Kenyon College, Ohio
The 2001 Kenyon Master Class in Poetry
Kenyon College has almost mythical status as a private institution in which aspiring writers may learn the subtleties of their craft in the context of a classical English degree. It has a history of attracting great writers and is the home of the major American literary journal founded by John Crowe Ransom, The Kenyon Review. Those studying writing units at Kenyon expect the weight of this history to work in their favour, assume that the atmosphere will be conducive to their producing their best possible writing. Location, indeed, does contribute, through focus and concentration - the College is isolated, sitting among the cornfields and forests of mid-Ohio, on the hilltop of Gambier. It was founded at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the Bishop of Ohio, and its unique architecture might be called 'Episcopalian', though the college continues to develop cultural and religious diversity. It is common for writing units at Kenyon to include 'nature' elements, for the students to engage in field studies. Through the centre of the village campus runs Middle Path, linking the various liberal disciplines along with the sciences. This is the spiritual and creative centre of the college, and the idea of linking dissimilar but connected areas of life and study is a feature of many Kenyon students' work. Their environment, no matter how 'urban' or, say, 'abstract' a writer they are, starts to affect their work at an early stage.
The Master Class I taught as Richard L. Thomas Professor of Writing at Kenyon this year brought together students who'd shown the highest aptitude and enthusiasm in previous units. I had met some of them at a reading in England the year before, where I'd made a guest appearance on their overseas writing program. I reconnected with them shortly after my appointment to the position, when Kenyon brought me in for an informal session with the students, and a formal session with College officials. The first thing that struck me about them as individuals was the sureness and confidence of their 'voices' and, as a group, their ability to accommodate each other's differences. This was exciting, as the mainstay of my teaching methodology is to work towards enhancing individual voices by submerging them in the anonymity of collaboration. I strongly feel that if one can distance oneself from voice, the writing will be enhanced and given uniqueness. It's only when the poet or writer surrenders proprietorial designs on text and publication, learns to be less precious about the importance of his or her words, that the voice can break the constraints of self and evolve into something unusual - certainly enhance its ability to enrich the reader. For me, writing is as much about the reader as writer; in fact, every reader reinvents a text - constants have to be challenged, and the identity of the author is fluid and questionable.
The class consisted of nine regular students and two mature-age audit students - working without accreditation, the two mature-age students were the key to making this class dynamic. Every student was already assured in terms of what they perceived as their voice and 'style' - a word that immediately has me running for the deconstructionist's handbook. I don't want to see style, I want to see a critical consciousness at this stage of the writer's development. Without the ability to make and understand criticism, a stasis will come about, the rot will set in. During the first lesson I watched the discomfort spread across some students' faces when I pointed out that the first few weeks would be dedicated to theory.
Another feature of my methodology is not to create separate spaces for the teacher and students. We are all writers, if at different points in our various developmental processes and cycles. The 'teacher' works with the 'students', theorizing and producing works. And the process isn't static but organic, it branches and hybridises, sends out rhizomes and encryptions, as it proceeds. As the course would place large theoretical demands on participants, I felt it necessary to prepare a 'poetics' myself - an ongoing development of interactive engagement with my own personal and collaborative projects. I would then introduce some component I'd been critiquing - such as sequences or closure - and encourage others to develop their own views or to critique those I'd introduced. For all of the participants, with the partial exception of one of the mature-age women who had a background in innovative book-making, theory was a separate issue, not to be confused with writing - they were separate artforms. I insisted they were one and the same thing. This doesn't mean a poem, for example, needs to be laboured with obvious tools of exegesis, or the meta-techniques that make dialogue and critique obvious - the new polemics, if you like - but that composition might allow for a critical consciousness. Be the reader AND the writer.
By way of entry into this undoing of pedagogy, here's the course outline:
One student in the class who was extremely capable of writing competent and poignant 'lyrical I' poetry, found it difficult to write the 'self' out of the poem, to challenge the primacy of the line as a measure of the poem, and consequently was marked down because the exercise called for such an engagement. I might add that when she eventually clicked, she produced astonishing pieces of work that were subtle and appropriately questioning of the process. She did not become a 'convert' to non-linear and non-lyrical-I poetry, but cued a critical consciousness of the movements in her own work that actually allowed her to strengthen her lyrical-I poetry.
