Good Poetry for Hard Times

I have mentioned my upcoming class, Good Poetry for Hard Times, to you before, and posted the announcement on my Home page with other events, but this evening I’m taking a moment to promote it again. In short:

My Creative Retirement Institute (CRI) class begins May 24 and continues for a total of four Fridays, on Zoom, 1-3:00.  As far as I know, anyone can take a CRI class (do you have to prove you’re retired? I don’t think so), and they are inexpensive.  This class is $58.

For some backstory, I first proposed to teach a Zoom poetry workshop. CRI doesn’t do craft classes, it turns out, but rather than simply say no, they asked if I would consider teaching a class about poetry, and I said yes.

The first title was Your Memorable Poem (like my workshop last year), but someone at CRI didn’t like that title. We came up with Good Poetry for Hard Times because I had been thinking a lot about Gaza, Ukraine, Nigeria…political division in our own country, mass shooti… Okay, I’m going to stop there. My thought was, Who has time to read (or write) poetry? Does the world need another poem? Shouldn’t I be doing something?

When I asked my journal that question, these are some responses my brain came up with:

1. Reading poetry (writing poetry, too) is doing something. It makes us pause and catch our breath. It can bring us joy (it definitely brings me joy).

2. A good poem, shared at the right moment, brings breath and joy and hope to the recipient, too.

3. To expand on that, poetry (all art for that matter, and joy, too) is not a luxury. We need it.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence … The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

—Audre Lorde

4. How is poetry a necessity? William Stafford called it a way of paying attention, and what could be more useful today than a habit of attention? Not distraction, not self-medicating. Attention.

5. Poems help make sense of loss. They are vehicles for emotion, and when we see that this poet — famous, obscure, long long dead — felt what we feel, then at the very least we feel less alone.

6. In times past, when poets retreated into the mountains (Basho, Yuanming) or into monasteries (Gerard Manley Hopkins), or into their upstairs bedroom (Emily Dickinson), what were they retreating from? How did their poetry help them to survive? (How might their poetry help us to survive our times?) Nothing too shocking or earth-shattering, but these are the questions I would like to sit with for a while.

What will each class look like?

I’m cobbling together a handout of about 50 poems that inspire me. At each session, I’ll read several poems aloud, pausing over each poem to introduce the poet, and offering context I find useful. I will also talk through what I find intriguing, healing, inspiring, memorable about each poem. Other participants (are they students if there’s no prep and no homework?) are encouraged to break in with questions or to add their comments and insights to mine. (I am HOPING people will want to talk about the poems.)

I predict that the time will fly by. So, here’s why I’m promoting it:

The class is a go, but it is slightly under-enrolled, and I’m really really hoping for a few more people. All motivations welcome:

  • The person who slept through poetry class in high school, but is ready now to see what all the fuss is about. “What’s this I hear about poetry being good for your brain?”
  • Someone who read Priscilla Long’s Dancing with the Muse in Old Age and could use an introduction to poetry before beginning his own writing practice.
  • Anyone who has been reading and writing poems for years, but, like me, finds this particular conversation timely and intriguing.

The creation of art, okay, just the attempt at the creation of art, as well as the appreciation of it, is both an enlarging of the world and an expanding of consciousness.

—Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness

If you — or someone you know — fits into any of these categories, here’s the link for CRI: https://www.edmonds.edu/programs-and-degrees/continuing-education/creative-retirement-institute/

I hope to see some of you there. White hair not required.

 

[I believe this link will take you directly to the course description: https://www.campusce.net/edmondsarts/Course/Course.aspx?c=1491]

 

 

 

 

THE ART OF REVISING POETRY

THE ART OF REVISING POETRY: 21 U.S. POETS ON THEIR DRAFTS, CRAFT, AND PROCESS, edited by Charles Finn and Kim Stafford. Bloomsbury Academic, 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK, 2023, 156 pages, $20.96, paper, www.bloomsbury.com.

https://www.kimstaffordpoet.com

For this week, a departure from the usual one-poet book. I came across The Art of Revising Poetry last year while in Livingston, Montana, where I bought On a Benediction of Wind: Poems and Photographs from the American West—poems by Charles Finn, photography by Barbara Michelman (I will have a post on this book next week).

When I looked up Finn to learn more about him, I discovered that he and Kim Stafford—a poet well known to me—had collaborated on an anthology of poems and essays about revision, not yet released. I put it on my wish list, and in December I found it at my library. (I’m going to have to buy my own copy.)

The opening essay is worth the price of admission, and includes a list of 12 suggestions for revision. The first:

  1. How could the poem’s title be more intriguing, prophetic, indelible? It’s been said the title of the poem holds about 20 percent of the poem’s overall effect. How can a poet tinker until the title alone compels? (p. 3)

The 21 poets include Finn and Stafford, also Abayomi Animashaun, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jane Hirshfield, Joe Wilkins, Shin Yu Pai, CMarie Fuhrman, Prageeta Sharma, Frank X Walker, Beth Piatote, Sean Prentiss, Shann Ray, Philip Metres, Rose McLarney, Yona Harvey, Paulann Petersen, Todd Davis, Tami Haaland, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Terry Tempest Williams.

(I had planned to offer a sampling of names, then I just kept going.) The list includes poets known to me and unknown. The approaches to revision are as diverse as the poets. They echo one another, of course—they’re writing about the same topic, after all—but each poet adds something unexpected. Not one disappoints.

As I read, I kept writing out passages in my notebook. “My revision process is, overall, one of inquiry,” Rose McLarney writes in “Identifying Gems” (p. 57). In “Finding the Language, Finding  Story” (a gorgeous essay that is also about raising a child), Joe Wilkins shares a strategy I honestly had never thought of:  “I usually write in couplets (you can’t hide anything in couplets, all that white space forces you to interrogate every word)” (p. 18).

In “Emptying the Zendo,” Shin Yu Pai admits that she doesn’t revise very much, then elaborates:

Revision, for me, is like polishing a gem to bring out its beauty. However, this working and reworking of the stone also changes its rawest qualities and alters its energy. The place where I decide to put down the pen and stop fussing with the poem is not the place another poet, teacher, or scholar might choose to end. Ultimately, we find our own relationship to our voice and our objects through reading, practice, and deep listening. In this way, we are our own teachers. —Shin Yu Pai

This might be good advice for life, as well as for writing. We find our own relationship through using our own voice, but also reading, practice, and deep listening.

For each poet, we encounter first a photo of an early draft, usually hand-written, then a typed “first” draft, next the final version, and finally a short essay about the revision. Here is Animashaun’s final draft:

Exodus

When the last immigrants
Walked out the gates

Fireworks lit up the sky
Horns and sirens blared

From every window
Flags draped

The country at last
Was itself again.

At the park, townsfolk
Celebrated new liberation day—

They cheered as foreign clothes
Were burned in piles

Danced when ethnic foods
Were flushed down sewers

And monuments to migrants
Were lassoed and pulled down

Including statues
Of the town’s founders—

Immigrants some say
From the horn of Africa—

Whose clay heads now dangle
From a rope in the heart of town.

—Abayomi Animashaun

In his essay, “Discipline and Unknowing,” Animashaun writes about the journey he took with this particular poem, and about what happens with every poem:

I never know where the writing will lead, but I accept the gift of each word, of each phrase, with the faith that each will yield in its own time as long as I continue to listen and remain steadfast . —Abayomi Animashaun

(To learn more about Animashaun and his books, visit his website: http://www.abayomianimashaun.com/books.html.)

I find myself wishing I were teaching a class where I could assign this book and discuss it. I’ll shut up now and let you find your own copy. The publisher is currently offering it at a discount: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/art-of-revising-poetry-9781350289277/.

 

Upcoming Poetry Class

I am teaching a poetry class — a project a LONG time in the works, by the way — and deserving of some fanfare.

The class begins Friday, May 26 — two classes, sort of — one on-ground, 3:30-5:00 (at my house; there are a couple seats left), and one on-line, 11:30-1:00 (plenty of room).

The title is “Your Memorable Poem.” My theme is inspired by a friend who, looking at a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, said, “I could never write a poem like that.” Of course it’s not easy (if it were, then we wouldn’t need NSN), but I think you could. The way to begin is to look very closely at how the poem is made, not to “slice and dice it,” or “master it,” but to sit with the poem, as if interviewing it, or sharing a meal. What did this poet do, in order to create this poem’s effect on us? We’ll have a little time to write, and time to offer feedback to each other.

The class runs five Fridays (May 26, June 9, 16, 23, and 30). Given the nature of Junes in my past (with children graduating and vacations to launch, etc.), and because this is an introductory class, I am happy to substitute an hour one-on-one for you if you must miss a session.

