Tuesday, September 18, 2018

In Defence of the Writing Workshop

Plaque at the ruins of Cahermacnaughten Brehon Law School, county Clare.
The below spontaneously written text began as a reply to a question that was left on a 1800 word text on the topic of Writing Workshops and Publishing, composed by Cork poet Thomas McCarthy, and published on his Facebook.

I think this is a more appropriate platform for it due to its length. 

In response to McCarthy's public post, a Facebooker asked in the comments: "Maybe the question should be, why do a workshop at all?"

And it was answering this question that generated the text below.


There are as many different answers to that question as there are participants at a writing workshop. Each person having their own unique reasons for being t/here.

And the great thing about the internet is that the concept of what constitutes a writing workshop, indeed, what constitutes the act of 'publishing' itself; has radically altered, broadened, and changed in a dizzyingly short space of time; exponentially opened up, expanded, and the entire poetry publishing model has been inverted over the previous decade and a half.

From an elitist corporate overwhelmingly male model, in which a handful of esteemed and experienced culturally conservative literary gatekeepers and patrician Judges sombrely sifted, conferred, and chose what few submissions got plucked from a slush pile, put into print, and declared worthy Award-Winning fare; to a self-publishing populist poetry model in which people from previously underrepresented groups, genders, excluded communities, and demographics, and often with little writing experience; are finding and creating global audiences for their work
using personal Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and social media accounts.

Reaching a vast number of readers across the world that the patrician old guard would never have dreamt was possible during the Heaneybopper heydays.

New voices whose Hallmark style of poetry writing would have been soundly rejected and stood zero chance of being plucked from the slush pile by the editorial pashas and potentates of the pre-Tumblr 'poetry commons.'

The vast majority of which did not at all anticipate, foresee or predict the contemporary shift in readership, style, and crop of virally successful new young voices publishing on Instagram and other popular social media platforms, that achieve a global awareness for what they are doing by writing handfuls of fuzzy aspirational and combative declarative lines woven pasted onto, for example, a photograph of themself bleeding through their pants whilst menstruating.

Or a young poet on the other side of the world that tosses off onto Facebook a poem titled, Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind; which finds a global audience and its author becomes feted as a best selling literary genius by the mass corporate Ministry of Truth media critics and 'bard(s), then: without the prerogative of learning but intellect alone.'

And so in the contemporary age of social-media the only borders, barriers and restrictions about what and where the writing workshop is, exist solely in our own imaginations.


When I began attending writing workshops I was very lucky because I'd only been writing a short while, and fell nine months after starting, more by accident than design, a week after 9/11, onto a three year full time joint Writing Studies BA program in a small English market town in SW Lancashire, just over the metropolitan boundary of Liverpool.

That was at the very bottom of the league for ambitious literary luvvies, not least because it was the headquarters of the Linguistically Innovative Poetry School at Ormskirk's Edge Hill University.

LIPS is the avant-garde English sibling of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry movement, an experimental branch of literature birthed as an offshoot of the British Poetry Revival, and at the time that I was there LIPS was considered the most marginalized, mocked and ignored of all British poetry schools. 

Considered as fashionable as a drisac doggerelist and 'low lampooner' seeking a patron in an oaken Poetry Palace filled with fabba & fabba ollúna.

And most classes in the various writing genres we studied had a writing-burst component to them.

The entire class would respond to a stimulus. Sometimes a text, at other times an instruction by the tutor. And for twenty minutes we would write extempore, collectively enveloped in the cerebrally silent hum of , feeling an experiential fore-hint of its future more realised form of imbas forosnai. And at the end, if we wanted to, we'd read out aloud to each other what we'd just written.

We had guest writers, our weekly tutors, and all in all because it was formal learning spread over three full academic years, six semesters, by the time this glorious first three years of literary evolution and experience had ended, all on the course had had enough time and been led to discover what level of commitment and devotion to the  Tuatha Dé Danann craft of the people of the goddess Art we possessed.

The classes of the writing studies modules of the three year curriculum were essentially individual writing workshops. Three and four a week. And by the time I left they had imbued in me a thorough understanding of what the writing workshop culture is all about; along with a much more intensely positive and comprehensively focused academic experience than most two-leaved fochloc starting out at the same poetic grade and stage of the literary language game.

And, in my own mind at least, facing a minimum of another nine years on the long road of learning before reaching whatever impossibly far off and unimaginable golden circle I at that time had no clue I'd end up in praising Creation for the blessing of life.

A perfect way of beginning to write in this educational setting, rather than scribbling alone in cafes. 

