University of San Francisco Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program


University of San Francisco Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program



Poetry Workshop I

MFA 612 04  


Fall 2010

Tues. August 24–Tues. December 7, 2010

6:30–9:15 p.m.


Instructor: Laura Walker

Office Hours: By Appointment


Course Description:


How can engaging with others’ texts inform and expand our own writing? This question is at the heart of any successful workshop, since the majority of time is spent discussing others’ work. How can we make this time vital to our own projects?


In this class we’ll strive for a process of collective inquiry. Our questions will spring from the poem at hand, but ideally they will lead us into territory and discoveries new for all of us. We will steer away from evaluative responses (“This is wonderful”/“This is not wonderful”), since they tend only to announce what we (think we) already know, and they don’t tend to move us toward new ground. Instead, we will describe as closely as we can what we see happening in a poem, and then we will discuss and explore the many possible effects of those (conscious or unconscious) craft choices. Rather than rewriting or “fixing” a poem under discussion, we’ll examine what’s in play, how it’s working, and how the poem’s project might be extended or expanded. Our aim is to send a poet back into his or her poem reinvigorated and re-inspired, while at the same time gaining our own inspiration and discoveries.


This kind of approach requires a sympathetic extension across aesthetic differences, which sounds easier than it often is. In order to engage with a poem and learn how it’s working, what effects its choices are creating, we need to accept its terms, its project, at least for the space of the workshop. In fact, engaging with work that is initially strange or unfamiliar is most often extremely rewarding, since in this work we encounter ideas and possibilities we might never have come to on our own.


In the spirit of collective inquiry, workshop authors will also write a set of working notes for their poems—not in any way an “explanation” of a poem, but rather a window into their creative process, into the ideas and questions which are under investigation and which are most pressing for them at the moment. We’ll talk more about our approach to working notes in class.


We will also press on the idea of question and inquiry itself. What can it mean to ask a question of a poem? To articulate what questions a poem is asking of us? When we move into territory that isn’t familiar, what happens when we focus on formulating questions and resist moving to answer them? How can a process of inquiry inform our own creative process as we sit to put words to paper? How can the questions we formulate for each other move us all more deeply into our poetic projects?


Sarah Rosenthal’s anthology of interviews with Bay Area poets has recently been published, and we will be reading A Community Writing Itself as a further example of collective inquiry—to examine how these interviews and conversations use questions to expand ideas of poetics and poetry. We’ll also read a subset of these poets’ books to examine how ideas discussed in the interviews manifest themselves in the poets’ work. At the end of the semester, Sarah Rosenthal will join us for an evening to give her perspective on formulating generative questions, the art of close reading, and the wider community of Bay Area poets.


Learning Outcome:


Through writing, close discussion of our own texts, and examination of published work, students will hone their powers of poetic analysis and composition.


Required Texts:


A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area, Sarah Rosenthal, Editor


il cuore: the heart, Kathleen Fraser


Cascadia, Brenda Hillman


Apprehend, Elizabeth Robinson


four letter words, Truong Tran


Supplemental reading by Michael Palmer and Nathaniel Mackey (to be provided)


Course Requirements:


Students will write weekly poems, either in response to suggested exercises or pursuing projects of their own, and will bring in class-sets of these poems for discussion. Students will complete weekly readings of published texts and of each other’s work-in-progress. Students will participate in close discussion of texts and issues arising from them. Students will provide each other with thoughtful written feedback and will interview each other about their approach to poetry at the end of the semester. Once during the semester, students will attend a scheduled conference with the instructor to discuss their work in greater depth.


Academic Honesty:


It is essential that you do your own work. Anything else is not in the spirit of our class and is also in violation of USF’s academic honesty policies.


Workshop Content:


“Because the workshop experience is based on collective trust, the Program recommends that you not include references to any MFA instructors or students in your writing. If you do, you should discuss this with your workshop instructor well before you submit the piece.”




Grading will be based upon:


• your new weekly poems, brought to class on time: 50%


• thoughtful participation in the life of the course, including class discussions, working notes, and written feedback to others: 40%


• final project: 10%


Attendance Policy:


Because this class builds on discussions and collective insights and engagements, it’s very important that you attend regularly and on time. If you know you’re going to be late, leave early, or miss a class, please let me know beforehand. Attendance is a program policy, and more than two absences will seriously affect your grade. Check your handbook for details.


