Feedback: Andrew Zawacki
ICE Conversation Series Episode 001

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Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: http://ideasforcreativeexploration.com/podcasts/

Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear a conversation with Andrew Zawacki, about what happens inside a writers' workshop. He's head of the creative writing program here at the University of Georgia. This the first part of our new series about critical evaluation across disciplines, and I hope you enjoy it. Here's Andrew:

Andrew Zawacki: Inside the creative writing classroom, we tend to talk about "workshop." It's kind of an old-school term that comes up through the 50s and the 60s when the creative writing workshop model was founded by places like the University of Iowa. It probably has a kind of craft-centered vector to its phrasing, which we might want to talk about later as being potentially inappropriate for certain kinds of workshops, but we tend to use the word "workshop" as a verb. So a three-hour creative writing poetry or fiction workshop, for that matter, after half of my class is devoted to talking about a book, or texts that were assigned for reading that were not written by the students, we'll take a break and then we will workshop poems. We might also use the phrase "critique." There are more generic terms to talk about, talking about people's work.

MC: Broadly speaking, what would you say are the main benefits of workshopping?

AZ: I think the main benefit of workshopping - and I'll keep defaulting to poetry just because it's what I tend to do, although it's a false term because we also work in genres that aren't poetry, and plenty of people work in fiction and creative non-fiction here - one person can only be one person vis-à-vis his or her work, maybe less than one person given that as a writer you're often the last person to know what you're doing. And of course there are writers who want that to be the case, they want to suspend their relationship to knowledge about what they're doing - as soon as they know what they're doing they don't want to do it anymore. So when you're in a workshop of, let's say, at least two people, and up to twenty, what you're getting are angles on your work, views of your work, that obviously you can't have for yourself. You just can't have that many takes on what you do. And particularly when you talk about a text that's in front of you, which has its own kind of contract with the writer, the writer can't often tell the forest for the trees, and so other people in the room - I guess they're the trees - or they're the forest - I don't know which side of this metaphor is the vehicle and which is the tenor. So you get a kind of small sample of what a reading public might be like.

And since the moment you leave your text, or abandon it as Valery said, "it's never finished, you just abandon it," it's not yours anymore. It's for a reading public to deal with and so the intention that you put into it, the ideas you had behind it, the thing you were trying to do, the aspiration for your text - it doesn't count anymore. What you have is a piece of public utterance or scripture that 18 other people are going to have-at. And that's why in workshop we frequently bracket the person whose text it is, and not let her speak while the piece is up for workshop. Eventually she's allowed to come back into the conversation, she often has questions for her peers, but the reason for leaving her out of the discussion is that it can't matter anymore what she was hoping to do or what she wanted to do. Now later that writer is going to have to decide the degree to which she wants to listen to the kinds of comments and advice.

And sometimes I sense that my role as default curator of what's going on in this room is to make clear to 18 people something that they ought to have seen and didn't. In other words the writer may be sort of ahead of them. But I'd say more often than not the case is that if 18 people have something to say to a writer that the writer hadn't seen, it's something she wants to take into consideration because 18 people multiplied by ten who might be the people who read that at home in a journal, those 180 people might also be confused about something. So it is clearly a negotiation. There's never going to be any "bottom line" about it, but it seems to me that that's a benefit for a writer. I mean side benefits that are not so peripheral after all turn out to be smaller communities that grow up in a workshop. You may find that in the 18-person room you're in, that these are people you have to be dealing with on a weekly basis, because they're in your class.

But of course 2 or 3 of these people may turn out to be very simpatico with what you're doing. You notice that their poem's like yours, they might seem to come out of a specific set of aesthetic - not prerequisites, but, and I've used the word before, vectors. You know, you have an interest in something in certain kinds of things or you have a way of doing things, you seem to be speaking common or parallel languages. And so you become readers for each other outside the formal context of the classroom where grades are given and so on. And this is not so easy to find in the real world. It's like talking about moving to New York City and it's difficult to make friends despite the fact that you're surrounded by 8-10 million people. It's because you're surrounded by 8-10 million people that it's hard to make friends. A workshop can be really good for people finding one another. Who, if left out in the cold world, you know, may not come across one another in that intense intimate setting that a workshop can be. So I think that has often been very beneficial.

MC: That's really interesting. So there's almost a conversation or a series of conversations -

AZ: Absolutely.

MC: - within the larger conversation. Walk me through a workshop session. What would a typical session look like?

AZ: I don't believe in any writing without reading, and I think most workshop instructors don't. But what that means for me is that we spend at least 50 percent of our time discussing, engaging, confronting, problematizing, liking and disliking texts that were not written by people in the room. One benefit of having these so-called "outside texts" which are really at the center of your workshop, is that they serve as kind of proxy targets if you will, so that people can criticize, critique, or praise what's happening in books without having to praise what you as a student are doing. And so there's a kind of indirect conversation going on through the medium of these other texts. And of course what everybody is also talking about is each other, but it's a more mediated way to do that.

If we're dealing in sonnets or the prose poem, students have a much better idea - they know what a sonnet is, or they can find out really quickly. So it doesn't seem to them so essential to have examples as it might for a workshop dealing in something that's much more counter intuitive, or that they haven't heard of before. But nonetheless, thinking you know what a sonnet is or thinking you know what a prose poem is always a kind of false sense of security - it always becomes apparent in reading these outside texts, it's not just that there are many types of sonnets - Elizabethan, Petrarchan etc. - but people do all kind of crazy with the sonnet form. So that would be sort of non-negotiable for me in a workshop, that we don't spend three hours, that it's not simply a studio experience.

MC: So what happens when you switch to that next half of the workshop experience?

AZ: Anything can happen, and you're dealing then more than ever in chemistry - in the sense that all classes kind of rise and fall I think, academic ones included, based on who's in them. I mean, assuming that you yourself are a kind of control group, that you're rather steady, that you prepare, that of course you have up and down days but hopefully you have more up days than down days, and that you know what you're doing, or you're able to walk your students intelligently through how you don't know what you're doing and that's important. What you're left with is, like I said, 15-20 people who are individuals and who, when brought together it's really not clear how it's going to go. What I've tended to do, and this is very different than how other people run their workshops, is when you have 90 minutes, maximum, 100 - 110 minutes to get through 18-20 student poems, let's say, I almost always tend to break a class up into group A and group B.

We workshop group A every other week, we workshop group B in the weeks in between, and I tend to have a kind of kitchen clock or chess clock in front of me, I forget from whom I got this idea, but I tend to set it at, you know, 9 minutes or something. And when the bell goes off we move to the next poem. It's abrupt, but what it prevents us from doing is politely disengaging from a conversation which takes a minute or two minutes, you know how it is, trying to say goodbye at the end of a party, you never get out of there. And it reminds everybody that we need to get right to task. I don't do it because I think student poems aren't worth anymore time than that, it's because if we want to stay on some kind of schedule, and get everybody workshopped 7 times, this is what we have to do. So lots of other workshops don't do that. I've experimented with not doing it myself. But I think what's going to happen in my next workshop is that I'm going to break students into 3 groups, and I think they're going to workshop each other, in those 3 groups, and I will wander around the room and jump in and jump out. And then after 4 weeks the composition of those groups will change slightly - we'll move one person over like in musical chairs or something. And then after 4 more weeks, we'll move another person over so that -

MC: Adjust the chemistry.

AZ: Yes, adjust the chemistry. But it's really what I tell students on the first day, we're in a completely artificial situation here. We are constrained by time, which is a form of form, like anything else. We are constrained by space in the sense that there are 18 or 20 of you who eat up this time in very calculable ways. What we're doing in here is not the writing life as such. We're also in an artificial setting to the extent that this is a workshop in - and then there's a kind of problematic ruination - the sonnet, the prose poem. So, that if you don't like this idea, that we're not just going to do whatever in here, which would also be a very viable model for some other kinds of workshops, then you need to buy into this very artificial scenario that I'm pushing to its artificial limit.

MC: So in those 9 minutes, is it open comments?

AZ: Yes. And students, I like to think, we get better as time goes on, in how to fill up those 9 minutes because in the earliest days, the earliest weeks, people are still clearing their throats to get into the conversation- "I really love this moment in your poem when" - and it's nice that students are nice to each other. I think the first order of business as a faculty moderator is to make sure that people aren't mean to each other because that gets the class off the rails really quick - mistaking someone's poem for the person, and kind of attacking the person, not the poem, you know. But there does tend to come a point in a workshop, three or four weeks in, when I'll say to students rather provocatively, "OK look, the one thing that's going to be different about workshop today is that I don't want to hear what anybody likes about anybody's work, this is going to be a bitching session. And we're going to reverse that cliche of my mother's, 'if you don't have anything nice to say about someone, don't say it,' and the rule for today is that I only want you to say not nice things to each other. Not on a personal scale, not on a social scale, but in terms of each other's work, let's just point out what we think is not working, or what's wrong with them."

The person whose work it is may not agree with any of them at the end of the day, and I will try to police the borders at this so that nobody gets nasty but the 3rd or 4th week in students like that too, but it's true that they're at a loss at first for what to say. So someone might read her poem if it's short enough to be read, and there'll be kind of an uncomfortable silence because nobody wants to throw the first stone in this glass house that we're sitting in because your poem might be up next. But it gets us in pretty quick order, to the point. You know, we need to go in and deal with this thing in only 9 minutes, and it's actually a form of respect to the person whose story is up for grabs to get to the "fix-its." Because nothing's worse than coming out of workshop actually, ironically, than feeling like everybody loved my poem, and there's nothing to be done with it now - nobody likes that. They think they will, and nobody likes feeling that everybody hated their poem. There's also nothing to be done with it but throw it away and start over, but sometimes that's what has to happen.

MC: And that's something I wanted to ask you about - what is "success" out of this experience?

AZ: I think success is not what it's often been in the workshop model, which is to make a poem better. That implies that it can be dealt with in the time that we have. It probably implies that the poem is short enough to be dealt with in the time that we have. It may mean that because of the workshop setting itself, as a now kind of established format people write poems short enough to be dealt with in the time frame. I don't like any of that. I think what we're doing is we're trying to get in under the skin of a piece of writing. We're trying to decide what its contract with itself is. Words were said that the poems carry with them the criteria for their own evaluation. That can be true, that can also be problematic because at some point you want to ask of a poem - even if it's doing what it's trying to do pretty well-is it worth doing? I mean, this may be a poem in front of us that kind of checks all the boxes that it drew for itself but who cares? And in a class like Ruination we might ask of the entire formal gambit, is ruining texts even worth doing, or that just a gimmick? We get to that kind of question.

But I think success has to do with making a text "un-transparent" to its writer. In other words, I think writers often have a relationship with their texts which is like the relationship to language that you and I have at this moment, which is that we're not thinking about the language - I mean I'm trying to be careful about what I say, but you're not getting hung up on words I'm using, you're not fetishising particular words I'm using, and I'm not having that much difficulty expressing myself because English is pretty transparent to me at this point. You ask me to diagram the sentences I'm using and it's going to get harder. And if I start dropping French phrases into my - you're going to start to notice them and it's going to interrupt our communication. Poems are often like that to the people writing them despite the fact that they're the ones who have been the ones who have been, you know, mud wrestling this thing for hours and days and longer. They're also not able to see them in anymore, in a way. Whereas, other people in the room - it's brand new to them. And so success has to do, in part with making opaque again - or let's say just making visible again, something that has been lost to the writer along the way. That can be one mode of success, so that she's able to see her poem from the third person perspective.

MC: So, are there conversations going on in the field of creative writing about ways they can improve or change workshopping?

AZ: Absolutely. I can just cite two recent things because I'm part of both of them and I'm sure there are many, many. I know the MLA conference and the AWP - which is Associated Writing Programs, the MLA of creative writing programs -have had numerous pedagogy sessions over - maybe they always have - I've just noticed them more recently and happening more frequently, in which educators, or poets, writers, people who are educators outside the university, get together to talk about what creative writing is, what is supposed to come out of it. And 2 recent publishing ventures, one is a book, a compendium of short-ish essays that was released by the University of Iowa Press a year or two ago was edited by poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson called Poets on Teaching, and then there's a subtitle, "A Sourcebook." He divided the book up into four sections [Reflections / Poetics, Exercises / Praxis, New Approaches to Poetry Courses and Methodology, and Talks / Directives] which range from the purely theoretical to what creative writing could be very practical, implementable strategies - anecdotal strategies that have happened in the classroom - I wrote about this first instance of a Ruination course. And it's a big book. It's 300 to 400 pages, it's getting reviewed, and for my money the essays range in kind of helpfulness, some of them are much better written than others, but it is an absolute kind of rhizomic multifarious window onto how people deal with creative writing.

But the impulse behind it was not for each of us to show off what we do, or to apologize for what we do, but it was a sourcebook for teachers in the sense that it's meant to be helpful. You're meant to be able to read it and it's like being in a workshop of creative writing teachers. This is the way people have done things - "Wow, you know, this is so far from the way that I just told you, that I need to go do this sometime, because it'll put me on the edge of myself." It's also kind of a fun, you know most of these people in here if you're in it and you know their work, so it's a Rolodex of kind of matching up the aesthetics of what you associate with a person with the way they deal with their workshops. Another initiative that was just released by Jane Spague from Palm Press is called Imaginary Syllabi. And my syllabus in there is actually a real one and it's not imaginary, and a few others are too. But people really took this call for syllabi that she put out on the Buffalo Poetics List and elsewhere, for people to dream up a syllabus - which of course meant taking the idea of a syllabus to task, or to town. So it's a kind of amazing compilation of dream courses. Courses that could never be taught, courses that are communities without community. They sort of are meant to be implemented in many different cities at once by people that don't know each other. And again it pushes an envelope more than Joshua Marie Wilkinson's book does, but it also has a different horizon for itself. It isn't meant to be quite the same. I think it's meant to make us think very hard about teaching writing -

MC: You mean in terms of thinking beyond the classroom, or -

AZ: Yeah, and even thinking beyond what creative writing is and whether it's teachable at all, whereas Joshua's book, I think, was meant to be a pragmatic, user-friendly, useful thing. And even if many of the essays in there are kind of theoretical in origin they still seem related to an institute, or a university, or the St. Mark's Poetry Project, or an actual physical space where people are getting together, whereas in Imaginary Syllabi, it's pretty out there.

MC: Yes, that sounds really interesting .

AZ: Yeah it's definitely something that's on people's minds. It gets into questions of gender, it gets into questions of race, it gets into sociopolitical assumptions of who is in a workshop and why, who can afford it. It goes kind of into the center of the age-old question, what good is poetry anyway. In other words, what kinds of traction does it have in the world, and if it doesn't, why have a workshop to deal with it. How can the workshop setting move out into the world, and not be, in a way, this self-contained seminar model that I just outlined for you that mine often is. Why does it need to be that artificial? These are really, really great questions, and they're questions that push me on myself all the time.

MC: You've also had some interdisciplinary experiences. You've worked on projects with dancers, musicians, performance elements. Have you developed any insights about the role of critical evaluation in developing those relationships with people outside of creative writing?

AZ: Yes, it becomes harder, right? Or maybe it doesn't become harder, it becomes more explicit because if people are coming from disciplines that are traditionally seen to be distinct - let's call them poetry, dance, and electronic music, for instance. Which are obviously not so distinct nowadays or ever maybe. But it looks like they're going to be different from the get-go, so people's sensitivities, vulnerabilities, radars are up more quickly in a good way I think - unless they're defensive people - about what they're doing and how to talk about the quality of what they're doing. Whereas in a strictly creative writing classroom you may need to rear that ugly head for a classroom that thinks it already knows what its doing. It probably shouldn't think that, but again, it's just that you're in a more transparent situation because everyone feels like, "Well, we're dealing with a sonnet so we know what we're doing."

I come out of an interdisciplinary background, or rather a cross-disciplinary background, academically, to the extent that I studied on a Committee of Social Thought at Chicago [John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, The University of Chicago], which is not a department. It's not a literature department, it's not a philosophy department, it's not an economics department, it is a committee of people who are committed to sharing these discourses and to thinking about the human project as something that isn't containable by these various discourses. But it's true that the committee is old-school in that it doesn't step out any further than texts and think about dance, music and so on. I love it. I think most writers who collaborate love collaborating partly because it puts you in motion in a way that you're just not when you're sitting at your desk with your own poem.

When working with Denise Posnak and Seth Hendershot, when we did this collaboration with one of my poems, the poem starts to change, obviously, the category is being done vis-à-vis, the music is being framed up and leading both of these other horses. And so, as a writer you're already outside of your body in trying to think about literally where do I stand on this stage. That's rarely an issue at a poetry reading where you show up in front of the mic and maybe walk around a little. Unless you're someone who thinks deeply about how to unseat the expectations of this thing called the poetry reading and there's plenty of people who do that. But now the dancer has to think differently too, because in a way there are people on stage who oughtn't be there with her. The musician has a role quite different. He's somewhere between being the main issue, which he might be if he's DJing. And so they require conversations that you just don't have with yourself, unless you envision your work as something that's going to move out into the world.

So I think it's fun, maybe there's also a sense of - I don't know how it went for Denise or Seth in the project that we put together here in Athens and in Atlanta - but maybe there's something liberating to about thinking, well this isn't my real work. For many people it is their real work, and I'm slightly sheepish about saying that it didn't feel like mine, because it makes me realize that I have an old-fashioned idea about what my work might be. But it felt liberating in that score, that we would get together and hash this thing out, and you have to think about the public in a very different way - how long should this thing be, how much of this can people put up with before they stop liking it. But it felt like a series of different contracts with my work that I wasn't relieved to get back to what I saw as my job afterward, but it didn't feel like this is something that I would keep doing, it felt ephemeral in that way, and good for me, but only maybe to the extent that it gave me windows into my work that I would not have otherwise had.

MC: Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Tifany Lee and featured music by The Noisettes.

Recorded on October 6, 2011
Transcription by Victoria Weaver