our workshop, his workmanship

March 19, 2009

The reverberation of hip-hop rhythms through pop culture has lent a fresh relevance to various “spoken word” genres of writing and performing. Poetry slams have become a fixture of the cultural scene in cities like Flagstaff and Corpus Christi as well as New York and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, even in the face of a national love affair with standardized testing, creative writing still has its defenders. Believing that young people will learn literate practices when those practices are in the service of their own purposes, these educators favor workshops over worksheets.

A handful of organizations squat at the intersection of these two cultural streams: they aim to cultivate youth literacy by initiating teenagers into the craft of slamming. Some of them simply run slams and invite young people to participate. Others want to midwife new poets into being, so their goal is to bring “free, safe and uncensored” writing workshops to young people.

“Free, safe and uncensored” turns out to be quite a trick. When a young writer seeks inspiration for a poem that can hold its own before judges, hecklers and rivals, she is like a patient with a needle probing her arm for the right vein. At a poetry workshop, then, teens will gravitate toward topics that draw blood: sex and sexuality, race and racism, violence and violent emotions… maybe even religion! If the workshop leader lets the kids go wherever this process takes them, and never censors their work or their interactions with each other, conflict is likely if not guaranteed.

So much for “safe and uncensored.” Meanwhile, to keep the workshops “free,” these organizations need volunteers to lead them. The task of training these volunteers is a daunting one. They may be experienced educators or published poets, but regardless, they are unlikely to have ever presided over a classroom or a writer’s circle quite like this.

In the corporate world, a traditional training features a binder full of pertinent information which the leader is obliged to funnel into the heads of the trainees, by means lively or stultifying. People with arts and education backgrounds come at the task completely differently. The critical questions tend to be open-ended. As there is no binder for helping young poets, the volunteers have to talk through their assignment together. Some of them have led workshops in the past and can share the benefit of their experience. The organization’s facilitator can try to steer the group toward particular insights. For the most part, the challenges, including the tension between “safe” and “uncensored,” get hashed out through dialogue.

That’s how it sounded to me, at any rate, when I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on a training session for volunteer workshop leaders at Urban Word NYC back in 2003. Challenges got “hashed” out, i.e. they got run through the grinder of dialogue in such a way that it was hard to tell what was meat and what was gristle. Two or three comments stuck out as particularly sore thumbs, exposing the profound difficulty of building learning communities out of a diverse group of teenagers when one is equipped solely with the presuppositions of our culture.

For instance, one volunteer advised the others, “You have to let them know what your boundaries are.” The meaning was clear enough in context. In former days, it would have been said in the form of “You have to show them who’s boss,” or “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.”

In philosophical terms, the advice was to resolve the tension between “safe” and “uncensored” in favor of safety. An environment in which the adult is not setting any limits on free expression, so that the most vulnerable are continually at the mercy of the least sensitive or most aggressive, will become the dominion of silence.

In practical terms, we have to draw the line, clearly demarcate the limits of free speech. We can talk about race, but if you use the word “nigger,” you’re out of line. We can talk about sexuality, but if you use the word “faggot,” you’re out of line. We can talk about religion, but if this one over here talks about Allah in her poem, and this one over here talks about Jesus in his, and the atheist starts mocking both of them with colorful epithets, this will not be a safe space. It’s up to the workshop leader to draw the line and keep the youth on the right side of it.

What interested me was the original exhortation: let them know what your boundaries are. Why use the term “boundaries,” as opposed to saying “lay down the law” or better yet, “setting limits”? It seemed to me an example of how our culture dictates the terms by which we understand what we do. America as a whole is profoundly uncomfortable with authority. We have an uneasy fascination with the legitimacy or illegitimacy of political authority. For several generations now, the authority of parents over children and teachers over students has been increasingly fragile, particularly among the upper middle class. Within a roomful of urban intellectuals with liberal arts backgrounds, a phrase like “you got to lay down the law” is liable to get stuck somewhere long before the tongue.

The word “boundaries,” on the other hand, with its suggestion of property rights and personal space, puts everyone at ease. We need the comforting notion that each individual is born with a set of personal boundaries within which he has total autonomy, because the framework of traditional values that once served (however roughly) as a public ethos has unraveled. For the sake of daily sanity we fence ourselves off from the outer chaos, with individual “boundaries.” That being the case, the only objection I can raise to someone else’s offense is that it encroaches on my autonomy. Indeed, that’s our new shared framework: everyone gets it when you talk about respecting other people’s boundaries. Hence this volunteer’s advice to the other workshop leaders.

In effect, said another participant, you tell the young poets in your workshop to “just keep your bullshit out of my life, and I’ll keep my bullshit out of yours.”

