I recently attended the annual Antioch Writers Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Back in 1988, when I was a fledgling writer, it was my first of many writers’ conferences. I have grown immensely since 1988, but that doesn't mean I have nothing left to learn.
I came away from the first workshop feeling the molecules in my body had changed, so I was excited to return to Yellow Springs for another week. The original conference was held at Antioch College, a lovely liberal arts campus. I had known the college closed for awhile, but they had reopened with a small student body, and i believed this conference would be held at the college. (This was explicit on the web site, but I tend to skim details.) When I drove into town, the old college looked like news footage of Bosnia. I drove around the abandoned buildings until I found a groundskeeper who told me the workshop is now held at the new Antioch University Midwest campus just at the edge of town.
Enough back-story. What did I glean from this experience?
We go to conferences to make connections with other like-minded souls. My friends and family don't mind that I write, but they don't care about the process. Only other writers understand suffering over the word, fretting over using ‘mysterious’ vs. ‘esoteric’ in a sentence or line.
In the morning craft talk on day one, poet Jeff Gundy discussed Finding What Shines and how poets hurry slowly. The energy behind our work is in the quickly written draft, but the soul of it evolves slowly through multiple revisions.
He paraphrases William Stafford and Donald Hall by stating, "Write great poems but lower the standard." As poets we want to write grand messages that will solve the world's problems and carve our names in infamy. Yet as Jeff points out, we need to lower our lofty goals and write for an audience of possibly just ourselves. We can't solve the world's problems in one poem. We can only tap at them, nudge a small reaction, which creates another reaction, where poems speak to other poems (and the reader.)
A poem comes from a life, not a study. William Stafford writes in Writing the Australian Crawl, “When I write, grammar is the enemy…Swimmers know that if they are relax on the water it will prove to be miraculously buoyant….writers know that a succession of little strokes without any prejudgments about the specific gravity of a topic…will result in creative progress.”
Poems that matter also go beyond craft . In an essay The Art of Finding, Linda Gregg states, “Too often in workshops and classrooms here is a concentration on the poem’s garments instead of its life’s blood.”
. “You can produce fine poems without believing anything…” we have all seen well crafted work that possess attention to diction and syntax, but under the glossy surface is air. This type of writing becomes “manufacturing instead of giving birth.”
Do we need to know what every poem means? Lit teachers like to beat meaning to death. I don't always care about literal meaning because my accumulation of life experience does not echo yours, and we will find multiple meanings in the same combination of words. What feels blue to me renders you orange.
This is what Jeff terms as a ‘happy problem’.
Beginning poets often believe poetry relies of self expression. It's all about me! Well, no, it's not.
You kind of don't matter after all. You are only a channel. Poems that matter are about what happens around you, not just to you.
The poems we looked at in session 1 were Some Say Horsemen, Some Say Warriors, by Sappho; The River at Wolf, by Jean Valentine; The Half-Finished Heaven, by Tomas Transtromer (tr. Robin Fulton); All the Fruit, Friedrich Holderlin, (tr. Robert Bly]; and When the Neighbors Fight by Terrance Hayes.
His exercise was to let yourself be drawn to a line or two in one of the poems and let that line open your imagination to praise or lament. Essentially the line becomes a catalyst for your own poem.
Above all, read poetry