Friday, August 26, 2005

Risky Business

This follows up Diane’s post on workshops and the comments there, but I thought I’d start a new topic. What do we mean when we talk about poetry and “risk”? I agree with what Anne says about the importance of feeling “safe enough to take big risks.” (I suppose one might question whether a risk is real if you can feel safe when you take it, but that may or may not be a separate issue.)

Risk can be a risky word to use. I’ve been in workshops where a charismatic teacher encourages people to take risks in their writing, and the next day 12 people bring in 12 confessional poems about their sex life, 12 poems that are arguably almost identical to one another. If people really felt free to take risks, you’d think you’d get 12 widely diverse poems: one confessional poem about sex, one utterly abstract poem with shattered syntax, one old-fashioned ballad like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and maybe nine poems in styles we don’t even have words to describe.

I think a separate but related issue is how to create an atmosphere where people not only feel free to take risks, but feel free to take the risk of writing a poem that may not at first sight appear risky. People sometimes use the concept of “risk” as a club to criticize one another: “What a spineless poem—it doesn’t take any risks.” How do we not let “risk” become one more way of inhibiting people? Well, I’m probably thinking this because … I’m going to Paris in a couple of weeks! So I’m thinking of Monet’s waterlilies and Cezanne’s apples and Matisse’s amazing goldfish. Waterlilies and apples and goldfish are risky? Well, yes, they are, but what kind of risk is that?

19 comments:

Diane K. Martin said...

Robert, first let me say publicly how much I envy you and Cheryl going to Paris. Ever since I started working on my Picasso women series, I've been dreaming of going back there (where I lived for a year way back in my twenties). Promise me a postcard from the Musee National Picasso? Oh hell, a postcard from anywhere else in Paris would do just as well.

But getting on with the subject at hand, I have to say that, for me, I can take risk when I am not at a point where I am not waiting for the group's approval or disapproval. I used to care way too much what the group thought and would bring in a poem with trepidation. Now, well, I can't say I'm totally immune to a glowing reception or untouched by a pan, but I know, at bottom, the poem's worth, whether I've broken new ground or recycled old dirt.

So I have to say, deep down, what's love got to do with it? I hope to separate the people from the poem, to have the confidence in my work and the authority, too, to say, if you (generic) do not care for the poem, it's not my (poem's) problem.

Hehe, and I want you to hold me to this.

Linda Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
raw food diet dude said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Diane K. Martin said...

I meant to say " I can take risk when I am not at a point where I am waiting for the group's approval..."

Sorry.

I also apologize that I've had to enable word verification. This prevents the eejits who send spam by machine (automatically) from posting comments.

Anne said...

mmmm. Good thoughts on safety/risk. I think that I can feel safe as a person while bringing in a poem that risk failure -- that is, I can trust that the group will still respect the attempt & respect me as a poet (and as a person) if I bring in a poem that fails. And in a good workshop, I can feel safe in knowing that if the poem does fail they will tell me, and possibly help me understand where it went wrong.

What constitutes "risk" -- I want to think about this some more, because I think you're absolutely right that the expectation of "risk-taking" can become inhibiting. Hmmmm. What do I mean when I say "risk" anyway? Definitely something to think about.

Diane K. Martin said...

Well, I think the risk happens between oneself and the poem, when you are putting the words on paper--not when you are putting it before others for approval.

I'm probably coming off as impossibly snotty.

Diane K. Martin said...

And then (sorry, I'm feeling rather depressed right now; it makes me voluble) I also think that no one's risk is the same as anothers. If a person tends toward sentiment, then he is not taking risk writing with feelings; that would be more of the same. If a person tends toward the narrative, perhaps a fragmented style is taking risk and the person who normally cannot use a narrative syntax might risk that. Wouldn't risk occur when working towards one's own edge?

This is all hypothetical. I'm thinking in public.

Robert said...

That idea of working towards one’s own edge is really interesting. Sometimes deciding what risks to take seems like the hardest part of writing. There must be some risks you shouldn’t take (Miles Davis probably shouldn’t come on stage and say, “I decided to leave the trumpet backstage and instead just sing the songs tonight”). Probably Walt Whitman shouldn’t force himself to write like Emily Dickinson, and vice versa. I agree about working the edge, though. Like magical realism, it’s probably good for realists to allow more magic into their writing, and for romantics to force themselves to be realistic.

Diane K. Martin said...

What I meant (I think) is that it seems more productive to work towards one's own edge than to be looking over one's shoulder at what is currently in fashion. Some say Miles Davis's mistake was to try to cater too the popular taste--but I don't want to start wandering into musical or even fictional analogies, which seem to confuse the issue.

