Feb 25, 2011

GROUP POETRY, Conclusion

Left: A Writing Workshop Round Table

Here again is Grace Paley's humble, strong, dignified, soft-spoken "Walking in the Woods." After reading it a dozen or so times for its own sake, try substituting "writing" or "art" every time she says "tree" or "life." It would conclude, "If you've liked art, you do it."

Grace Paley: Gone | The Ruth Group

As for M.F.A. programs, many people serious about writing have expressed concern about the formation there of a single, homogeneous brain and spirit, formed perhaps by a single megalomaniac of a poet-professor’s influence on (intimidation of?) vulnerable students and colleagues. Maybe a single jackass in authority or widespread neglect cannot kill the future of an acolyte if he’s a genuine writer-in-waiting. Emily Dickinson. Gerard Manley Hopkins. J.D. Salinger. But what if that’s not true? What if he can be killed?

And even if those three icons and other soft voices survived some tyrannical authorities and doctrinaire influences—teachers, peers, pillars full of migrating ideologies—why should they have to? Conversely, why should a bellicose, doctrinaire student be permitted to make life more complicated for honest, earnest classmates or a well-intentioned, competent teacher, who might be the next Hopkins but is working here to pay the rent, along with spreading The Word?

Left: Walt Whitman?

There’s no magic formula for the right mix of community and solitude in improving artistic expression. My concern about an excess of community and fawning over celebrities as well as each other is based on impressions I’ve gathered at dozens of readings and several conferences over the last two or three decades.

However, I’ve also met some very nice people at various levels of experience in the writing game. I entirely understand and cautiously agree with the arguments for a greater sense of community among writers; it can be educational and good for the enterprise. But it’s also important to keep our eyes on a prize that's a shape shifter. One thing seems certain: it does not need to include so much Hollywood hero worship and poetry circle chit chat in the garden club tradition.

Now listen, for I mean this: I have been very pleasantly surprised by the relative absence of flagrant egomania I’ve perceived among celebrity writers. When I was just starting to attend these affairs, I expected to see a series of wannabe Hemingways strutting in with a big game rifle in one hand, a fifth of whiskey in the other, and boxing gloves draped around his neck. His reading partner might be Sylvia Plath, hands tied behind her back so she could not get to the oven gas.

In fact, I’ve seen almost none of such histrionics,

(left: histrionics)

at least from the writers themselves--almost no Famous Dude Syndrome and lot of Agreeable Regular Folks looking for the right porch swing. (Though I do wonder what the writers think about each other and The Work once the gatherings and fawning are finished).

So it’s apparently the “students,” the apprentices (again, ages 18 – 80), at these venues that make me need to play Killjoy and re-assert the obvious: real art is not a party. It's lonesome, hard, painstaking work. Like caring for a child, you do it out of love more often than you do it for fun. For occasional, exquisite hours, it's both. But worthwhile talk about writing is more likely in living rooms and coffee shops than self-celebrating galas. When wine, cheese, clatter and flattery enter the room, good thinking, talking, and writing run the other way.

Grace Paley: Gone | The Ruth Group



bandit said...

'...Sylvia Plath with her hands tied behind her back...'


Hey, man, I been there, writin' that renku. A link at my site leads you to some "collaborative" poetry. Something about 'Green Tea'. No, this is not a plug. If you go there, look in the comments, embarrassing as they may be.
We wrote one, named 'The Tiniest Pebble'. It won an international award! (Still no plug) What I'm saying is, besides a hand-picked "crew" of authors, I invited some "guest" authors to take some "prestigious" positions in the verses. After one of the crew quietly mentioned a preference to keep the position in house, the war was on! I mopped up the blood and vitriole and carried on like a trooper, deleted personal E-mails stinging my ears and psyche. Wow. I mean it hurt, man. Through the rest of the construct I had SO much doubt.
You are so right about the pain inherent in creation; like giving birth.

gothpunkuncle said...

I'm writing a song called "Let's See Cordelia's Belly." You'll be thanked in the liner notes when the CD comes out . . . unless, of course, the check clears.

Yours in Extortion,

Banjo52 said...

Bandit, haven't been to your place yet, but I plan to. Should I increase my hospitalization first?

GPU, you won't believe this, but I had a notion that you might be the first or only one to enjoy that line. Well, I was first, of course, and I have to admit, I did enjoy it, although tinkering with Lear is kinda like messing with a sacred text for me.

Birdman said...

Enjoyed reading these pieces.

Banjo52 said...

Birdman, thanks. When it comes to poetry, you never know how many give a hoot.

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