Dispatches | September 24, 2007

One of my first workshops at the graduate level was led by a visiting poet who, emboldened by his temporary status, was, as my students might say, “off the chain” in class. 

He sat in a leather wing chair while our diminutive chair desks were arranged in a horseshoe snugly around him.  He was the self-assigned cantor of John Ashbery.  During his recitations, he’d kick off his shoes and pull his legs up so that his feet came to rest on the seat cushion.  His French beret and threadbare socks became a semester-long fixation, only occasionally interrupted by his Ashbery line readings and epic self-aggrandizing stories.

He made it known that he hated narrative poetry.   

Unfortunately, the first poet to workshop her work failed to heed his warning.  This was not merely preference, it was legislation.

She turned in a narrative.

Already cross-legged and Buddha-like in his chair, he held the thin, typewritten page to his nose, drew in three long, audible sniffs and said, “Phew, this stinks of narrative.”

I turned to the darkened window and studied my own reflection while the single sheet of paper forlornly floated to the floor and remained there, a blight on our childish need for storytelling.

A month passed before the workshop recovered.  For the rest of the semester, much of what we tried to write mimicked the twists and turns of the mind rendered in florid language, a kind of adult Dr. Seuss which seemed to delight him.

Several kind, gentle teachers later I’d forgotten the shocks of that class and had been lulled into a false sense of security.  There were the occasional tough critiques, especially when it was clear the writer hadn’t put in the effort, but mostly teachers and participants alike kept their criticisms constructive.  And usually we all liked each other; there was surprisingly little competitive pressure.  

Enter visiting professor number two, this time a fiction writer.  Like the first one, he had an interesting lack of classroom decorum.  He’d crawl on top of the long library table and sit in the middle of it with his legs crossed a la professor-as-bowl-of-fruit, while we sat in chairs on the perimeter and strained our necks looking up to him. 

He kept his shoes on, usually semi-mod, square-toed ankle boots.  I didn’t hold his Euro-trash fashion sense against him:  lots of purple or blue wide-collared shirts and polyester pants.  I didn’t need to.  His personality-driven teaching style was damaging enough.  We didn’t have a syllabus or reading list; we were merely asked to listen to his espresso-fueled free associative riffs about esoteric writers and exotic locations. 

A friend of mine, who wisely dropped the class after a couple of weeks, aptly said, “He’s the guy with a late-night radio show on a college station playing records bought from a remainder bin at Sam Goody’s.”    

I’ve often thought about the workshop process, always with the intention of finding ways to make it more beneficial, particularly for the beginning writer.  I’ve never fully succeeded, but at the very least I try to come to class nicely dressed and sit side by side at the table with my students.