How motivational-interviewing tactics can help in poetry workshops.


Reframing and unconditional positive regard are both concepts that arise out of psychology and counseling, particularly in the work of William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick called motivational interviewing, or MI. Here is how Miller and Rollnick define the technique:

“MI is a collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication with particular attention to the language of change. It is designed to strengthen personal motivation for and commitment to a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the person’s own reasons for change within an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion.”

This definition is not unlike the role of a poetry workshop leader. Anyone leading a workshop must listen to the questions underneath the questions being asked. This sometimes requires reframing, a method of restating a participant’s response or comment in a way that moves the conversation forward toward change.

In the case of a poetry workshop, this “moving toward change” is best accomplished by having unconditional positive regard for the participant. And in many ways, the work or draft is the participant being counseled toward change.

So, what does unconditional positive regard look like in a poetry workshop?

It’s being on the side of the poem that’s progressing in craft, intention, and surprise. It means cultivating openness so that you can recognize excellent craft even when a poem’s content isn’t your cup of tea.

Below are some examples of poems that I believe are instructive in how they employ reframing as a technique, thereby putting into practice some of the concepts of MI:

One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

  • A villanelle. The form requires a return to (or repetition of) certain lines. Reframing happens in how those lines are transformed and confronted, and in how they progress.

The Buddy Bolden Cylinder” by William Matthews

  • A poem built on “What if?” It imagines the discovery of a recording of the long-dead musician Bolden, but it also pays homage to the dissonance between what we can imagine and what history makes of us. The poem’s title and first line are examples of micro-reframing.

A furnace in my father’s voice; I prayed for the coal stove’s” by Ishion Hutchinson

  • A poem where there is nearly perpetual transformation in the images presented. One thing is always becoming another. In this way, it is demonstrating, perhaps, a willingness to change, to reframe.

Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce” by Paisley Rekdal

  • This poem uses its metaphors, its reframing, to clarify its pain, not obscure it. The pain is in some ways “processed” through the poem’s movement from one stanza to the next, but without the quick fix, the easy answer.

Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

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