Young poet J.P. Quinton chats to award-winning poet and editor of New Poets Tracy Ryan about finding the right balance for a poem and how the workshop process can stretch and develop a writer.
You held a poetry workshop masterclass at Fremantle Press on Saturday 10 July. How did the event come about and what was the purpose?
Georgia Richter suggested a masterclass as a feature of Fremantle Poetry Month and a constructive outcome of the reading process from which the New Poets volume arose. A number of the poets whose submitted work showed a great deal of promise (and whose manuscripts were near publication standard) were invited to participate along with those whose collections were published.
The idea was to foster and support this evident talent by bringing these writers together for an intensive session. Some had met before; some had not.
One of the main themes of the workshop was the balance between telling too much or not telling enough. Would you like to expand upon this?
There are few, if any, hard and fast rules for writing poetry. But a poem is often stronger if it suggests, evokes, connotes – rather than stating prosaically. Sometimes poems falter through anxiety about making sure their ‘meaning’ is clear – this is a kind of ’telling too much’, and often in a workshop we can pinpoint for each other where this is happening.
On the other hand, sometimes you get the sense that a poem is not quite doing justice to its material – that there's more to be said, or that the writer is metaphorically stretching very thin paint over a large canvas and needs to include more substance. This, for me, is the ‘not telling enough’.
It's about finding the right balance for a particular poem, within the context of respect for a particular poet's style.
Okay, so there are no hard and fast rules for writing poetry, but you also opened the workshop by citing the Oulipo movement in the context of constraint. Are some of the techniques used by the Oulipo movement good for generating commonalities in a workshop, or do poets need rules in order to break them?
Most poets (and prose-writers, for that matter) adopt some kind of constraint in their work. It's just a matter of how conscious the choice of constraint is. Oulipo-type work is a good springboard to discussion of constraint (e.g. writing without using a particular letter; writing without indicating gender – the possibilities are endless), because the members of that group (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) make their choices overtly and consciously. One way of deepening our skills as poets is to become more aware of our technical choices, especially so as to keep growing and developing, not to get stuck in one mode of writing. (Having said that, the unconscious leaps are equally important. You always want to keep room for the spontaneous, the improvised, the provisional ...)
Within this context you also encouraged everyone at the workshop to break their writing habits. To attempt, in a way, to do the opposite of what they normally do. What do you think are the main benefits of such a process?
It may end in returning to exactly what you did before, but it helps you to become more detached from your own work, to see it from the outside. Feeling comfortable in your writing habits can be a good (productive, inspiring) thing, but it can also make for stale, repetitive work. A little bit of audacity can have striking results. I'm a writer of very routine, repetitive habits – if I weren't, I would never get anything done. But I don't want to keep doing the same thing.
You then went on to say that you once mainly wrote short lines, thinking that was the only length you were strong at, so you tried to write longer lines, but then lost the skill of short lines. What is happening here?
It wasn't so much that I thought I was strong at short lines, but that I couldn't seem to generate sustained images or lines of thought to my satisfaction – like stretching paint and not having enough to cover the canvas. Longer lines can be loose and messy, and self-indulgent; they can also be liberating. I now find short lines too repressive. But that will probably change; many people go through varying patterns, I think.
How do the efforts of the Oulipo movement feed back into these processes?
I think their ideas are interesting examples of where work crosses from being an exercise to really taking flight. In music we don't think there's anything wrong with doing exercises and scales; in writing there are equivalent practices. I was very impressed by the French novelist Anne F. Garréta's book Sphinx, which is a love-and-loss story in which the two protagonists are not identified by gender – particularly tricky in French. Such ’exercises’ (she wrote it I think before she joined the Oulipo) open up surprising possibilities in our thinking and responses, which must feed into our own writing.
Poets have historically used very established constraints such as rhyme and meter – and are usually investigating other such potential patternings, even if they appear less obtrusive.
What can a budding poet expect in a poetry workshop?
You can expect feedback, both positive and negative. I've never been in a workshop where there wasn't an opinion of some kind! Usually people are pretty careful to be constructive – they’re all involved in the same process, after all. Sometimes you'll do exercises in class, or in smaller groups. It depends whether it's a one-off or part of a series.
What would you say is a healthy frame of mind when participating in a workshop?
To approach it both willing to learn and to contribute. It's an opportunity to improve detachment and objectivity about your work, and to encounter new ideas in what others are doing.
What have been your most positive experiences at poetry workshops and why?
From the point of view of conducting the workshops, it's always when you come across a surprising and talented new writer. I suppose that's also true when you're a participant – it’s a privilege to share time and ideas with good poets.
The best workshop series I was ever in was actually fiction, not poetry, and it was something to do with the dynamic. It was conducted by the fiction-writer and biographer Julie Lewis, who was so able to enthuse and motivate the group that we would even go on meeting outside of class, in the coffee-shop and so on. Friendships were formed out of that class, and work published.
That can happen with poetry workshops too. It's partly the combination of people, and the particular gifts of the teacher.
It is rumoured your last book Scar Revision took about seven years to complete; from drafts to the finished product. Is this true?
Rumoured...!? Well, the earliest poems in it date back to 2001, and the latest to 2006, so I suppose that means five years. Then it came out in 2008.
But it wasn't in draft all that time – it takes a while before you see how individual poems can form into a book.
During that time I was living in the USA and in Australia again. In 2003, at our home in snowbound Ohio with a newborn baby, I heard part of George W. Bush's ‘address to the nation’, ‘justifying’ going to war against Iraq. I really lost the desire to write poems for a while – language seemed hollowed out – words like ’liberty’ (yet again) used to mean their opposite. All writers have to grapple with that.
The poems that eventually followed tend to register, in some ways, what it means to have a body, be a person – particularly giving birth – against that context of inflicted death and suffering, the connections with other bodies and persons.
They are not overtly political poems, but they do register being in that privileged space against that wrongness. On the one hand, taking part with a pram in a small student protest march; on the other hand, being surrounded by devotion to the flag. And knowing my ’own’ country was right in there, backing the American government in its actions.
So it took a long time to come together because I wasn't sure how to write. Reviews focussed on the maternity aspect, but that's only one part of the book. The body, birth, scars, death ...
Were any of the poems in that collection presented in a workshop?
No, but some were written when I was teaching poetry workshops in Ohio. My students had to practise forms, so I wrote a poem in each category as they did (hence the odd villanelle, pantoum etc in there). I wanted to be involved in what I was asking them to do.
What other editing processes did you employ before the book was published?
Like most poets, I make many revisions. Then (if I remember rightly) I also went through it with Wendy Jenkins, for consistency, typographical choices etc.