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What We’re Reading: When My Brother Was an Aztec

2016 January 28
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What We're Reading

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon Press, 2012)

You know that list? That proverbial collection of poets, authors, and titles that you’ve been meaning to get to for ages? Well, move aside those other titles for Natalie Diaz’s debut collection. I finally got around to reading it and when you do, I have a feeling you’ll agree with me when I say that this book is not only fierce but essential to our time.

When My Brothe51G4SOOS89L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_r Was an Aztec consists of three sections, rich epigraphs, and many different poetic forms. Section one describes a childhood and coming of age on a Reservation with references to Mojave origins and tropes of the American Southwest. Section two is a hard-hitting sequence of poems about the speaker’s brother who is addicted to meth and how it impacts the family. Section three is just as roiling, though subtly so as the poems depict tactile intimacy. To close, Diaz returns to the brother through a zoo scene, and in doing so she recalls early metaphors of violence and consumption.

I would suggest this book as a study in how to write an arresting first line. In the opening poem: “When My Brother Was an Aztec / he lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning.” And “Prayers or Oubliettes” begins with this stanza:

Despair has a loose daughter.

I lay with her and read the body’s bones

like stories. I can tell you the year-long myth

of her hips, how I numbered stars,

the abacus of her mouth.

Why are these lines so affective? Well, when I look at the rest of the book, I see that Diaz often states the subject right away and often accompanies it with a problem in the form of an image that either surprises or moves. It even works in a poem which resists personal specificity, here the title and opening lines set both the tone and the moment: “I Watch Her Eat the Apple / She twirls it in her left hand, / a small red merry-go-round.” Every poem ‘acts’ like it’s the only poem in the book, so each opening line fights for the reader’s attention in a very appreciative way. And yet, the book is deeply coherent and aware of its own project. In fact, I would look to Diaz’s work as a model for how to delve into a concern both poem by poem and throughout the collection.

While the problem of the book is stated in the very first poem—the speaker’s brother lives eccentrically in an hallucinatory world while his family is maimed again and again by his violence—our understanding of that problem develops throughout the book. It isn’t until the second section that Diaz actually states the brother’s affliction in “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs”, but without section one which contextualizes the speaker’s family, origin, and socioeconomic situation the brother might seem flat, simplified as an addict. Instead, Diaz asks the reader to understand the malignancies of poverty on a Native American Reservation, racism, and cultural disappearance. By establishing this context early on, Diaz achieves greater depth in her poems about the brother and even in the love poems in section three. In a more minute way, Diaz also builds meaning through images poem by poem. The image of a lightbulb, for instance, is repeated and each new appearance adds another layer of meaning, until the reader is left with a light bulb glowing so brightly with meaning and haunt that it might never be forgotten. This particular image builds toward the poem “As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All of the Lightbulbs” but begins with “gutted lightbulbs” in an earlier poem, and then the significance of the image is actually stated in “Downhill Triolets” which precedes “As a Consequence”: “so he made a meth pipe from the lightbulb and smoked himself reeling.” This is an example of careful withholding; each appearance of the lightbulb is complete in itself and accomplishes a certain tone or innuendo which crescendos into a greater knowing for the reader of how impactful a simple light bulb is in the speaker’s world.

The speaker’s world becomes the poems and they are impossible to forget because of that deep personal connection that Diaz cultivates. Towards the end of section three, one poem in particular seems to me to indicate the beating heart of this book, “The Beauty of a Busted Fruit.” The final stanza begins:

Maybe you have grown out of yours—

maybe you no longer haul those wounds with you

onto every bus, through the side streets of a new town,

maybe you have never set them rocking in the lamplight

on a nightstand beside a stranger’s bed, carrying your hurts

like two cracked pomegranates, because you haven’t learned

to see the beauty of a busted fruit, the bright stain it will leave

on your lips, the way it will make people want to kiss you.

It’s stanzas like these that ring true for me, but even more so when accompanied by unapologetic portrayal of humans, human behavior, and social attitudes which are less than perfect.

Diaz draws on her own cultural references such as Rez (Native American Reservation) life and experiences, Catholicism, or family relationships, but she also calls on more globally recognized figures for metaphor- and world- making. Antigone, Sisyphus, Houdini, Jesus, and Barbie enter this text and bring with them layers of contextual significance. Are they familiar? Yes, we’ve read poems alluding to Sisyphean efforts many times before, and we’ve seen Barbie come to life to establish a feminist stance; however, I can confidently say that we had yet to see a Mojave Barbie. In “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie” Diaz personifies America’s favorite doll by re-situating her in a world intent on her adherence to white ideas of “Indian-ness.” I wouldn’t want to read an entire book of Barbie poems, but because it accompanies other intensely personal experiences found, for example, in “Hand-Me-Down-Halloween”, “Why I Hate Raisins”, and “My Brother at 3 A.M.”, the Indian Barbie poem steps back so the reader can take in the darkly humorous critique of the stereotypes surrounding Mojave women.

In addition to Barbie, Diaz invites Borges, Lorca, Harjo, and Whitman (among others) into conversation in this text. Each reference warrants further consideration and, like any good book, sends me off to the shelves where I can rediscover these writers now with the voice of Natalie Diaz beating in my head.


Natalie Diaz writes in English, but also uses words and phrases in Spanish and Mojave—what is your impression of multi-linguistic poetry? If you don’t understand the terms, do you seek them out (on Google) or within the context of the text itself?



What We’re Reading: What the Dying Man Asked Me

2015 October 22
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What We're Reading



What the Dying Man Asked Me by Derek Graf (ELJ Publications, 2015)

Every once in a while, it seems imperative to sit back from the world, just a little bit. In the breath of that recline, what you might discover is the unsepulchered wonder of image and collision. That moment is not unlike Derek Graf’s recent chapbook What the Dying Man Asked Me which echoes the world’s chime of chaos with long lines, impeccable craft, and subtle word play. This publication is an exciting example of the potential for both unity and exploration in chapbook form and also a promising first collection from this rising poet.

The 27 poems in What the Dying Man Asked Me are sequenced with respect to 9 poems which are titled, “My Night as a  _____ and a ______.”  Beginning with the first poem, “My Night as a Fever and a Wing,” every third poem re-imagines the title with new nouns. All of these poems are epistolary and address a “Father” through couplets. This motif develops a dialogue from the outset of the collection; from the beginning the ‘I’ voice seems determined to confess. This is from “My Night as a Fever and a Wing”:

Father, and I am that shameless color

of wintered blood, a wet animal


walking from the hillside to the street,

and I am a tunnel, a way


out, the cold that drowns

in your teeth and listens, an ill-born.

See how the images bleed into each other? The ‘I’ uses every bit of the body and world around it to depict itself. For this, I would borrow a term for this from the renowned anthropologist, Clifford Geertz—”thick description.” Graf stacks image upon image in his poetry so that each one demands a pause. Yet, at the same time, his deft application of sonic technique allows the reader to appreciate each image in isolation while simultaneously creating harmony with the overall sound of the lines. What’s more, these thick descriptions evoke a certain emotional color, as seen in, “My Night as a Shutter and a Sepal”: “Either the fence or my vision ends / while all the sunflowers in young men are rattled // to nakedness: wide open, like the offered / handshake of your surgeon[…].” Internal, naked sunflowers? That sounds like euphoria to me, but set it up against a handshake with a doctor, and I feel a clammy sense of foreboding, a room lit too well. Throughout the chapbook, Graf juxtaposes images to create emotional tongue-twisters. I don’t think this an “easy” book of poems—the strata and depth of image demand attention and sometimes the friction between the evocative and visual material threatens to lose the reader between lines, but Graf always comes around to scoop us back into the tone and voice of each poem.

In between the “My Night as”-poems is a variety of poetic form and meditative concern, though a similar palate persists throughout the collection. I appreciate the book’s tight focus, recurring obsession with the night, awareness of setting (throughout, we see Florida, Charlotte, Kansas, Oklahoma), and application of formalism. Especially given the brevity of chapbooks in general, the coherence here is especially remarkable in light of the variation in tone and form. It would seem that, at times, the poet is almost absent from the poem; the poet’s eye sits at the border between abstraction and image and roves between the two obsessively. What the Dying Man Asked Me is a plague of intrigue that goes something like this: “It’s time for you to invite me in. I’m as empty as a corner: / the odd man out in a company of clones,” (the first lines of “On Invisibility”).

The final poem, “Pantoum for Cigarettes (Alternate Ending),” might be one of my favorites. Here Graf uses the form to give and then to take away; the repeated lines sometimes build, but often refute earlier versions of themselves. For example:

          […] It’s very hard to figure this out:

a poet named Allison reads my letters and unsigned postcards

from places where I drink too much and forget my hands—

she writes about Russia with big Russian words


and secretly opens my drunken letters, although—

I should have said—she also censors my drunken letters.

She writes Russian poems with tiny Russian words

and colors the night with paint that I can’t see, and as I said—


what am I saying?—she never reads my drunken letters,


Again, we see here a version of playfulness with language. The poet plays with the repetition to create a smoke-and-mirror effect where meaning, and the speaker’s intent, shift like a mirage. In my opinion, this is a successful exploitation of the pantoum’s cheeky potential. This poem is about what is said and not said, authorship and lies… and it makes me think of the slow burn of the future ever-coming toward the face but never burning through the filter of the present.

This poem also makes for a strong final move in the collection. Many a creative writing teacher has said the last lines of a poem should be “an opening up,” and that’s exactly what I see happening in “Pantoum for Cigarettes.” Graf calls out the constant becoming of his craft: “I’ll always write you letters / with my static hands but I’m still working out the lines / to “It Looks Like We’re in Love again,” and “How This Burns.” I read this as a promise to a lover but also to a reader—maybe “Allison,” perhaps a cigarette, maybe me. In any case, it would seem that the final poem of What the Dying Man Asked Me is just the beginning of what’s sure to be more promising work from Derek Graf.

What We’re Reading: Blood Work

2015 August 20
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What We're Reading

23569873Blood Work by Matthew Siegel (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015)

Matthew Siegel’s debut (and winner of the 2015 Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry), Blood Work, is a collection of raw, personal and beautiful poems. Siegel writes clear and sparingly about illness, love, home, and the way a person begins to adapt as they learn who they are after being diagnosed with a chronic disease.

The book includes candid poems about the pain and unpredictability that is Crohn’s disease. My mother has Crohn’s, a disease she has described as random and restrictive. In fact, it was that personal connection that drew me to this book. I understand the mechanics and symptoms of the disease, but I can never entirely understand her experience. I was curious to see the disease through a poet’s lens. Indeed, Siegel’s poems are at their best when he’s able to adeptly crystallize the sensation of physical pain into words. The poem “In the Bathroom” is an extraordinary example of poetry about such a delicate and personal illness:

My hands grip my knees.
I’ll wash them and wash them

I lean into my body like a needle,
like a losing argument.

I cannot look at my living blood
in this tiny world where I am

more alone than being born,
more alone than dying.

Perhaps it was Siegel’s intention, or perhaps it is my personal connection to the disease, but many of these poems left me feeling like somewhat of a voyeur. It was a subtle sense; however, and a testament to how wonderfully written these poems are.

A difficult skill to master is the fusion of humor with tragedy, but Siegel nails it in an adept and surprising way. Perhaps my favorite poem in the book was “Matthew You’re Leaving Again So Soon.” The poem is essentially a list of items that the speaker’s mother wants him to take as he is leaving her home. The poem is perfectly comic in a way that moved me to (not at all comic) tears:

please take these pens I have all these pens
for you all with caps on them

take this umbrella this sweater these socks
they’re ankle length like you like them

and soup take this soup I froze four batches
in Tupperware four batches of broth and chicken

they will keep you healthy my son
my liver take my liver to help clean your blood
I’ll fly to you I’ll come to you tomorrow

you used to cling to my ankle and I would
drag you across the floor please
pack me in your suitcase take me with you

The “blood” in the book’s title seems to refer to family as much as it refers to actual blood or illness, as the theme resurfaces frequently. The obviously beloved mother figure is grieving a failing/failed marriage, and her grief, carried through the book, is heartbreaking and palpable. While the poems about Crohn’s are beautiful, they don’t always feel as deeply emotional as the poems about family. In particular, the poems about the mother feel less refined and more raw, and they are beautiful. In “The Girl Downstairs is Crying,” Siegel writes,

The girl downstairs is crying and no
this is not about my mother, not at all

The girl downstairs is crying
and I hear the echo of my mother’s small room
miles away in New York, remember
how I heard her through my thickest sheets

Tonight I listen from my bed,
as if the girl’s cries are a radio show in a language
I understand but cannot speak. Though
I fall asleep to the sound of a stranger’s sobbing
I’m home.

Perhaps the core issue in this book is the speaker’s changing and nebulous relationship with his concept of home. In many ways, our bodies are our first homes. Crohn’s is considered an autoimmune disorder in which the body essentially attacks healthy cells in its own digestive system. If we are to consider our bodies as our original and most important home, what does it do to our sense of self when this home begins to inexplicably and randomly fail?

Containment as a concept runs congruent with the concept of home in many of these poems. This sense of seeking an understanding of home seems to be intertwined with the sense of needing to be contained. As the speaker’s sense of self has been altered by a diagnosis with Crohn’s, so has his sense of place in the physical word. When your own body stops containing you, how can you rely on other people, places, or buildings to do so? In the poem titled “Blood Work,” he writes:

She lets me play with my filled tubes. Can you feel
how warm they are? That’s how warm you are inside

and I nod, think about condoms, tissues,
all the things that contain us but cannot.

The concept of containment is visited again in the poem, “[Sometimes I Don’t Know if I’m Having a Feeling]”:

Everything is different sometimes.
Sometimes there is no hand on my shoulder —
but my room, my apartment, my body are containers
and I am thusly contained. How easy to forget
the obvious. The walls, blankets, sunlight, your love.

The closing poem in the book, titled “Rain,” reads:

I am always halfway

to becoming ok with this.
But I can eat sweet dates,

steer a car with one knee.
I can look out my window and see grass

glowing green in rain and streetlight —
so many bright beads of water.

Despite the heavy subject matter — the emotion, pain, and restlessness — that the book wrestles with, this closing poem is indicative of the sense of hope and love that also permeates this phenomenal debut. I look forward to reading further collections by Siegel.


Have you ever chosen a book because you had a personal connection with the subject matter? How did your personal experience color the way you felt about the book?



The Writing Life: The Scoop on Workshops

2015 March 20
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The Writing Life

Belly flop or swan dive? Tears or triumph? Many of us have been there, many more of us will go there again… into the workshop and onto the hot-seat. How will we take it? What can we expect? Maybe more importantly, how can we model the kind of workshop sportsmanship that we hope will abound on the days we offer our own work up for criticism?

“Workshop” had become this ominous word, in my perception, in the CW scene. We dread it. We berate it. We think we are above it, and yet we keep coming back. Because we need it. Every writer needs feedback and it seems that the workshop is our current paradigmatic solution. But sunuvvabitch, those growing pains! How can we make the onerous workshop work for us? This week, I’ve asked poets and fiction writers to shed a little light on their personal experiences and ethos surrounding workshop etiquette and technique, because I think back to some of my more mortifying workshop fouls and I sure-as-hell wish I’d have read a list of do’s, or even don’t’s, before running my eager mouth off on my peers’ best efforts.

These four writers are currently academically involved in the Creative Writing program at Oklahoma State University. Todd Osborne (Poetry), Kate Strum (Fiction) and Michael J. Haskins (Fiction) are finishing their final semesters in the MFA program; Katherine Markey is a second-year PhD candidate in English with a creative focus in Poetry. (Find their bios below.)Here, these gracious writers weigh in on some of my most burning questions about the workshop experience.

Hazel & Wren: When you pick up a workshop piece for the very first time, what do you look for first? What catches your eye?

Todd: Usually I am looking at the lines—how they are enjambed, how they look on the page. That’s the first stuff that catches my eye. I’ll see if there’s any rhyme, if it’s in a form. If it’s in stanzas, I’ll see if the line-count for each stanza is consistent or not, and then take that into account when I re-read the poem.

Michael: I always feel a little guilty trying to label a piece within a genre, but I definitely check length first. Am I reading a piece of flash fiction, a story that needs to be expanded, a would-be novella? If the page count seems odd—for example, a ten page piece is a little long for flash fiction but a little short to develop a full story—I spend some extra time asking myself what should have been cut or included. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules, and there are some good ten page stories, but page count can be telling.

Katie: I don’t know that I have a specific element of the poem in mind that I’m looking for when I first get to a workshop piece. In fact, I try to resist looking for something, and rather just read the piece for what it is. Of course, even though I might say that, I am probably always looking for that somewhat ineffable something. Whether it’s something surprising that the poet is trying in way of technique or an image that sticks out or a place where the poet’s voice seems particularly strong. A line that I know will be stuck in my head the rest of the day. My favorite moments in poems are also those where there is a little bit of slippage. Where the honesty of a particular moment can break through the overall polish of the poem and you can actually see the poet there, no matter how “messy” this might seem.

H&W: Do you have a reading routine? [Pink pens?, red marker?, blue ink? etc. How many times do you read a piece before workshop?]

Michael: I read a piece twice and I try not to mark it until the second read, although sometimes I can’t resist. I keep a pen in hand, even if I tell myself not to use it.

Kate: In addition to marginalia and notes in the text, I always type up my comments and reflections. I usually take at least 24 hours away from the piece before I write up the formal feedback. The feedback helps ME process and understand the piece as much as it offers commentary to the writer. I don’t mean that in a selfish way, just that I think my feedback is more valuable this way. The write-up forces me to express my thoughts on the piece in a coherent way that I hope will be useful to the writer.

H&W: What do you write on the actual page of the creative piece? [i.e. margin notes? grammar/punctuation/line edits? questions? suggestions?] What do you find to be most useful when you get your own creative drafts back?

Michael: I write a two-part response: line edits and marginalia first and a personal letter second. Line edits are mostly geared towards rhythm and style; I don’t worry too much about grammar because I assume the writer will catch those mistakes in revision. The marginalia tends to be very blunt, with lots of question and exclamation marks, all caps, sweeping generalizations, and the like. I’m not trying to be fair per se because most editors won’t be; instead, I’m trying to give an impression of my emotional reactions to the piece as I read. The personal letter is more diplomatic. I hedge my criticisms and I take the time to think through why the writer might have made a choice I initially didn’t like, and I often come to appreciate that choice. Combined, the marginalia should give the writer a glimpse into how the work might be seen coming out of slush, while the personal letter should give the writer a sense of how the work will be seen by a fair and trusting reader.

Todd: I usually just write in the margin. Anything from x’s through commas or other punctuation, to questions about a word choice or syntax. I am a stickler for consistent punctuation use and tend to get up in arms about that kind of thing. These kinds of concerns are usually second-order for me, however. I am more concerned about whether or not the poem has used its images or conceits well. Is the language original? Does it take old ideas and present them in a new or interesting way?

Obviously, if I have done something wrong, mischaracterized something, or mis-used a word or phrase, I would like to know that. But mostly, the comments I find most useful are those that engage with what the poem is trying to be. Don’t try to make my poem fit your aesthetic. It’s a real game of empathy. The best workshop participants can fully inhabit the world of someone else’s poem, story, or essay.

H&W: In your opinion, or in your genre, what’s the best way to respond to the writer? Do you have a template of sorts for your responses?

Michael: My template is the personal letter and I usually follow the compliment sandwich, but the compliments have to be sincere. If I truly cannot muster up a sincere compliment, then I tell the writer what I think they were trying to do. Assuming I get it right, the writer knows that at minimum that I am a competent reader. I also think there’s something said for balance [between criticism and positive feedback.]

On the criticism side, I always present my feedback as a set of options. I consider the choice the writer made, why I think she made it, and why I disagree with it. Then I present at least one alternative, why I think it would be beneficial for her, and some possible shortcomings of my own alternative to reinforce the idea that all writing is a set of choices and that all choices have advantages and disadvantages.

Most importantly, I conform to the internal logic established by the writer. I always meet the writer on the terms her piece establishes. I will point out when I think a piece violates its own terms, but I don’t challenge the terms themselves because, at least in my experience, that creates resentment rather than productive revision.

Kate: I try to think of it this way: I read alone, but I respond with the writer, if that makes sense. I give the writer the benefit of the doubt and believe in them and believe that they have a vision for the piece, even if that vision is only partially realized on paper in the draft I’ve read. So I think about the pieces that are there and what those pieces need to work on in order to become that fully realized piece that the writer sees or is striving to see.

H&W: Let’s imagine a (typical) workshop where the poet/author reads a portion of the piece and is then expected to listen during the discussion of the work. How do you, as a participant, begin?

Kate: You know, it’s cliché and it’s standard and formatted and all that, but I think that if you don’t begin on what’s positive or “working” or some general strengths of the piece, things can get real bad real fast. There’s really no good way to start with the problems or questions, because people just seem to pile on and more than that, it doesn’t make sense. We’re cutting things before anyone knows what might stay. That just seems backwards. I’m not talking about blowing smoke or giving undue compliments, just starting with what’s strong and from there you can more easily talk about how to build on what’s good and more often than not it becomes clear what wasn’t working and that falls away, rather than having to be highlighted.

I don’t say this as someone who is afraid of criticism. I’m absolutely a “tell it like it is” kind of writer, no sugar-coating, please. Just cut to the chase, but my reasoning is much more about productivity and energy. Productivity for the writers directly correlates to the energy of the participants. Starting with the bad, well, you get the idea.

H&W: Another workshop participant has a very different understanding of the piece at hand. How do you share your reading? 

Michael: If I think the other person’s read is valid, I’ll say, “That’s really insightful. I saw it differently [and here I explain how], but I think you might have changed my mind or, at least, two readings are possible.”

If I think the read is invalid, I’ll say, “For me,” it’s always important to get that personal qualifier in there, “I thought the piece was about [explanation].” I don’t try to argue or convince, only explain. The writer is the one that needs to hear, not the other reader.

H&W: How do you view the role of the workshop? For example, should the group work toward a consensus about how the writer might approach revision, or, is it more important to offer a variety of revision possibilities?

Katie: I think the goal of the workshop should be to offer a variety of revision possibilities. A lot of times it feels like the group might be trying to reach a consensus, which can be helpful to the writer because they can see how readers can (and will) come up with multiple interpretations of their piece, but even if consensus is achieved, it’s still up to the writer to decide where to take their work after the workshop is over. And, there are always going to be voices/opinions that you hold higher than others, so it’s often best to make sure all voices are heard, rather than synthesized into one general reading. If, for example, some members of the group decide a poem is “about” the loss of a loved one and they spend the majority of the workshop trying to convince other members of the group who think the poem is “about” something entirely different how to best revise it to eliminate any doubt on the part of the reader, and then the poet, finally getting a chance to speak, says that everyone was wrong, then the whole workshop has essentially been wasted trying to come to a consensus that, in the end, doesn’t really apply to the piece at hand. No doubt, it’s helpful to hear the different interpretations of a piece, but if these readings are causing so much disagreement that it takes the focus away from  discussing the poem itself, it seems best to simply point out that there might be some clarity issues and leave it at that.

Michael: When I’m being workshopped, I appreciate consensus about the problems in a piece. For suggestions for revision, I appreciate variety so that I can weigh my options. I think I would be a little put-off if there was total consensus about revision because I don’t like to imagine such a formulaic approach to writing. Mostly though, I want a workshop that, when I walk away, doesn’t send me straight to the nearest drink.

H&W: After a sincere and thorough reading of a piece, you have to admit, YOU DO NOT LIKE IT. What do you do? 

     a. If you find the material potentially offensive, do you communicate this to the writer? If so, how?

     b. If the piece is weak in many ways, how do you tactfully offer constructive criticism?

     c. Do you have any tips for focusing on the positive aspects of such a piece? How might you hone in on strengths?

Kate: That’s irrelevant. Sometimes I’ll say in a workshop if I was particularly ‘into’ a piece. We all have styles and even topics and locales that we’re suckers for or maybe once in a while we’re awe-struck by the work of a colleague. I hope we all are. Otherwise, what a boring world if we all wrote things that everyone else liked. Sometimes it’s even more productive for me to critique a piece that I don’t particularly gravitate towards. I’m not emotionally attached and I can really take a step back and think about what’s best for the piece.

