The Woodberry Poetry Room kicked off a new series called “Reinventing the Workshop” to examine the process and tradition of instruction in creative writing. The first two speakers were poets Lyn Hejinian (photo 2) and Rowan Ricardo Phillips (photo 3). The next session is April 2.

Photos by Beth Giudicessi and Christina Davis

Arts & Culture

A new chapter in verse

4 min read

Woodberry aims to reinvent the poetry workshop

Since it was founded in 1931, the Woodberry Poetry Room has played a vital role in preserving poetry and helping students, scholars, and the public experience verse through text, audio and visual recordings, and readings. Its new series, “Reinventing the Workshop,” is a sort of gaze inward, a chance for poets and teachers from across the country to examine the process and tradition of instruction in creative writing.

“It is not a judgment on the workshop model to reinvent it,” said curator Christina Davis. “Like all made things, it invites revision, and it is one of the roles of poetry to question structures, to notice their deficits and remake them to elicit their un-actualized potential.”

The series launched Feb. 12 at Knafel Center with Lyn Hejinian of the University of California, Berkeley, reading from her collection “The Book of a Thousand Eyes” and examining nontraditional mechanisms for poetic expression.

“I wanted to propose that the notion of the author that students or workshop participants bring with them is a kind of wall,” she said, introducing a presentation titled “Authorship: Allegories of the Wall.”

In shifting the focus from what it means to be an author to engaging with creative materials, Hejinian sees an opportunity to transform the workshop into a more meaningful and less anxious environment.

“There are all kinds of ways being utilized to get people to enjoy the sheer pleasure of making things. It might be that there’s where a wall can fall. It’s not that you have to inflate yourself into the capital ‘A’ artist or capital ‘P’ poet, [but that there’s] just the pleasure of doing it — the pleasure of generating aesthetic events.”

In Hejinian’s examples, she offered a series of protocols for collaborative composition, or, as she sometimes called them, “games.”

In one model, Hejinian told participants to make descriptive lists of everyday tasks, which were then assigned playing-card suits and numbers. Participants pulled cards from the deck one at a time and rearranged their lists accordingly, generating new poems. In another, she asked her students to complete a phrase by the poet Clark Coolidge: “This notebook is too heavy, and not even half —” After each student filled in the blank, Hejinian compiled the responses into a collection, “Sonnets Beginning With a Line by Clark Coolidge.”

The conversation would not have been complete without examples of published works that challenge structure and syntax, including an excerpt of “Via” by Caroline Bergvall, a work composed of 48 versions of the first three lines of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady,” a play on cultural dialect inspired by Shakespeare’s “dark lady” sonnets.

Hejinian also led an on-the-spot reinvention of the workshop. Notecards were distributed and participants were challenged to write down a line and pass their card to the person next to them, who added his or her own statement before sending the card on its way. After eight stops, a collective poem was born for each participant to take home.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips followed Hejinian on Feb. 25 at Woodberry with a talk titled “The Importance of Getting It Wrong: Competence, Negative Capability, and the Workshop.”

“The language encapsulating the series encourages — all but demands, to be honest — a good deal of self-reflection about what, if anything, we do to turn to turn the poetry workshop into something new, something needful, something flourishing, something of a challenge,” he said.

“Reinventing the Workshop” continues April 2 at Woodberry with a presentation by Ana Božiĉević, “The Lines of Others: On Poetic Performance.” All sessions are free and open to the public.

In the second installment in the Woodberry Poetry Room’s series, “Reinventing the Workshop,” Rowan Ricardo Phillips questions the teleology of “competency” in the workshop and explores ways to align the ethos of the workshop with the idea of the lyric as a choral structure. Video courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room