I mean it could be worth it to test one's own boundaries, if one can. But I'm not even sure what that would mean, practically, for myself.

Diane K. Martin said...

Aargh. I meant "cater to the popular taste."

Ah, for me, my edge might be posting (or at least spelling) while drinking wine.

Robert said...

I agree about not looking over your shoulder and worrying about what’s popular. I used to write poems (believe it or not!) in a style that was some weird cross between Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder and Who Knows Who All, and one day I think it occurred to me to wonder what I was doing—I don’t even like that kind of thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with it—it’s just not me.

Lisa said...

And yet.

My poems are not exactly narrative - would risk, therefore, be writing more narrative work?

They are also, however, (or, I hope), highly compressed, with strong emotion as an undercurrent rather that on the surface - of course, that means that some find them over-restrained, or not "open" enough. Would risk, for me, then involve trying to bring more of the emotion to the surface (without losing the things I like about my current work)?

I'm very interested in the latter, not at all in the former. Why?

This may sound disingenuous, but it's not intended as such. I guess what I'm asking is which risks one should/might pursue, if the options are there. And they are. I mean, much of the answer has to do with simple interest - what excites you? But it's not as simple as "what feels difficult or new?" New for new's sake: bleah. But newness/risk (I'm getting to hate that word already) in order to expand the range of the poem? Maybe.

Diane K. Martin said...

Well, IMHO, no one can say, but you. I'd go further and say that the risk would be different for each poem. I don't think there's any reason to throw oneself headlong into the risk/surf where the undertow might be terribly strong. Just, when wandering on the page/ beach and tempted to withdraw after touching the wetness with a toe, go forward rather than retreat.

Let each poem ask for what it needs rather than telling it what you will or can do. I think.

Lisa said...

I like that, Diane. Sometimes I feel that the culture of newness pushes us into risk for risk's sake.

Robert said...

I agree about being wary of risk for risk's sake. One kind of risk that I think of as almost a "technical" risk is doing anything in a poem that is "out of tune" with the rest of the poem (like if in the middle of "Ode to a Nightingale" Keats had written a line about picking his nose). A more low-key example might be Elizabeth Bishop's parenthetical "(Write it!)" in "One Art." Those jarring notes can sometimes make the most powerful poems--when they work. (They also seem often to be just the notes that workshops want to get rid of so everything is "smooth").

David Koehn said...

In my experience...

The time tested method to tell whether a poem is good or not is if it is universally misunderstood in a workshop setting.

...then it is taking all the right risks...

Almost to a poem, every poem I've workshopped since the beginning of graduate school that least satisfied the group was the most quickly published.

Works that sat easily with the group and passed muster without too much griping have generated little interest.

In my experience poems that generate the most irritability in a group of poets often make for the most interesting poems.

Risk in and of itself is purposeless. Risk has everything to do with developing aesthetic experiences for readers that take them to new, fully realized emotional territory.

That's my two cents...

Robert said...

David, that seems to imply that editors are almost a different species and judge poems by totally different criteria than we mere mortals. But maybe not. It's interesting to think that when people are under pressure, as in workshops, to articulate their thoughts about a poem, they focus on very different aspects of the poem (and maybe the wrong aspects!) than they do if they're asked to respond only with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, as editors are. People in a workshop might get all hung up on not understanding, say, what Wallace Stevens meant by saying that "fictive things wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince." But if they had to make an editorial decision, they might go with Stevens rather than some other poem that they "get," because they'd respond with a whole different part of their brain.

David Koehn said...

Yes, of course editors definitely think themselves a different species and of course they believe they judge poems differently than we mere mortals--but that wasn't what I was thinking about when I commented.

I was thinking more along the lines of the second half of what you said...that somehow the quality of aeshetic experience provided by a poem does not necessarily hinge on some of the things I tend to focus on in a workshop setting.

By the way I think it would have been a great exercise for Whitman to have tried to write like Emily Dickinson...it could have made all his poems stronger. For all we know, maybe he did try! And maybe it did make all his poems stronger!

I hardly think that Whitman trying to write like Dickinson would stop Whitman in any way from being Whitman. Know what I mean?

Robert said...

I agree 90% with the "Not even Whitman could stop Whitman from being Whitman" theory. I'm such an inward person that all my poems would probably sound like "Small antelopes fall asleep in the ashes of the moon" (apologies to James Wright) if I didn't force myself occasionally to include some facts from the real world, like the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. It's good for me to force myself to go against the grain and, like you say, it won't destroy the inwardness of my writing. It will just (hopefully) deepen it and make it more interesting. Still, I worry about that other 10%. I think sometimes Whitman does stop being Whitman if he tries too hard to be something else.