Oliver Baez Bendorf is the author of The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State University Press, 2015) and cofounder of the Mount Pleasant Poetry Project. His writing and comics have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, diode, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and elsewhere, and he holds an MFA and an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught recent workshops on poetry-comics, visual thinking, watercolor comics, and cartonera books, at the Queens Center for Gay Seniors, 826DC, Rare Book School, the Allied Media Conference, BloomBars, and Mount Holyoke College.
What is your writing critique philosophy?
The closest thing to critique in my workshops is that we listen and look at each other’s work together with close and careful attention. I believe it’s one of the most powerful things we can give one another, especially in these times when focused attention is scarce. So I facilitate that for my students and have come to find that my workshops aren’t complete without enough time built in for this. Drafting dots have become one of my most used supplies for this reason. They are great for sticking drafts up on the wall. I recently led a Poetry Comics Crash Course in my living room and everyone made a single-panel comic, a strip, and a page over the course of the day. After each sprint we hung up everyone’s work on the wall and looked at it, talking about each piece and what we noticed.
The other head of the friendly monster is asking a good question, the kind that comes from looking closely at a piece, noticing what you notice and communicating that. My philosophy is that there is no shortage of critique from our own heads and from other people, and there are plenty of other venues through which writers and artists can seek that kind of critique. So my workshops are less about that. I aim to create the conditions for people to take creative risks, trust their own impulses and intuition, and for us to celebrate those risks together. This, as with almost everything I know about teaching, comes to me from the influence of my own teacher, Lynda Barry, who has said that people always ask her, “How does the good work happen if you don’t tell people what to fix?” and what she says is that she has found that the good work happens anyway. I have found the same. The things that people have written and drawn in my workshops, in such a short amount of time, blow me away.
How does teaching inform your writing and vice versa?
Prepping to teach a workshop involves me taking inventory of what it is that I know and find useful, and how to break that down into communicable and repeatable steps. So it’s pushed me into a level of reflection and metacognition on my own process that is both challenging and incredibly useful. When I get stuck, I try to pay attention to what tools and resources I’ve accumulated for moving through stuckness, so that I can document and share those not only with my students but with my future stuck self. This feedback loop has been very useful for my own creative work. I am inspired by the creativity of my students and the directions they take the exercises—in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of.
What makes your workshops unique?
Almost all of my workshops these days combine writing and drawing. So they’re very interdisciplinary, on purpose. I gear them to both the practicing/published and the beginning/returning. No drawing experience is necessary, and I build in a quick tour through getting over a fear of drawing. I use a lot of worksheets. Often we make a kind of zine or collaborative book together.
What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
A timer. I learned almost everything I know about teaching from my own teacher Lynda Barry, including the value of setting a timer during a free-write or other exercise, and not letting it go too long. Maybe it is counterintuitive, but I have found that it helps minimize dread, including for myself. If people know that there is a timer running, there’s no time to delay, panic, or even erase—all ways that we talk ourselves out of the good stuff, the risky or weird stuff we want to write and draw. I use a lot of prompts and exercises designed to get ideas down on the page and dig deep into them from new angles. I don’t tear anyone’s work apart.
What are the benefits of writing workshops for special groups (i.e. teens, elders, veterans)?
I’m invested in the imaginations of folks on the margins. Teaching writing and art is a way to prioritize the creativity and world-building of people who are routinely left out of decisions about what they need. For participants, a workshop geared toward a particular group, shared experience, or identity (such as a watercolor comics workshop I recently taught at the Queens Center for Gay Seniors) opens up possibilities by changing the audience and the gaze receiving their work in the workshop setting. It means a poem doesn’t need to be an explainer, it can just be a poem.
For more photos of workshops and comics by Oliver Baez Bendorf, click here.
Photos: (top) Participants of the Poetry Comics Crash Course from August 2016. (middle) Poetry comics drafting tools. (bottom) Bendorf teaching the Poetry Comics Crash Course 2016. Photo credit: Oliver Baez Bendorf.
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