Poetry Workshop

NEOMFA Workshop in Poetry

Though it takes place under fluorescent light in a pastel room with a group generated by a computer manifest, the workshop is a facsimile of gatherings that have sprung up through history in cafes, homes, parks, churches, and bars. We share their purpose and claim their authority. The difference—and it is a crucial one—is that our group is defined by no school of thought, movement, clique, or shared aesthetic; we have not chosen our constituency. This alters the group dynamic in ways which, if not addressed, can have a corrosive effect. While we partake of the traditions that brought like-minded poets together, we must resist the impulses that guide non-academic workshops, that is, we must avoid forming and committing to a group aesthetic. Ultimately, we must resist the urge to please. Instead, we must delve into our differences to help us define our own theory and practice of writing. I hope we will find like-minded writers, and form our own allegiances, but only after recognizing the necessity of defining ourselves, by our own lights, rather than that of the group. As my first workshop teacher, Jack Wheatcroft, told us, “Resist everything I say.”


Regarding your own work:

  • Practice reading your poems aloud. Find the rhythm of the poem in your voice; use the rhythms to find the poem’s thread. Learn it by heart.
  • Keep your commitments: if you are scheduled to bring a poem into class, be sure to show up with a poem, or a part of one.
  • Bring enough copies for the whole class. The poem should be presented as if for publication. Proof carefully.
  • Pay careful and respectful attention to comments, even when they seem off the mark. Don’t defend or explain your poem. Don’t talk about the methods or occasion of its composition.
  • Don’t turn in ‘varnished’ poems—that is, poems you’ve already made up your mind about.. All work should be new work written during the term.

Regarding the work of others:

  • As much as possible, be descriptive rather than proscriptive.
  • Acknowledge your allegiances and biases.
  • Attend to detail, but don’t nit-pick.
  • Attempt to identify the source of the poem:.What is it trying to achieve? What kind of poem is it? What prosodic or theoretical assumptions does it reveal?
  • Find connections to other poems you know: can you reference other poems with the same intentions, methods, slants?
  • Consider the possibility that the submission is a part of something yet to be fully conceived.
  • Imaginatively identify with the impulse behind the poem. Then, judge your own posture toward that impulse.
  • Get to know the body of work of your classmates. View each new poem in terms of its relation to the rest of that work, rather than as a discrete, anonymous submission.


  • To inspire and encourage.
  • To share and enlarge our grasp of technique.
  • To sharpen our critical faculties.
  • To move toward building a body of work
  • To strengthen our network of colleagues in the art


We will follow the traditional method of reading and discussing new work. However, we will supplement this discussion with written assessments of each new work, based on the example of Wild &Whirling Words. We will also read Ordering the Storm as a way of developing the connective tissue of our work, with a view toward generating a book of poems. We’ll also look at work by several class visitors. Student work will be reviewed in a set rotation. If you fail to turn in work on the date you’ve engaged, you will miss your turn. If you are involved in a longer project which would benefit from longer discussion, please let me know and we’ll make arrangements.


H. L. Hix, Wild and Whirling Words; Susan Grimm, Ordering the Storm

H. L. Hix, As Easy as Lying: Essays on Poetry; Chromatic; Shadows of Houses; God Bless
Max Garland, Hunger Wide as Heaven
Sam Witt, Sunflower Brother


In addition to our ambition to fulfill our potential as poets, we take on additional responsibilities when we enroll in a workshop. These include careful preparation for class, full participation in discussion, diligent completion of written critiques, and timely distribution of our own work.


Nowhere is grading more difficult than in a workshop. Giving grades to writing that is by definition unfinished often seems worse than pointless, since it reifies and perhaps even stultifies work in progress. This is especially true when trying to encourage experimentation and risk-taking. Having said that, we live in a competitive world of publication, grants, grades and awards, and MFA courses should prepare students to succeed in that world. So, I offer three grading options.

  1. Publishing: To receive an A you must maintain consistent attendance and participation, complete all assignments, and submit at least two poems I deem publishable in one of the journals I’ve edited: Artful Dodge, Provincetown Arts,and New Myths/Mss. I’ll make copies of these publications available for your review.
  2. Process: To receive an A you must maintain consistent attendance and participation, complete all assignments, and submit a portfolio of poems exhibiting an original approach to poetry. Your portfolio should include an introduction contextualizing your work and analyzing the process of your experimentation.
  3. Project: If you are currently embarked on a long poem or sequence of poems, and think that you can complete this project by the end of the semester, you may submit a precis of the project in its current state. To receive an A, you must submit the completed project at the term’s end, along with an introduction to the poem or sequence. You must also maintain consistent attendance and participation, and complete all assignments.

Guidelines for one-page responses submitted for each piece workshopped:

While Wild Whirling Words illustrates that there is a broad range in approaching poems, there are some consistent themes which should guide your responses.

Responses should:

  • be the result of careful analysis and thought—no “ first impressions.”
  • demonstrate an awareness of the context of the poem, in terms of its poetic assumptions and sources.
  • reveal, overtly or tacitly, your own poetic assumptions.
  • Provide insight into the workings of the poem
  • Offer reasoned judgments of what’s not working—beyond stating a preference.
  • Be balanced. Lavish praise or vitriolic condemnation are equally useless
  • Address the potential of the poems
  • Offer correlatives: What poems should this poet read