An interview with Dawn Lundy Martin by Noah Eli Gordon (page 8)
NEG: I’d love to hear how, exactly, you resistant the traditional workshop model? What goes on in your own poetry workshops?
DLM: The traditional workshop model is something I do, only because of student (and departmental) expectation. I think it can be useful for undergraduates, who are just learning the traditional terminology used to talk about poetry. They are also just beginning to see their own work and they can do that, in part, by looking at the poetry of their peers and describing it. But, once students are more advanced, in graduate school, I'm not sure that the workshop doesn't do more harm than good. My first year students have tremendous anxiety about bringing their poems to workshop, and because sometimes more advanced students lack tact, the whole thing begins to feel like a kind of literary hazing. So, I try to make my workshops part traditional workshop/part "laboratory" or workspace (although I would like to move toward teaching craft classes where there is no traditional workshop at all).
In the lab, the students work with various texts—poetry, fiction, critical theory, popular cultural productions, visual and performance art—as jumping off places into their own experiments. I want here to create an atmosphere of serious play where students are encouraged to dance around in the (potentially) unfamiliar to see what happens to their own writing. This means that we write a lot in the classroom, and that we share that writing when it’s done in a very low stakes way. I tell my students that like in any laboratory work sometimes there will be days that will feel like tremendous failures and sometimes there will be days of profound discovery. I want failure in this space to be productive failure instead of what we're used to—shameful failure. So that's the lab.
NEG: And the workshop?
DLM: In the workshop, I am rethinking it, too, by trying different kinds of feedback out with my students. During the second half of this fall 2009 semester, I borrowed a feedback strategy I read about on Juliana Spahr's Mills College page. Instead of students simply bringing in individual poems to "workshop" each week, my students were assigned a workshop day where we looked at groups of poems. And instead of the conversation being centered on "what's working" and "what's not working" (e.g. assessment-oriented feedback), students create "courses of study" for the poet whose work is the center of our conversation. Student A will, thus, bring in a range of texts (literary, visual, web, and performance-based) with which to read a group of poems by Student B. We use this reading as a way into Student B's work and Students B has a course of study with which to proceed forth.
Maybe, as the Borg say, "resistance is futile," but I want to continue to push against the workshop model, which has begun to feel rote and a fallback for teaching creative writing that hasn't been significantly challenged or altered to reflect the needs of the contemporary moment.