Poetry Workshops Fall Quarter 2010: Tips and Tricks

Who can get into a Creative Writing Workshop? Is it difficult?? Am I setting myself up for long nights of depression deleting all of my unpalatable work?

Creative Writing courses in UCLA are open to students from all disciplines with an interest and practice in poetry or fiction. Although the deadlines for application are over for the Fall quarter (end Sept 17), there is still time to prepare for a new session. Getting accepted into either a poetry or a fiction workshop is a privilege, as you will likely get to work and know the top writers of your class along with getting some invaluable advice from known writers. However, the competition for the fiction workshop is much higher than poetry, since there is a far greater number of applicants. Therefore, the fiction workshop is a bit harder to get into and the poetry workshops seem to welcome most poets who prove through their work that they are capable of producing provocative, smart, and witty verses through serious dedication. A good way to feel confident about your application is showing it to a trusted fellow poet for feedback. Parents and close friends have no clue when it comes to whether a metaphor is consistent or if your alliteration is close to genius.

What if I didn’t get accepted? Should I abandon poetry and life all together?

Absolutely not! You may feel terrible when something you love has been rejected so publicly. You will blame the institution, society, and yourself, but it is not a good reason to turn your back on your first love. It is difficult to get into the workshops and sometimes numbers are an issue. There may be too many applicants to accept all the next Plaths and Ginsbergs in a small 15 person class. It may also mean that it is time to keep developing your work and keep working toward what you have envisioned in order to get accepted in the next quarter. Besides, Marianne Moore and Sylvia Plath were both shunned from certain writing workshops before, despite their confidence. Get poets and professors to give a glance at your work and give you advice to improve.

How are the professors like? Are they cannibalistic sadists who feed on the fears of new-comers? If so, how do I choose a benign one?

Although most of UCLA’s poetry staff is superb, each professor has a different approach and style, so selecting one that suits you can save you an existential headache. Reading their work prior to enrolling is a good idea, although a professor with a style that you enjoy may not be as skilled a professor as another who you would not have glanced at twice. Nonetheless, it is also a good idea to add spice and variety to life by selecting a poet with a style you would not have thought of incorporating, since there are always new elements to learn and new ways to read our own poetry. What often happens is that after each professor, something new and previously unknown is carried on from the experience which transforms the way we write and see poetry. In my experience, none of them have preyed on the weak, although it is easy to get rubbed the wrong way by a professor who doesn’t seem to like your style. Don’t take it personally, opinions among professors WILL vary and sometimes what one thinks is terrible will be regarded as brilliant by another.

How do the workshops work the shop?

The classes move along as a conversation with the students and professor about one another’s poetry. Some professors are more structured than others and while some will select which poets to read before each class, others will select them at random on the spot. To each his taste and some methods seem to work better than others. It is always helpful to participate, since the classes are not only designed to improve particular poems, but to improve our capacity to critique our own poetry through discretions and blunders in other people’s work. The more we discuss and analyze, the easier it seems to spot techniques that can obscure or embellish, and our strengths and weaknesses become ever more apparent. This is a scary but necessary process in order to achieve a better control of the piece, and perhaps develop a voice (the tone and person-speaker behind each poem may become more apparent, underlining intention). Some professors like to include works of other poets in class to point out certain techniques and tropes that one should recognize.

How do I deal with being the worst possible poet that has ever dared enter a workshop?

If you got accepted into the workshop in the first place, it means that you have potential to be good and what you already have to show is likable. After the quarter, it is typical to see a significant transformation in most people’s work. No one begins knowing anything and most people are as lost as you are (except for the usual two who believe they know everything there is to know about poetry, but even they too find great insight from the apparently silly questions you make). The best idea is to have an open mind and be brave.  Everyone has their good and bad weeks. No one is judging you based on that. Since there is usually only about a week to write a new poem, what you show in class will ALWAYS be assumed to be a first and unfinished draft.

Why are people whose poetry is OBVIOUSLY inferior to mine getting such high praise while my genius is being neglected? No one even notices my obscure references and profound symbolism.

Sometimes we may think that our poetry is a lot clearer than it really is. Our perception of our own poetry may be skewed because we have not yet brought it to the light of other eyes. It may be difficult, but part of being in a workshop is learning to separate the poet from the baby, seeing the poem from a distance in order to really understand its flaws and potential. Some powerful ego chiseling and even blasting will and must occur.

Should I limit my time developing my poems to the time that I spend sitting in the classroom?

No. It is a good idea to get to know the professor during office hours, since they are a cornucopia of knowledge and advice that can lead you on your way to a greater success. English department professors are famous for being amiable and workshop professors want nothing more than to see you improve. It is very likely that if you will establish a good relationship with your professor through some extracurricular conversation. Don’t overwhelm them with volumes of teenage poetry and experimental gibberish, though. Despite popular belief, professors do have a life.

Will I hate my workshop experience? Will the professors disagree with the fact (as proven by my mother and loved ones) that I am a prodigy and the genius of my age?

Workshops are the smallest and most intimate classes you will ever have. It is a time to lay your pride aside as your prized possessions will be shredded to bits, and a time to begin gearing up with awesome poetry knowledge and fellow poet connections. It opens up the space for collaboration and friendships vital to the development of any poet in relation to his work. Poetry is meant to be read by others, and as intimately as you may know your own work, it will transform in the eyes of a new person when elements that you had never known where there will be dug out and exposed. It is not a class for the faint of heart or for the hard-hearted, although many transformations do occur and all in all it is important to have a humble and willing attitude. The little we know will become apparent and yet it is better to know and grow than to never have known and think it is a great thing.

Good luck getting in!

Write on!

Laura V. Rivera

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