Second, where it says 'Individual workshopping', this meant some work-in-class time, but more often group discussion of the issues behind the exercise. Rather than criticising or developing individual pieces - the hide-thickening school of workshopping - we pulled every piece down to its component parts and discussed possible rebuildings. There were no good pieces and bad pieces. That's not to say it fell into the trap most often criticised by students - no hard feedback, the 'we only hear positive things so we don't really know if we have any ability or not' syndrome. Rather, it's a case of the worth of their pieces being irrelevant, and the engagement with the words, lines, stanzas, so-called 'poems' on a group level being the fundamental issue. Simply a case of 'good' and 'bad' being irrelevant terms.
Third, as with many creative writing courses, the journal was to form the backbone of the course. A place of digression and allusion, of doubting and rapture. An escape and an engagement.
And finally, the movement from the self to collaboration in pairs, sometimes threes, through to a full group collaborative project. It was this that most excited and bewildered the participants. To write a verse play in class?
Not indicated in this outline is the first task required of the participants. To produce a poetics. By poetics I mean the aims and methodologies behind an individual's creation of his or her poetry. Or maybe of its poetry. I suggested that by the end of the semester we'd have a group poetics evolving. Maybe this is what I'm presenting now. Interestingly, the lesson or interaction that formed the core of most of the journals was in fact a small field trip we did down to the forest behind the English faculty as part of the 'landscape and place' sessions.
Participants were asked to record observations as data: names of plants, spatial observations (a fence, a house across the highway and river, an Amish buggy heading into town behind a postal van where the highway split the forest etc), their relationship to this data ('being a city person it was the red roof of the house that interested me' say more than the deer tracks), and then a consideration of what the words they had recorded meant on the level of language. From something as trivial as a pun on 'red' through to more complex considerations on etymology and the politics of representation.
An example of the latter would be the very brilliant student K, an African-American, writer of extremely political verse strongly influenced by folk, blues, gospel, rap, and hip-hop music, polemical activism, veganism, lesbian and black power politics. K was already creating a fusion poetry, heavily performance-orientated, before joining the workshop, but over the course of the semester developed the work on the level of the word, tested her own certainties and allowed the ambiguities of language to develop as things-in-themselves. She is an astonishing talent and will be one of the major voices of her generation - her first book is due out next year. K took the incident of the Amish buggy and other traffic on the road within the parenthetic nature of the forest as the focus for her engagement with data and spatiality. She noted the number of white cars and black cars, with the predominance of the former, and overlaid it onto the politics of mid-Ohio. She created 'strings' of language - we had been challenging the traditional linearity of sequential poetry - and her 'landscape poem' became a landscape of the marginalising nature of the language itself.
What does English mean in the mid-West? The prevalence of certain expressions and 'ways of saying' things in the mainstream press, on television, the radio? I am extending the idea here, but that's what came of the collaborative process - we picked up K's register of concerns and critiques and played them out further. Gender of observation and presentation become a fascinating dynamic - the words hybridising, even trans-sexualising across the group until the certainty of persona, voice, and authorial integrity became blurred. Who read it, how it was presented, made differences.
During their incursion into the forest I asked participants to be conscious of the two fundamentals of landscape theory - 'prospect' and 'refuge': that is, what could be seen and why, and what was hidden and why? We use nature as a refuge, but we might destroy it out of fear, to ensure our lines of sight. A simple principle that worked its way into their texts within the materiality of the poems, these were places to be seen or places to hide. The landscape became the text, and vice versa. I use the word 'text' consciously here - maybe what we were creating was poetry as a separate field of engagement between the said and the unsaid, bringing the empirical and the spiritual into question?
I see poetry as a translation process. We were simply looking for varieties of dynamic equivalence and placing them under pressure. Through their journals the participants were constantly engaged in this process of 'collecting' material to bring to class. In the first workshop cycle they were asked to produce a typical piece of 'lyrical-I' poetry, where some real or imagined 'self' centred the poem, directed the reader with certainty. Of course, the 'I' is such a highly nuanced concept that this gives a fair amount of space for activity, but before this they had only questioned apparent varieties of lyrical-I voices - that is, the relationship between subject and object had been little questioned. Most produced conventional poems of observation and experientiality. 'Feeling' poems, or 'ironic' takes on 'feeling'. They were then asked to remove the self from the poem entirely. Quite literally. No consistent I or we or you. This proved a difficult exercise.
They were also asked, gradually, over weeks, to increase the use of enjambment, parataxis, and disassociation, using the same base material. They expected a set of variations on the original, what they achieved were sets of independent poems that shared many of the same words. The words had different meanings, as the song goes. The micro versus the macro. Experience wasn't going out travelling the world, getting smashed, having disastrous affairs, but travelling through the potentials of language. The words could make their own meanings. The references could be internal to the poem.
