Weekly Writing Prompt: Writing About Workshop


The inspiration for this prompt comes from a lesson I taught recently in my Intro to Poetry class: “How to Workshop a Poem.”  From an instructor’s perspective, it was a lesson on workshop protocol, giving constructive feedback, etc.  As a creative writer, however, one who has sat through (and participated in, don’t get me wrong!) countless undergraduate workshops, graduate workshops, informal workshops, community workshops, middle school workshops, etc. etc. etc., the sense I got while delivering my mini-lecture was that my students were being inducted into some secret society, one with oddball rules (“The person whose work is being workshopped must never speak.”  “If one wishes to refer to the ‘I’ in a poem one must always say ‘THE SPEAKER’ and never ‘YOU.’ “) and traditions not immediately intuitive but terribly, terribly important nonetheless.

Since the proliferation of university-housed creative writing programs, a process that began in the 1930s with the establishment of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (just called “The Workshop” on the department webpage) and has caused the number of programs to skyrocket to unprecedented numbers (the current program count is somewhere around 800), we’ve entered an era in which most—if not all—of us have at some point encountered the Workshop beast.  Most of us have been trained in an institutional context and as such, have grown accustomed to specific patterns of speech and behavior in the classroom.  Which can be a bit weird.

[T]hat gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

(“Workshop,” Billy Collins)

All the same, we know workshop, both love and hate it, think it’s vital, useless, irrelevant, etc.  So why not write about it?

Two well-known examples of “workshop” poems:

Workshop” by Billy Collins

For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop” by David Wagoner


Write a poem about workshop, set in workshop, or against workshop.  Take your cue (or not!) from Collins and use the peculiar language and syntactical constructions we’re trained to use in the creative writing classroom.

Play with perspective and speak, like David Wagoner, from the instructor’s point of view, or if you’re more familiar with the student experience, from the shoulder of the participant.  Have fun with voice and persona, and don’t be afraid to take a few jabs at what we all know as the Workshop beast.

Event Coverage: VONA Voices Workshop 2010

This post is a little belated because I’ve been busy traveling, but here are some reflections on my experience last month at the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) Workshop 2010, hosted at the University of San Francisco.

The program website pretty much says it all: “The VONA Voices Workshop is dedicated to nurturing developing writers of color [who] come from around the globe to work with renowned writers of color.”  Essentially, VONA is where you go to work with people like Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, and Suheir Hammad.  Where you discover for yourself that there’s a rich and vibrant tradition of writers of color in the United States and that you can situate yourself in that incredible wealth of a heritage.  It’s where you go to learn that you’re not the only one asking the question, “Where am I from, where are my people from, and why does that matter to my writing?”

Basically, VONA is the place where you walk into a workshop, sit down and your instructor says, “So what are your ancestors telling you today?”  You sit awestruck as your classmates go around the room channeling these incredibly powerful, angry voices from our nation(s)’ untold histories, and what you end up with once everyone has spoken is a room of not just eleven poets, but generations of voices echoed through the sensibilities of your peers.

University of San Francisco
Lone Mountain Campus

I attended VONA’s second session, which meant that I was in LA-based poet Ruth Forman’s poetry workshop, along with ten other women from around the country.  Represented in our class was a wide diversity of cultural, and ethnic, and professional backgrounds — including a med student, an African Diaspora Studies Ph.D candidate, an art therapist, and a non-profit consultant… only to mention a few!  Ruth fostered a warm culture of dialogue and collaboration, while advocating fiercely that we stick to June Jordan’s (one of her mentors) Poetry for the People guidelines for discussing poetry.

I learned so much from Ruth, particularly in our one-on-one conference where she shared with me her understanding of what it means to be an African American poet, following in a tradition that — as she sees it — has sought always to speak against injustice, bring hope to the community, and capture the musicality of spoken (and sung) language.  To hear some of Ruth’s work, watch this clip of the VONA faculty reading, where she read several poems from her most recent collection, Prayers Like Shoes (Whit Press, 2009).  You can also hear her on NPR, talking about her children’s book Young Cornrows Callin out the Moon (Children’s Book Press, 2007).

Each of VONA’s two sessions featured a mid-week faculty reading.  Ours was sensational – we heard from Diem Jones with musician Len Wood, Tananarive Due, Ruth Forman, M. Evelina Galang, Chris Abani, Andrew X. Pham, Willie Perdomo, and Elmaz Abinader, each of whom are incredibly accomplished artists and writers.  The auditorium was packed, and because so many in the audience were VONA participants, cries of “Hey, that’s my teacher!” echoed continually throughout the hall.  For many of us, this was the first time we’d heard our instructors read — and the effect was magical.  There they were, our workshop leaders — enacting, performing, embodying all they had been talking about in class.

Tananarive Due reading at the VONA faculty event

On the final evening of the workshop, every VONA participant (about 80 poets and writers in all) shared 300 words of their writing.  Some of it was newly written, read right off of people’s laptops – or Blackberrys.  Some of it was freshly revised after workshop that afternoon.  All of it was raw, real, and bore witness to the tremendous weight of cultural Story represented in the room.  Cave Canem fellow Tara Betts finished the evening off with a powerful, lyrical response to Wallace Stevens’ infamous comment, “Who let the coon in?” when Gwendolyn Brooks arrived at the 1950 Drew-Phalen Awards banquet.

The title of Betts’ poem?  “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Woman.”  Rock on, Tara.

VONA 2010

To Consider…

For a complete list of VONA 2010 faculty, click here.  Read these writers’ books, follow their blogs and, if you can, by all means study with them – or at least hear them read.

Apply to next year’s Voices Workshop!  The application probably won’t be open for another few months, but check the website periodically if this is something you think you may enjoy participating in.

Lastly, the workshop offers limited scholarships to seminar participants, which is made possible only through the generosity of its donors.  If you’d like to help support this initiative, consider donating through the program website.

A Conversation with Joseph Legaspi

Joseph O. Legaspi
Joseph O. Legaspi

Joseph O. Legaspi is the author of Imago (CavanKerry Press), winner of a Global Filipino Literary Award. He lives in New York City and works at Columbia University. A graduate of New York University’s Creative Writing Program, his poems appeared and/or are forthcoming in American Life in Poetry, World Literature Today, PEN International, North American Review, Callaloo, Bloomsbury Review, Poets & Writers, Gulf Coast, Gay & Lesbian Review, and the anthologies Language for a New Century (W.W. Norton) and Tilting the Continent (New Rivers Press). A recipient of a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, he co-founded Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), a non-profit organization serving Asian American poets.  Visit him at www.josepholegaspi.com.

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LR: So where did the idea for Kundiman come from, and what unique purpose does it have in the Asian American writing community?

JL: It really started off as kind of the infamous BBQ story. [Co-founder] Sara Gambito had invited me to an aunt’s place—the term of endearment, no blood relation—and we were sitting on hammocks, eating charred meat, amazed how this group of people was so comfortable together, like family. It just hit us. We had both struggled upon graduating from MFAs: we had tried finding communities but were both at a loss. I told her about Cave Canem, which is a home for African American writers. We thought, why not do this for ourselves, for Asian American poets?

Unlike umbrella organizations for a lot of different writing, Kundiman is more focused towards poetry. Because the Asian American umbrella is very complicated, we try to vary the retreat ethnically, by age, and stylistically: we’ve had Myung Mi Kim, who is a very experimental poet; Rick Barot, who is a formalist and narrative poet; and Staceyann Chin, who is a spoken word poet. We don’t want to shun anyone. Remember that Sarah and my initial experience was that we felt excluded. So that’s what we try to do–create a space.

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