Coursera Review: Sharpened Visions (Poetry Workshop) – CalArts

I mentioned quite a few posts ago that I’ve been taking a MOOC via Coursera entitled “Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop.”  It’s a six-week course that is mostly self-paced; I finished the course last week (after switching sections because I accidentally missed a deadline, meaning that wouldn’t be anyone around to complete my final peer-review assignment).  Overall, I found it a fairly useful and relatively enjoyable course.

I thought that Douglas Kearney, the course instructor, did a fine job of presenting the information in each module. While the videos themselves were fairly corny (I ended up just reading the transcriptions most weeks), the information was useful and well-organized, and the structure of the course made sense. The weekly topics were as follows:

  • Week one: Introduction / the Poetic Line
  • Week two: Abstraction and Image
  • Week three: Metaphor
  • Week four: Rhyme
  • Week five: Rhythm
  • Week six: Revision

Each weekly module offered instructional videos (plus transcripts), short quizzes based on the video content, and assignments which generally took the form of two poetry prompts that challenged you to apply the concepts from that week’s theme. I found some of those prompts more compelling than others, but they were stretching in a good way. The prompts were probably the most valuable part of the course for me. Weeks four and six also included a peer assessment assignment; we had to submit a drafted poem for review, and also review the work of two or more classmates.

My one great frustration with the course was the peer assessment model. It makes sense that the course would be structured this way — after all, it’s supposed to be a workshop, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect the instructor to personally review and grade some dozens or hundreds of poems per session. But the peer assessment also has some serious drawbacks. For one, since learners are accessing the course from all over the world, there can be real language barrier issues. The quality of peer reviews is also uneven; I got some very useful feedback from a few of my peer assessments, but others left me wondering if my peer had even read what I had written!

When doing a peer review, we were only supposed to grade on things like whether the poem had responded to the appropriate prompt, not whether you liked it. I tried to give as thoughtful feedback as I could, and several times when I really disliked a poem I chose another one to review instead, since I didn’t think I would be able to give fair feedback otherwise. But no matter how much care you put into your own peer assessments, you can still end up with comments like this:

That you can feel the poem, trying to get into the writer’s wishes to attempt to better the revised version, by applying learnt tools. Some just flow in others you can feel the struggle, but all is good as long as you try. He tried. That is definalely imperative to edit and revise your original version, which I call it draft.

Thanks, Lucia! So useful!

(I’m not bothered enough to resubmit my work to be graded by someone new, which is an option that is offered. But it’s worth noting that peer assessments need to be taken with a grain of salt, and that they may or may not be useful — which is a bit of an annoyance in a workshop when you are trying to get feedback you can use.)

Overall, I’m glad that I enrolled in Sharpened Visions. It didn’t take too much time, gave me some useful exercises and good feedback, and satisfied my itch to be learning something. I’ll be taking more Coursera classes in the future.

Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 3 — the backburner)

In the shaping of a poem, inspiration provides its genesis: the recognition of the moment, image, feeling, etc. that you as the poet are trying to capture. Craft provides the structure and the technical work that allows you to capture it. But what about when neither of them seems to have an answer?

A few years ago, I wrote a short poem at a poetry slam (at a seniors’ centre, which is another story), riffing on the theme of Little Boy Blue. The second stanza starts like this:

Little Boy Blue, your music is fine,
[da-dum] than coffee and [dee-dum] than wine

… so what are da-dum and dee-dum? For nearly three years I have been playing with this line, trying to figure out whether it’s supposed to be

smoother than coffee and stronger than wine


stronger than coffee and smoother than wine

or something else entirely. I like the mild alliterative effect of having both adjectives start with S. My trouble is that both adjectives apply equally to both nouns: we talk about strong wine, or smooth [tasting] wine, or strong coffee, or smooth [tasting] coffee. I like the first line better, because I like the image of the music being intoxicating, like strong wine. But then I like the second line better, because I like the image of the music being invigorating, like strong coffee. But actually I like the first better, because I like the image of the music going down smoothly (as it were) like dark black coffee. But really I like the second better, because I like the image of the music going down smoothly like rich red wine. And around and around and around I go.

