Monday, March 23, 2009

StAnza 2009 - The Masterclasses

I got back from the StAnza International Poetry Festival 2009 last night. I’ll try to give a flavour of the festival in several posts, but at the outset I’ll say that I very much enjoyed myself. I heard some excellent poetry and had a good time in between and after.

I’ll start with the masterclasses. I went to two – the first led by New Zealand poet, Bill Manhire, and the second by Scottish poet, Douglas Dunn.

A masterclass is essentially a workshop led by a famous poet. Before the festival, anyone can submit a poem and six are chosen. The audience is given a handout containing the six poems. The leader goes through the poems one by one. Both audience and poet can chip in with reactions, ideas, praise and critical comment.

It’s easy to have a fixed idea of how these should operate. My feeling, after attending both, is that the success of a good masterclass doesn’t depend on a particular approach or style. Bill Manhire was quite ‘hands off’ but asked questions to encourage poets and audience to probe the strong and weak areas of the poems. Douglas Dunn was more ready to offer suggestions and direct constructive criticism. However, both approaches worked and gave rise to interesting discussions between the poet and audience.

My two favourite poems over the two workshops were from Marion McCready, aka sorlil, and from an American writer, Matthew Hotham: both mysterious, well written pieces.

One thing I noticed was this: some of the poets seemed very ready to note critical remarks and consider them. With other poets, there was an immediate defensiveness, a resistance to consider change. In fact, it seemed to me that the stronger the poem, the more ready the author was to consider change! Authors tended to dismiss suggestions for revision on the very poems which were less finished and needed the most work. That’s a generalisation but, I think, not altogether off the mark.

It’s hard to understand the reasons for this. Sometimes authors were reluctant to change because altering the poem would have involved leaving out details emotionally important to them, whether people, images, ideas, or events. Obviously, it’s important not to kill off the emotional heart of a poem through revision. However, the emotional epicentre of a poem isn’t always where the writer thinks it is. What moves the writer isn’t always what moves the reader. I felt many of the biographical details could have been preserved as prose in the writers’ journals and the impact of the poems would have been stronger without them. Maybe that’s the key step to take after achieving a basic acquisition of poetic craft. Most writers write themselves into their poems, directly or indirectly. Good writers, in revision, are able to see when it’s better to remove themselves.


BarbaraS said...

That's a good analysis, Rob, and one I would agree with. It's always hard to remove the ego from the work and let the work do the talking, but when it's done well it really works.

Andrew Philip said...

Yes, I agree. Openness to critical comments is a measure of the seriousness with which somebody takes their poetry as an art, rather than bald self-expression. By way of illustration relevant to StAnza, Jay Parini said in his lecture (I heard an excerpt on the podcast) that he still takes poems to Alastair Reid.

Sorlil said...

Thanks Rob, I'm glad you liked my poem. It was an interesting experience and I thought Douglas Dunn was just lovely.

Claire A said...

"Authors tended to dismiss suggestions for revision on the very poems which were less finished and needed the most work."

I have to say, this is something that REALLY irritates me in my MSc workshops. There is one particular person in the group who rejects just about all criticism -- you make a comment and he comes back with "yes, but I did that because..." or "oh, that's for this effect..." You can say 'yes, but that didn't come across' til you're blue in the face, and he still won't edit. Then he'll write a really strong poem that needs very little work and say "rip it to bits!"

I guess you know intrinsically when you have a solid poem, and as a result you maybe feel more willing to edit it, knowing that you already have something quite strong. You also know intrinsically when something's a bit shaky, so I suppose you might be less confident about accepting criticism because you're not as sure what the end result will be. It's counter-productive but I suppose it does make sense on a psychological level!

Rob said...

Good points, Claire.

Speaking personally, I think I only know sometimes when I have something strong or shaky. I find it most difficult to know whether a poem is good when I'm writing something that seems to push at the boundaries of what I've done before. But that's maybe something for another post!

Rob said...

Some interesting comments on this article as posted as a Facebook note, for those of you who use Facebook.