A New Way of Exploring the Value of Poetry

This month we published We Need to Talk: A New Method for Evaluating Poetry by Michael Theune and Bob Broad. In this post the authors explain how their book invites us to explore the value of poetry in a new way.

It is difficult to overstate the role evaluation plays in contemporary American poetry. Contest judges, anthologists, editors, critics, workshop leaders and participants, readers, and last but certainly not least, poets themselves – always judging which word, image, form, line break, ending, &c, &c, &c is best – all engage in assessment. And yet, there is generally little examination of the dynamics of evaluation and the criteria at its core.

It’s not that people engaged in contemporary American poetry don’t want this. Many do. But axiological inquiry is stymied both by the misconception that there are only two ways to approach value – via false objectivity or else acknowledging that value is sealed away in subjective solipsism – and by the traditional approaches of the humanities: that to more closely consider value one should read more carefully and think more deeply about the issue.

Our book, We Need to Talk: A New Method for Evaluating Poetry, approaches value differently and recommends a new kind of axiological investigation for poetry. We Need to Talk understands value to be contingent, that is, comprised of the ever-shifting – but not unknowable – elements produced by numerous forces, both textual and contextual, from the social and political to the aesthetic and the personal. Additionally, We Need to Talk recommends exploring value in a new way: by empirically studying the conversations of poetry assessors.

Such conversations occur frequently in contemporary American poetry. Teams of anthologists and journal editors engage in them, as do panels of contest judges. So do MFA faculty as they determine which applicants will be accepted for their program. The typical poetry workshop is one long conversation. The material is there to be collected, and then studied. And the results – certainly not guessed at, but rather empirically present, and often very surprising – demand articulation and publication.

We Need to Talk doesn’t offer facile answers. Rather, it offers a method by which anyone interested in contemporary American poetry can more closely examine what they really value in the verse they admire. Still, this is significant. Whenever evaluative decisions have consequence, it is incumbent upon the decision-makers to be as aware as possible of the values upon which their judgements depend. Then, they can share those values, clarifying their work. Or else, if their revealed values are not those they wish to adhere to, they can work to change them. Either way, the method at the heart of We Need to Talk promises to have a salutary effect on the processes of assessment ubiquitous in American poetry today.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Changing Creative Writing in America edited by Graeme Harper. 

 

What is the Future of Creative Writing in America?

This month we published Changing Creative Writing in America edited by Graeme Harper. In this post, Graeme explains the inspiration behind the book.

Not much more than a teenager, and long before I had even visited the USA, I read the recollections of Malcolm Bradbury and William Golding, both later knighted for their work in British letters, and Golding a Nobel Laureate, about their experiences of creative writing workshops in American colleges. From their British point of view, creative writing in American higher education was certainly intriguing – a combination of vibrant literary culture making, emoting attendees at what appeared to be a self-help group, and some worrisome naiveté. In any case, as creative writers, both Bradbury and Golding couldn’t help but be fascinated by the phenomenon, as well as by its increasing popularity.

My own predilections, having been resident in various parts of the world at various times, were already eclectic; appreciating both the American point of view and the British, wondering on the attitudes of each, and thinking a critical eye might well be applied productively to either one, and both in direct contrast, and to other largely unmined evidence of how creative writing manifested itself in the world’s universities and colleges – topics that later fed into my graduate study and to my editing of the journal New Writing: the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing and the New Writing Viewpoints (Multilingual Matters) book series.

30 years later, and me now an established resident here in the USA, in February 2017 I attended the conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American “Association of Writers and Writing Programs” (AWP). Held in Washington DC, and billed as “now the largest literary conference in North America”, to my mind that AWP conference and its clearly celebratory nature raised more questions than it answered, and certainly spurred on the writing and editing of Changing Creative Writing in America in ways predictable and unpredictable.

Predictably, there are writers in this book, such as Kate Haake, Tim Mayers, Dianne Donnelly, Stephanie Vanderslice and Pat Bizzaro who some people will associate with the increased pursuit here of what is generally called “Creative Writing Studies”, or the critical study of creative writing practices, results and pedagogies. Many in the fields of Composition and Rhetoric in the USA will also recognize the Foreword writer, Joe Moxley, whose 1989 book, Creative Writing in America forms an intellectual and pedagogic backdrop to this current book. Less predictably, there are other contributors who might not be so well known to readers, and who are largely situated between creative and critical activities as varied (or some exploring creative writing might indeed say, “as connected”) as Literary Studies, Composition and Rhetoric, and New Media and Film Studies. These are also current voices, contributing voices, and vibrant voices, perhaps to Creative Writing Studies, perhaps simply to the question of where Creative Writing currently lives in the American educational context. All in this book pursue an investigation and a declaration of where we are now in Creative Writing teaching and learning in the USA, where the past informs this contemporary position, and where we might productively progress.

Changing Creative Writing in America is largely a positive book, celebrating what we might achieve – but it is not without its posed challenges, challenges to us all, calls for not stasis but for concerted change. It is in that challenging, in those desires for change, that we might well find the dynamic future of Creative Writing in America.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing edited by Anna Leahy.