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Poets in Progress


In the early 40s a fellow by the name of Paul Engle headed up the first writers' workshop program at the University of Iowa, and now it seems every state has a few fully accredited MFA programs. And the colleges that don't offer degree programs are likely to include at least a couple poetry and fiction workshops in their curriculums.  As a result, once again a noun has been pitched headlong into a verb; poets take their poems to class to be "workshopped." The word  alarms some who don't understand what goes on in these classes—and in fact, I don't much like the sound of it myself.


You'd think the nascent writings will be passed from hand to hand down an assembly line of laborers who punched the time clock at 8:30 a.m. Monday and have been workshopping poems every since.


But terminology aside, in the span of my life I've met few poets who write consistently well—effectively, movingly, memorably—but did not acquire some essential part of their skills and sensibilities through writing workshops. Last month I would have said I'd met just three, but now it's up to four.  Pete Fairchild, one of the two poet-teachers included here, just revealed that though he teaches them he never took an official poetry workshop.   


This new Speechless feature will give poet-teachers the opportunity to showcase either the one best poem from each poet in a particular class, or the two most finished, or most interesting, poems of any one class— and with these an instructor statement describing their teaching philosophies or methods.  In the following entries Gail Wronsky of LMU presents her whole group, and B.H. Fairchild of CSU San Bernardino selects two student poems. 


"Poets in Progress" will likely offer works-in-progress and should be read in this light. It does constitute publication, though—and I flatter myself it's publication in a web magazine more serious and substantive than some out there. Maybe this will help buoy the spirits of students for what lies ahead. (If their fortunes are no better than mine, what lies ahead will include many rejection slips for a good long time.)  However, the larger purpose of "Poets-in-Progress" is to give interested readers some access to the mysteries of the workshop process, and to provide poet-professors news of their fellow teachers' thoughts and methods in this relatively esoteric realm.

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. More


Gail Wronsky’s Instructor Statement


My workshop-teaching strategy has mainly to do with dislocating the students, disorienting them, displacing them, so that they cannot rely on whatever comfortable strategies or structures or habits of voice they've relied on in the past to get through a poem.  This is the only way they'll make real discoveries.  My belief is that the brain can't help making sense, finding logical connections, moving in some previously learned rhetorical fashion from idea to idea, or place to place, or image to image, even in a poem, and that if you do move logically or sensibly you will not arrive at anything new but instead will arrive at something others have already arrived at, or you yourself have discovered before.  We must, as Hamlet says, "By indirection find direction out."  Or, as Emily Dickinson has it: "Tell the truth, but tell it slant."  More