The other day the poet Michael Loughran took me to a secret location—well, we had a little trouble finding it—to talk about my latest book, Century Swept Brutal, with a group known as the Rogue Workshop. The Rogues started after Nico Amador, a student from Loughran’s classes at the Community College of Philadelphia, wanted to study poetry further; Amador and a group of friends hired Loughran to facilitate a private class.
This class resembles the workshops discussed by Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr in The 95¢ Skool: it doesn’t merely replicate what happens in an academic setting—or in commercial, “pay-to-play” workshops—but seeks, in Clover and Spahr’s terms, to favor “the possibility of possibility” over “the pedantry of professionalization, the policing of group norms, a pedagogy of proofreading and minor revision, an unacknowledged aesthetic elitism and narrow-mindedness, anxiety about outcomes other than the outcome of the poem.”
Such writing workshops and poetry study groups, which provide not only additional educational settings but deliberate, alternative educational models, happen many places, of course, in many ways, around many people; Clover and Spahr’s essay appears in the excellent collection Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, in which one can also find Hoa Nguyen’s discussion of teaching out of her home and enough other ideas and incitements for a full DIY MFA.
But I’m not surprised that Loughran is a part of this group: when I first moved to town, he sent me a message of welcome, because of having read some of my poems, and brought us a housewarming gift of Ernst Meister’s In Time’s Rift. In poetry, “community” can mean many things. Sometimes it’s a default term for anyone with shared interests, although if every reader of poetry is part of poetry’s “community,” the word doesn’t mean much. Sometimes it’s a term of coterie, of relative exclusion, compared to the type of “community” one sees in and surrounding an organization like, for instance, The Kenyon Review, in which many perspectives and programs are united by a set of central values, by a commitment to literature.
Loughran’s approach to poetic community seems based in actions, relationships, the lives that move through poetry; he’s told me that he’d love to see films of poets’ commutes, those daily landscapes behind and around one’s poems. The structure of the Rogues, he says, “allows or even encourages the kind of risk-taking” he always wants as a teacher, emphasizing “openness among friends, established from minute one, fiercely protected.” He adds: “With frivolity, with wine, with With.”
Lillian Dunn, a workshop participant and an editor with APIARY Magazine, offers one interpretation of this second With. “I’m consistently inspired by my fellow workshoppers as people, not just as writers,” she says. “They’re teachers, activists, artists, and are leading adventurous and interesting lives. I feel pushed to be a better person and listener because they are who they are.” Because the Rogue Workshop is a participant-initiated group, Dunn says, it provides “a reversal from the usual poetry class, in which you go in alone, hoping for the best from your fellow students and your teacher. Here, I know I love my fellow students, and we’re choosing the teacher who we want to learn from.”
Another participant, Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, compares the mood of the workshop (“non-competitive and supportive and yet fostering/pushing/developing the best of each writer”) to her experiences in the workshops of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), an organization devoted to “empowering the community of writers of color.” Johnson-Valenzuela is the editor of an anthology, Dismantle, of writing from the VONA workshops. Its introduction, by Junot Díaz, discusses some of the ways in which workshops outside of the academy can support distinct populations; VONA’s workshops, Díaz writes, offer a space where the experiences of writers of color can be “privileged rather than marginalized; encouraged rather than trivialized; discussed intelligently rather than exoticized; a space where the stories we tell (and how we choose to tell them) are considered cornerstones of the project of literature.”
In the Rogue Workshop, says Amador, the members of the group are “all loosely connected through various networks in [their] lefty neighborhood of West Philadelphia, so there’s a shared understanding of the social and political orientations that make us oddballs in other spaces.” Johnson-Valenzuela emphasizes that this political affinity enters the workshop in complex ways. “All of the Rogues are deeply concerned with issues of social justice,” she says, “but we don’t write dogmatically or even overtly put politics in most of our poems.”
In the workshop I attended, I felt this awareness—nuanced, complex—in the participants’ questions about my book’s relationship to the “century” and “brutality” of its title. I tried to answer, and then I asked if the visiting poet is allowed to have some more wine.