During a recent class meeting of my Intermediate Poetry Workshop at the University of North Texas, I asked my students an important question after they had turned in their second poem, the first having already been workshopped. “How many of you thought of this room while you were drafting your poem?” I asked. Nearly every hand went up. One student said, “I wrote a line and then heard your voice in my head, Dr. Pryor, saying if you’ve ever heard it before, don’t write it. Go in fear of abstraction. Go in fear of cliché!” While this, I think, was a win for me as an instructor, the other comments revealed a darker truth about the shame-inducing capacity of the workshop setting. Another student said, “I worried that you all would think my idea was stupid.” Another said, “I worried that what I was writing was only interesting to me. I didn’t want to be laughed at.” And while no actual laughter—the kind of laughter full of invisible pointed fingers—has ever issued from my students in this class, it was clear that imagined laughter or scorn was enough to inculcate shame in my students as they wrote alone.
While shame and embarrassment are often used interchangeably in colloquial usage, psychologically they have a distinct relationship with each other, as do envy and jealousy, for example. Shame is private; embarrassment is public. Feelings of worthlessness that germinate inside the poet’s own head, constitute shame. Embarrassment, on the other hand, results from interaction with others, and—as David Orr, philosopher Luke Purshouse, and sociologist Erving Goffman note—is typically caused by difficulty with role segregation, exposure, and/or an incompatible definition of the self before others.
While it’s true that both novice and established poets can experience both shame and embarrassment at various stages during the drafting, workshopping, reading, and publishing stages, I’m concerned here with private shame in young poets and embarrassment in poetry workshops; the first is to be avoided, and the second, I argue, might just be rightly celebrated or even cultivated.
But first, why do we feel embarrassed when encountering certain kinds of poems in workshops? In Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poet and critic David Orr describes a hypothetical karaoke bar to fully illuminate the embarrassment potential inherent in poetry, particularly poetry of the personal, which is the province of many beginning creative writers. Imagine the following:
You’re in a karaoke bar listening to two singers perform back-to-back. Both are fully committed to performing their songs well. The first singer has picked a relatively innocuous tune by Jimmy Buffett about getting drunk in the Caribbean. He proceeds to mangle the chorus and sing the entire song in the wrong key. The second singer has chosen the ballad “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie Titanic and prefaces the song by announcing that the performance is dedicated “to my mother, who died of cancer last month.” As he lifts the microphone, you notice that a tear is wandering down his cheek, and that his hands are shaking a little, possibly from nervousness. He opens his mouth, takes a breath, and pours forth with complete sincerity the sound of an abused kazoo.
If you’re anything like me, you chuckled at the mere thought of the second singer. But the situation is fictional: no actual humans were harmed in the making of this hypothetical. So why are your cheeks pink? As it so often does, the German language has a word for this feeling: fremdschäm, a kind of vicarious embarrassment one can feel on behalf of others. Think of it as the opposite of another, more familiar German word: schadenfreude. When experiencing fremdscham, even though you might not be the one butchering a ballad or turning in an amateurish poem, your sympathetic nervous system can and will respond as if you are.
Poets and readers have sometimes experienced fremdschäm when reading canonically Confessional poems like Anne Sexton’s “Menstruation at Forty,” whose subject matter is plain enough, and so-called “post-confessional” contemporary poems like Jeffrey McDaniel’s “Oblivion Chiclets,” which tackles substance abuse in startling, visceral, and I think, gorgeous, terms:
…If I could, I’d have a scientist
shrink me down and inject me into your bloodstream,
and I’d go with a wash brush and suds bucket,
scrub the opium out of each one of your cells. I used to think
I was tough because I could hold a machine gun
of whisky to my cranium and take bullet after bullet
to the brain. I used to think the greatest display of strength
was lifting a hunk of metal in the air, but now I know
it’s far more difficult to put something down.
What, exactly, is uncomfortable about these lines? Everything? Nothing? Is it the well-worn subject matter of addiction? The implied exhortation, finally, to “put something down”? But even if these lines unsettle us, isn’t it possible that embarrassment could actually help us bridge the space between mere sympathy and actual empathy? And as teachers of creative writing, how do we help our students look directly at the face of the sun: that is, how do we help them craft poems in an environment like the poetry workshop, where embarrassment and shame are easily cultivated?
