I'm thinking of A Writing Year as a do-it-yourself MFA, and no MFA would be complete without the workshop, would it? Workshops are often maligned, and anyone who's taken a creative writing class or attended a writer's conference knows why -- they tend to devolve into therapy sessions, support groups, circle jerks, etc., and if unchecked they can result in a kind of writing-by-committee. In his essay "Poetry and Ambition," Donald Hall characterizes the poetry workshop as, "a garage to which we bring incomplete or malfunctioning homemade machines for diagnosis and repair." Mark Strand, in a class I had with him a couple years ago, remarked, "I was in a workshop once. I found that even when a poem was praised it was depressing."
Despite such aspersions, workshops do have merit in that they offer writers a (hopefully) open forum to discuss their work and receive criticism from others engaged in the same endeavor. They also provide some good old fashioned motivation (you have to produce something) and serve as a walking, talking, and sometimes nit-picking reminder that your work cannot be totally hermetic -- in some way, it has to engage these people.
The best workshops are led by dedicated writers who push the participants hard and are forthright in their comments. By far the best workshop I've ever been in was one led by the poet Stanley Plumly, who was known to make people cry. He wasn't mean-spirited, just honest, and he would champion good work as much as he would rip apart the bad. To me, it was a sign of his respect for us as writers that he looked at our work with such a critical eye. Why shouldn't we meet his standards?
In any case, I knew when I started thinking about AWY that I wanted some semblance of this workshop experience. I haven't found an actual writer's group I'm interested in joining in Chicago (yet), so instead I've convened my own little group of readers to give me feedback. All are friends, but not all are writers themselves. What they share are smarts, general artistic inclinations, and a god-bless-'em willingness to tolerate my early drafts. Let me introduce them briefly, in no particular order:
Jeff Navicky and I met in Prague in 1999, where we were roommates during a summer writing seminar series. We've been reading each other's work ever since. When we both lived in New York, we led a writer's group called 4140 that met every other week or so at the Cedar Tavern. Jeff earned his MFA in poetry from Naropa University in Colorado and now lives in Portland, Maine. His chapbook Map of the Second Person is available from Black Lodge Press.
Nell Henderson is a fellow creative writing alum of Middlebury College. Nell was also a member of 4140 (see above) and has always been a truly insightful reader, not to mention a great friend. She recently received an MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia and now teaches writing and American Literature at James Madison University. Her students are lucky to have her.
Lars Soderkvist works in freelance art direction and production here in Chicago. Although we've been acquainted only a short while, he has a sophisticated aesthetic perspective and promises to be a great addition to the group.
Lucas Klein and I have been friends since college. We have very different writing styles and ideas about poetry, but the contrasts work for us, or at least make for interesting arguments. Lucas' abilities as a critic (and as a poet) are formidable. Currently, he's a Ph.D. candidate in the department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. He runs an online literary journal focused on translation, Cipher Journal, and also hosts CipherBlog.
Nicholas Merchant-Bleiberg used to live in Chicago but recently moved to Brooklyn, where he works as the assistant principal of a charter school. In addition to Saving Our Children From A Life Of Poverty And Crime, he is a talented painter (of canvases, not drywall).
And of course I would be remiss not to mention my lovely wife Jen, who is in the regrettable position of having to read or hear my poems before anybody else does. Readers, because of her you will be spared many a pained phrase this year.
So that's the team. I anticipate sending them 2-3 poems every couple of weeks, or at least once a month. In fact, the first batch goes out today. All of these people lead busy lives, so I've told them they should respond to whatever extent their time and interest allows, whether that means a quick email with gut reactions or a line-by-line analysis with reading suggestions. I'm just grateful someone's listening.