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This post is one of a series where Poetry Out Loud coaches reflect on the summer professional development session focused on enhancing poetry performance skills hosted at the Poetry Center.
To have an opportunity to gather with other educators is, for educators, par for the course. My experience teaching, particularly in my first year, was an experience of collaboration. Among the greatest advice I received that year (with apologies to both T.S. Elliot and Pablo Picasso): Immature teachers borrow, mature teachers steal.
No teacher is an island, and just as we wish our students a supportive, constructive atmosphere, working diligently to make that wish come true, when we come together as a profession, we create that atmosphere for ourselves.
When we came together this summer for a Poetry Out Loud professional development workshop, I was, despite my lofty rhetoric in the preceding paragraph, not looking forward to it. True, I was teaching no classes over the summer, and needed desperately to get out of the house, but come on, hours of non-poets discussing poetry performance. Ouch.
The antidote for this summer-saucy attitude was waiting for me in the very workshops I was just-too-cool for. Sarah Kortemeier’s presentation on constructive criticism constructively broke me down back to size.
A physicist poses a hypothesis about the fundamental behavior of matter, performs an experiment, and contrary to what Sci-Fi would have us believe, does so without the fear of a failed experiment. In art, as in science, the initial problem-solving attempt, for artists the draft, for scientists the hypothesis, is a tool, not a finished product. What we do is put something out there, watch it right itself on two chubby but weak legs, teeter about for a few steps, then fall on the pad of its butt, wailing for us to pick it up again. Unlike a toddler’s first steps, however, we know that it is not merely a matter of time before our creations begin to walk, but that we must take an active role in shaping the gait of the little thing we hope to our bones will survive us.
A performance, like a poem, like a scientific theory, is a shaped thing, a moment in time shaped by humans for the enjoyment of other humans as they move through time and its shapes. As the toddler, who has now become the preschooler, quickly learns, a shape is a definite attribute, and it takes intention to select the right block to fit through the corresponding opening. As performers, the students who myself and the other educators will be working with, need assistance to shape their intentions towards their performances. But scold the child for banging a square peg against the round hole and what you get is not an enlightened, learning individual, but a withdrawn and quite possibly crying child.
No. Instead we say to our performers, first and foremost “Good job.” An acknowledgement of the anxiety the leveraging of which is the performer’s main art. Because at its core, performance is frightening, and by offering initial encouragement we return the word to its etymologic roots of providing these kids the courage to face the prospect of trying their performances again.
Instead we say to our performers “Why don’t you try reading it this way…Tell me which way do you think is better?” Because a performer who does not make their own choices is an entertainer, and an unoriginal one at that. Instead we say “That worked because..." to give our students concrete evidence of not only their missteps but their successes as well. Instead we say “What happens if...” to ensure that they understand that like all art, in a way not fully available to scientists, is about choice, and that despite our understanding of how a text “should” be read, they are their own performers.
I responded so well to Sarah’s presentation because these are the strategies that we artists use ourselves. Be encouraging, be specific, allow for the artists’ integrity but do not be afraid to speak up when you see that an element is not working. This process has allowed me to hone the eyes I now have for my own work into sharp Exacto knives, while also allowing me to let mistakes stand until I know both how to fix them and why they weren’t working in the first place. This process affords me the confidence I have in myself as an artist. And being reminded of that gave me the confidence I need to give my performers the constructive space in which I’ve been privileged to work.
Now bring on the performers!
Blake Whalen-Encalarde is completing his MFA in Poetry this Fall at the University of Arizona. He's also a poet-in-residence for the Poetry Out Loud Program.