Worshiping “So What”: A Workshop and a Gallery

credit: David Patrick

Worshiping “So What”: A Workshop and a Gallery
Essay by Jen Kindbom

I was so pleased when I got to high school and was able to take an art class every day. My kind and feisty teachers—one of whom was a fiery Irish nun whom I adored—taught me lessons about making art and design that even years later I still remember: where on the page is the best place to begin a calligraphic layout; how to mix tints and tones with tempra paint; that hair is best drawn not as individual strands but as flowing sections; that there are no lines in nature, but that there are tiny white spaces between fields of color in a watercolor painting; the basics of composition; how to wash a paintbrush and a calligraphy nib. Their lessons were the extent of my formal art education.

Despite my relatively shallow knowledge of art, I—like most art museum patrons, I would hazard—adore art museums. I get lost in them, literally. Once I hit the galleries, my internal compass just spins. I love the vulnerable feeling of not really knowing precisely where I am. I love finding landmarks and looking for exit signs and figuring it out every time I visit. 

There’s something beautiful about the act of looking at art: glass doors swoosh open into a gallery and the dimensions and shapes and colors of a painting or sculpture grab your eye. You gasp and approach the art. You bend down to get a better glimpse of its arrangement on the floor; you step as closely as you can without tripping any alarms to see the intricacies of brush strokes and layers. You take five and then ten steps back and look again, to see how the pieces fit together from a distance. You step to the side, enjoying the communion of museum guests taking in the very same piece, and you read about the artist’s life and medium. You wonder about the title, about the methods, the mentors. You consider the context. Then you go back to the piece and—forgive me for this—bask in its beautiful, puzzling or crystalline presence. Is there anything as gratifying? Probably. But in this moment, for a museum lover, there’s certainly not. 

Writer workshop culture is, I have observed, quite different from museum culture. On some level this difference must be that workshop poems are works in progress, and museum pieces are generally finished. My point has nothing to do with progressing the work of crafting the poem. My point has to do with one particular question that seems to lie at the heart of many of the workshops I’ve attended, one that starts conversations and ends them: Where in art museums we step forward and backward and stoop and squint, in writer workshops, we—and yes, I mean we— demand, So what? 

What we mean when we demand “so what?” of our fellow writers is a good deal kinder than the words we actually choose—ironic, no? I like to believe when writers say so what, that they’re really saying take this metaphor further, or can you tell me more about the speaker, or I am unfamiliar with the subject you’ve chosen, but I give you the benefit of the doubt regarding its worth—let’s talk more about it, or even, I don’t know what this word means but I might be a little bit embarrassed to say so and the wi-fi in this conference room is not powerful enough for me to access my dictionary app. I do think we mean these kinder things. So why don’t we just say them? I mean, isn’t that what writers do? We’re in the business of saying the best words in the best order, aren’t we? 

“So what” is so abrasive. It is a playground, elementary question. It masks lack of understanding and refusal to let a poem and its poet have the benefit of the doubt. You’d think that a demographic so into communicating words would be able to universally agree on one or two more productive prompts. 

When I encounter puzzling art, what kind of museum patron would I be if I scoffed, pointed and laughed, or picked up the piece and tossed it out the front doors? A terrible patron, and an obnoxious one, one who felt so entitled to my own personal aesthetic that no others could function near me. I would likely be booted from the museum, or at least be subjected to a stern disapproving eye being kept on me. 

Claes Oldenburg sculpted a giant tube of toothpaste in 1964. This piece has lodged itself in my imagination

Image from Cleveland Museum of Art

since I first laid eyes on it sometime during my elementary school years. What if, instead of demanding answers about Oldenburg’s sculpture, we give him and it the benefit of the doubt and run with it? What if we ask, “What does this sculpture reveal to me about the world?” “What does this sculpture communicate about humanity?” I believe we already do ask these questions of art in museums—that’s why the art is there. What if in our writer workshops we adopted some of our art museum postures? A certain nurturing spirit would emerge—one that would ultimately be good for the writing community and the craft of poetry.

In the art museum, I gravitate to those pieces that make me scratch my head and wonder a bit: how long did it take this artist to gather all of those butterflies? How much does this giant tube of toothpaste weigh? What did these pieces mean when they first hit the scene? Does anyone scoff at the fields of color that seem to surpass our understanding of what art is? Actual audible scoffing? Of course not, at least not out loud: look around. Other people are enjoying these pieces. People have been standing here for hours just observing and thinking. What patience. The artists have poured a piece of themselves into each of these pieces. I step closer. I look harder. You look harder. When we gather around our conference tables, we owe the same hard looking to our fellow writers.  

In a writer workshop, I want to embrace the vulnerable feeling of not knowing exactly where I am in the process of a poem. I want to gasp: not necessarily because the craft is so perfect, but that the conceit of the poem is so striking, or because the line that inspired the rest of the poem is, indeed, so inspired. I want to feel free to hold the poem close to my nose and then at an arm’s length to see what all is in there—what are all of the pieces that came together for this poem? I want to know what will be next for a poem. I do not want to do these things in a room full of people wondering, so what?  


Jen Kindbom is the author of A Note on the Door, a chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in Literary Mama and Connotations Press, among others. Her poetry collection, Cadabra, is forthcoming from Cascadia publishing house. Jen resides in Wooster, Ohio, with her husband and their children. She teaches English.