For the second 'lyrical-I' workshop students were asked to:
Fragments and sequences were important in the process of collaboration, and in learning to shed expectations of solely personal achievement within poetry and poetics. The sequence allows for multiple voices with ease; it allows counterpoint and play within forms, and is convenient for collaboration in the sense of students compiling or adding to previous intact contributions. This can then be developed through fragmentation of the integral component parts and the interpolation of rogue or stray texts.
Questions of violation, intrusion, compatibility, fusion come obviously into play. From a gender perspective this can create tension and challenge the desirability of creating text itself. As I pointed out, it's the same process that the text undergoes when someone of another gender, or another set of world views, engages with it anyway. It's just a matter of making the possibilities active rather than passive. The participants had by this stage all read Marjorie Perloff's essays on 'After Free Verse: the New Non-Linear Poetries' and 'Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject', which I had myself been critically engaging with within my own poetics. Here's an extract from my evolving poetics:
And here's the lesson outline for fragments and sequences:
Another characteristic of this nodal, branching pedagogy, is digression. In the process of writing my own poetics and fostering the growth of both individual poetics amongst group members and a group ethos as well, we found ourselves wandering outside the guidelines. It's all connected, but the outcomes are never entirely predictable. I was discussing this issue of the 'lyrical I' via email with Marjorie Perloff, who noted:
Caze writes in 'Conceptual Lyricism: Abstract Constructions of the Self in Recent American Poetry':
This nodal feeding of the discussion will play into next year's poetry class, and will feed the developing poetics of new participants. It will become part of the ongoing process of poetic collectivity - the group will continue in absence, the lyrical voice of the whole will accumulate fragments in which the inflection of voice will in turn be placed under pressure, testing the lyrical-I questionings of the previous incarnation of the group. The subject becomes the Group which is an utterance of its component parts. It is one possible Self, it is one possible empty place. Waiting to be filled, or for the emptiness to outflow? Indeed, my conversation with participants is ongoing through email and editing of future book publications. One of the independent students I had, doing private study (in a collaborative pairing), even made it to Australia as part of the Edith Cowan University WILD writing and literature course. His poetry is now hybridising the landscapes of his Iowa farming home and the landscapes of my home rural zone, the wheatbelt of the Avon Valley. A process I've been deeply engaged with for many years between the English Fens and rural Western Australia, and now between Gambier Ohio, and rural Western Australia. A sharing of links. A hypertext between participants. The pedagogy becomes process, the voices are no longer influences but conversations. The lyrical I is sublime enough to shift on the vibrancy of utterance and the 'body language' of the words and poetic forms themselves.
As can be seen in the outline, the course developed in such a way that students came into contact with issues of performance and presentation - group and public readings, a developing awareness of how voice and persona work in the public space, and on the stage. They considered dramatic monologue, dramatic irony, persona as mask, and so on. A verse play was to be the distillation of this journey. Some of the notes provided to them for the theory exercises that preceded the workshopping included extracts from Eliot's 'Poetry and Drama' essay:
The idea for the framework of the play came from one of the mature-age participants who was a regular listener to a buy-and-sell program on Mount Vernon - the nearest largish town - radio. I acted as script director, though a 'stage director' was appointed - interestingly the participant who'd most strongly resisted the non-lyrical I approaches in the first place. She was a theatre major, and a director of repute within the student body. Her coordination of the script and presentation was mercurial.
In our first session on the script we mutually agreed on a list of players and the 'nature' of their voices. Every technique we had explored during the semester came into play. The students took their compositions home and developed sequences of pieces, connected by persona, which they brought into the class for annotation and 'mixing'. With my coordination, and gradually with rapidly increasing input on this level from the group, the various voices segued together. Our narrator was the radio anchorman, against whom all voices bounced and counteracted. Sound was important, and there being a number of musically talented participants, a polyphonic and even choral interplay of characters developed. One participant wrote ironic jingles - she had actually done jingle work in the past for commercial radio - another wrote philosophical digressions, another colloquial interplays with theory, linked with political rants. It came alive. Once the text had taken shape, I removed myself and the participants rehearsed and developed it for the stage themselves. It was, to say the least, a smash hit.
To finish, I'd like to offer a short extract from the verse play. The interplay of language and voice, of internal and external referencing, the langue and parole, issues of subjectivity and identity, the cultural and political spaces in which verse evolves, relationship between reader and writer, player and audience, and between collaborators themselves, drive the 'narrative' of the play. The author is the group, and it is an interactive part of the individual poetics of each of the participants. It's also part of my poetics.
John Kinsella is a poet, novelist, critic, publisher and journal editor. See http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Square/1664/kinsella.html
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Vol 6 No 1 April 2002
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady