The Gift of Workshops

Over the years I was fortunate to lead many poetry workshops, including with the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and more than a decade, the Toronto Board’s Continuing Education Department. Taking on the role was a humbling process. First, I had to become self-conscious. How did my own poems happen? For example, why did some begin from a sound, rather than a feeling, a picture, a phrase, or a thought? What mechanisms fit the words together? What impelled the lines forward? Did others write the same way?

Time to study the poets I admired.

Much more grew out of the workshop process itself. Putting my authorial ego aside, I could concentrate on what was in play in someone else’s poem. The weaker the poem, the more a problem stood out in high relief. Year after year, solutions became rules of thumb: “Of two verbs, choose the second”, “Sharpen the physical point of view”, “Present details in experience order”, “Break a line on a key word”, etc. As I continue to revise my poems today, the litany echoes in my head.

The constant interplay between teaching and writing kept my poetry evolving. Whenever I stumbled across something new, such as Theodore Roethke’s continuing triads, I wanted to share it with the group, just as they brought new ideas to me. Reading and trying out fed each other—a symbiosis. My binder of notes from thirteen years of leading the Castle Frank / Rosedale Heights Poets’ Workshop alone swelled to three inches thick and weighed almost eight pounds. What began as inklings of craft gradually led to articles published in literary magazines and in 2000 were summed up in my book A Magical Clockwork: The Art of Writing the Poem.

What if I had never led workshops? The simple variety of successful poems convinced: no fashionable –ism could claim its was the “one true way to write”. Quality was bound not to ideology but genuineness of imagination served by craft. Without so much practice taking apart and putting back together the weak poems, and without the hours of discussions to work out solutions, I suspect my poems today would be thinner and more left-brain. Workshops opened us all to read, reflect, and experiment—yet etch nothing in stone. As I said at the first meeting of each group, “You can do anything you want in a poem, as long as you make it work.”  I like how Charles Bernstein put it in “Artifice of Absorption”:         
          Does our writing stun
          or sting? Do we cling to
          what we’ve grasped
          too well, or find tunes
          in each new

Leading workshops pushed me beyond my worm’s eye view toward figuring out hands-on how poetry, as an art form, does what it does. If the best way to learn is to teach, then looking back, I felt like the luckiest person in the group.


1. Charles Bernstein, Poetics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 89.