Here’s the one-paragraph description.

Many of us come to poetry because of gorgeous, memorable poems that inspired us years back, the sort of poems we carry with us and share with friends. As children perhaps it was a poem by William Wordsworth or Robert Frost, but even as adults, as accomplished poets ourselves, we may find ourselves saying, “I wish I’d written that,” after reading a poem—for me, “Happiness” by Jane Kenyon, or “Beannacht” by John O’Donohue. I remember a recent trauma when Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Love the Mutilated World” kept me from sinking into despair. Some grittier examples come to mind, too. (Inspiring poems aren’t always gorgeous. Sometimes they convey a hard truth that hits us in the gut.) In this class we’ll look at a range of such poems—you can bring your favorites, too—to see how they’re made, especially noticing the gestures we can borrow as we make our own poems.

If you’re curious, contact me for more information, including the cost: bethany.alchemy@gmail.com

poetry word cloud – handwriting on a napkin with a cup of espresso coffee

Colleen McElroy, Blood Memory

BLOOD MEMORY, Colleen J. McElroy. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260, 2016, 112 pages, $15.95 paper, www.upress.pitt.edu.

I met Professor Colleen J. McElroy when I was a newly minted MFA student at the University of Washington in 1985. If I had to characterize her in one word, it would be “storyteller.” Yes, she taught us (a lot) about poetry and the making of poems, but part of the glamor of her classes, for me, was when she would lean back in her chair, half-close her eyes, and begin telling a story. She put all of us in a trance.

The stories were about her travels—which were many; about poets she’d met and read with all over the world; about her St. Louis childhood; about her family, particularly the women who taught her how to tell stories. Reading Blood Memory transports me back to her classrooms, and to her office where, as my faculty advisor, she met with me (and regaled me) weekly. I read these poems, and I hear her voice, its cadence, its rich timbre, her laughter. And, sometimes, I can see her, fixing me with a look that she must have learned at the feet of the indomitable women who peopled her childhood.

from “Paint Me Visible”:

in a family of beautiful intelligent and profoundly
crazy women     one danced in the dark
to soothe her nerves      another wove shawls
from her husband’s hair and discarded both
when the work was done      another read palms
tea leaves   cards   anything that left an imprint
on her inner eye    neighbors said she saw
things nobody else could describe

From hopscotch rhymes to blues, through birth, abortion, estrangement, exile, and return no one can describe this world the way McElroy can. Here is the book’s opening poem:

The Family Album

call it blood memory for I am the only
one left to identify by name the ancestors

I am the only one left of the women
who sat around grandmother’s oak table
and wove the stories of who and where
who knows the half of it and when

I am the answer to the questions
my mother’s sisters swallowed:
What will you do with that child?

I know now that I am here to give
voice to tongues never silent
and doors closing too quickly

I am of the age where death comes
easily and visits often in those little
obit notes of passing reminding us

how we’ve neglected dear ones
now lived again through fading pictures
stuck to crumbling pages

I buy tickets to places I may never visit
spend hours trying to remember
if the image stuck in my head has origins

in a dream or some foggy night
slipping past almost unnoticed

I am the last female of a family
of women who wove the fabric
of stories into doilies and slip covers

I am the child with sparrow legs
sock heels stuck halfway in her shoes
drinking the last of the metaphors left
in teacups on the table unattended

—Colleen J. McElroy

From the back cover, these words of description and praise:

“She is the last woman of her line. Her new poems end and begin with A. Phillip Randolph and Pullman Porters, her enjambments are Ma Rainey and Lawdy Miz Cloudy, her leading men are the last Black men on the planet named Isom, her major planets are porches and backroads. She is still the master storyteller to the 60 million of the Passage. When I didn’t know how to be a poet, I first read Colleen McElroy to slowly walk the path to how.” —Nikki Finney

Exactly so.

To read more about Colleen J. McElroy, find her at The Poetry Foundation, Historylink.org, and I recommend this interview with Bill Kenower of author magazine.org. Here she talks about where she learned to tell stories. And (love this) she talks about poetry as not just any relationship, “but an affair.” Maybe that helps explain the clotted love that breaks to the surface in poem after poem in this book.

I first read Blood Memory when it was released in 2016. It was a delight to read it this morning and enter the trance again.

https://artsci.washington.edu/news/2022-05/colleen-mcelroy-honored-through-room-dedication

And, again, the link to her at historylink.org.