The discussion continued. Eventually, the workshop participants grew dissatisfied with this truce between competing autonomies. Their objections differed based on the individual and his or her own commitments (a word that is perhaps a euphemism for “boundaries,” or vice versa), but they tended to draw on one of the two core principles at stake.

The more obvious objection was that to “let them know your boundaries” was to institute a kind of censorship. When the authoritarian approach seems to work best, when the leader has charisma or some kind of leverage on his side, there’s little censorship in view, but only because the kids censor themselves. To have a workshop that grants teenagers a legitimate ownership of their work, it won’t do to demarcate a narrow zone and say, “Censorship? There’s no censorship here… as long as you don’t cross this line.”

One could also object that safety is not in fact preserved by this approach! There is more to safety (the objection goes) than being shielded from uncomfortable topics or sentiments or even outright prejudice. Yes, kids need respect. The disrespect of their peers is an emotional hazard. If respect meant the mere absence of “disrespectful” utterances, then it might be appropriate to simply police the workshop’s airwaves. As it is, to be respectful is an achievement of the whole person. In a poetry workshop where respect is enforced from above, the leader is setting an agenda not merely for what people write, but who people are. Kids never get to be challenged by others’ perceptions, and they never get to express those parts of themselves that challenge others. When “disrespect” comes to mean any violent transgression of another person’s boundaries, that poses a significant problem for young artists who are trying with their work to stretch and cross their own boundaries, to begin with, and those of their audience as well.

If respect is what the kids need to feel safe, they can find it in the workshop, if they are free to take the kinds of risks that allow their peers to get to know them, as well as allow them to get to know their peers. When it comes to initiating young people into “culture making,” (to borrow an expression from Andy Crouch), we may be obliged to do some community-building as well. The cult of individualism that tends to dominate our thinking about art (and life in general, as we’ve seen) needs a little agnosticism.

Eventually, this theme began to emerge in the discussion. “It’s not just keeping everyone’s bullshit off the table,” one volunteer said, “but taking a good look at our bullshit together and deconstructing it.” While the word “deconstruction” sticks out as a postmodern artifact, I’d argue that the key word of the prescription is “together.” Similarly, someone else suggested the following as a good invitation for a workshop leader to extend to their poets: “Let’s agree to set boundaries together.”

What strikes me now about this transition was how it happened without the facilitators simply stepping in and saying, “Here’s how it can be done.” By talking through the issues for a little while, the group had managed to converse its way from “You stay on your side of your boundaries, and I’ll stay on my side of mine,” to “We can share some boundaries,” no small feat. Indeed, this instance of people actually making progress by sharing and refining insights was an illustration of the very insight in question.

What struck me at that time was the difficulties that now faced the group, as it came to terms with this idea of collective or corporate boundaries. When your ambition is to lead a poetry workshop into an experience of community, where mutual support makes safety possible and mutual challenge mitigates against censorship, you have named the problem more helpfully, but have not solved it. You have taken yourself out of the realm of technical solutions altogether. The success or failure of the workshop will depend partly on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the participants in their unique combination. There is no ultimate defense against insoluble problems. It’s not primarily about how hard the leader works, or how hard she can get her poets to work. A workshop turns out to be about more than work.

It occurred to me that ideally, at this point, someone would say, “So basically what we’re saying is that we need grace.”

No one said it. Perhaps I should have said it, but I was taking refuge in my role as observer. Even as a participant, I would have been daunted. At a training session filled with good postmodern citizens, the effects of a word like “grace” are hard to anticipate. Some people will take it as a neutral expression of something personally meaningful to the speaker, a faint echo of something that only makes sense past the event horizon, the boundary marking off the speaker’s private self from the rest of the world. Others will receive this private word as an interloper in a public forum, as an encroachment on their own boundaries. The very fact that I would make this kind of calculation illustrates the challenge of bringing a small diverse group of individuals into a room and asking them to accomplish some collective task, such as to help each other write great poems, or to figure out the best way to lead a poetry workshop.

In Ephesians 2:10, Paul reminds us that God has prepared “good works” for us to do, and encourages us to walk in those works. What is the basis for our encouragement? “We are God’s workmanship,” the Greek word being (as the songwriter Michael Card points out in his album of the same name) poiema, the seed of the English word “poem.” As Christians wrestling with community life, we have been participants in the biggest poetry workshop ever. I pray there are some workshop leaders out there putting that experience to good use as they get their young poets ready for the climactic slam.

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One Response to “our workshop, his workmanship”

  1. Tony Tendero Says:

    Hey Andrew,

    Sorry it took me a while to drop by. I especially like your last two paragraphs.

    I wondered how much experience with grace postmodern citizens have had. Or perhaps how much of an understanding.

    The author and perfecter of our faith writing us as poems. Reminds me of Rilke.

    peace to you brother.


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