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writing workshops

Sometimes I no longer desire to teach the way I have been teaching–not because I am ungrateful, but because I wish to do a fair day’s work. I wish I could have nothing but independent studies, work from the morning until the late afternoon–9 conferences a day (One hour for lunch) five days a week. By the end of the week, I could see forty five students in an intensive, close hour where they would get far more from the experience, and so would I. Once a week, for another two hours, I could meet with them all together and we could break bread, have a reading and a party–maybe even a dance.

Everything about my life, all its pains and losses, its odd twists and almost impossible paths, has been a call to communion. I have something to teach, but not in this sad thing we call a “class room” where it is so hard to break down the wall between talking head and passive recepter. I would like my young men and women, and occasionally older men and women coming to my office to show me a poem or story, and I could truly respond to it–like a friend who is also an expert on this particular thing–and I could give them tea or coffee and pull books down from my shelf and loan them the books. And if the conference went over an hour, I’d have the next person come in anyway, and we’d all have a brief chat–and we’d look at this next poem or poems together.

First, I have true solitude so that I never really need to be alone. I always am. Second, I could do all my reading and editing right there–and the student would get my response immediately, and I would have my time away from the school truly free and so would they–in terms of my class. The other professors would hate this. It makes no sense for lecture classes, but for writing workshops–or creative writing students, this would be the best of worlds. I would be on campus from 9 until 6, with an hour lunch, or I could eat lunch in. If the weather was nice, the student and I could take a brisk walk and read the poem under the trees. Literature is learned through friendships–by building a rapport with another mind so that you know when it is hitting its stride or getting caught on a snag. If you leave me alone with all the free time I have , I never do any work, because I am always writing or thinking, except working on what I should be working on. For me, this “free time” is no good. I am not self-motivated. Left to myself, I can sit still all day and do nothing but stare, or walk for miles. I need a routine, a series of relationships that fill my day.

If I ran classes this way, I could take as many as forty five kids, and they would get a vast amount of attention, and still meet once a week for a reading, and a party (optional). They could workshop each other’s poems through e-mail, or get together for a cup of coffee.

My perfect life: I would “sit” in prayer five days a week–from 7 in the morning until 7 at night at my house, which would be my hermitage. Part of my prayers would include recieving visitors all day who could bring me a poem or poems to look at and work shop, or simply need me to listen or pray, or have a cup of tea. I would live on donations, and a small reading fee ($3 a poem). After 7 I would write my own work, or pray my rosary, and relax. On weekends, I would see friends or attend readings and exhibitions. I would be a “poetry monk.” I think I’d like to wear a robe–the color called “ashes of roses.” I want my life to be simple, and completely not my life at all.

Perhaps I would do this seven days a week–when I needed to journey, a novice would take my place until I returned. I love to go to the eucharistic adoration chapel at St. Patrick’s in Binghamton. It is silent, and I adore the eucharist for an hour. I don’t want “peace.” I want true engagement, the opportunity to give back whatever God has given me. I want this with all my heart, but the world is stubbornly in love with its gadgets of control. The world is always trying to complicate the simple, and make simplistic the complex. So my monk’s life is out the window, and I remain a “fuck up” in this system. I feel so bad. I want to be used, but I have to figure out where my handle is, so then I can convey to others: this is how I am most useful. This is how you pick me up and pour.

Unlocked is an educational program developed and run by The Red Room Company in collaboration with NSW Correctional Centres. The program aims to unlock the potential of inmates through the transformative possibilities of poetry. Australian poets are taken into the centres to run intensive writing workshops, working with the students on every stage of the writing process, from the initial exercises and experimentations, through the editing and rewriting process, to recording, performing and publishing their work in a professionally designed print anthology. You can purchase a Unlocked #1 or #2 to help support the program.

Piloted in Sydney in 2010, the project has now entered its third year. The most recent Unlocked project was held at the Balund-a Project, a residential diversionary program for male and female offenders between 18 and 40. The program has a strong Indigenous focus, which is also a focus for Unlocked for 2012. Indigenous poet Lionel Fogarty led the workshops, and the students responded with great enthusiasm to Lionel’s work and stories. There was a particular interest in Lionel’s use of language, his mixing of English and Bandjalang dialect. Photos from the project are on flickr, and the next Unlocked anthology will be appearing soon.

In October 2012 Red Room Company poets Lionel Fogarty and Nick Bryant-Smith will be traveling to South Coast Correctional Centre to run an intensive, three-day workshop. Through Unlocked, students can return to the community with recognised qualifications, as a part of the study that they have completed inside. In this way, the value of the project is not just in helping students to come to terms with emotions, past experiences or relationships, but to build practical literacy and communication skills, and the confidence to apply them.

Find out more about Unlocked.

To carve a face in wood you must practice. And practice and practice. You must practice eyes, especially, and mouths and noses, though you cannot think of them that way. Think only of the wood and the edge of the knife and of shapes. You must break the face into pieces, in how you think of it, and think not of faces but of pieces and parts, 0f shapes and lines. Practice triangles with your knife. Practice triangles with your gouge. Practice circles and ovals, oblongs and uneven polygons, rectangles and slightly-off squares.

