This essay by Paisley Rekdal, which was published today on the Harriet blog of the Poetry Foundation, resonated with me.
I came to the US when i was 30, to begin my doctoral studies and concentrate on my poetry. Heretofore, I had lived and worked, taught writing and been published, in the Philippines (during a time when there were really no MFA creative writing programs to speak of).
Unlike so many young writers in north America today, I did not cut my teeth in an academic writing culture with the MFA program as its cornerstone. The first writing workshops I attended as a Ph.D. English/Creative Writing candidate were in fact some of the first formal workshop experiences that I had, and where I came to learn of the kinds of decorum and etiquette practiced in the workshop space— And now that I am on the other side, so to speak, and have for the last fourteen years been teaching writing and literature courses and leading writing workshops in an MFA program, I am acutely aware of how this sort of background and preparation feels like a kind of liberation from the “gentrification of the mind” (and of the poetry workshop) that Rekdal’s essay is responding to.
As Filipino scholars and postcolonial subjects, of course we read (as I did, prior to my Ph. D. stint) and were exposed to American authors: Whitman, Dickinson, Moore, Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Cather, Sexton, Frost, Stevens, Pound, Williams, O’Neill, Jeffers, and so on… But at the same time, though the emphasis may have been on the literature of southeast Asia and of my country and culture of origin, the “canonical” reading lists we were given also included great literary works from more global literary traditions (in translation). We read Tagore, the Hindu epics, Markandaya, Greek plays, Noh plays, the Ilocano epic Biag ni Lam-ang, the Ifugao Hudhud; we also read de Maupassant, the French surrealists, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Zola, Akhmatova, Dostoyevsky, Gabriela Mistral, Jorge Luis Borges, Federico Garcia Lorca, Rilke, Beckett, and more— writers that I find many of my American undergraduate and even graduate students are surprisingly unfamiliar with.
Paisley Rekdal quotes a passage from Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind:
“What is this thing that homogenizes complexity, difference, dynamic dialogic action for change and replaces it with sameness? With a kind of institutionalization of culture? With a lack of demand on the powers that be? With containment?”
And Paisley responds, “Well, that answer is obviously me. Or you. Or whoever it is leading today’s Workshop of the Damned.”
I might venture other, but also relevant and related sets of questions: For instance, what happens when the writer/teacher leading the workshop is one of those who continue to be viewed as still un-homogenized (despite the gift of naturalization)? when that writer/teacher’s comments on language/usage– or more likely her use of language, herself– are called into question because her words are viewed to emanate from that very same (but amazingly invisible to everyone) doe-eyed elephant in the room? What happens when the matter of his intelligence, credentials, and suitability to the profession are deemed subject to further and more stringent validation even if he has performed and produced and published at par with (and even exceeding) his colleagues?
Once, not so long ago, one of my cohorts in graduate school turned to me during one of those enlightening critical exercises called the paper exchange, and said: “Oh Luisa, your use of language is always so lyrical, even if I don’t always understand what you are trying to say.” Then she brightened and followed up quickly, as if she had just found the answer to her incomprehension: “It must be because English is not your native language.” (This, even if I was raised in a trilingual household, with English being one of those languages.) In the writing workshop, as the writer-teacher/facilitator, I have experienced many variations of this, and heard stories from friends and colleagues in similar situations regarding their naked vulnerability to questions of their ability to lead, much less teach others; and to questions regarding their “deservingness” of being called “real” writers at all.
What is obvious of course is that any discussion of gentrification— of writing, of language, of workshop culture and practices, of the ability to publish and where to publish, of culture in general— involves an analysis and discussion of power and how it is distributed, made manifest and replicable. The workshop is only one small platform where we might observe how power works— And the experience that students have in their workshop exchanges, is also only a small part of it.
In north America, in north American classrooms, in colleges and universities where creative writing is taught, one of the most attractive models is still that of the apprenticeship to a “master” practitioner of the craft. Time spent in a program is referred to as studio residence, after the atelier model where fledgling artists worked with the great masters in painting. Every year, writers apply for admission to programs where they hope to study with the contemporary “greats,” the rock stars in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Sometimes it almost becomes immaterial whether or not they can actually teach. I do not discount the value of immersion in a community of individuals who are passionate and committed to what they do, and thus are able to provide the kinds of critical support and camaraderie that they most need. But I also want to ask these other questions (which I know I am not the first to raise in the history of writing and reading): What kind of authority does the white, male writer-teacher exert in the workshop? how does it compare with that exercised by black/other male writer-teachers? with that exercised by white, female writer-teachers? And what about the writer-teachers who are viewed as minority, as other? How do these realities extend to perceptions not just of “popularity” or “success”— which I feel are sometimes just a kind of colloquialism for a much more old-fashioned notion, that of “respect?” Because I assure you, these things are real, and they play out in many different ways, including but not only in relation to academic rituals like going up for tenure, as well as in the more intimate scale of the classroom.
I am in complete agreement with Paisley— and applaud her reminder that it is time to look toward a “conscious expansion of the creative writing workshop… model;” and I agree that in order to “defeat the gentrification of the imagination, [we] have to see that a community of the imagination is not defined by discrete neighborhoods but is, in fact, an infinitely expanding collection of possibilities.”
At the same time, what I take away from her essay is still the sense that the elephant is much bigger than some of us might think; and that there is still a whole lot of work to do.