By Christopher Kempf | Contributing Writer
How to be Better by Being Worse
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2021
The Best Prey
Pleiades Press, 2021
One of the more valuable insights to emerge from Mark McGurl’s 2009 analysis of postwar creative writing, The Program Era, has been that literature produced under the auspices of university writing programs betrays a remarkable similarity in both form and content. Encoding within itself the aesthetic and cultural values of the “program” from which it issues, such literature divides neatly, according to McGurl, into a recognizable series of formations, tropes, and trajectories. In McGurl’s reading, then, virtually all creative writing serves as an allegory for its own institutional production, a kind of program to the Program Era itself. The restrained short stories of Flannery O’Connor, for instance, with their efficient narrative structure and rigorous impersonality, reflect the inhibitory influence of the creative writing workshop, embodying what McGurl describes as a “masochistic aesthetics of institutionalization.”
For McGurl, we are all O’Connors.
“Same,” creative writers have seemed to sigh, producing from cohort to cohort variations on a single carefully crafted text.
While much of McGurl’s argument revolves around postwar and contemporary fiction, critics have long lamented a similar homogeneity in Program Era poetry. As early as 1984, Charles Altieri identified a “studied artlessness” in workshop poems which were written in a conversational tone, set in “naturally conceived scenes,” and moved purposefully toward epiphanic “moments of sudden illumination.” Two years later, Robert Peters wrote that “the dominant workshop poem these days, sponsored by the college and university workshops […] is what we call Experiential—first-person poems derived from the trivia of a poet’s life.” Donald Hall famously termed this the “McPoem.” The “workshop lyric” is what David Dooley called it, a structure ever so slightly re-adapted in modes like the “domesticated confessional,” the “quasi-surreal,” and the “regional-pastoral.” More recently, Christopher Beach describes workshop writing as “‘home movie’ poetry,” while Vernon Shetley argues that “each poet seems compelled to enhance his or her brand recognition with an easily recognizable gimmick.” Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr echo this line of thinking, lamenting “the well-made [poetic] object with its minor telltale difference (a.k.a. its logo)” and critiquing the disarticulation of workshop poetry from broader critical and theoretical discourses. Implicit in these critiques—as common among the poetry avant garde, of which Clover and Spahr are part, as among the literary establishment—is the image of the writing workshop as a disciplinary institution, one in which individual experience is shaped, channeled, and mechanically reproduced to the point of meaninglessness.
That image, I suspect, is a caricature.
To my eye, in fact, the diversity of contemporary poetry testifies in large part to the capacity of creative writing programs to produce a stunningly differentiated body of literature. No institution which has given rise to both a Ross Gay and a Louise Glück—that is, to an exuberant lushness and an austere tonalism, both honed in the workshops at Sarah Lawrence—could be considered “homogenous” in any sense of that word. While workshop poetry might be said to traffic in certain recognizable modes—the associatively imagistic lyric, the self-portrait poem, the political invective steeped in first-person experience—what seems more noteworthy is the variegation among both programs and Program Era writers. From the classicism of UVA and the Michener Center to the theoretically inflected poetics of Brown and Buffalo, from Rita Dove and Joanna Klink to Erica Hunt and Myung Mi Kim, university writing programs have not simply saturated but diversified the poetic marketplace—in this way, of course, they are no different than any other institution of late capital, creating a complexly stratified market where once was only “The Waste Land.” McGurl himself begrudgingly acknowledges the apparent variety of Program Era writing. “Do we not bear daily witness,” he admits, “to a surfeit of literary excellence, an embarrassment of riches?” Can we not order to our very doorsteps, I might add, depending on our mood or curiosities or compulsions, precisely the kind of poetry for which we long? Are we not entertained?
As a way of responding to these questions, and of complicating an ongoing conversation regarding the quality and originality of Program Era poetry, this review examines two collections from debut poets well-versed, as it were, in the creative writing workshop. Candidates in the Ph.D. program at the University of Houston, Justin Jannise and Paige Quiñones hold MFAs from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Ohio State University respectively, and their work appears in a number of journals closely affiliated with university writing programs. Their collections themselves have been brought out from presses with a long tradition of supporting debut books from workshop writers. Jannise’s How to Be Better by Being Worse (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2021) was selected by Richard Blanco for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, while Quiñones’s The Best Prey (Pleiades Press, 2021) won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize, both esteemed, mid-level contests the recent winners of which have included Kai Carlson-Wee, Geffrey Davis, Katy Didden, and Jacques J. Rancourt.
In appraising these collections—two books published in the same year by poets in the same writing program—we might expect to uncover significant resemblances in style, subject matter, and mode. These resemblances certainly exist. Introspective in familiar ways, Jannise and Quiñones examine the self as a multitudinous, even incoherent, assemblage, as protean and as vital as the language in which it is rendered. Likewise, both writers investigate the boundaries and limitations of that self—where it ends and begins, how it might be satisfied, the ways in which, at one and the same moment, it enchants and imprisons us. As they address these issues, moreover, Jannise and Quiñones come to resemble in both accent and argument the work of the late Houston creative writing professor Tony Hoagland, a poet whose influence shows in poem after poem across both collections. But these poets draw on Hoagland’s legacy in distinct ways. And despite obvious similarities between the collections, they reveal the astounding range and profound adaptability of workshop poetry, divergent as they are in ambit, ethos, and in those particular mysteries through which, even in the writing workshop, each poet makes the language their own.
In a single program, I suggest, indeed in a single year, we find testament to the remarkable diversity of a body of writing which we have come to call, perhaps mistakenly, “programmed.” This review identifies and celebrates that diversity.
Integral to rendering the multitudinous self that emerges in How to Be Better by Being Worse is Jannise’s pursuit of his speaker’s own “worst” self. Courting his interior slob, coward, boor, social naïf, and sinner, Jannise takes devilish pleasure in flouting conventional notions of morality, and his poems are stocked with transgressions of greater or lesser consequence: the theft of a leather jacket, a lack of reverence for familial history, liaisons with married men. “I never had to worry about getting caught,” Jannise writes in the poem “Claire’s Husband”:
If I said I was at the gym, that’s probably where I was.
Emerson, on denying handouts to beggars: “Are these my poor?”
A deep, doggish sadness in their eyes.
I remember the first time I knew the man’s wife.
Are these my vows? My unfaithful?
Jannise’s unflinching ambivalence, especially with regard to social and sexual ethics, is part of his inheritance from Hoagland. In now infamous poems like “The Change” and “Adam and Eve,” Hoagland traded easy moral posturing for riskier work: cultural self-questioning and frank introspection in the service of ethical clarity. While his response to outside criticism, including from Claudia Rankine, often veered into the objectionable, Hoagland’s work was premised on the assumption that real progress in American culture—particularly with regard to gender and race relations—necessitates unflinching confrontation with those parts of ourselves of which we are most ashamed, those parts that are most appalling. Jannise’s touch is perhaps lighter and more nimble than his teacher’s, but he powerfully embodies Hoagland’s description of the poet as one who “plays with the devil,” trafficking in otherwise repressed energies.
In equally powerful ways, Quiñones pursues a sometimes terrifying, sometimes tempting inner self as yet unbridled by the restraints of human sociality. “At my worst, / I’m two women or more,” she writes in “Ode to Hysteria + Anhedonia,” “the room lit by my mouth / will drop into darkness / double is double too many sometimes.” Figuring herself as a “dearest other girl / waist-deep in water,” Quiñones’s speaker courts throughout The Best Prey an interior wildness that carries her to the brink of self-destruction. How close can we come, Quiñones asks, to a kind of primal sexual energy without eradicating ourselves? How do we balance the claims of the self against those of society? In exploring these questions, Quiñones turns frequently to animalistic imagery to limn the boundary between wildness and intimacy, danger and pleasure. If Hoagland believed that the poet “plays with the devil,” Quiñones literalizes that metaphor in the excellent “Black Magic Pact.” “[T]he devil is my plaything,” she writes:
so I’ll bring the bacchanalia
my pussy is a cobra’s laughing
maw just grope her
to feel my efficient fangs
I have been torn in half
more than once but I know
a potion that might
make us whole & all
you have to do is touch me
without fear […]
Seeking something like Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses,” Quiñones tracks the profound mystery at the core of embodied experience, to the point that the interior self becomes her speaker’s own “best prey”—wild and familiar at once, dangerous and domesticated.
As she pursues this quarry, Quiñones rarely indulges in the kind of frenetic, overly dissociative imagery which hampers some Program Era poetry, especially in debut collections. Rather, she uses the image as an alternative form of thinking, balancing mic-drop discursiveness, or statement, with finely wrought visual descriptions. In the book’s opening poem, “A Piece of Living Heart,” Quiñones plays on Henry James’s description of poetic attention as a spider web “suspended in the chamber of consciousness.” Here, a “spider’s web [is] sewn from dusty baseboard / to floor,” Quiñones writes:
the fisher asleep at his helm,
a sad slackness to his trap. I watch
as a bee stumbles through, disturbed
by the human audience to his lateness—
the sun swims past the windowsill.
His dull wings catch and the struggle
is slow and some hive is none the wiser
to its loss. But imagine, pretend he is you:
beauty is the cold bind, beauty is the fang,
I am complicit.
The introductory ars poetica—short, lyrical, impressionistic—has become something of a convention in workshop manuscripts, reinforced by a contest model which seems to demand a kind of aperitif prior to a collection’s main course. In Quiñones’s hands, the mode works to profound effect, evocatively imaging the poet’s own activity, and its ethical implications, while simultaneously suggesting how Quiñones will tether form to content in the poems that follow; gorgeous yet banal, rendered equally with intentionality and understatement, Quiñones’s language enacts at the level of line that wild beauty which, across the collection, she uncovers within the everyday.
In similar fashion, the quicksilver uncatchability of Jannise’s language suggests a speaker irreducible to a single self. Reminiscent of Dean Young and David Tomas Martinez (the latter a Houston alum and Hoagland student), Jannise’s speaker manages to parody, ironize, or otherwise editorialize on himself even in the act of speaking, giving the poems a verve and tonal dynamism sometimes lacking in Program Era poetry. In poems like “What I’m Into” and others, Jannise also displays a graceful rhyme which enhances rather than overpowers the poem’s argument. “Dilfs. Doctors. Dimples,” Jannise writes in the abecedarian list poem:
Every man I’ve seen
offer his arm to someone crossing the street.
Fags—those who’ve reclaimed the word
with piercings, tattoos, unruly curls
sprouting from their heads, pits, chests, thighs.
Ghosts of long dead poets, the sad eyes
of young Robert (Frost, Hayden, Lowell)
appearing, now, beneath the charcoal.
While many contemporary abecedarians can feel like workshop exercises, Jannise marshals the form toward sophisticated cultural and literary historical thinking, without abandoning its best effect: a child-like delight in something as simple as the alphabet. As the passage suggests, moreover, How to Be Better by Being Worse is haunted throughout by its various Roberts, in particular by Lowell’s iconic joining of private experience and public history. Jannise seems to have mastered even Lowell’s distinctive rhetorical patterns in a poem like “Mother and Child.” “Was it important for us boys never to mix up God / with women,” Jannise wonders in that poem:
never to let Delilah crash
and then move in, replacing Him in our hearts?
Or were we dealt just the facts with a coloring sheet?
Memory fades like faces in the back pew:
Silent men with yellowing mustaches
who came to hear but did not come to be saved.
I realize now how young my mother was then […]
Elevating sexual and familial experience, as Lowell did, to the level of the Biblical, the passage bespeaks Jannise’s deep knowledge of—and reverence for—the traditions of American poetry, complicating caricatures of Program Era poets as naïvely ignorant of their predecessors.
While Jannise’s tonal range is both witty and winning, How to Be Better by Being Worse is less charming when it resorts to meme-like or social media shorthand, a technique which gives certain poems the glibness and affectation of a David Kirby. As Jannise’s speaker tries to navigate a highway exit in the poem “Stingray Petting Zoo,” he writes that a “truck driver nearly assists / but I plant my foot on the brake instead // and another window passes me by. Sigh. It’s no use.” Likewise, some of these poems too closely resemble the epiphanic poem of “sudden illumination” which Altieri associates with workshop writing, the kind of “I do this, I do that” narrative opening onto a more or less explicit “point.” Quiñones largely avoids this structure, though in exploring the ecstasies and erasures of sexual experience she sometimes resorts to an overly literal épater le bourgeois descriptivism. “He touches my spine / my legs clench say yes open,” she writes in “Harlot.” “He asks me to press / my knees to his throat I do.” Amidst this material, moreover, the collection’s handful of poems on family history feel extraneous, subject matter ubiquitous in the workshop, of course, but unintegrated into The Best Prey’s broader intellectual and emotional trajectories.
But even in the poem I’ve just quoted, Quiñones shuttles deftly between the literal and the fabular, from banal embodiment to transcendent fervor. “Harlot” ends by invoking those epic and Biblical women who access through sexual experience an agency denied them in other forms:
Once he sleeps I’ll steal
his genitals to carry
in my back pocket
they will keep stay pink and firm
I will bury them in spring
In a lesser poet’s work, the treatment of sexuality as agential and transformative might entail a narrowly gendered ethics reducible, in effect, to a morality tale. But The Best Prey eschews moralism in favor of a thoroughgoing investigation of how desire makes and remakes us endlessly, an experience which, for Quiñones, brings us to the very limits of the embodied self. “O perfect engine,” Quiñones apostrophizes in “Ode to Desire”:
you craft me into
with two mouths two
on those nights
I need you to
make me into
you like best
& sink it
Rendering the transformative experiences of self and sexuality in believable, carefully thought-out, and compelling form, The Best Prey testifies powerfully to Quiñones’s graceful muscularity as a writer, including her ability to redeploy Program Era poetics in the service of a distinct aesthetic project.
Likewise, How to Be Better by Being Worse mobilizes a vast tonal range to suggest the permutations of an endlessly various self, one which Jannise brilliantly figures in “An Extra Heart” as “the lip sync queen // who tears her wig off during Whitney’s chorus / only to reveal, you guessed it, another wig.” It is this range of affect and intellect which gives the collection’s more serious poems a grave resonance, since the pathos of “After Visiting My Brother in Prison,” for example, comes woven within a wider emotional tapestry. “My brother gives me / tight hugs when I go to see him,” Jannise writes:
Sometimes, when he catches me by the shoulders and pulls
me toward him, so the foreign smell behind
his ears, which must be the smell of inside,
is so close it nearly chokes me, I get the feeling
he’s holding on to the brief scattering of years
that passes for childhood, like burying your head
in a tree, closing your eyes, and counting
to fifty, or a hundred—as high as it takes
for everyone around you to find a place to hide.
While many debut collections pound away at this kind of gravity, the poem’s conclusion is made more harrowing by its juxtaposition with lighter, often quite humorous material, including a catalog of “Ways to Do It,” a skillful concrete poem in the shape of a flamingo, “Flamingosexual,” and a witty reflexivity which asks, in “Poem with Trap Door,” “What’s the truth even for in this circus?” For Jannise, that question is an earnest one. How to Be Better by Being Worse is a moving exploration of truth, morality, and of those selves through which, for better or worse, we experience both.
In reviewing these debut collections in close relation, I have tried to rethink the assumption, widespread among poetry scholars and critics, that university writing programs produce a relatively homogenous body of writing. While Jannise and Quiñones traffic in certain recognizable tropes—the epiphanic first-person narrative, the self-portrait, the family history—they at once complicate, deconstruct, and enliven these tropes, revealing a remarkable diversity in Program Era poetics.
That era is our own, of course, and the democratization of literary culture through education is no more lamentable, it seems to me, than any of the other powerful democratic movements through which we are currently living. There may indeed be more “bad” poetry written today than ever before, as workshop detractors charge, but there is also more “good” poetry more readily accessible than at any point in human history. The creative writing workshop has been responsible for much of that work, and How to Be Better by Being Worse and The Best Prey testify profoundly to the continuing importance and vitality of that institution—as they do, of course, to the maturity, skill, and vision of the two poets who wrote them.
Christopher Kempf is the author of the poetry collections What Though the Field Be Lost (LSU, 2021) and Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize from Four Way Books and has been reviewed widely, including in The New York Times. His scholarly book, Craft Class: The Writing Workshop in American Culture, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Best American Poetry (2020), Boston Review, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, The New Republic, and PEN America, among others. His scholarship appears in American Literary History (ALH), English Literary History (ELH), and Modernism/modernity. Kempf holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Chicago, an MFA from Cornell University, and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.
Justin Jannise is the author of How to Be Better by Being Worse (BOA Editions, Ltd.). He grew up in rural southeast Texas. As a first-generation college student, he attended Yale University, where he won the 2009 Albert Stanburrough Cook Prize for Poetry. He worked as a freelance pop culture writer in New York City before moving to Iowa to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The University of Iowa awarded him a Teaching-Writing Fellowship in 2013 and named him the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Poetry in 2014. Now pursuing his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston, Justin served as Editor-in-Chief of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts from 2018 to 2020. He frequently teaches workshops for Inprint, Grackle & Grackle, and Writespace. As part of Writers in the Schools, he has led classrooms at Field Elementary School, White Elementary School, Garden Oaks Montessori, the High School for Law and Justice, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital. He is the recipient of both the Inprint Marion Barthelme Prize and the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. In 2019, his poems appeared in both Best New Poets and Best of the Net, and Copper Nickel nominated his poem “Leather Jacket” for a Pushcart Prize. His poem “Flamingosexual” won The Pinch Journal’s 2020 Pinch Literary Award. His writing has also appeared—or is forthcoming—in The Greensboro Review, Hobart, Houston Chronicle, Lana Turner, New Ohio Review, Out, Palette Poetry, Poetry Northwest, The Southeast Review, Split Lip Magazine, and Yale Review.
Paige Quiñones is the author of The Best Prey, which received the 2020 Pleiades Press Lena Miles-Wever Todd Prize for Poetry. She has received awards and fellowships from the Center for Mexican-American Studies, the Academy of American Poets, and Inprint Houston. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Copper Nickel, Crazyhorse, Juked, Lambda Literary, Orion Magazine, Poetry Northwest, Quarterly West, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA from the Ohio State University and is currently a PhD student in poetry at the University of Houston, where she teaches community workshops and is a writer at Writers in the Schools.