I recently attended the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I participated in a poetry workshop led by Marilyn Nelson, former poet laureate of Connecticut and the director of Soul Mountain, a retreat for writers. She is the author of such notable books as In the Fields of Praise, Fortune’s Bones, and Carver.
I very much enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Marilyn Nelson and the members of the workshop, all poets dedicated to sharing and improving their craft, who worked together with humor and intelligence all week. Some of the things the poets said and questions they asked stood out to me as relevant to any poet’s education:
“What is the emotional core of this poem?” Devon Dugan-Miller
“Control the release of information into the poem – when the reader knows what.” John Balke
It is not necessary to over-explain something in a poem, so don’t preach … “Trust your reader” (Jane Beal quoting Jeannine Nyangira) to understand what you are saying.
“All you have to do is see the scene clearly in your mind and then describe it.” Marilyn Nelson
“What is this poem about for you?” Linda Roberts-Baca
“Like Charles SImic, choose an image, and then let the image bloom in a surreal way.” Marilyn Nelson
Workshopping and Revising Poems
When a poem was too short or too dense, we learned to “sustain” the imagery or ideas – to add words, lines, even stanzas as necessary. When the poem was too long or prolix, we learned to “tighten” the wording. Other advice along these lines included: “The poem can be too long because we are still tied to the experience. Drive home to the point. Go back and revise” … “Get rid of words that aren’t doing anything” … “Suggest it, don’t perform it.” — or, as Ezra Pound used to say, “cut the fat.” Underline all the words that could be more specific and evocative. Always ask, “What words are not essential?”
Since the first word and the last word of a line of poetry are so important, we learned to look carefully at our line breaks. One day, Marilyn said, “It’s a very seductive danger to tie a poem up neatly.” So we looked carefully at our endings, too, to make sure they were not overly simplistic.
We discussed unobtrusive rhymes and how to handle forms so deftly that they became invisible – or how to expand forms beyond restrictive rules to make them work for the subjects of our poems.
I was happy that Marilyn’s philosophy allowed poets whose work was being critiqued to talk about their intentions, but advised against trying to defend the poem. Just listen to feedback … 🙂
Exercises: We were invited to write a poem from a man’s perspective in a woman’s perspective, to change the verb tenses in the poem from past to present or the verb moods from subjunctive to indicative, or to identify a “jumping off place” in a poem and develop new poems in ways that surprise the reader with new realities. We could consider re-ordering the stanzas of a given poem to see how that changes the progression and meaning. We also discussed letting the speaker of a given poem step aside, the lyric “I,” and the possibility of rewriting to foreground a third person subject. It was noted that Mary Kingsley, who used to teach at the University of Chicago, has a book out that contains many additional exercises for growing poets.
Poems we read or referenced: “The Jane Bird Hospital in Delhi” By William Meredith, the “Book of Yolek,” “Northern Pike” by Wright, Elizabeth Bishop’s fishy poem, “St. Judas,” “The Illiterate” by Meredith, “Song of Myself” by Whitman, poems by Emily Dickinson … and so many more!
The Making of a Poem
The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry (ed. Jay Parini)
The New Narrative Poem (by Mark Jarmon)
The Flower Poet by Deborah Weistem?
Wild Iris (by Louise Glück)
Greenhouse Poems (by Theodore Roethke)
Rothenberg’s Holocaust poems
Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam
The Wandering King by Theodore Deppe
Detroit poems by Philip Levine
Minneapolis poems by James Wright
Pittsburg poems by Gerald Stern
Texas poems by Betty Adbock
“The Awful Rowing toward God” by Anne Sexton
“Kyrie” by Allen Bryant Voigt
rhyming dictionary by Clement Moore or rhymezone.com
Twigs and Knucklebones by Sarah Lindsey
In all, a very good learning experience!
*p.s. “Neither the hair shirt nor the soft birth will do. The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” – Beuchner
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