Michael: I’m not afraid to be blunt. Blunt does not mean rude, however. It means a fair assessment after a fair read. And as a rule, the focus is on the writing, not the writer. The exception is material that is offensive in the racist, sexist, classist, etc. types of ways. To my mind, not being racist, etc. is more important than quality writing. But I do not usually call out or label the person as such in the workshop because that tends to create a hostile, defensive environment. I save those concerns for my written response, and even then, I say that I think the writing is offensive, not the writer, even if I think the writing might represent the writer.

Todd: If a piece is offensive, that must be communicated to the writer. Either they are unaware, or they think they are being provocative. Either way, it’s probable that what they are trying to accomplish can be done in a much better way. It’s never easy to broach that subject in a workshop, but you must do it. Be polite, but firm. Don’t back down. […]

H&W: Have you witnessed a nightmarish workshop? What went wrong? How brutal was the suffering? How might crisis have been averted?

Todd: Just recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and don’t act like you do. Humility is never a bad thing in a workshop. (Obviously, be proud and confident in your work, but do not act like writing is a science that you have figured out.)

Katie: The workshops that stick out in my mind as particularly “nightmarish” have been the ones where the writer being workshopped got visibly upset during the critique and then made matters worse by attempting to explain themselves after the piece had been discussed. Sure, everyone probably gets a little upset when workshop doesn’t go particularly smoothly, but showing that you can’t handle a healthy dose of criticism is almost the surest way to guarantee people will think twice before giving you their honest opinion again.

Personally, my own “nightmarish” workshops have been those in which the work I was doing was not necessarily true to who I was. Times when I’ve doubted myself as a writer and was trying to mimic the style of another or writing the poem I thought people wanted to read, rather than simply letting the poem exist on its own. Which, of course, I got called out on. Spend enough time with the same writers and it becomes pretty hard to hide behind rhetoric and moves that seem “poetic.” It’s not exactly fun when those kinds of things happen but if you’re in a good workshop and you trust the writers around you, moments like that are both beneficial and necessary.

H&W: Let’s talk about honesty. What’s your take on disclosure in the workshop setting? How do you find balance for your feedback?

Michael: I try to be completely honest, but filtered through empathy. My younger self used to mistake honesty for unfiltered, complete, and immediate reactions, and the less I took people’s feelings into consideration, the more honest I was being. But my younger self was also a jackass. Honesty is not about telling people exactly what I think; honesty is about telling people what I think will help them the most.

Todd: Be honest without being hurtful is the best thing I can say. Never tell someone their piece is awful just because they didn’t like something you wrote. The workshop is not a place for revenge. Leave your feelings toward a person outside the workshop setting.

Katie: Honestly (haha), I try to be as straight-forward as possible in my feedback, although I like to think I’m always mindful of the sometimes damaging effect of being too honest. While I think that, yes, we should strive to uphold the integrity of the craft by being as frank as possible when it comes to responding to each other’s work, there is a line between honesty and cruelty. This seems to be a somewhat unpopular approach to workshop, at least in my experience. A lot of people might point out that editors and others of the professional world will not be worried about safeguarding the feelings of writers. And again, yes, while I agree that those who cannot take the criticism probably shouldn’t be a part of a graduate workshop, if the ultimate goal is growth as a writer—what we’re all trying to achieve by being in MFA and PhD programs—then eviscerating someone for writing a “bad” poem is not really beneficial to anyone. Anyways, it’s just not how I roll.


Do you have any successful tips for workshop? Feel free to share them with the H&W community here!


Todd Osborne was born in Nashville, TN. He has poems forthcoming in Juked and Slipstream Quarterly and his poems have previously appeared in Storm Cellar Quarterly, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, and On the Rusk.

Kate Strum lives and writes in Stillwater, OK.

Michael Haskins is an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Oklahoma State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Fat City Review, and elsewhere. 

Katherine Markey is a PhD candidate in poetry at Oklahoma State University and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her work in Cave Region Review.