I’m a little unhappy with the only poem I have for workshop this week– I’m thinking about going over to the museum Friday morning and trying to recharge enough to get something else down on paper, even if I don’t get everyone’s comments in time.
But I have been doing a lot of good reading this week! Right now I’m rereading Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s second novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Housekeeping and Gilead are two of my favorite novels ever, and in rereading, I have a clearer grasp of why.
I am the kind of reader who loves writers who work wonders at the sentence level– complicated plots and twists are okay, but I love a good sentence, the kind that makes me stop and read it again, makes me want to dog-ear the page and copy each sentence into a journal and make everyone I know read it. Michael Chabon is that kind of writer for me too, so many sentences full of polysyllabic rhythms, dazzling metaphors, multiple clauses and rich vocabulary. Robinson’s sentences are not like that– they, like her writing as a whole, are deceptively simple on the surface, profound and provocative below. She can marry the right image to the right concept in a way that makes it seem inevitable, like no one else should ever describe that phenomenon differently again. I’m in love with too many to repeat them all here, but here’s a pair of my favorites:
The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine….Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.
New twist: the museum where we have been running our workshop is having a little catered shindig to mark the end of the exhibit, and we poets are going to be reading from our work!
This will be my first time reading my poetry in front of an audience, or really, in front of anyone. I’ve given talks this spring to two groups of about a hundred people each, and I’ve taught hundreds of times, and some of those times I’ve been teaching poetry. But my own? In front of strangers? Yikes. This also means I have to choose one of my poems. Yikes, redux.
It does seem like one more justification for officially calling myself a poet, though. Right?
Expect more thrilled and anxious blogging between now and June 5th!
Workshop on Saturday was again good- I think we are becoming more comfortable with each other, more able to recognize a voice or pattern, more able to offer truly helpful and constructive criticism. Some of us have even been sending out revised drafts of workshopped poems and asking for more feedback, which certainly implies a level of trust as well. I think the chances are pretty good that some of us will end up continuing to work together after the workshop ends, which is good because we’re taking this week off for the holiday and then only have one class left!
It’s been lovely to see how these other poets work, too– what areas they struggle, what ambitions they have as writers, what their revision process is like. Some of us are more enamored with form and structure, some of us craft dazzling opening lines, others string spare couplets along the page. Observing them and their work processes, commenting on their drafts, has already taught me more about myself as a poet. When I see the choices they make as poets, and compare them to choices I make or would have made, I learn more about how I see my work, how I like to use language, how my instincts respond to this adjective or this form of punctuation.
I always tell my own students that my goal as a teacher is create the kind of environment where they learn as much from each other as they do from me. It’s certainly nice to be on the other side of that dynamic, soaking up whatever I can from my fellow students.
I finished my poem for this week’s workshop and am going to send it to my fellow poets tonight, so they can read and comment for Saturday. This one I struggled with a bit– I began three different poems, finished one, left one in draft form for the moment, and then did several different drafts of the ultimate winner. I had an idea about how I wanted to approach it, but really had trouble putting into words. After struggling so, I lost some confidence in it, but after some encouragement from a friend, have decided to let it stand for this week. It’s based on a David Hare photograph, and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.
I also had two poems come back to me in the mail this week and promptly went to my online writing group to crank and complain. One fellow writer commiserated on the injustice of the pre-printed rejection slip, and another sent me this great quote from Barbara Kingsolver:
This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it “to the editor who can appreciate my work” and it has simply come back stamped ‘not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.
This is why it’s important to have writer friends!
Today was our first workshop day– all of us had emailed copies of our poems to the group, commented on them, and then brought those copies and comments to the group today. We read our poems out loud, then heard comments, then had a minute or so to add or answer, then onto the next poet.
It’s a nerve-wracking experience– I wrote a poem about it actually in college, after my first fiction workshop– but a good and essential one, I believe. There’s an expression common to writers: “Murder your darlings,” from a speech by British author and critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who was also a professor at Cambridge (and what a great name, right? A real Harry Potter name). Whenever you find something particularly fine and lovely, you should think about eliminating it unless it’s absolutely necessary to your work. Murdering your darlings is an essential thing to do, and having other writers help you in that process is great, but revealing them to the light of day so that others can ruthlessly cut them down? Difficult, to say the least. But that’s what workshops are for, and learning not to take criticism personally is another essential step in the writerly journey. The comments I got today confirmed some phrases I had hoped were in the right place and helped me single out exactly which darlings needed to be on the chopping block.
Then we went upstairs again to walk through the exhibit and find fruit for next week’s poem, and I found myself drawn again to an Edward Weston photo, this one of sand dunes. After I had scribbled furiously in my notebook, I took myself to the gift shop next and bought the three postcards they had with his images– two more from the Pepper series and one of toadstools. I am really falling in love with his work, which is yet another reason I’m so glad I took this workshop.
I think my poem for next week is not a Weston piece though, but instead a piece by David Hare, better known as a sculptor and playwright, who experimented with photography and Surrealism. We’ll see how it goes– I started three poems today, but only one can be workshopped next week!
In my quest to work hard on myself as a poet (one of my goals for this year), since it’s the area where I have the least formal training, I signed up for a four-session workshop on ekphrastic poetry. Ekphrasis is an approach that I have found intriguing for the past few years, and this workshop is conjunction with a wonderful photography exhibit currently running BMA, so I signed up and am already glad I did.
In our first session, we did an exercise using postcards of images that we passed around four times, so that we wrote a poem in response to four different images, only the first of which we chose for ourselves. I ended up with a great series, from Kara Walker to the North Pole, and am actually more pleased than I expected with the poem I wrote as a result. Then we went up to the exhibit to write a poem in response to one of the photos using a hermeneutic circle, another new strategy for me that I found fascinating. I chose a photo by Modernist photographer Edward Weston, and will be working on the poem over the next few days.
I haven’t been in a formal workshop setting since college, where I minored in creative writing, so I was a little apprehensive, but I am so glad that I am in the workshop, and it has already challenged me as a poet, which is exactly what I was hoping it would do.