Science tells us that feeling vicarious embarrassment lights up the same part of the brain that is activated when we feel empathy. And because embarrassment can lead to empathy not only neurologically, but also psychologically (by way of literally feeling for others inside the moment of embarrassment), we must champion the continued legitimacy and vitality of post-confessional poems, narrative lyric poems, autobiographical writing (the terms go on) in an age where we still strive for rather than achieve socio-political-cultural equality for women, people of color, and LGBTQIA-identified students, poets, and people. Without confronting the prospect of embarrassment in the classroom, we doom our students to churning out palatable writing that goes nowhere, says nothing, and gives them no voice. To those young poets, avoiding embarrassment often manifests itself as non-admission, risk avoidance, or impersonality. These moves, however, devalue the lived experience of marginalized groups, which is why linear and narrative forms that relate personal experience again, must not be cast aside as sophomoric, underdeveloped, or just plain “bad” by their very nature.
Though our students are keen to avoid embarrassing themselves in their poetry, embarrassment has become a staple in current media, particularly in comedic settings. Larry David, Ricky Gervais, and TMZ all made their names by making mortification funny, by bringing it into our lives and the lives of our students. In so-called “cringe comedies” like The Office, however, if we push through the embarrassment we feel while watching Michael Scott (played by Steve Carrell) learn gendered Spanish nouns by adding Post-It notes adorned with breasts and penises to his office supplies, for example, we tend to learn something if we keep watching: values tend to be asserted. If the friction of separate roles is what causes the embarrassment in the first place, the reconciliation of those roles, or the acknowledgment that the roles perhaps can indeed coexist or at least exist nonetheless, is our reward. Michael can be painfully uncultured and a man who craves love and respect like any other. This is a technique that students of poetry can harness: write a poem in which you reconcile two roles that otherwise could have caused friction.
I think comedies like these are brimming with lesson-plan potential. I like to have my students watch a few scenes from shows like The Office or Seinfeld in order to think more deeply about embarrassment and role segregation in order to write poems about transcending such roles and, sneakily, to get them to discuss their own roles both inside and outside my classroom. I’ve had my poetry students watch a scene from a cringe comedy, then initiate a discussion about where the “cringe” comes from. The cringe often comes from, as I’ve mentioned, an incompatible definition of the self before others, as when George Costanza pushes an old woman and a clown out of the way to escape what he thinks is a fire at a child’s birthday party. Then we try to tease out the heartfelt stuff: in this case, the discussion turned to the natural will to survive and our treatment of elderly people. More affecting, less funny. One student then went on to write a fascinating, serious poem from the old woman’s point of view.
As many scholars note, we treat embarrassment as an undesirable, abnormal state of being. However, both Goffman and poet and critic Tiffany Atkinson both have discussed the relationship of blushing to embarrassment, for some instances of embarrassment have what they call an “orgasmic character”: blood rushes to our faces, our hearts race, our body is overtaken with a thrill of shame along the back of the neck. But even if one were to blush while reading a poem, provoking a physiological response in another human being from words alone, I would argue, is quite a feat. I give this sermon to my students more often than I’d like to admit. It seems, then, to my mind that the conditions of embarrassment are all favorable to poetry: audience, empathy, orgasm.
And yet, telling our students that they ought to aim for metaphorical orgasm in their work, even if it is in the form of overexposure or embarrassment, is an unattractive proposition, to say the least. A dictum to “write until your cheeks are flushed” is unsteady pedagogically and, well, icky emotionally. So what are we to do? Dive into the cringe. Openly acknowledge what embarrassment is, how it can creep into the workshop, and what it might ultimately be worth. Without falling into destructive parental or nurturing roles, we owe it to our students to do more than just preach inclusivity: we have to live it.
The late Paul Violi once said to a classmate of mine that “sentimentality is a risk worth taking.” I would argue that embarrassment is a risk worth taking also. I wouldn’t advocate aiming for embarrassment. Certainly not. However, I think risking exposure—cutting too close to the bone, showing a little too much of that bloody, beating organ hiding under your poetic muscle—is a thousand times more thrilling on the page than a list of flippant, disjunctive statements. Because what is poetry without exposure? What is clothing except something we are exhilarated to shed before ourselves and others? When given the choice between admitting something and admitting nothing, poetry suffers absolutely under the conditions imposed by the latter. And so do our students.
Furthermore, and once again, narrative and confessional poetry has been and continues to be of fantastic importance to marginalized groups, and allowing students to avoid embarrassment by speaking impersonally can inadvertently create an inhospitable workshop atmosphere for such students. In his essay “The Very Act of Telling: Sharon Olds and the Act of Writing Narrative Poetry,” poet Aaron Smith asks, “…isn’t there something inherently disturbing about disenfranchising the disenfranchised? …I’m concerned about the voice that says: Take the ‘I’ out. Whose voice is this, really? Perhaps I resist it because it feels dangerously similar to the voice I recognize from childhood: the fundamentalist voice of fear and doubt, the voice that eradicates the body and the self, the voice of conformity that renders the individual speechless, invisible.”
