Monday, January 17, 2011

Why the Creative Workshop May Need a Formal Mid-Term Examination

Reading published works has always taken a backseat in creative writing workshops.

I’ve done more work this past year to combat that than I ever have in the past. I've been free to make the undergraduate creative workshop into something other than a congenial, even if critical, discussion of other students’ written work. I can't imagine doing the same routine for thirty or so more years.

Even if you assign a book or two or three, what pervades the classroom is a desire to get to what students see as The Important Stuff: talking about their poems.

Who can blame them? I love to hear people talking about me: why should students be any different?

In order to stop that tendency, at the beginning of the course little to no creative writing work will be assigned. It will almost all be reading.

For the first half of the semester, all we are going to essentially be doing is reading published work in class. These books include Rane Arroyo's Buried Sea: New and Collected Poems, Haryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary, Russell Edson's The Rooster Wife, and Ketjee Kuipers Beautiful in the Mouth. (Two of those four are published by BOA--I believe in supporting local presses as much as possible.) David Kirby and Barbara Hamby's anthology Seriously Funny is also a required text. Again, there will be little to no creative writing exercises.

When it's time for midterms, they will be taking a two-day midterm. (I teach Tuesday and Thursdays for 90 minutes.) They won't like this, but they'll be going through the same hoops as students to do in their literature courses. Part One of the midterm will consist of the following:

1. defining vocabulary words such as "enjambment," "stanza," "litany," "metaphor," etc. etc.

2. matching poets and titles of book to lines of poems discussed in class

3. offering a short passage(s) of a poem and instructing them to write about particular formal strategies in relation to the content

Prior to the exam, students will be assigned three poems that contain examples of skill sets that I consider integral to writing good work, and will want to see employed in the second half of the semester when we do have "normal" workshop. They will be assigned to write their own poem, emulating one of the assigned poems in terms of their formal strategies. For example, let's say a poem contains a litany and anaphora; they will be forced to do the same.

Of course, people could argue this limits the students. But I believe that undergraduates are sometimes offered too much freedom and never learn to master anything definite. These are the skill sets I want them to engage. Each of the poems will force a student to "play" with their own work in a rigid way with consequences (ie. their grade on the midterm):

1. being able to create an idiosyncratic detail. This means to be able to:

a. using strong nouns and verbs
b. draw upon the five senses
c. demystify abstractions through concrete detail
d. don't equate description with simply illustrating gross situations (ie a messy dorm room, a friend puking, etc. etc.

2. following the odd trajectory of their mind through

a. making imaginative leaps from one "thing" to another "thing" (ie Robert Bly's Leaping Poetry)
b. vary syntax in intriguing, even if flawed ways

3. experiment with the line as opposed to the sentence

a. break the line in ways that create a sense of simultaneity, surprise, delayed disclosure, etc.

We will go into the computer room and they will have 90 minutes to complete the poem. I think this part of the exam forces them to also reflect about their own writing process. I guarantee that most students complete a group of three to four poems for workshop in less than 90 minutes. Here, they will be forced to slow down their process--this is an important thing. The reason why we spend so much time as creative writing teachers in saying "show, don't tell" is our students are never mandated to pause. Abstractions are automatic writing. Taking time to catch your breath is a good thing.

It also forces them to rewrite. If you have 90 minutes to complete a poem and your teacher isn't going to let you leave until class is up, what else do you have to do?

They also get to watch their classmates, how other poets are working. Comparing yourself with someone else is natural. They may realize their own work habits need to improve.

It gives me a way to see exactly where my students are at and how successful or not I may be as a teacher. If a lot of students don't do their best, I need to adjust my pedagogy.

I know some creative writing teachers may say that this criterion prioritizes a certain type of poem. Which I say yes, it does. What creative writing teacher doesn't believe in the necessity of abstractions? However, any creative writing teacher who believes that more than 30 % of the students can immediately identify the difference between abstract and concrete language is delusional.

This is my new experiment for the semester.


  1. This, may I say, is awesome. I hope you'll update us on how it all works out.

  2. Great ideas--I do something similar to your first part of the exam, but I really like your ideas for the second day. Mind if I steal this and try it out?

    In addition to an exam I also make my CW students write a poetry explication and/or a short story analysis, based on poems and stories of my choosing, and I base the list on stuff that's currently appearing in journals and webzines or that I pull from my collection. I try to avoid over-anthologized works. In other words, they can't find easy ways to cheat by surfing the web for prewritten papers.

  3. I am glad to hear you are doing this. Your first semester sounds a bit like my graduate techniques class in poetry. I wish we had had a similar course in my undergrad courses.