Weekly Schedule:


Note: There will be no class the week of Thanksgiving. We will choose a makeup date during our first meeting.


Aug 24

Introductions: to each other, to our class and our approach to workshop, and to A Community Writing Itself and how we’ll use it.


Aug 31

Discussion of Sarah Rosenthal’s introduction to A Community Writing Itself

Discussion of our opening “questionnaires” (introducing our work to each other)

New poem due – 1


Sept 7

Interview with Kathleen Fraser,“Placing Silence”

New poem due – 2

Discussion of our poems


Sept 14


il cuore: the heart, K. Fraser

New poem due – 3

Discussion of our poems


Sept 21

Interview with Michael Palmer, “The Recovery of Language”

New poem due – 4

Discussionof our poems


Sept 28

Interview with Brenda Hillman, Our Very Greatest Human Thing Is Wild”

New poem due – 5

Discussion of our poems


Oct 5

Cascadia , B. Hillman

New poem due – 6

Discussion of our poems

Student conferences begin


Oct 12

Fall break, no class scheduled (but this is a potential makeup date for our missed class the week of Thanksgiving.)

Makeup class,TBD

Interview with Nathaniel Mackey, “The Atmosphere Is Alive”

New poem due – 7

Discussion of our poems


Oct 19

Interview with Truong Tran, “I Became the Other”

New poem due – 8

Discussion of our poems


Oct 26

four letter words, T. Tran

New poem due – 9

Discussion of our poems


Nov 2

Interview with Elizabeth Robinson, “Falling Is the Safest Thing to Do”

New poem due – 10

Discussionof our poems


Nov 9

Apprehend, E. Robinson

Discussion of our poems

Final student conferences


Nov 16

Lone Mountain Reading: Monica Youn

Discussion of our poems


Nov 23

No class (Thanksgiving week)


Nov 30

Sarah Rosenthal visits our class to discuss A Community Writing Itself

Discussion of any remaining poems and final issues from the semester’s texts


Dec 7

Sharing final interview projects, class reading, and class celebration


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this is the dialog test text
I’ve always been attracted by the nontraditional in art and by contemporary work that finds meaning—even necessity—in testing the established, pre-approved limits of its medium.
I did not think there was an “I”—a self—that existed apart from representations—texts of one kind or another—but I was urgent to “tell my story,” a completely different kind of truth, the strange story of the marginalized experience of a sexual minority whose existence was rather experimental itself, and had yet to appear in our literary forum.
Each generation [of poets] has a necessity that it has to work out for itself. And the intelligence will only help you so far in that task, and then you have to reside in your imagination.
Our very greatest human thing—which is language to me—musicians would say it’s music, but I think it’s language—our very greatest human thing is wild. Uncontrollable. It is impossible to put boundaries on your words, even if you make a poem.
I’ve heard people who do in poetry something that emulates what Coltrane does. They’ll actually scream, do things of that sort…. My screaming is … the fraying of meanings; it’s the colliding of sounds that creates certain consternations of meaning that might be the counterpart of the scream, analogous to the scream.
I have an ironic relationship to figures of speech as they are in the world, and a fascination with the mystery that occurs as we reframe them. We let them pass as everyday-life words, and yet if we pull back just a step, they acquire a kind of poetic estrangement.
The world out there can’t ever be exactly reenacted. But through working in these repeating forms over a long period of time, I’m exploring how the things of the world can be enacted in language.
I would argue that poetry-making is not a solitary but a communal activity. Part of our ethical work as writers … is to engage with that, to be good readers and responders, to participate in some way.
I am not of the school that one ought to run around trying to have extreme experiences in order to become a more interesting person. I do think, though, that when things go really, really wrong, and people act out violently, it’s in those moments that you see the playability of reality.
I think people being actively aware are jumping out of a propagandized state of social conventions. Writing could be an active state outside social convention. Yet it is not to be alone, not to withdraw, or to fail to pay attention. In that case one couldn’t write, because what would there be to write?
My drive in thinking about writing something is the question, How can I look at this information and re-sort it in a way that helps me to understand it? I’ll think, Oh, gee, I’m really confused about colonialism and my role in it; I’m going to sit down and try to think about some ways that I can gain an understanding of it.
Speaking English was the way that I separated myself from my parents…. Becoming a writer was a way to further separate … especially because in my writing I examine issues such as being gay and being raised Catholic. But … the more I’ve written, the more I’ve circled back to the connections and stories that originated in my family.