This is why when Atkinson argues that “Just to be embarrassed is not, of course, of much educational value,” I am inclined to vociferously disagree. Embarrassment can typically lead to self reflection, especially because we are definitionally not embarrassed ourselves by reading a poem, but feel, again, a sense of vicarious embarrassment or fremdschäm. And therefore, the very act of embarrassment means literally feeling for another person, which is one goal of poetry, or a goal we have forgotten about, or a goal we should continue to privilege.
Another way that I ask my students to stare directly at the big red sun of embarrassment to positive ends is to have them each “confess” something embarrassing. They write their confession on slips of paper without their names, I collect them, then they each choose a random confession from a bowl. Each student reads the embarrassing confession aloud à la Postsecret, then we discuss why it is embarrassing. Then I have them begin to draft a poem that aims to transmute the embarrassing event into something more, to say something in a poem that is, as Corey Marks once said to me, “truer than the truth,” something aestheticized or removed from the inciting embarrassing event, as a writing exercise. In the ensuing weeks, I find that my students are, as a result, bolder and better equipped to confront embarrassment intellectually rather than emotionally and are consequently better able to turn in a fearless draft, meditate on points of view from students unlike themselves, and find the emotional core of the work under study.
In her “Grossly Non-Academic Talk” on Confessionalism, Rachel Zucker outlines seventeen “tenets” of what she calls “Confessionalistic” poems, and ends with a few thoughts on exposure:
16. … If you take your clothes off you are naked but are not a Nude, and certainly not a nude painting. The poem, no matter how bare, is a Nude, and never really naked. That said, you need to take your clothes off to know what your skin really feels like.
17. Take your clothes off.
Here, Zucker champions exposure: a core component of embarrassment. It’s safer not to care, not to take karaoke seriously, to keep your clothes on when everyone goes skinny dipping. Exposure and feeling are inherently uncool, our students know. This is all well and good at the bar or at the lake, but if poetry―one of the last places on earth where we still agree to feel things―becomes the sole province of hipsters and too-cool students paralyzed by a fear of embarrassment also, we’re doomed.
Embarrassment is, finally, just a beginning: a red flag that can rev the mind’s engine instead of applying the brakes. And by skillfully attending to the negative prospect of shame and the ultimately redemptive power of potential embarrassment, teachers of creative writing can embolden students of all levels and from all walks of life to confront their trepidation in the poetry workshop in order to create meaningful, risky, beautiful work. The end of Brenda Shaughnessy’s “Embarrassment,” from her collection Human Dark with Sugar, seems to me an apt summation of the pedagogical perspective I’ve discussed today:
the sweetest thing I’ve ever known
is obscene with a beautiful
sugar rotted down to its truth.
Loving you a serious accidental shame
and day flatulates into night,
trips and falls in front of millions
In thrall to this pocus:
the end of fear starts
with such an annihilating blush,
with such a stutter.
- Atkinson, Tiffany. “Black and White and Re(a)d All Over: The Poetics of Embarrassment.” The Writer in the Academy: Creative Interfrictions. Ed. Richard Marggraf Turley. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2011.
- Goffman, Erving. “Embarrassment and Social Organization.” American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 62, Issue 3. November, 1956. 264 – 271.
- McDaniel, Jeffrey. “Oblivion Chiclets.” The Endarkenment. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.
- Orr, David. Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. New York: Harper Collins, 2011.
- Shaughnessy, Brenda. “Embarrassment.” Human Dark with Sugar. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2008.
- Zucker, Rachel. “Confessionalography: A GNAT (Grossly Non-Academic Talk) on ‘I’ in Poetry.” Poets.org. 2014.
Caitlin Cowan‘s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Gulf Coast, Cold Mountain Review, Poet Lore, Boxcar Poetry Review, The Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. Nominated for the Best New Poets anthology series and a semifinalist for the Ahsahta Press Sawtooth Book Prize, she has won the Mississippi Review Prize, the Ron McFarland Prize for Poetry, an Avery Hopwood Award, and has been a participant at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She holds a BA from the University of Michigan, an MFA from The New School, and a PhD from The University of North Texas, where she is currently a lecturer in the Department of English. She writes reviews and interviews for Pleiades,The American Literary Review, and American Microreviews and Interviews. She lives in Denton, Texas. You can learn more about her work at www.caitlincowan.com.