A few months ago, while completing details related to teaching a three-day memoir workshop at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway (where I'm at this weekend), I hesitated at the question, Would you like to attend a complimentary master class for faculty, with featured special guest poets Denise Duhamel and Yusef Komunyakaa?
This would require arriving about five hours earlier than strictly necessary, and on the last full day I'd have to prep for the start of the spring MFA teaching semester, which would begin the morning after my return. Could I really spare three hours? Still, I knew my schedule that day would likely be flexible. Also, the thought of getting out of hectic northern NJ and settling in to a sprawling old world/completely remodeled hotel by the ocean seemed appealing.
What clinched it was that it occurred to me that I had not sat in the student/writer participant chair for quite a long time. Had not written anything resembling a poem in even longer, but have always loved being in the room with poets, which pushes me to think differently; I usually emerge with something that I later revise into a prose poem, or a piece of flash creative nonfiction (which is how this one got started a few years ago). Or even if not, I leave that kind of room lighter.
Sign me up.
A few things conspired to make me late. (You know those dumb scenes in movies where someone's suitcase explodes, spewing contents all over? Picture this, between my back door and garage, at 7:30 a.m., then me going back in the house, into the attic, to fish out the only remaining suitcase, so old there's no rolling wheels or pull handle.) So when I slid into a chair, the several dozen other writer-teachers were discussing intricacies of one of Komunyakaa's poems and it took a bit to settle in and catch up. But then, for the next two-plus hours, my pen moved, my brain slowed down. I was able to look off into space, and think, muse, wonder. Write. Consider.
Then Komunyakaa -- a Pulitzer Prize recipient and eminent voice -- said a few things that stopped me in place, lit me up with that familiar sense, a combination of intuitive understanding and driving curiosity.
Here's some of what he shared; I'm paraphrasing here, and of course can't even begin to convey the richness of his speaking voice, his quiet wit alternating with gravitas:
- A poem is a dialogue, a beckoning. It's all about the tone, the music of a phrase.
- Titles should never be a resolution stuck on top of a poem. Titles are an invitation. The poem is not equal to the title.
- I always and only revise a draft of a poem from the bottom up, because that's usually where it's needed. I often write right on past the natural ending because I'm trying to explain everything, and I had not left that door ajar, as you must. I may start out with 150 lines, but the final poem is 40 lines. But that original ending is not usually the real ending. It all comes down to the right confluence of images and connections.
- A prompt can take you anywhere.
The prompt he gave next was to write an ode in praise of oneself, and I wrote about my love/hate relationship with my legs. Like most workshop-generated rough writing, I loved and hated it! What it may one day be, who knows.
After a brown bag lunch, Denise Duhamel asked us to engage with an excerpt from I Remember, a book-length poem by Joe Brainard in which every line or small paragraph begins with "I remember..." and then to write for 15 minutes in the same way. Since an "I remember" list is one of my go-to writing prompts in memoir classes, I sat up straighter in my chair, and wrote, mostly about what I remember of the two years I spent living in Orange County, California in my 20's, riding horses and competing in shows.
Next up was to consider three poems which all end on the word "life", to take one of those ending lines and make it the start of something. I went with (from "A Moment" by Ruth Stone), "you do not want to repeat my life," and wrote of how, at various times in my life, I did or did not want to repeat parts of my own life, my sister's life, my mother's life.
Too soon, it was time to pick up my folder with my roster of writer participants who would be sitting around my workshop table the next morning. But when I got to my hotel room, before I pulled out all my materials and shifted back into teaching mode to prepare, I pulled on layers of clothing, hat, scarf, and gloves, and struck out to walk the paved cart paths of the golf courses behind the hotel for a chilly but restorative hour (in 34 but "feels like 23" degrees). Walking, and thinking about images, endings, about not explaining so much, about remembering and what we don't remember, and how to write about it all.
At the opening reception, Peter Murphy, who began the Poetry & Prose Getaway more than two decades ago, reminded the 200-plus in attendance, we are all -- teachers, mentors, workshop leaders, special guest -- just writers together after all, writers writing in rooms, stoking energy and words and more.