Sunday, May 5, 2013


For as long as I've been writing, I've been afraid of generative workshops—workshops where the point is to write new material rather than review existing work.  And not just afraid: terrified.  The workshop leader would give the prompt (simple or baroque, according to his or her preferences), tell us to write, and I would feel my entire soul clench.  Fear produces lousy art, so I avoided these kinds of workshops—and the sense of failure they engendered—whenever possible.

But I'm in a new phase where I'm trying to produce a lot more poems, and I need all the help I can get. I'm tired of being afraid.  So I signed up for not one, but five generative workshops at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.  Partly I'd gotten my fill of panels at AWP, but there were really a lot of workshops that sounded like, at the very least, they would provide plenty of ideas for future work.  The Massachusetts Poetry Festival is a great event: big enough to attract exellent headliners and sesson leaders, small enough so you get to talk to and know the people in your sessions.  If AWP is all business, the Mass Poetry Festival is more like family.

I arrived at my first workshop on Friday morning full of equal parts trepidation and determination.  All was exactly as before: the leader gave the prompt, told us how much time we had, and said "Go!" All the fluid writers (everyone but me) put pen to paper instantly and started writing, writing, writing.  Meanwhile, I spent the first half of the allotted time slack-jawed and staring into the middle distance, trying to think and not think at the same time.  Occasionally I'd catch the workshop leader looking at me worriedly, and I'd stare down at my paper as if I were going to start writing any second now. But really I was waiting for the inchoate mess inside my head to coalesce, for something to form, to rise to the top or sink to the bottom.  For what's important to make itself known.

And if I am quiet enough, it usually does.  I am home after a wonderful three days in Salem with four new poems that I can't wait to revise.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Poetry 2%

Spring cleaning seems to lead inevitably to poetry, at least for me. I think it's the hyper-focus on objects and surfaces, combined with the repetitive motions of cleaning that keep the hands busy but leave the mind free to wander fruitfully. This year that combination resulted in a poem about my refrigerator, which is not as boring as it probably sounds (I think).

poetesque, over at The Poetic Licence1 was kind enough to ask to see the poem, and kinder still to send a few words about it. "I love your sound-play," she said. "How long did it take you to make that work, because that is something I struggle with."

And I had to reply, somewhat shame-facedly, "The sound play just kind of happened. This is, in my opinion, the most annoying thing about poetry—the poems that work come together pretty quickly and without tons of conscious thought, and the ones that don't work right out of the gate I can fuss over forever and they still never quite get to where I hoped they would."

poetesque agreed. "I know, I know.... The 98% of poems that you struggle over and rewrite for ten years, vs. the 2% that just hang together from the start. I've partially concluded that the successful, well-known poets I admire have figured out how to push more of that 98% into the other camp."

Now, this was interesting. I, too, thought those successful poets were doing something differently than I, but I assumed that they were just giving up on the 98% sooner: cutting their losses quickly and getting on to the next poem that might be in that magical 2%.

I think that this was, in part, an overreaction to a tendency I had when first writing poetry to focus on a single poem, determined to get it perfect before I'd let myself move on to the next one. Not surprisingly, this made for excruciatingly slow progress, and a lot of overworked poems. One promise I've made myself this semester—in a counter-overreaction, I'm sure—is that I will only send new poems to my advisor. I'm getting my group of poems to the best point I can within each month, and then I'm putting them aside. I have written a lot more this semester, and I think the base quality of my work is also somewhat improved. And I know that this is not unrelated to letting go of that crabbed perfectionism, at least for now.

But I also think the real answer to the question of what the successful poets do is closer to poetesque's take on it, and I'm sure I will spend some future semester focused on revision techniques.

In fact, I have a test case for this theory of whether a terrible first (or second or third) draft can be rehabilitated that I am working on right now. I've got a draft that, as my advisor says, "has all the parts of a poem, but isn't a poem," an assessment that is both succinct and absolutely true. The central image is one that has gripped me since I was a child, and I am loathe to give up on it, though I am now five drafts in and things are still getting worse, rather than better. Can this poem be saved? I promise an answer in a future post...

1 If you do not follow her blog, you really should. So much deeper and more thoughtful than the superficial chitchat you get in this neighborhood...

Sunday, March 24, 2013


I am writing a lot of short poems this month at the recommendation of my advisor; he liked one I did last month and suggested I do more. It's been a very interesting experiment.

In a short poem, you have to nail the image/metaphor. If you miss, you can't wave your hands ("Look over there—kittens!") or paper it over. There's nowhere to hide in a 5- or 6-line poem. But it also takes a lot of the pressure off, since getting the image right is almost the only thing you can do. There's no complicated structure to manage, no elements or themes to be brought into balance, and questions of cutting an revising are all necessarily at the micro level.