And a path I ended up falling onto more as what seemed like at the time an accidental act of random dán, gift, poetry; and, in one of its original contexts - 'fate'. As we learn from an ancient druidic saying: 'one cannot drown whose dán (whose poetry, whose fate) it is to be hung'.

And this perfectly flawless solely positive first three year start instilled in me enough personal confidence to come to Dublin filled with the belief needed to continue my bardic book learning, and throw myself in at the deep end of global writing in a cultural whirl where many of the most pretentious and talented literary luvvies in the English speaking world practice the art of failing, failing better, and by the sheer persistence of spiritual will, joyfully turn the material of personal sorrow and failure into published poetic art.

Without the experience of three years daily workshop writing, I may well have fallen for the guff, bluffs and feints, the elevated displays of bardic self-importance, the over the top wafty rhetoric about mystical teaching practices; mistaken the grave silent nods and body language when conversationally investigating the mind-boggling topic of the literary filidh poets' tradition and curriculum - for a deep familiarity with the subject, rather than a total ignorance of it.

And perhaps not seen through the waffle to the nub of the matter with lots of local 'bard(s), then: without the prerogative of learning, but intellect alone', who create, host and operate writing workshops outside the context of formal education.

It depends what a person's expectations are about a workshop, what level of experience the classes are pitched at, who the tutor is; and what bardic brand of learning and contagious strength of inspirational scholastic magic the tutor displays and deploys to enliven, energize, and spiritually enthuse the attendees with when they are speaking seeking to spark a spiritual fire inside the heads of those present at a workshop.

Most one-off high-priced masterclass and beginners' writing workshops, understandably, can be little more than praise and positivity sessions.

Infusing a room full of strangers with an authentic LFC belief, can do Anfield boot-room ethos, mixed with the musical attitude of a Northern Soul all nighter; and a hint of Celtic mysticism in the flight of an Achill hawk circling a ghost-filled bothy above Sraheen's bog.

And by the power invested in ye by the sovereign Muse above in heaven, self-create a wholly imaginative and magical head-space where belief might grow in the mind of a bardic beginner being treated seriously in their dream of reaching neath a Macroom moon for the unimprovable original familial FitzGeraldean speaking voice.

In the home of this faery woman of Ireland's people of the goddess Art, where they are encouraged to just do it. Be themselves. Write.

Other regular workshops can be more about a group of writers offering support and suggestions about works in progress, acting as editorial midwives to each others publishing dreams.

As McCarthy writes in his Facebook post, where a community is created, a sense of collective identity and belonging, of being in the trenches and at the cutting edges with literary allies all willing one another on into print, publication; and sharing in the happiness that comes when a writer is blessed to never walk alone by the Muse, and experience success measured in spiritual eloquence. And if s/he is lucky and talented, brings material blessings from a patron or from selling what we write.

Robert Sheppard, who was the Poundian hierophant at the first church of one's own formal literary learning - with a curriculum at LIPS consisting solely of modern experimental American poetry and poetics; used to remind us that just by writing, to have actually ended up in the classroom practically pursuing our dream of writing; we were in a tiny minority of the sixty million working-class English people who actually pick up a pen and sling the fingers across the tabs of our keyboards.

He used to say that the most potentially interesting and greatest writers in the world, the ones with the most fascinating experiences locked in our heads, the ones with the craziest non-standard memories, rarely make it to writing a word down.

And those that do, the ones who before they write a word spent twenty years making their way around the world on rollerskates, washing cars in Peru, valeting in Las Vegas, croupiering at casinos in Macau, swimming with dolphins in the Atlantic, working at animal sanctuaries in Iceland, teaching English to business execs in China, crewing fishing trawlers in the Bering Straits, waiting tables in Black Sea beach resorts, criss-crossing a continent on Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses, wielding picks, shovels and hods on building sites, or scoring fixes as a junked up down and out living hand to mouth in squats; may well stand apart in print from the continual parade of young and gifted literary geni spotted in their teens at university, snapped up by a mentor and pampered into a PR machine to be then praised packaged promoted publicized and sold in public as a next otherworldly voice from the award-winning tribal assembly lines and tuatha de academic sausage factories pumping out product from highly competitive, insular and exclusive mafia like literary operations spread across the cultures of our home planet.

And however that works, whatever method is successful and gets people at a workshop joyfully writing, is the right way. Be it Bob Cobbing ohmming and reading the walls at the Writers Forum, or a formal lyric ollamh of the global broadsheets and smiling public woman injecting her charges with spiritual belief just by physically being in the same room as them.