In this case, neither inspiration nor craft seems to be able to help me much. I’m stuck; perhaps the best thing to do is simply to pick one and let it be what it will be. (Yet even that is somewhat unsatisfactory, because I am left with the gnawing question of whether I picked the right line.) So now what?

Now comes another tool in my poet’s toolbox: leaving it alone. Forgetting about it. Letting it sit in one of the dusty back corners of my mind until, one day, it will suddenly jump back to the forefront, triumphantly declaring what it ought to be. This has worked for me before. I had a poem I wrote once that wasn’t quite right in its last stanza — but I couldn’t pinpoint the exact problem, and so, of course, couldn’t fix it, either. So I let it alone. About two years later, it suddenly occurred to me when I was in the middle of doing something completely unrelated, that I had used the word “turn” twice in the last stanza, the effect of which was rather clunky. I changed one instance to “face,” instead, and presto — a fixed, finished, poem. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my subconscious, inspiration and craft had been having a quiet conclave, working slowly but surely to give me the right word.

Inspiration and craft are useful tools, but they’re not always the kind we can wield totally at our own will. Sometimes there is simply no way to force the [rhyme/line/stanza], despite our best efforts. Sometimes the best thing we can do with a piece of work is to walk away.

Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 2 — revision)

One of the major foci of the Sharpened Visions course is the art of revision: a word that was anathema to me for probably all of my teenage years. As mentioned in my previous post, for most of my life I have written poetry as the muse took me, and only as the muse took me. (I’ve never had a problem revising prose — but poetry has always felt different to me for some reason.) When I was writing poems, whatever I wrote was what I ended up with — as if every word, image, and line had been graven in stone instead of scribbled on paper. What the muse dictated, I wrote — period.

This wasn’t optimal.

That’s not to say that everything I wrote before I learned to revise properly was garbage. But neither was it as strong as it could have been, had I the gumption to sit back and critically evaluate my own words, rather than treating them as if they were so precious as to be immutable. I felt very strongly that to edit my words would be a betrayal of the words as they came to me — though where this feeling originated I can’t say.

There were two main factors in play, I think. The first was my peculiar understanding of inspiration (and the tendency to treat my own work as if it were Inspired rather than inspired). The second was laziness. Revision, after all, takes some work. Drafting takes work. It’s much easier to just tell yourself, “well, I write to final, is all” and let that be the end of things. The tricky thing is that usually I could get away with this. Even into undergrad, I would write one first-and-final draft of my essays and hand them in; while my grades weren’t spectacular, they were certainly good enough. So if I could get myself inspired (or close enough), write one draft, and pass with a healthy average — where was the impetus to revise? There simply wasn’t any.

Somewhere around the time I started showing my poetry to my writers’ group, I started to get serious about drafting and revising. Some of that has to do with actually showing my work to others, but a lot had to do with observing other members of the group as they carefully reworked and reshaped what they had until it was what they had meant it to be all along. It was there that I first realised the value that others could contribute to my work, as they gently challenged me to make it better. And it was there that I learned to relish being able to serve others in the same way.

All of this was cemented during the process of writing my thesis for my masters degree. My advisor was fairly hands-off during the writing process — thank goodness! — but his editing suggestions on my draft chapters were insightful. I almost never agreed with him the first time I read his comments, but as I looked at what I had written through someone else’s eyes and began the work of revising, reworking, reshaping, rewriting… I found that his critiques inevitably made my work stronger. He forced me to push and pull at my words until they said exactly what I needed them to, no more and no less. I am very grateful for his help as I learned to do this.

Instead of worshiping at inspiration’s altar, I am now a devotee of the craft of revision. I don’t even transcribe my poems onto the computer now until they’ve been through at least three drafts in my notebook. Sometimes a poem changes into something almost unrecognisable as it moves through drafts, which is what my younger self was afraid would happen. But this is relatively rare. More often, the craft of revision enables a poem to become, in the end, more like itself than it ever was before — and there is the real value of revising.

Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 1 — prompts)

I’ve been writing poetry this summer. Well, I’ve been writing poetry since I was around eight years old, but this summer has been different: I enrolled myself in a poetry workshop via Coursera, hosted by the poet Douglas Kearney out of CalArts. The course is a MOOC — Massive Online Open Course — open to anyone with an internet connection, and so it’s something one does for personal enrichment rather than any sort of academic credit. Every week we watch some short video lectures, take a comprehension quiz, and then are given an assignment, which consists of two poetry prompts. Every few weeks we submit a drafted poem for peer critique, and have the opportunity to critique our classmates’ work as well. Overall, I have enjoyed the experience.

The process of workshopping isn’t totally new to me. Two cities ago, I belonged to a small group of writer-friends who would meet every month or two to drink wine and scotch, talk about nerdy literary stuff, and share our writings (mostly poetry, with a few short stories thrown in). It was great fun, and I miss that group terribly — both as individuals, and as members of a lovely and congenial space for sharpening our writing. Halcyon days indeed.

The major difference with the Sharpened Visions workshop — besides the fact that none of us are interacting in person — is the process of working off of set prompts. When I’ve written poetry before, it’s usually been 100% at inspiration’s beck and call: I would write when the fancy struck me or when a poem started rattling around in my head asking to be born. But I don’t think I’ve ever before regularly sat down and said to myself, “Now I will write a poem about X,” or “now I will write a poem in the form Y,” or “Now I will use rhyme-scheme Z.” A poem, of course, may have ended up with a certain structure or rhyme scheme or what have you, as it came about. Historically, however, when I’ve sat down and tried to craft a certain type of poem it has tended to derail halfway through, as in this terrible (though aptly named) sonnet from a few years ago:

Unfocussed Sonnet

The passing moments take me by surprise:
Each second comes and suddenly is gone,
Then comes and goes the next, and time flows on,
And every minute flees before my eyes.

Here in this passing we are too soon spent.
Each passing hour touches eternity,
And never will return again — but we
Become subsumed in how to pay the rent.

The sonnet form is harder than you think!
When halfway through without a conclusion
The poet’s thoughts all turn to confusion
(Though she may take some solace in pink ink).

The last couplet is the grand finale:
In theory, it is a hot tamale!

“In theory, it is a hot tamale.” Oy.

Writing poems from Sharpened Visions’ weekly prompts has been a very stretching experience — but a good one. I have been learning to lean less on inspiration as the main driver behind what I’m writing, and to pay more attention to the technical specs of whatever form I’m using. Generally I only pick one of the two prompts each week to focus on, but after the class ends I will likely go back and try the rest, because I have found them to be such useful exercises. Overall, I’ve come to a better understanding that there really is no “vs.” in between inspiration and craft (despite the title of this post); they are partners, each contributing something important to the creation of a poem.

I’ve started trying my hand at sonnets again; I wrote one, for a friend, and the realised that it wanted to be something more, so I am expanding it into a sonnet redoublé. This is a group of fifteen sonnets in which the last line of the first fourteen sonnets becomes the first line of the next — with the first line of the first sonnet taken from the last line of the fourteenth — and the fifteenth sonnet  (the “Mastersonnet”) is made up of the fourteen linking lines from the first fourteen sonnets. So my initial sonnet has become a Mastersonnet, and I am slowly filling in the rest.

It’s difficult and slow going; I think I have been working on this for two or three weeks now, at a rate of one sonnet every couple of days, and have now finished nine of the fifteen. This is, without a doubt, the most technically challenging poem I have ever attempted — and it has given me numerous occasions to kick myself for choosing certain rhymes in the Mastersonnet which are just a pain to have to deal with over and over again. But I have been relishing the challenge. Inspiration provided the initial sonnet and the desire to expand it into something greater; craft is what’s moving me, slowly but surely, toward the finish line. I would never have attempted something like this before Sharpened Visions, and that alone is reason enough to make me glad that I enrolled.

Explore more: Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop | Douglas Kearney | CalArts