My advisor said the nice thing about short poems is that you can work on them in the car. I smiled and nodded and thought, "You have no idea what my commute is like." But this turns out to be completely true—even on I-93 at 8:00AM. It's possible to hold an entire short poem in my head, revise and rearrange it many times, and still have the whole thing available to write down when I arrive at work. The distraction of having to pay partial attention to the road achieves the same kind of self-hypnotized state I'm always trying to induce when I sit down at my desk: the conscious mind is there, but far enough off to one side that more interesting and unexpected associations can make themselves heard.

The trick is having an image to start from, and since image and metaphor are a focus for me right now this is a particularly useful exercise. I find I look at the world around me more closely, trying every day to find the image I will start from in the car the next morning. This is a good habit for writing any kind of poetry.

Best of all—at least for someone like me who tends to put a lot of pressure on herself over every single poem—this is very a low-stakes endeavor. The poem works or it doesn't, and if it doesn't I can just throw it away. I don't even count the hour lost, since I still got to work on time.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Compliment, of Sorts

KT: Can I read you a poem?

Ben: Sure.

KT: (Reads poem.)

Ben: Hmm, that's pretty good. Who wrote it?

KT: I did. You mean you thought somebody else wrote it?
      (She means: You thought a real poet wrote it?)

Ben: Nobody died.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

What I Learned This Semester

A few weeks ago I completed my end-of-semester self-evaluation. Although I turned it in on deadline, I'm still thinking a lot about what I learned. None of it is new, or even new to me—I'm apparently a slow learner—but I think it's worth saying as many times as it takes to grind it into my inexplicably resistant brain.

About halfway through the semester, I wrote a poem that what I think may be my best so far. (Note that I'm not saying it's a great poem, just an improvement on my previous output.) Like a lot of my poems, it was written very quickly, but only after it rattled around in my brain for a couple of months. The way in which it finally came together together is a case study for what I learned this semester.

At the last residency I attended a student lecture on surrealism. As the audience was gathering, the speaker showed the short surrealist silent film, Un Chien Andalou, by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.1 The film features a famous scene in which a woman's eye is apparently sliced through with a straight razor. Buñuel told people at the time that the scene was accomplished using an elderly, blind dog, and that that's how the film got its name. I saw it in a French class in college and was suitably horrified. This time, I turned away before the scene came on the screen.

Even after I got home from the residency, I couldn't stop thinking about the film. I'd find myself dreaming about it as I was falling asleep or stuck in traffic or making dinner. I wanted to write a poem about it, but I resisted. What did I have to say—"Boy, I sure hated that film"? I pushed the thought aside and got to work on my semester.

Reading for my first packet included The Selected Levis, and I fell hard Larry Levis. In my very first critical essay, I examined the way Levis handled time and narrative in "Slow Child with a Book of Birds." Because I was supposed to relate the subject of the essay to my own work, I concluded with some ideas about how I might push my writing towards a more sophisticated intertwining of the lyric and the narrative.

And then I kept writing the same old stuff in the same old way.

Two months passed and I had exhausted my backlog of ideas for poems. Luis and Salvador wouldn't leave me alone. I sat down at the dining room table on a Monday morning at 6:00 AM, opened my notebook, and wrote: "Once is enough for the chien andalou...."

I kept writing for an hour. I got to the point that I now think of as the hinge of the poem and had to put my pen down because I was shocked to discover the reason that image would not let me be. I wrote a little more, and when I was done I had written a poem about time, about love, about memory. I had written my best poem yet.

Here's what I learned this semester:

  1. Pay attention to what you're paying attention to.
  2. Write the terrible poem that wants to be written.
  3. Never underestimate the power of giving voice to your aspirations.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Booklist #5

Last list of the semester: Love, loved, loved Cynthia Huntington. She and Larry Levis are the two finds of this semester for me. Perhaps I should not therefore have been surprised when I realized that The Radiant was the winner of the 2001 Levis Poetry Prize. You can read her work on, Verse Daily, and Orion Magazine, and there's a great interview on the National Book Foundation web site.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Booklist #4

It was prose poem month for packet #4:

The prose poem kind of mystifies me. I thought I'd have a better understanding of what it does and how it works as a result of reading so many and writing about one of Simic's, but I don't. I wrote two of my own this month, just to try something new, and they were both pretty terrible. All the decisions I made about htem felt arbitrary.

I imagine this is how writers of formal verse felt when free verse showed up...