Mar 01, 2018
TEXTUAL VIOLENCE & THE WORKSHOP: RESPONDING TO DIFFICULT POETRY BY WOMEN
Kristina Marie Darling
As a student, I was obedient. I rarely questioned anyone who spoke with the least bit of authority. Yet the whole time, I remember an unease blossoming beneath my skin. Its petals unfurling one by one as the pages of my manuscript were turned by my classmates.
I cannot seem to enter the text. The text isn’t granting me access.
Why can’t I enter the text.
At the time of the critique, I had been keenly interested in exploring textual difficulty as a feminist gesture. By then twenty-eight years old, I spent several years bouncing back and forth between various low-residency MFA programs, artist colonies, and noncredit workshops, searching for a sense of artistic community. No matter what landscape, building, or campus, I remained deeply disturbed by one thing: the difficult text was almost always spoken about as though it were a female body, and as though the primarily male readers in the room were entitled to "access” it.
This mindset – the belief that every artistic work should yield to the hand of a reader who attends closely enough to syntax, his pocket Lacan dictionary at arm’s reach – was, in my estimation, deeply symptomatic. In recent years, the reading act has ceased to be an exercise in humility, but has instead been transfigured into a visible wielding of mastery, a desire to dominate and colonize.
As Teresa D. Lauretis observes in her recent study of gender and reading practices, “French feminism goes as far as to consider the act of interpretation a patriarchal enterprise, the goal of which is to achieve power or mastery over a given text. In this theoretical schema, the text is identified with femininity, and interpretation becomes a way of arresting the free play of meaning analogous to the way patriarchy contains women and women’s sexuality.”
In so many of these classroom discussions, the text is made to stand in for the female body, and all the violence that is suffered by female bodies, here, is done again through language, through interpretation, and through the orders of power that undergird the settings in which this feedback is given.
Of course, many of the poems I submitted for the requisite critiques intentionally violated readerly expectations. I reacted against the abiding belief that as a younger female writer, I was expected to give a certain amount of emotion, not more, not less.
In her book The End of the Sentimental Journey, Sarah Vap describes the fraught relationship between the reading act and what she calls “a payoff.” According to Vap, readers need a text to be “just easy enough.” That is, readers generally like to feel as though the text has given into them, but also, they like to feel that they’ve worked for it.
She situates textual difficulty and easiness on a spectrum, asking the reader to find the sweet spot.
Certainly, Vap calls our attention to the similarities in how textual bodies and physical bodies are constructed in language. The challenge to us as her audience, then, was to exist beyond or outside of this conversation. To forge a new vocabulary, a new syntax, a lexicon that’s more hospitable to innovation by women.
For me, this feminist utopia had already become a republic of one.
We tend to forget that the workshop model of creative writing instruction is predicated on disenfranchisement. We watch as others attempt to gain visible mastery over our voices, our aesthetic predilections, our lives in language, and in most pedagogical settings, we are not allowed to interject. For individuals who come from a demographic in society that has been silenced, denied, or disempowered in some way, the workshop model often appears as yet another manifestation of power and violence.
The only good writer in a workshop is a dead writer. You are a dead writer starting NOW…
In a recent essay, Viet Thanh Ngugen notes that “Literature and power cannot be separated. American literature is read around the world not only because of its inherent value, but because the rest of the world always reads the literature of empires.” The workshop model of instruction often functions as an extension of empire, facilitated by those who have vested stakes in the current orders of power.
Yes, of course, graduate students need to learn how to receive constructive feedback gracefully, to listen, and speak only when it is their turn. But the usual workshop pedagogy affects different types of artistic practitioners in dissimilar, often incommensurable, ways. It is perhaps most problematic for a writer working outside of legible and familiar forms, attempting to effect social change through very foundations of society: language itself.
As an experimental feminist practitioner, I often felt as though I were staring the status quo in the face during my class critiques. After all, nearly ninety percent of full-time faculty in such settings are white, and well over seventy percent are white men.
WORKSHOP VIOLENCE: A PARTIAL ARCHIVE
“The speaker of the poem is not a likeable girl.”
“No. You have to understand. Kristina chose this found language and the fact that she chose it, well, this says something about her.”
“Kristina’s poems are an insult to her accomplished collaborator’s intelligence.”
“I don’t understand why Kristina writes in broken forms. Maybe this means she was the victim of sexual violence at some point.”
“Writing a feminist response to Shakespeare is elitist. And classist. I mean, you have to have gone to a college and read Hamlet to get the poem.”
“I think the poem is about…”
In my nearly ten years in graduate school, what disturbed me most about workshops were the moments in which the writing served as merely vehicle, a vast storehouse of language from which men (and sometimes women) could craft pickup lines. Textual and bodily conquest were indelibly linked for many aspiring and mid-career practitioners.
A recent survey found that 38% of female respondents in graduate programs have been sexually harassed by men in a position of authority over their academics. The percentage that includes harassment by male peers is much larger.
I haven’t heard from you in a couple of months, Kristina. Now tell me whether or not you’ve had sex with him.
I enrolled in my first workshop because I aspired to better journal publications. Instead, I was surveilled by male poets via the internet, and by their departmental secretaries when they did not have time to surveille me themselves. I witnessed frustrated desire exorcised onto my poems, which in turn became sites of various male poets’ catharsis. My poems also served as a mere opportunity for various abuses of power.
You and I should work on a collaboration, Kristina. I think a good first step would be you buying a plane ticket and flying here to have sex with me.
When I mentioned this exchange to my friend, she looked at me and said, “You are clearly just the girl in this batch of girls. Next year there will be a fresh batch.”
In late 2012, I was the victim of an attempted assault by my instructor’s colleague. He switched my drink at a party, but I wouldn’t drink it. In the months that followed, I changed my phone number. Still, he sent me the most terrifying things in the mail.
Needless to say, my writing workshopmates were bludgeoned with angry story after angry story, all of them about young women who looked like me, and who were eventually found dead in the woods.
The class critiques quickly turned into a trial, and my ability as the star witness was called into question:
The language is not compelling when you write about the violence men have done to you.
I don’t understand why you would have chosen that dress at all.
No, no, this work is not on the same level as your poems to him about love.
When violence could no longer be enacted on my physical body, the text was again proffered as a substitute, standing in as the object of male aggression.
With that said, I never took my evals. I did not want an institutional record of my trauma because I did not want to see it redacted, written over, or erased.