At the end of the day how we view this matter of workshops and writing is down to our own spirit, the thought in our head, the swirling cloud and emotional weather within that we draw out into letters.

And when at our best, most spiritually graceful, eloquent and human, in the words of the late great Newcastle West poet, Michael Hartnett, we map the contours of our imagination 'closest to thought'.

But it is easy to be cynical, especially today on this (I kid ye not) official International Grumpy Fucker Day, and fall into the trap of labeling all purveyors and participants at the writing workshop as frauds and fakes; networking careerists without an interesting word to publish. 

As the noted grumpy fecker and Monaghan poet, Patrick Kavanagh, called this self-defeating joy-killing brand of literary attitude, after he'd had a lung removed and came to understand life is a precious gift too short to waste being negative about what we love: 'the bitter prayer of satire'.

We all feel that way at times, even though our generic 'so pleased for you', 'wonderful news', 'wow', 'amazing' comments on social media would seem to indicate we do not.

But the shortness of them, the lack of any extended conversational substance, and dearth of sincere critical engagement, indicates, to me at least, that most of us social-media Facebook luvvies, are merely posturing and presenting a carefully crafted one dimensional projection of our idealized intellectually warmest self as a member of Her community, and just trying to stay positive behind our masks concealing all our shared petty human frustrations, collective competitive jealousies, and quirky personal hatreds.

The swirling emotional weather system within each and every one of us that is the very source of all our letters that make it into print.

'Fi, toxic in satire, and Li, splendor in praise, and it is various the poet speaks'; as we learn from Cormac's Glossary, is the very definition of the word poet.

The two sides of our real minds, in the literary sport of praise and blame, joy and sorrow, the speckled art of Irish poetry. And though at times we may not feel it when we lose sight of it and become sidetracked by the negative portions of our mind's phantasmagoria; the singular magic of writing is that it is a tool with which we can write ourselves from one emotional state to another. A self-help program that costs nothing at all.

Lose ourself diving into the imagination and playing with language. Then surface hours later after being entranced, time suspended in our very own Tír Tairngire, Land of Promise.

A one person sport with self. The general aim being to start, keep going, stop, then start again, write better, and better; with the overriding human goal being to write purely to get, keep and stay as happy as we can in this overcrowded world we live in as one of seven billion human beings. Keeping in mind how lucky we are, just to be in Ireland at this point in its history, to be in a generation that escaped what grim fates our ancestors suffered, blessed to be living in one of the richest countries in the world.

To give ourselves a voice, not end up just another one of the sixty million literary silent working-class English people with more brains and spiritual class than all those more privileged from our English culture with some grade of literary voice. That will and do mock, sneer and dismiss the silent majority of English lions whose sovereign interests the posh-voiced Etonian donkeys have betrayed, sold out and stolen.

And so the joy of simply being able to counter and expose the narratives of those donkeys, writing through the language and coming to discover, as the Sandymount sage concluded, before he turned his attention to doing translations, via the Joycean interlocutor's voice at the end of Station Island:

"The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,

a waste of time for somebody your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod's game,
infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage.

You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim

out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency .."

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Donald at Poetry

I am no booster of the person I think it is obvious has played a crucial role in bringing about the critical shift in US poetry from dead white male Ivy league academics to the "multicultural inclusiveness” being celebrated in this piece at The Atlantic, How Poetry Came to Matter Again, and I have many times satirically mocked them.

Mostly when joining in with the deprecation of him by an ex-Facebook poet-friend who has a real animosity towards the most important poetry editor in the US. 

But reading the linked article above, it struck me that nowhere in this opinion-thesis charting and explaining the how, what, when, where, and why of the rise of Millennidentitarian SJW poets from a fringe to a mainstream consciousness; does the name appear of the one person whose advocacy, I would argue it is obvious, has been central to, and most responsible for, changing the critical focus of US poetry away from the continual celebration of a handful of middle-class male academic poets, and onto what were previously the marginalized and underrepresented communities and schools of poets that were wholly outside the tent of Official Verse Culture in the US.

Don Share, Editor of Poetry, the oldest, richest, and most critically regarded monthly in the world dedicated to the publication of verse, who for six years was the Senior Editor and theoretical second in command to the former Editor of Poetry (2003-13), Christian Wiman.

Share began his tenure as chooser in chief at Poetry in 2013, after taking over from his former boss, whose own narrow poetic tastes and publishing decisions during his decade in charge of setting the tone of US poetry, were ultra-conservative. Wiman's choices ran to publishing month in month out the usual merry-go-round of white Ivy League male insiders of Official Verse Culture, with the odd token female, black and ethnic minority academic thrown in.

Share however within a short space of time had totally overhauled and changed the house publication of the Poetry Foundation, ditched the dead white male Ivy League academics, and turned it into a contemporary poetry publication that is the polar opposite of what it was under Wiman; publishing many of the previously outsider poets mentioned in Lichtenstein's piece.


The Atlantic article is, I would argue, the most recent iteration of a very cyclical 'Poetry is the New Rock N Roll' meme. One that gets written and published in a prominent Establishment magazine every few years; and, in this instance, contains the names of young ambitious hip hep and wholly American poety poos doing their thang on the other side of the Atlantic.

The poets advertised in these pieces are usually also friends and/or colleagues of the crafty composer of the prose vehicle pushing a narrative that there is a movement of literary originals and outsiders afoot, and something radically new in the realm of poetic language is occurring. The creation of a collective poetic buzz, current and wave emerging into mainstream consciousness.

Most of them, inevitably, rather than prophetically delineating the true tides and contemporary currents that end up delivering into a true literary movement the namechecked newbs to full Literary Establishment status in the golden ollavic circle, are little more than puff pieces and boosterism of the author's fellow ambitious colleagues strategically marketing themselves to a wider audience.

However with the indiscriminate-opinion masquerading as analytics model of previous decades now redundant, the author of The Atlantic article, Portland based Oregon writer, Jessie Lichtenstein's claims are situated on firmer critical ground, and are communicated in a more persuasive and plausible form of literary analysis than before. In the fact that he identifies the measurable role YouTube and social-media have played in the emergence of the diverse bunch he is praising.

The one core difference between now and pre-Facebook is the fact that a majority of the poets mentioned in this piece have bypassed what is increasingly a redundant literary-gatekeeper model of poetry publishing; as to get their poetry published, heard and read the emergent poets in the age of social media have created their own audiences on the strength of their live recorded performances and writings alone. Cutting out the previously all powerful curatorial taste-makers and middlemen of the legacy media publishing process, by speaking directly to the Reader online, without the need of submission to, acknowledgment from, or validation of the editorial potentates and pashas of Official Verse Culture.

So the jury is out on how accurate the piece will turn out to be in the years to come. But it is refreshing to read of what by now after more than a decade of debate is what appears to be the fully emerged new model of poetry and publishing that has changed the very concept and meaning of what constitutes being 'published', and opened up the art form to anyone with a phone camera, keypad and internet connection.

One that has silenced the doom and gloom literary experts of legacy media, that during the mid-Noughties were wailing like Medieval scribes at the arrival of the printing press, decrying the pesky internet poets and claiming the sky was falling in with the opening up of literacy to the masses. Arguing only a tiny elite of trained custodians of the real literary Gospel, i.e., themselves, could possibly write anything down.

A relatively recent and far more boringly dense and pretentiously elitist variation of this periodic 'poetry is the new rock 'n' roll' trope, came in 2009 from the pen of a Harvard bardic bluffer that doesn't know his arse from his Auraicept na n-Éces, the academic critic, luvvie and literary artist formerly known as Stephen Burt.

Now Stephanie Burt, they have most recently in the news for their craven and utterly insincere 'apology' for what they claimed was a momentary lapse in editorial 'standards' (as if they have any in the first place) for publishing a few weeks ago in The Nation a wholly harmless persona poem by North Dakota, Fargo poet, Anders Carlson-Wee.

That a lot of equally insincere social-media trolls got professionally offended about on behalf of a slew of communities; and cowed by a mob of hate-filled joyless morons Burt grovelled for forgiveness and hung Carlson-Wee out to dry with their Nation co-editor. Revealing, in one of the most transparently cowardly and shameful events in US poetry this summer; exactly what the ancient speckled art of praise and blame really means to them, and what the true critical quality of poetic eyes and literary integrity they possess. None whatsoever.

A decade before apologizing to bardic hate-preachers for the thought crime of not being attentive enough to the sensitivities of the various communities a tiny few people arrogating themselves membership of were pretending to be offended on behalf of; Burt published a pseudo-intellectual piece of cultural propaganda in the Boston Globe, The New Thing (2009), in which he claimed and prophesied that a few crusty dead-white all male academics and Ivy League-like pals of his were at the forefront of the latest wave of poetic superlatives practicing beyond the cutting edge and articulating a future literary movement in American poetry that was gonna catch on and become: "The New Thing."

Anyone remember that?