on teaching poetry

The 95¢ Skool





Twelve people sitting around a table talking about poems is not going to ruin poetry.

This isn't an endorsement of the writing workshop as it is currently taught; but in imagining how it might be done better, it seems important to understand exactly what the flattening or engaging possibilities of the thing might be. So it bears repeating, as we struggle to vomit up the Kool-Aid of heroic individualism: of itself, a dozen people puzzling over a poem at a shared table is not a problem. And it even has the possibility of possibility.

The problems though are obvious and have been inventoried again and again by those other than us. They include boredom, the pedantry of professionalization, the policing of group norms, a pedagogy of proofreading and minor revision, an unacknowledged aesthetic elitism and narrow-mindedness, anxiety about outcomes other than the outcome of the poem. You will note that these are different names for one linked problematic, and that the all-too-familiar complaints that litter this debate (competition, traditionalism, obeisance to the professor, regression to the aesthetic mean, etc.) are also aspects of that problematic.

We have attempted to imagine another school. We have attempted to imagine this while walking to meet friends for drinks in a bar. Attempted again in an empty classroom right after teaching our pay-to-play workshops, the week's poems still in our hands; in the middle of the night, resting our heads on the soft pillows that we keep on our beds, and again, at our desks in the mid-afternoon, staring out the window at the rain that always falls from the poetry magazine skies. In our trances, the best option we have come up with is a Poetry Skool that costs no more than 95¢·

By which we mean, no one should go into debt to study poetry. This is not proposed as panacea but possibility: a possible unwinding of the dynamic pushing poems and students and professors to succeed according to the contemporary whims of the art economy. Our reverie: to allow poems their own logics of production.

Which doesn't mean we're against the more successful capitalists paying the less successful capitalists to allow the sitting-around-a-table.

But we do mean that any Poetry Skool committed to more than niche marketing of the well-made object with its minor telltale difference (a.k.a. its logo) must begin by refusing the pay-to-play of the current tuition system, refusing the credit-baiting of the federal government student loan program, refusing a star system of highly paid professors. Those who want cachet and connections and career, those who conceive of Skool as an investment, will go elsewhere.

This is not because poetry is pure and should float above the economic systems that currently wreck the lives of so many. It is because poetry needs all the brains it can get. Our double faith is simple: one, that decreasing both barriers to entry and compulsions toward reward will get a dozen people around a table who are more committed to the particulars of that collective work. And two, that this dynamic of poetry for its own sake will not be insular and aestheticized—will be as a result not less but more open to the visible and invisible social contexts of poetry, not having had to harden itself to endure the marketplace.

Individual skools might do this in various ways. The models are out there, Mondragon, LETS (Local Exchange Trading System). If you are talking about two weeks, two facilitators, two guests, twenty other participants, one seasonal administrator—the model that currently floats through minds—it can follow any number of informal methods: passing the hat, everyone contributing 10 percent gross of two weeks' income, barter and exchange. The details bear discussion but at this scale present in no way an insoluble problem.

Once everyone has ponied up according to their means, what do they, and we, do at that table?

Say poetry is understood as a specific mode of engaging the same set of problems that everything else means to engage. And the desire of poetry is not to represent the world but to change it and be changed by it; to be adequate to its time, of its time, part of the constellation. Say poetry is understood as being a way of grasping things that otherwise would escape, or grasping things in a way that understands them otherwise: a kind of counter-cognition.

If this is true, and we hope it is, this sets some terms for the workshop's discussions, procedures, assignments, and/or lectures. Our first thought experiment is to have facilitators invite guests to discuss what they know, not necessarily poetry in the specific. That is, each week or fortnight has a context or two. The project of the workshop becomes neither poetry nor context but the potential relation of the two. This is the work of the work. We take this to be fundamental to workshop: no separation of poetry as an independent or personal activity. And we recognize the need for variable ways of recognizing and realizing this.


This fundamental hope must shoulder aside lesser tasks of the very kind for which workshops currently pride themselves. For example: no reading for revision! This is not to argue for the superficies of first thought best thought (which cannot compete in the war of slogans with measure twice cut once). Rather it is a guiding logic: craft is not what's at stake. So, no endless condensing. No polishing banisters. No lapidary work at all. We are not sure what the goal is, desperately and hopefully not sure, but we are certain that it is not the incontestable object with the slack removed and the jointures hidden.

So we add, no tolerance for the distinction between thoughts and feelings! This is merely the division of labor in the academic factory, with the inevitable consequence of separation, alienation, reification. Poetry should be at least as thoughtful as scholarship; they should be warp and weft. Neither the beautiful nor the true, insofar as each idea suggests the object which succeeds by its own measure, an object able to escape its process. We elect Heraclitus over Parmenides, political economy over money, sewing over sewn. We take all of this to be not utopian but the beginning of realism.

Reprinted from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2010 by Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr.