A Multi-Genre Workshop with Teju Cole
Earlier this month, the campus was abuzz with two much anticipated Teju Cole Visiting Writing Series events, which drew full houses both nights. A lesser-known event was also a part of Cole’s time spent at American University. On Wednesday afternoon, a group of eager, and slightly nervous, graduate students and professors crammed into a room in Katzen with stark white walls, a projector, two art installations, and, of course, coffee. As the crowd settled into their seats, Teju Cole popped up and took command of the room. There were six student artists: two photographers, two writers, and two studio artists, who each submitted ten pieces of work for Teju Cole to provide feedback on.
Jordan Bissell Pérez and Tara Campbell were the two writers selected for the workshop, and I was able to get their impressions from the experience:
When you signed up for the Teju Cole workshopping event, what were your expectations? And, how did the reality of the experience match or differ from those expectations?
Jordan: I had read Blind Spot and loved it, so I was excited and grateful to get this time with Cole in a smaller setting. Since all of the workshop participants received everyone’s work beforehand, I expected that we would all be discussing everyone else’s work, rather than having one-on-one conversation time with Cole. I also expected that he would focus on bigger picture analyses of our art. For example, I thought he might talk about what worked and didn’t work on a macro level from the seven poems I sent him, instead of close reading a couple of pieces.
Tara: I really had no idea what to expect, but I knew it would be an important opportunity, so I said yes. I’d been working on a new approach to my thesis over the summer, and this turned out to be an opportunity to get initial feedback from a fresh and knowledgeable perspective. I wasn’t expecting to stand up in front of a crowd while receiving my feedback, which was–interesting–but at least we had the buffer of two photographers who came before us, so we could prepare a little. And I’ve been working on this project for such a long time, I could at least explain my intentions for it, so I was able to adapt. It was good training because anyone who’s ever tried to sell a manuscript knows how important that impromptu elevator pitch can be.
What was the biggest take away from Teju Cole’s input?
Jordan: My biggest takeaway personally was that it’s useful for me to consider how any symbolic images in a poem might confuse the narrative. He seemed to value clarity in a poem over abstraction, which reminded me to continue to examine the fine line of mystery and confusion. My biggest takeaway from the event as a whole was that it’s good to have a clear purpose for your work, to know why you are making a particular body of art and what you want its message to be.
Tara: I was happy to get affirmation of my premise and my general approach to it. I had a limit of ten pages, so he didn’t have much to go on, but I was relieved that he seemed to think I was on the right track. In general, he seemed to be interested in how we all contextualized our specific projects within our practice, which is an important element for us to think about, regardless of genre.
Do you think his command of multiple genres enhanced or influenced his commentary? If so, how?
Jordan: Honestly, I didn’t feel strongly about this aspect of his work within the context of the workshopping experience.
Tara: That’s an interesting question. He seemed to appreciate slightly different qualities in each discipline: clarity and directness in writing, a little more of the oblique in photography, and the potential for studio art objects to create an aura in presentation. Overall, though, he was looking for the sense of narrative in all of our projects, regardless of discipline.
Would you participate in a similar event in the future?
Jordan: I would be honored to participate in something like this again. One of the most gratifying parts of this for me was the interdisciplinary nature of the workshop. We should collaborate with other arts departments more often because seeing art that my peers are creating in other mediums is such an important part of generating my own work. Luckily, I was able to connect with Anna, one of the wonderful photographers whose photographs were featured, after the workshop. I hope that the creative writing program only continues to overlap with studio arts and photography — and dance and music!
Tara: I certainly would. It’s important for us to see how our work is received outside of our genre bubbles. I enjoyed talking with students in other disciplines after the program. In the future, I’d love to have more of an opportunity for us to discuss each other’s work, and talk about what we’re working on, so I could definitely see these events continuing.
How did the format of the event affect the process? That is, do you think staging the workshop was valuable to you as an artist?
Jordan: While I’m incredibly grateful for Cole’s time and his generous feedback, I’m not sure that the format was ideal for me as a poet. In class workshops, we generally ask writers to remain quiet until the end of their time, which I think keeps the discussion as just that — a discussion, rather than an argument or a defense. I got the sense that my own time with Cole was more like a defense of my choices, which were generally choices about an individual word in a poem instead of a choice about content or the poem’s larger direction. I think I would have benefitted more from listening to what he thought about the seven-poem packet I sent as a whole, instead of an interrogation of a few words in only a few of the poems. Of course, I do understand that his time was limited, but he seemed to focus much more time on what wasn’t working for each artist rather than what was working. While this is clearly useful, I believe that knowing the strengths of your art is crucial too.
Tara: I was glad to have the opportunity to look at the visual art in person, especially the studio art, because it changed my perspective on it. Before the event, we were encouraged to write a bio in which we think about the particular project we submitted, as well as our larger process, and I think even that by itself is a valuable process for any artist.
Austine Elizabeth Chilton Model is a staff editor at Café MFA and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.