WORKSHOP W/ ANNE WALDMAN
I ATTENDED MY FIRST workshop in the New England College MFA in Poetry program, facilitated by Anne Waldman, with what I thought was an open mind. Apparently, it wasn’t open enough.
“I’d like to start the workshop,” Anne began, “with what we at Naropa call bowing in.”
I wrinkled my inner brow.
“It doesn’t have any religious meaning, so you don’t have to feel all weird about it. And if you’re uncomfortable, then you don’t have to do it. But it’s just something that we do to show our respect to each other and for each others’ gifts, and for the work that will be presented.”
I balked, only for a split second, and only because I wasn’t accustomed to the practice, but, before I knew it, Tara, Adam, Barbara, and I were searching each others’ faces and… bowing in to each other.
Anne’s voice resumed in a warm blue glow over the room, “We’re going to begin with a free-writing exercise to get the juices flowing.” She handed out various sections of the New York Times – Frontpage, Arts, Business. “Choose a headline and just free-write.”
I chose, “How to Create a Buzz” and free-wrote onomatopoeiacally on the headline: Bees, chainsaws, crickets, movie stars, shave it all off, vibrate, bzzz, biplane engine over London, bombing squadron, hairclippers in a Southside barbershop.
What I wound up reading echoed the form of the shamanistic poem which Anne presented the previous day in the faculty introductions in the Simon Center. Instead of ending each line with says as did the indigenous American poet Maria Sabena , I ended each line with bzzzz:
Bumblebees bzzzzzzJust when it was getting fun, she stopped us. We were there to workshop, after all.
Texas chainsaw bzzzzzz
Crickets hidden in the azaleas
all summer bzzzzzz
J-Lo needs face-time bzzzz
Talkin smack in a Southside barbershop bzzzzz…
While we had been working on the writing exercise, Anne had scrawled a boardful of notes regarding our poems up for workshopping: location-site (in the world of the poem itself, when the writer composes the poem); trajectory (the poem’s movement); modal structure; resonance to the past; cultural references (rock & roll, Buddhism, identity, race/gender).
Then, we got to the business of workshopping Barbara Paparazzo’s poem, which was part 5 in a series inspired by some of her reading of Gary Snyder during the previous semester. After Barbara read the poem aloud, Anne pulled another fast one on me. Before allowing us to give our feedback, she had Barbara comment on her intentionality of her poem herself!
In my previous workshop experiences, the poet always remained silent, at risk of losing his her life, until everyone had given their feedback on the poem. The logic was that the poet had already spoken through the poem, and it was our job as workshoppers to stumble around blindly to see if the words of the poem provided enough light for us to find our way.
But Anne’s philosophy was different. Her goal with a workshop was to determine if the poet was achieving his/her intentionality. By having the poet speak to his/her intentions first, it gave us as workshoppers a map as to whether or not those intentions were being achieved. It was a radically different workshopping experience for me, but it seemed to make the workshop move much more quickly and efficiently as we were able to more specifically address the poet’s concerns. The jury’s still out as to which way I like better – Anne’s way, or the way to which I was previously accustomed.
In Anne Waldman’s school of thought, “the experience” is the poem and “the reader is as important as the writer,” which is in line with her performance background and in line with my own aesthetic beliefs. She argues that the poem is something greater than just an arrangement of ink on a sheet of paper. It is 1) what the poet brings to the poem as well as 2) what the reader/listener brings to the poem as well as 3) the medium in which it is orally transmitted (voice, voice with music, etc.)
In addition to intentionality, Anne based her workshop on three central concepts from Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading: melopoeia (the music of the poem), phanopoeia (the images of the poem), and logopoeia (the ideas of the poem). She asked each of us to consider which of the three tended to predominate in our own bodies of work, though ideally a poem would skillfully employ all three of these devices. And although I'd like to argue that my own work employs all three, my work is predominantly a poetry of ideas which I try to smoke-and-mirro with the other two elements. And as I began to think of other more well-known poets whose work I variously embraced and detested – began to see them in light of these three areas of emphasis – I began to better understand why I am drawn to certain poets and less to others.
This entry is excerpted from a residency journal I am required to keep as part of the NEC MFA Program.