Leading up to that workshop, I got several emails from female students saying that they needed to leave the class instead of workshopping the poem because they had either experienced sexual abuse in their personal life or just couldn’t be civil to the student who submitted it, and so I said, “of course, do what you’ve got to do. I understand.”
But that didn’t solve the problem. I still had to face up to this situation in front of a class full of young, intelligent people who had worked incredibly hard all semester. So here’s what I did.
To celebrate the last workshop, I had everyone do the same five-minute free write that I used to begin the semester. The prompt was simply, “what is a poem?” Except this time I encouraged them to come up with fun metaphors for what a poem is and how it works since suddenly they were experts after an intensive few months of workshopping.
And after the five minutes was up, we all went around, one by one, and shared our thoughts. A poem is an onion because it has layers. A poem is a puzzle with no correct answer. A poem is an out-of-body experience without leaving your body. You get the idea.
After we were done going around the room, I knew this particular group of students wasn’t going to let me get away without giving them an answer, so I had one prepared. A poem is a gift. And this is the metaphor I used to explain the invisible contract that exists between poet and reader, even though the poet and the reader in most cases never meet one another, just like the person who makes a spirit and the person who picks it up off a shelf and pours it into a glass.
I’ll spare you the details of our experience workshopping the awful, “Monday Morning Rape” poem, except to say that it was rough. No one had anything positive to say about it, and both the class and the student who wrote it were visibly upset. In the end, I was able to explain that it failed as a poem because it failed as a gift. Not to say that sad, or angry, or generally negative poems can’t be gifts (if that was the case, the majority of poetic canon would be out the window), but this poem was too self-absorbed to effectively honor the contract between poet and reader, which at the end of the day, creates a brief moment of recognition and kinship between the force that crafted the work and the person who consumes it as art.
Making Space for Redemption
Even though this audio essay contains a lot of criticism for Jim Murray and his sexualization of whisky reviews, it’s not a call for cancellation because that doesn’t solve anything.
In a perfect world, Jim Murray would take the 2021 edition of The Whisky Bible and revise his work with new eyes and a fresh palate, just like that male student of mine took that poem, gutted it during his revision process, and turned in something so stunningly different that I was compelled to give him an A on the assignment, partially for the work on the page and partially for the work he needed to do in his own head to make it possible.
What’s sad is that I doubt that student ever came to pick up his revised portfolio with my written comments on it from the English Department office at the end of finals week. Most students don’t, and the portfolios are sent to the shredder. If he did pick it up, he would have read about how impressed I was by the transformation and conscientiousness he displayed. But I think he may have just been too wounded by the initial negative reception from me and from the class to bear risking any further embarrassment or criticism.
If there’s anything I regret from that whole situation, it’s that I didn’t make more of an effort to connect with the student after the fact and reinforce the good work. And this is my way of saying that, while I’m glad so many people have come together to correct Jim Murray’s sexist whisky reviews, I hope we haven’t created an atmosphere that prevents him from changing for the better because if we really take seriously the idea of an inclusive industry, it needs to be an industry where Jim Murray is able to come back to the table and give things another shot.
I’m Modern Bar Cart CEO Eric Kozlik. Thanks for permitting me this editorial. I hope I managed to color in some of the nuance that gets lost in Tweet threads and the industry news cycle, and I hope, most importantly, that you have the chance to taste a great whiskey sometime soon. Just remember: sex is not a tasting note.