Saturday, September 20, 2008

Class Notes: Poetry, Prose and an Open Mind

I often don't take notes when I'm listening to an author talk about craft issues, opting I'd rather the ideas and images wash across my open mind and leave what impressions they may. But the other day, when I sat in on a poetry talk by Baron Wormser, I found myself scribbling.

Wormser is a former poet laureate of Maine, author of
several books of poetry, a memoir and a quirky short story collection about the poetry life. More importantly, Baron was the poet I came to know off the page, in his position on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA program. When I arrived at Stonecoast, I was a bit of a nonfiction snob. Poetry seemed indulgent or at least ancillary and certainly not central to being a prose writer.

Did I mention I had a lot to learn?

When I found that my first MFA nonfiction workshop would be jointly lead by
Richard Hoffman and Baron, both poets as well as memoirists, I was a bit miffed. Fast forward two years to my final MFA residency. One of the people in the audience for my reading whom I wanted to most impress? Baron. Over the years, he'd worked some kind of quiet magic on my attitude and my prose. After my reading, when Baron told me my prose was solid enough that he didn't even edit it in his head as he listened, it was high praise indeed.

Here's what I gleaned from Baron's talk the other day at Warren County Community College (first in an upcoming visiting authors series). By the way, I believe everywhere it says "poets" or "poetry" one can substitute "creative nonfiction writers" and "creative nonfiction".

• Poets dwell in the field of feelings, and are always investigating that domain.
• Poets are "first responders" who admit their vulnerability, contrary to how we normally act.
• Transience, the idea of time passing, is the basic theme of all poetry.
• Walt Whitman's work embodies one of the crucial elements of poetry – bringing together contraries, for example, "sweet hell" (not just contrary words, but contrary feelings and images).
• Poetry – indeed all writing – comes through our senses.
• Metaphor translates any feeling to sensory expression.
• Best gone American poets to read: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath
• On Plath: "As if Lady Macbeth sat down to write poetry."
• Poem to read: For the Union Dead, by Robert Lowell
• Book to read: Her Husband, by Diane Middlebrook, about Plath's marriage to Ted Hughes.
• Living American poet to read: Hayden Carruth.

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