Academic Codification

The necessity of carving out [intuiting/enacting] one’s own treatment of a particular arena of language
Social and psychic identifications that disrupt and (re)envision, to throw into question conventions of codifying. (Kim, Commons 108)((Kim, Myung Mi. Commons. First Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Print.))

In certain academic situations, such as in MFA programs, genre often functions primarily as a type of shorthand or code that sets expectations about the types of works that will be encountered. In these settings, for example, the same work would receive different reads in a fiction workshop than it would in a creative non-fiction or a poetry workshop. Each genre approaches the craft of writing with its own techniques and tools. Language itself functions differently.

Participants of workshops aren’t always prepared, or knowledgable on how, to approach work that falls outside of the prevailing matrix for their genre. For example, a prose writer in a creative non-fiction workshop who submits a text that uses fragmentation, white space, non-linear narrative, and that focuses on exploration rather than on plot and conflict, is likely to hear comments like “I don’t understand why the text is right aligned” or “Why is there so much white space?”  Or, as I have experienced, a poet submitting a prose piece that functions differently than a prose poem, such as a haibun or excerpt from a zhuitsu piece, to a poetry workshop might elicit feedback such as “this isn’t transformed from real life into poetry sufficiently enough” or “why isn’t this just written as a short story or essay” or, the most problematic response, “is this a poem?”

Much has already been written on the saturation of MFA programs, the ensuing number of MFA graduates currently being produced, and the ever-present question of the MFA workshop’s tendency towards homogenization. The majority of criticism concurs with Marjorie Perloff’s view that “the national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, ‘well-crafted’ poem–a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the ‘good jobs’ advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs–has produced an extraordinary uniformity” (n.p)((Perloff, Marjorie. “Poetry on the Brink.” Boston Review. May/June 2012. Web. 21 July 2012.)).

While I don’t agree entirely with Perloff’s conclusion regarding “an extraordinary uniformity,” particularly since not all published poetry is funneled through MFA programs((Juliana Spahr offers an excellent observation in opposition to the type of rhetoric Perloff represents:

I stopped seeing poetry as a war between experimental and conventional forms and started seeing both these poetries as local poetries, written out of specific moments, out of specific locations with very specific concerns. I can no longer see a dominant poetry. I can see that certain poetries have more control over certain institutions, but this doesn’t seem to matter much to the richness and wideness of poetry which seems to continue on without institutional support.

— Spahr, Juliana. “A Conversation with Juliana Spahr“. Interviewed by Joel Bettridge. asu.edu. 2005. PDF.)), I know from personal experience that some creative writing programs focus much more on crafting what is traditionally considered to be “publishable” while other programs recognize that not only has the very nature of what is “publishable” shifted but that creative writing has inherent value outside of the mainstream modes of production and dissemination.

It is possible that the fault lies not within the workshop model but that the workshop model itself is simply the enactment of what happens when the potential for generic strictures becomes institutionalized. In the realm of poetry, for example, a specific matrix has been codified based on a self-perpetuating definition of poetry as work that is meant primarily to be heard/read aloud, with an avoidance of the abstract, a commitment to concision, and the ability to evoke emotion in the reader. This result is some variation of a matrix such as this one:

4 things every good poem must have:
1. Music/rhythm
2. Imagery
3. Precision/concision of language
4. An emotional impact on the reader (sometimes dubbed the “so what” factor)((While a list very similar to this was provided by a mentor I worked with once, I’ve chosen not to attribute it directly since it is generic enough to have come from any number of workshops or poetry handbooks.))

This matrix of what defines good poetry, while malleable with certain elements being swapped out or emphasized more than others, is partially what drives the homogenization of the genre. It stifles work that no longer holds on to the ancestral DNA of poetry as something that is first and foremost something to be heard through the ear. It demonizes abstraction and privileges the emotional impact over any other possible movement (such as intellectual) that the reader might have. And, because the same matrix is taught as a way not only to write poetry but also how to read poetry, it creates a tension between “traditional” poetry and “experimental” poetry that leads to alienation in many readers.

Furthermore, the standard practice of poetry workshops dictates that each poem be received as it lives, only on the page, without an external context provided. Unlike prose-based workshops, where the writer is likely submitting a segment of a larger work and can submit a summary and a context for the piece, a poem is considered to be complete in and of itself. This restriction privileges closed works and reinforces the notion that open works are by nature hermetic. It perpetuates the existing structure by assuming that all poems share the same legend and can be read as extensions of the same map and any works that fall outside of that legend are marked with “thar be dragons.”

When context and process become accepted as part of the workshop experience, we can begin to create new maps and new ways of understanding. If workshops had an open matrix this trap of institutionalized aesthetics could be avoided and institutions could also be areas in which “the richness and wideness of poetry” rather than homogenization, thrived.

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