Hey, Workshoppers— It’s the night before New Year’s Eve (or, in Yiddish, Erev Erev New Year’s Eve); I’m hoping all of you are getting ready for a joyous new year and a 2022 that will outshine all previous years.
We had a fantastic workshop on Tuesday, and I’m happy to say that as a group, we’re doing a great job talking about poems, not just saying what we like and how we’d fix what we don’t but diving into the a priori questions—what is this piece of writing? What does it set out to do and how does it propose to do it? What promises does the poem make to the reader, and how are those promises kept or altered? What is happening in the poem? What poetic devices does it employ, and are they working? What is the form of the poem, not just old-fashioned forms like sonnets or villanelles, but the idiosyncratic (or nonce) forms of free verse? What register does the diction reside in? Is it old fashioned words or new? Or a combination of them, and how does the diction assist or fall away from the drive of the poem? Are there short lines? Long lines? Big stanzas, little stanzas? Why. Is it Narrative, Lyric, Dramatic or a combination? Given that the poem as a machine made of words exists to induce in the reader a poetic state of mind (Mallarme, WCW, Matt Zapruder), does it? I remember when we started as a group some people thought said that describing a poem was “boring” or “obvious,” but that’s not the mood now. What could be more relevant to a poet than to hear how people recognize what was intended, or how people saw things that the poet never even knew were there (answer: “nothing”) and what (spoiler alert, the answer again will be , “nothing”) could be more interesting than talking about how the poems of our cohort work, sharing what we know about how they work without necessarily EVER offering to edit the poem to conform to our own ideas of what a poem should sound like or be about or look like.
Every since I heard Sharon Olds talk about how, in her workshops, the poem was read aloud three different times (once without circulating the text) before the poem was discussed, I’ve been a fan of that approach. Every time the poem is read aloud, whether it is by the poet or by someone else, it presents another facet of itself. It might even be totally unfair to plop a poem down in front of someone, read it through just once and then start making comments. But once you’ve heard it through and go back and hear it again, the ways that the poem operates, the ways it prepared or didn’t prepare you for what came next, the subtle clues in line, diction, rhetoric, and music, all soo important to the overall project, come clearer. And if you’re the poet, listening to other people read the poem, with or without a copy of it to look at in front of you, you are going to hear how that reading is an interpretation, actually a critique, of the text, you’re going to hear what worked, and where the hiccups were, and where the reader got into the flow and where they didn’t. And what I love about multiple readings of that sort is that no one has to say one single word that isn’t already in the poem for the poet to start getting ideas about what could be done to improve it.
No clearer example of this phenomenon exists than the reading of my poem this week, “End of Year Party at Nutley Arts Press” by Ray Turco. He was trying his hardest to make sense of it, and present it to us with all of its (to me, fabulous) nuance and humor, but it just wasn’t there, so even before the “discussion” began, the discussion was well on its way. And what if two or three people read the poem, and it comes out differently from each of them? Without the “discussion” having begun, we’d know a great deal, but even more important, the poet (in this case me) would be well on their way to revisions. And this without any editorial comments.
All of this is happening nowadays in our workshop, and I’m very happy about it, and want to thank everyone in the group for their patience with the process and their acceptance of the method. So, thanks.
Ana Doina brought a plain spoken narrative piece “My father’s tomatoes,” about her father smuggling old world heirloom, tomato seeds (from his own father’s garden) into the United States as part of his immigration move. The story seemed to the workshoppers to have relevance for the lawlessness of the smuggle, the assimilation process of immigrants, or possibly as a pushback against GMO movement in agriculture. During the discussion, I was focusing on the question of how the poetic form can shove off from the prosaic in narrative, and raise a sail to some unseen wind.
Carole Stone brought a poem called “The Pianist” that discussed youthful ambitions to fix the world and what happens if you live long enough to conclude that not much has changed. I thought the lines “Every morning,/the world starts up again” were bold. The lines sound like renewal, but they are also a nuanced way of saying that we’ve learned nothing from the tragedies of the last century.
Jennifer Poteet‘s poem “Bird Says Goodbye to Bear” was a sort of allegory, Carole said, a riff on the story of the Goldilocks, without Goldilocks, that it had the sound of a children’s book, but plays with expectations about that form by introducing uncertainty as its central emotional position, which we see when the speaker (after turning into a bird from a bear) decides to leave the nest and Momma Bear asks “Will you come back” and the speaker says: “I didn’t know and couldn’t answer.” What a cold-assed way to end a poem that might be! But Jennifer presses forward to the parting hug, restoring some of the sweetness of the children’s story expectation.
Susanna Lee brought “Does the Christmas Tree Know Its Destination” which used personification of the tree as a means of conveying a critique of the Xmas tree industry, and the happiness anyway of having one of those sawed off conifers in one’s home.
Ray Turco‘s poem, “A String Quartet” was a bit of a seduction piece: guy brings girl (who has a dancer’s body) to a concert. We don’t know if he got lucky, but we as a workshop did just fine, talking about how the question at the heart of the seduction works—”What are the right chords/ to penetrate/ your dancer’s heart?” Cold-assed indeed.
Brendan McEntee‘s “Pie” with a subtitle “after “A Ghost Story (2017)” presented a narrative that suggested a woman coming home from a funeral gorging on a friend’s gift of a pie. The overall shape of the narrative remained a bit mysterious, but some of the description was so alarmingly sharp and focused that it effectively conveyed the “hands off” reverence that the poet took while witnessing a scene of great pain: “Barefoot, she slides to the floor,/ her back against the cabinet, and eats, holding the pie plate,/ carving through the middle, the thumb-pressed crust/ remains intact for a while. She eats, her fork/ Hitting the glass. She digs in, breaks the bottom crust.”
Don Zirilli brought a poem called “To My Niece Teaching English in Thailand,” whose title was a great setup to an angry, somewhat sardonic critique of America that the speaker was urging as a lesson plan on his niece.
Rob Goldstein‘s “Ahab, Between Voyages” did a great job of projecting an image of the unquiet mind of the doomed whaleboat captain when he was stuck on land.
And, finally, Tom Benediktsson brought a poem called “This Poem Is Trying to Look Normal but I’m Not Fooled” that takes place inside an MRI machine equipped with a television (showing a Godzilla movie) that the patient can watch while the bizarre space odyssey of being in one of those machines transpired.
Gotta go. But thanks again to everyone in the group and outside the group who receive my Field Notes. Thanks for listening to and putting up with me. And Happy New Year!