“I Might as Well Begin by Saying How Much I Like the Title”

Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.

-from “Workshop” by Billy Collins

If you have ever been in a writing workshop, please click through to read the whole poem. You’ll smile; you’ll laugh; you’ll nod knowingly.

My English major had a focus in creative writing, which means I was in a workshop every semester I was an undergraduate, which I loved and hated by turns. The thing that initially attracted me to Collins’ poem is the way it talks about itself while pretending to talk about something else. Bill Heyen, my favorite workshop leader and the person who convinced me to stay on this path of writing, used to tell us that all poems are on some level about writing poetry, and I think that’s true. Poetry is, in its creation and consumption, about seeing. Here Collins has his eyes open and captures so many of the phrases one starts to hear over and over in workshops (“maybe it’s just me,” “maybe that’s just the way I read it,” “what I’m not sure about is the voice”). Workshop leaders might as well hand out lists of these things at the beginning of the semester; it’s like a different language.

But does Collins have a point besides being clever?

I think he does. You can improve your writing through workshopping, but in the beginning and the end, it’s you and your brain and your words. In the middle, it’s a comfort to know other writers, though–people who understand your weird lifestyle, why you devote so much time to this solitary pursuit, and what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s a relief to find someone willing to overdiscuss the use of commas, who is solid on the difference between the plural and the possessive, and who will go through such verbal contortions in an attempt to be both helpful and kind to another writer. One makes friends in workshops, and it is a gift to find someone who appreciates the l’s in “slow industrial canal below.”

But maybe that’s just me.

Find today’s Poetry Friday Roundup at Carol’s Corner.

6 Comments

  1. Posted December 2, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    …all those l’s

    Lately I’ve been staying reeeeallly quiet in my writing group, because I worry people. I’ve tried to be less enigmatic – because it really is all about how I read a thing, vs. what a writer is really saying — but people worry. We laugh at the disconnect, but we worry.

    Writing is all so subjective sometimes… worryingly so. On the other hand, I am done with the big project I was working on, so maybe my brain will come back online, and everything else will make sense.

    I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me, too.

  2. adrienne
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I can be very reluctant to comment extensively on people’s work until I’ve seen a full draft. It’s hard when a work hasn’t hit that point to really understand where the writer is going, and I don’t want to derail her, you know?

    This is why editors are so valuable. Good ones know how to do be the much-needed outside eye and encourage the right things without killing the poor author. It’s a skill and a tricky one, besides.

  3. Posted December 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I wish I had known Billy Collins when I was an undergraduate. Or better yet, when I was in high school, just starting to write poetry. And best of all, I wish I had had a writing workshop when I was in fourth grade.

  4. adrienne
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Mary Lee, One of my friends who I workshopped with in college and write with often today is an ESL teacher, and she has her elementary-level students workshop and has even had them putting together collections of their work and whatnot. Every time I see their work, I am startled by how interesting a lot of it is and struck by how much I wish she had been one of my teachers in elementary school–not that I have much to complain about. I did have excellent teachers who encouraged and supported me.

  5. Posted December 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for bringing this poem back to my attention, which always brings a smile, as did your reflections on workshops: the handing out of phrases at the beginning of the course. These and “I know I’m not supposed to apologize or explain, but..”

    You’re so right about the friends. The class of adults I teach is coming to an end, and I implore them to keep in touch. So much of writing is not about the critiques but knowing that someone is waiting to read.

  6. adrienne
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for commenting, Jeannine! One thing about workshops, especially smaller ones, which they usually are, is that you can really bond quickly with people when you’re all there sharing your work session after session after session. Sometimes there are just these really intense moments, and it’s just this leap sharing work with people who were previously strangers.

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