probably come out pretty well, and in the process one will have developed to some extent one's syntactical versatility and sense of the auditory dimension of poetry (including sound textures and what Pound called the "tone-leading of vowels").  The latter has all but vanished from much contemporary poetry, especially in the open forms, where it's needed just as much as in the closed forms.

I have never taken a poetry writing class and am speaking only from my own self-taught experience, but I will always believe that some training in the meters enables one to write a much stronger free-verse line.  It is a pervasive misconception that meter is something imposed upon the language.  No, it is natural to the language ("Let's go to town and get some beer":  perfect iambic tetrameter); a skilled poet, free-verse or otherwise, has simply learned techniques for allowing it to emerge.

And therein lies my firmest conviction about the teaching of poetry.  Someone once said that the only rule about poetry is that there are no rules.  That's right—because they're not rules, they're techniques.  And the distinction is crucial. A rule is made to be broken, but a technique is made to be used.   

Much of this comes from my working-class experience.  My father ran a machine lathe, and when he prepared for a job, he would take a number of tools out of the toolbox and array them in a semi-circle on the workbench.  For any given situation, he would pick the tool that he needed.  No one forced him to.  He was not following a rule.  He just knew what he needed, and he then reached out for it.  So in poetry:  you use whatever technique that you think will produce the best poem, but if you don't possess the techniques—whether you're writing free verse, prose poems, or open sonnets—how can you use them?

So, even though I don't have students write twenty sonnets, through the beginning and intermediate workshops, I have students do several exercises usually designed to develop a specific technique that they may need later, and I always use examples from so-called master poems.  For instance, any student can write metaphors, but often the metaphors are turned exactly the same way.  So we read Sylvia Plath's "Medallion," a relatively short poem with twenty-odd metaphors, every one of them presented a different way.   

Students are often completely unacquainted with sound texture, which is the interior life of the poem, and we might read Plath's "Blackberrying," with its intricately wrought mosaic of interconnected vowels and consonants.  (Only by accident am I pulling two Plath poems out of my head right now.  However, despite all the excessive clamor about her personal life, I am convinced that she was one of the most technically gifted American poets ever, and I wish more people would notice that.) 

In the advanced workshop, I usually drop the exercises and let them choose their own forms and subject matter, though I may give certain assignments as catalysts for their imaginations (which, poor things, the world beats down daily).  It's always nice when a general problem of technique arises in a workshop, and I can then give an assignment directed to that.

Mary Copeland

Scant light stretches from beneath my son’s closed door,
scarring the hallway’s mute shadows
with ragged strips of light.
He is struggling to read another chapter of Hawthorne
while silence sinks into the heaped pile of clothes
though I imagine soon he’ll come to the kitchen
asking about Hester Prynne, why she was in prison,
why the townspeople treated her so cruelly.
He can’t grasp the language,
words as foreign to him as the letter I found
bunched like a forgotten candy wrapper in his jean pocket.
His girlfriend loves his hands, his lips, as they
pour across her body like sweet, holy communion.

I’ve searched for some difference in his features,
something that might be simmering,
like the thick molasses on my grandmother’s stove,
but all I see is the sandy-haired boy
in a ragged green t-shirt and patched overalls
who sat for hours in the backyard
muscling small, bright metal cars through mud.

I haven’t told his father yet,
keeping my secret in the heart of my belly
the soft space where I first felt him flutter,
like fanning the pages of a new novel,
releasing a multitude of secrets
into a world not yet known.

Alba Hacker

He stands—fleshed statue with leather book
bag between curled fingers. His other hand
lies, an open palm, while vibrations
from camouflaged steel

rumble his bones through planted soles
across the map of arrows, of white
and yellow lines on ten lanes
of empty asphalt.

Drops inch down his spine
as he stands at China’s Gate
of Heavenly Peace. Despite quakes
on knees and chest, a noiseless shout
breaks his throat: its pitch cannot be caged
and resonates, a thousand brass gongs

in oppressive silence. The collected breath
is stilled, and a million eyes are etched
by one man who dwarfs
four tanks on a public square.