The Creative Writing Interviews form a series of interviews with contributors to our Creative Writing Studies list. Find out about their work and approach towards writing.
Frances Haynes writes: Will Cordeiro is currently a Ph.D. candidate studying 18th century British literature at Cornell University. His work appears in many journals. He is grateful for residencies from Risley Residential College, Provincetown Community Compact, Ora Lerman Trust, and Petrified Forest National Park.
Will, what do you write?
I primarily write poems — or maybe I say that because I primarily think of myself as a poet. However, I also write many plays and essays (in the form of reviews, creative nonfiction, or academic work). Now and again over the years, I’ve also dabbled in fiction, whether flash fiction, short stories, or failed attempts at novels. It’s important for me to try different genres: having some felicity with dialogue, prose rhythms, or the intricacies of narration, for example, can come in handy when I go back to writing a poem.
I think poems themselves are multifarious, especially since so much good work today is in prose poetry or cross-genre work. In other words, poetry is not (and never was) just what has a jagged right margin; poetry is what can’t be put in other words. Then again, “poetry,” as Octavio Paz said, “is what gets translated.”
So the short and long of it is, I try to keep my chops keen, writing in a variety of styles within poetry as well, including formal, free verse, narrative, dramatic, and experimental traditions. In the end, I try to do what’s best for the poem and hope to care little about establishing my voice or nourishing my ego. But the end for which I write is pure process: the intellectual, perceptual, and personal growth that occurs in the making, and then making the best of it. I write little crumbs by which I keep myself hungry.
Whom do you write for?
Ultimately, I write because I feel I have to. If nothing I wrote was ever published, I would still go on writing. I would still go on writing even if I had to blot each scribble before it dried. Sometimes lines are composed in my head without deliberation or compunction; there are times when I literally daydream in blank verse. As a matter of operational principle, though, I believe poems are a dispensation from the muses: they arrive unbidden and we can’t force them, we can only prepare ourselves for them through work, praise, reading, and sacrifices. The bee-swarm blooming from the bovine gut at the culmination of Virgil’s Georgics could be the hive of the alphabet itself, the buzz of language. A good poem stings. It’s conceived in the gut.
Nonetheless, the bulk of what I do—year in, year out — is revision, a long and squalid midwifery. Perhaps I write for myself, though I revise for others. Yet, it’s almost always in revision where I make breakthroughs and discoveries. Because the initial impetus of a poem comes from something not you, and “a poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence” (Keats), the experience of revision is often more personal, at least more cerebral: it allows time to think through the composition word by word. One does all this work, ironically, so none of it is visible. Visible, that is, to the (hypothetical) reader—but that reader can very well be oneself alone in a room. While one can’t revise a poem — a good poem — into existence through sheer craft, one can certainly try to make the most of one’s gifts. The pains the poet takes, to crib Frost, become the reader’s pleasures; but maybe I’m a masochist.
What achievement are you most proud of as a writer?
Probably the achievement I’m most proud of is that I have the audacity to bother with writing after so many years of moiling and maundering about, especially since the more I read and write and learn, the more clearly I begin to see the enormity of the flaws in my work. I still have no idea what I’m really doing, and yet I still keep doing it each day. This either seems to hint at the myth of poets going blind or, more likely, Einstein’s definition of insanity. At any rate, to insist on challenging myself to make it different and better, to utterly renovate and change, and (perhaps foolishly) to believe that this is even a possibility, propels me. Inertia is responsible for keeping things rolling as much as it is for the difficulty we have in getting things rolling. Hence, perhaps the best advice I received from my own creative writing instructors was simply to keep on keeping on. Just keeping it up is a kind of upkeep of the soul, an imposition of order in the face of the forces of squalor and entropy that threaten to overtake us daily.
What involvement do you have / have you had with creative writing as a university/college subject/discipline?
Before graduate school, I had almost no formal workshop experience. I now have an MFA in poetry from Cornell University, where I have also taught creative writing classes at the undergraduate level. In addition, I have taught creative writing to gifted high school students (who work at the college level) through Johns Hopkins CTY summer program, and I like to incorporate some creative writing exercises in the composition classes I currently teach to adult inmates in prison. Both before and after my MFA, the most valuable exchanges and feedback about work-in-progress have come from personal friends and fellow writers, whether ones I met in workshop, school, or elsewhere. But the value of workshop for me has been less about responses I received to my own work, and more about having to confront and puzzle out other’s work, especially the work where I felt unmoored, and then to offer feedback that was both honest and helpful.
What do you think is the value of the workshop model in general?
The workshop model, from what I’ve read, developed in a very specific context, notably Paul Engle’s stewardship of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the 1940’s. The students and teachers there were a rowdy bunch of well-versed, egotists — mostly male and mostly white; basically, big mouths, many of whom later turned out to be big shots. The model developed under these conditions was later exported to hundreds of institutions with its assumptions virtually unchanged, despite the fact that today the circumstances of these institutions and the writers in them are vastly different.
First, the orthodox workshop model is used in high schools and in undergrad electives among students who often have limited previous exposure to literature, affecting their ability to comment on many pieces. This workshop model assumes fairly comprehensive background knowledge of literature by the writer’s peers (even back then, those Iowa writers had craft lectures and old-fashioned literature classes they were supposed to attend, which abetted workshops).
Furthermore, the Iowa model is designed to get the writer to shut up while the bigger problem in many classes today, in my experience, is to get students talking, whether about their own work or other’s. Indeed, students at all levels need to talk more openly about the values, goals, aesthetics, and assumptions they’re bringing to the table both as writers and readers. Especially in poetry, the diversity within contemporary practice can make it challenging for writers to communicate and critique work that falls outside their personal or stylistic purviews. This can, however, become one of the most fruitful aspects of a workshop, allowing seemingly incommensurable subject positions, poetics, or theoretical stances to be in dialogue as actual young writers struggle to articulate not only their own writing but the reasoning, values, and motivations that shape it. I’m advocating that it’s time we start rethinking the antiquated workshop model so that it fits the needs of our students today.
What is your ambition as a writer?
To write work that is complex and moving. Perhaps moving alone would do and would avoid the charge of sentimentalism since I mean “moving” in both senses of the word: a text that moves its readers, but also a text that itself seems to move, becoming different with each surpassing reading, much like Heraclitus’s remark about a man not being able to stand in the same river twice.