Sunday, April 4, 2010

thoughts on creative writing, MFA programs, and the social beat

I recently participated in a local event called Ignite Bloomington, where my co-presenter, Christian Briggs, and I performed a poem we called "the social beat."

The design of the background images, the development of the poem, and the planning of the performance were all completed collaboratively; this was by far the most collaborative creative project I've ever been involved in. I say that as a graduate of an MFA program who spent three years doing almost nothing but creative work. I say that as someone who intentionally moved away from what I'm coming to see as the antiquated approach to writing that pervades creative writing programs around the country.

I write more now, and more creatively, and with more enthusiasm, than I ever did during my days as a 'poet.' In part, this is because the primary type of writing I do these days is far more public and persistent, and more closely linked to issues that matter deeply to me, than was the writing I did as a creative writing major. But the writing I do nowadays is also more aligned with my ethos: These days, I embrace openness, collaboration, and collective knowledge-building; and producing, circulating, and building upon others' ideas online meets these interests nicely. In fact, this "writing publicly for a networked public" thing meets my needs like gangbusters.

Creative writing, at least in the MFA-program sense of the term, never did meet my needs or interests. It felt too far out of my control. We more or less buy the idea of the "muse"--call it flow if you want, call it the zone, call it whatever you want, but what it means is that we embrace this strange idea that the greatest works emerge when you can set your conscious mind a little bit to the side and let your unconscious break through to the surface. It had to happen in silence. It had to happen alone. And you couldn't control it. You could only control the circumstances that make it more likely to happen.

Sure, fine. We need people to make those great brilliant works by betting on the muse. But that way of thinking about writing is just not for me--it never has been. I'm more into the "how do you get to Carnegie Hall" approach to writing, which is why blogging, and the attendant potential readership, appeals so much to me.

And when it comes to creative writing, I'm kinda into this "collaboration" thing. Coordinating the partnership is tricky and time-consuming, but if you find the right partner you end up standing on each other's shoulders, finishing with something better than any one of you could have written on their own. One thing I know for sure is that the work that came out of my collaboration with Christian is better, stronger, more powerful than anything I could have come up with on my own. I'm proud of this work, maybe prouder than I was of any poem I wrote on my own, and I'm proud to include the poem and a video of our performance of it below.








the social beat
{implosion::explosion}
Jenna McWilliams & Christian Briggs

let’s walk it backwards:
when a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
looks out at you and smiles
you think something has begun
but that’s not a smile
it’s a grimace it’s a sneer
you’ve got that camera around your face and a 21st century leer

but it’s a circle, a cycle, a snake that eats its tail
explosion, says mcluhan, split the instrument from the wail
and now we’re walking that split backwards to where the hammer meets the nail
to where the language meets its speaker and the face removes its veil

is this a flat world?
a kind world?
a world framed as a game?
what’s the win state?
who’s losing?
should we send it all up in flames?
and with every change we fight for does it all just stay the same?

explosion:
in 1984 papert blew up the school or said computers would
{they didn’t
or if they did, they hid it}
it’s a long revolution
a slow evolution
characterized by dilution and diffusion
and confusion
sometimes, but joy too, and profusion, collusion and elocution
and hope, and motion, and implosion
of space and time and multiple uses
we lifted our tech and it calmly spoke through us.

implosion: the same plane with the same name moves us and rushes us and smooshes us together
that long walkway is us walking away from the everyday pulleys and gears of our years
we climb onto the tech we climb into the sky
we can collaborate now we can elaborate now we can fly

it’s gonna crash
the school becomes a skull
its planks and its floorboards and its chalkboards and its front doors flash past us like shrapnel
as we dash past with laptops
the floor’s falling in and we have them building backdrops and stage props in woodshop.

they’re gonna fall
explode in on themselves, the freight and the chaos
beams buckling, roof knuckling under the weight
as crowds spill like kindling into the street
meeting each other again flinting and squinting again in the sun {ignite}

it’s all going under
it’s all yellow light slanting sideways across shining faces
it’s thunder
it’s traces of ozone it’s acres of blight
as we push back the night as it grinds to a crawl as the old ladies watch and wonder
they’re gonna go under

but the story’s not finished
they’re gonna defend
they’ll never give in. they learned how to stand in an age of their father’s machine.
they’re clean.
so they defend. and they default. and they defer
to the icon and its policies and its politics and its poetry
we automate the manual. now our hands are clean on the path to hell

cue eye roll.
we know how to build, we can do it again. so we build.
and we machinate. and we slap down machines to palliate the children
we fill them as if they were containers.
it’s heinous.
it took two days for those green machines to fill up with guess what? porn.

we’ve had millennia now of dissemination, maybe it’s time to change the story
to disovulation: one perfect idea at a time, sent out into the world
then we’ll let you guys fight over who gets to claim it.
or blame it.
millennia now of the Churchills the Hitlers the Gateses the Jobses the Spitfires and Messerschmittses and Habermas and Hobbeses

like a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
is still inside the lines
where something has begun

it’s the circle, the cycle, the snake has caught its tail
the explosion’s moving backward though the timid first will fail

the tots will test it, resisting with a poke, a prod, a post
the slightest and the smallest seem the most benign of rabble
filling up the tubes with what will mostly seem a babble
to defenders of the past

now they’re teens
on the street
the lines are giving way
babble turned to business
as the structures start to sway
but still defenders are within this
scene, clutching for the days….
that will no longer be..

you see…

the teens have grown and jumped the lines
we’re not walled in and not walled out
nor confined by any doubt
instead we clamber for the time
when all that’s in will all be out
a coalescing of the minds
whose synaptastics speed the time

technology will take its place
a toy a tool connecting us
aiding a collective us
crushing in both time and space
freeing up the play in us

we are those girls
in our fields
faces turned toward every one
collectively reflecting on the
thing that has begun
or is it ending as it rends us?
the scream igniting as it mends us?
unbends us and upends us:
a lick of flame, a bonfire, night brought shrieking to the sun
a slow sermon whispered softly:
there is much that must be done.

2 comments:

Big Papi said...

Wow, this poem is amazing. Love everything about it really, but the rhythm is something special. I feel I should leave some profound connection or thought, but all I can say right now is great writing!

Jenna McWilliams said...

Thank you! I'll pass the compliment to my partner in crime.

 

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