Sometimes, “sitting alone in a room and wrenching it out of yourself” as Jon Winokur wrote in the introduction to his book, Advice to Writers, is not enough. So, I jumped at the opportunity to go to the free—did I say free?—poetry workshop held at Ashland University, in Ashland Ohio, over the weekend of December 1-2. The thought of being surrounded by others who love poetry as much as I do was too wonderful to pass up. Forty of us from different life work, locales, and backgrounds came together in our shared love of poetry.
On Saturday evening, featured poet, Lynn Powell read from her book, The Zones of Paradise. Following the reading, Powell answered questions about her work and her writing life. She talked about the risks she takes in her poetry.
On Sunday afternoon, she provided a craft seminar. Since the event was held in Ohio and Powell’s participation was sponsored by the Ohio Arts Council, she selected two Ohio affiliated poets, Mary Oliver and Elton Glaser to feature. She shared with the group five lessons learned from the work of these two accomplished poets. Following are some notes I put together from her talk.
1. Write the poems that only you can write.
Using Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” from her book, House of Light, Powell demonstrated how Oliver uses her unique voice as she writes about a little owl in an orchard, “His beak could open a bottle,/and his eyes—when he lifts their soft lids—/go on reading something/just beyond your shoulder—/Blake, maybe,/or the Book of Revelation.” Later in the piece, using a surprisingly dark metaphor Oliver says, “Never mind that he is only a memo/from the office of fear—.”
I believe Powell was suggesting that we write poems only we alone can articulate, poetry that is coming from our own peculiar way of seeing the world, from our own background, from our own concerns. She suggested that poetry is not about mimicking someone else’s voice, but rather about speaking from a place of authenticity as Oliver does in her work.
2. Sweat the small stuff.
Powell went on to posit that paying mind to the small details in the poem can help to make it compelling. By way of illustration she referred to the work of poet, Elton Glaser. In Glaser’s poem, “Crab Festival in Henderson, Louisiana,” from his book, Here and Hereafter, Powell pointed to Glaser’s lush description of a crab festival.
From the picnic pavilion, over the low-fi speakers,
The keen and fracas of a Cajun fiddle
Pulled us in, my sister sizzling in a two-step,
Fast feel on the concrete floor, before the old folks
Eased out, belly to belly in a bayou waltz,…
It is this kind of detail—the small stuff—that brings this poem to life. The speakers are low-fi, the fiddle is Cajun, the sister, sizzling, the floor is concrete and the old folks are belly to belly in not just any waltz, but, in a bayou waltz.
3. Ignore the party line.
Powell suggested to us to take with a grain of salt all the things we have been told to avoid or to “not” do as poets. That might mean taking on subjects that are considered over-worked or too large. It might refer to an overworked metaphor. I think Powell was suggesting that if the poem is strong enough, or if it presents the material in a fresh way, have at it. She pointed to Glaser’s poem, “Down to Earth” (Here and Hereafter) as an example: “And why moon about the moon? It’s not/So gorgeous as I thought: a pocked face/Like a dented hubcap, and bald, with no chin.” Clearly this is a new take on the well-worn image of the moon. In the context of this poem, it is not only fitting, it is the counterbalance to the image of the speaker’s earthliness. Glaser goes on to write, “I need the sluggish tug of mud around/My roots and, overhead, the sleeves of moss/From old oak.”
4. To write about the large, start small.
Powell used Glaser’s poem, “Blue Passport” (Here and Hereafter) as an example of a love poem that opens with the simple image of January winds striping the tinsel from dead trees. As Glaser works his way down the poem in couplets, he writes, “If I’m down to one day, make it/A Tuesday in April, and some little hill town//In Tuscany, rough wine in the glasses/And a luster of tall air along the stones,//And you there with me…”
5. Let everything of yourself into the poem.
Powell suggested that we not censor our voices out of the poem. This is something I have been thinking about lately. I have been trying to write from a more authentic place. It’s easy to fall into the thinking that the poem must be steeped in mystery and laden with craft. It’s easy to feel we need to be clever in our poems. It is easy to let those concerns take over. But, I think Powell was suggesting that we need to let ourselves into our poems, that this is how others find connection with them. In the examples shared with us, poems from Mary Oliver and Elton Glaser, there is a clear voice of authenticity. Mary Oliver writes about the nature in a way that reflects her authentic intrigue. Glaser speaks of love and loss from deep within himself using lush description and images.
In the Company of Poets
In addition to the craft seminar presented by Powell, the workshops on Saturday and Sunday were lively and helpful. Workshop facilitators, Stephen Haven, Sarah Wells, and Deborah Fleming from Ashland University, along with, Lynn Powell worked with groups of poets on individuals poems.
This wonderful weekend was not just about just about the helpful workshops, craft seminar, and inspiring readings. It was also about the special camaraderie of poets from near and far. It was about reconnecting with old friend and making new ones. I even learned about the sweet music of Paul Reece. The time
together felt important. I am so grateful to Ashland University and to those who worked so hard to make this such a great event. This was the first poetry workshop weekend Ashland University has sponsored. I hope it is not the last.
© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis