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A Craft Note on The Craft Note

I spent this past weekend at the annual AWP Conference in Chicago, alternately overstimulated by the crowd in the bookfair and by the conversations in and around the panels.

I participated in two panels that discussed intersections of race and writing. The first panel—“A Face to Meet the Faces: Five Poets on Persona, Empathy and Race” with Eduardo C. Corral, Cornelius Eady, Patricia Smith, and organizer Stacey Lynn Brown—was the natural place, since it had a genre focus, for questions of craft, and during the Q&A, those questions came. One audience member, for example, asked if the panel had any “tips” or advice for writing a persona poem that was respectful of race.

But I was surprised that a very similar question came up in the second panel—“In White: White Poets and Race” with Michelle Boisseau, Martha Collins, Kate Daniels, and organizer Tess Taylor.” I thought that the question we were to address was fundamentally ethical—why, as Major Jackson wrote several years ago, there should be so few white poets writing about race—so large as to encompass so many different stylistic possibilities that if we were to offer brief “craft notes” we could go on for days.

Therefore, I was reluctant to reduce the questions of writing about race—the hazards, the challenges, the rewards, the questions—to points of style, preferring instead to emphasize a sense of process. But as I heard Martha Collins smartly suggest that anyone who was interested in addressing these issues could begin by writing about language—specific words and phrases—that bothered or intrigued them, I realized that I had invested in a dichotomy between “style,” which is usually embodied in a set of small, discrete practices, and “process,” which, of course generates the style. A college-level teacher of Creative Writing, I’m used to getting questions from students who want a form or a write-by-numbers approach, so I sometimes resist offering simple answers. But Martha offers a converse approach, in which the process we all value can be approached through the door of the discrete and the local.

I bring this up here as a way of introducing a series of blog posts I’ll offer over the coming weeks, in collaboration with Tarfia Faizullah. Tarfia recently completed her MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University and was, last year, a Fulbright Fellow, writing in Bangladesh. She’s a fine poet, and she’ll join me as a Peter Taylor Fellow this summer at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, where there are still several seats open.

The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop is a process-based workshop, in which participants create new work each day, and share that work in a discussion that focuses both on isolating common situations and problems and on identifying each writer’s particular talents and troubles, which we work around together. There, the craft note can be a discrete observation that opens onto a broader consideration.

And since Tarfia and I are both poets who use genre-models as tools—using them to some work and distorting or changing them to do different work—we thought, as we met in Chicago, that we’d discuss some of our favorite tools and how we use them as a set of craft notes that preview our pedagogy. So, over the coming weeks, we’ll discuss the aubade, the elegy, the meditation, the poetic sequence, the documentary poem, and the ars poetica. We’ll present the aubade next Monday, when I hope you’ll check back.