Cut triangles with the tip of your knife for eyes, pairs of triangles on each side of each eye. Connect them with thin, arching lines, cutting a curl of wood away, leaving a circle remaining, a mound, a pupil, inside.

Practice until you have a whole boards of eyes. Practice until there are a million ears clustered in irregular patterns on a totem that could be an icon of a wooden listening god. Put it somewhere where you can see it. Let it sit and look at it, all those wooden ears, all those wooden eyes, all those abstract, crescent-shaped smiles. Then sharpen your knife again. Feel the fine edge on the edge of your thumb.

I started carving when I was 14. I started writing around then too. Both were really bad. I wrote a rhyming poem about a chicken I’d owned. It was pretty much what you would think. The first thing I carved was a sheep. I imagined I would carve a nativity, a whole set, sheep and shepherds, wise men, cow, and Christ, but I didn’t understand my material, and didn’t understand my tools. In the end the sheep had three legs. There was a giant, raggedly hole where the left haunch was supposed to be. The ears and nose were about the same size, giving it the look of a three-headed, three-legged thing. I had no idea how to carve something that looked like wool. It was only a sheep if you squinted and were generous.

The poem was published. I started getting letters, semi-regular, from one of those scam poetry places. They said they could see I had talent. A fresh new voice.

No one ever lied to me about the sheep.

There was a carving club of old men in the town where I lived—retirees. They were grandfathers and WWII vets with shops with band saws and stacks of carving wood. They looked at the sheep I had and showed me how I hadn’t paid attention to the grain, hadn’t understood the wood.

First they asked me what I was using to carve. I showed them my knife, a three-bladed pocket knife I’d found in a cardboard box of tools at an estate sale from where an old man had died.

No, they said. That’s not what you want to use. They showed me knives, better knives, and which tool to use when.

I have read, since then, a lot of books and a lot of articles about how to write. I’ve listened to a lot of advice. I’ve read a lot and listened to a lot about how to carve, too.

The instruction on carving is always better.

For one thing it’s always practical. It’s technical, specific, and helpful.

Most of the advice on writing I’ve read is mostly inspirational. There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, of course, but it doesn’t help a rhyming chicken poem. Most of it ends up being premised, too, on the idea that I am an artist, and we are artists, and special, and spiritual, and its romantic mumbo-jumbo, mostly, that doesn’t tell you how to get better. It doesn’t tell you how to write better, how to write a better line. It works only to preserve your view of yourself.

Most of the rest of was truisms, clichés, and crap.

Woodcarvers, by comparison, never told me to carve what I know. They never said, everyone has a great carving in them. Instead, they said, keep at it. Keep working. Try this. Try again. See how this tool can be used to do this job?

They told me how to get better.

They didn’t think of themselves as artists, the old men. They didn’t encourage me to think of myself that way either, didn’t assume I could just reach into myself, magically or mystically, and come out with a great work. Carving was a craft, to them, something you did because you wanted to do it, because you got joy from doing it and doing it well. It was something you worked at. Something you learned how to do by doing, and doing it, got better. They didn’t assume there was a secret, 10 tricks to learn to become successful. They assumed it was work. They assumed it would take practice.

I took some classes, from some of them. In a class the teacher carves something simple. Then you copy him. He makes a cut; then you make a cut. At the end you have a piece that’s almost just like his, and you know the concepts of how to carve. Then you go practice that, and try to do something better. I’ve never heard of a writing class where you learn to write that way.

With carving, there were workshops, too. In the workshops, you sat there and carved, then someone with more experience would say, “try it this way.” They’d show you what they were working on, and how they did it. If you cut yourself, they’d show you how to stop the cut with superglue. They’d suggest that next time you try something harder than what you did before.

They’d encourage you to keep working. Practicing. No one ever acted like they thought they were a genius, or like what they were doing was too amazing to be understood or appreciated. It was a craft, and we were all very practical.

They’d say, “what kind of wood is that you’re working with?” They’d say, “what you want with wood is something with a real consistent grain.”

They’d say, “let me show you how to sharpen a knife real good.”

Then they’d show you how to feel the fine edge with the edge of your thumb. Then you’d practice, and practice some more.

To carve a face you must know how to pick a piece of wood and how to sharpen a knife and to hold a knife. You have to know how to use it. When to be delicate. When to be bold. Carving is tools and materials and practice. You must know how the knife is going to cut and how the wood is going to be cut, how it will be before you slice. You have to know, and can only know from having done it, and done it repeatedly.

Carve until your hand hurts from holding the knife. Pile up chips in your lap. Pile up chips around your feet until the feathery frays of white wood stick to your socks and get into your shoes. Put a chip in your mouth and taste it. Taste the grain with your tongue. Stretch your hand and massage between the muscles until it feels better.

Cut an isosceles notch with the flat of the knife below what will be the nose. Cut curved lines for what will be the smile lines with the tip of your knife, pulling the blade with a paring motion, curving around, pressure from your pointer knuckle, towards your thumb. Work with the grain of the wood. Curl away from the triangle eyes, up from the eyes, length of the blade, twist of the wrist for the brows.

Put the man you’ve carved up in a window. Look at him with the light. Think about what you’ll do next time.