June 15, 2020
Good morning! Welcome to the Marin Poetry Center's online poetry retreat and summertime in view of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. (Cue the bright sunlight, purple peonies, and buzz of lawnmowers. Cut the humming cafes and crowded highways. Bring dog walkers out in droves.) There—that's a quarantine-style summer.
I'm truly happy to be sharing this creative space with you. For the next seven days, we'll meet here—together and apart—to talk about what we love: poetry.
Each day will look something like this: I'll discuss an element of the craft, provide a sample poem, and cap it off with a writing prompt, website link, and submission suggestion I think you'll enjoy. (You'll see some of my quirky illustrations in these posts, too. I've had fun learning to use Adobe's Fresco app and the Apple Pencil.)
Because I write in the lyrical narrative, most of our craft discussion will tend in that direction. If you're drawn to other forms, however, I hope you'll stick around in case you find something helpful in these posts. My comments will be a mix of my own musings about poetry and incredible insights I've received from workshop instructors over the past several years. For their patience, generosity, and willingness to raise writers, I have tremendous gratitude.
Before we get started, let's do an ice breaker. I'll go first. My name is Elizabeth Oxley, and I live north of Denver. I'm a graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. I drove west about ten years ago to find treasure: poetry, green chili breakfast burritos, and mountain lions.
It's great to meet you.
DAY 1: WHAT'S YOUR SECRET?
How often have you read someone's poem and felt the poet never fully took you into their confidence? They talked around the essential narrative of the poem rather than directly to it. It probably sounded something like this:
I'm very sad. I can't tell you
why, but I'm lyrically,
And maybe the sadness was gorgeous. Maybe the poem even worked because the language was beautiful. (In this case, I'd argue the poem was really a poem about language.) But if it was a poem about something else—and you felt that something else's absence—you were probably left feeling the way you would if a friend said: I've got a secret. I'm not going to share it with you, but I promise it's really good.
It makes sense. Writing makes us vulnerable. Writing poetry is about getting as close to the kernel of a feeling—shame, grief, joy, awe—as possible without drowning in it. It's that ever-present precipice delineating life from death, mystery from resolution. The tension in these opposing forces drives a poem's momentum, but the reader needs a ledge to walk. Without a ledge, they risk falling through empty—if stunningly beautiful—air.
Remember Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Indy's on his way to the room that holds the holy grail. He can't go back. Ahead of him is a bottomless pit. And then—as only Indy would think to do—he tosses a handful of dust into the abyss. It illuminates a slender, camouflaged bridge.
I had an instructor once who advocated for writing as explicitly as possible. Say the effing thing, he said. This doesn't mean you have to open your private journal for all the world to see. You're a poet—you're making art. We're simply talking about what the poem needs to be successful.
This raises a problem. Sometimes we can't tell if we've said the thing. We think we have. We're certain we have. Then someone gives us feedback, and we realize we've left them scrambling for a foothold.
How can we tell if we're hiding from ourselves in our own writing? One clue is our excessive use of lyrical language. Sometimes, we overwrite in order to avoid saying the difficult thing that needs to be said. It's like the huge, pink peonies in my garden. I love them because they disguise the weeds. They keep me from having to face the messy undergrowth.
If you're worried that writing explicitly will result in a loss of mystery, don't be. It's your gift for poetic language that will carry the mystery, but your readers still need the thing—a bridge—to carry them across.
by Sharon Olds
When I said, to my mother, What was a good
thing about me as a child?, my mother’s
face seemed to unfurl from the center,
hibiscus in fast motion, the anthers
and flounces springing out with joy. Oh you were
enchanting, she breathed. What do you mean—
crazy? No sense of reality?
No-no, she laughed, with many little notes—
half a scale, plus grace notes—I don’t
know how to say it, you were just. . .
enchanting. Possessed?, I asked. Brain-damaged?
No, she smiled. There was something about you—
the way you looked at things. I thought I got it:
that stunned look on my face, in photos,
that dumbstruck look, gaze of someone
who doesn’t understand anything.
But a week later, I thought it had been a look
of wonder, it was bemused pleasure.
And days later, I see it—that light
on my mother’s face—she loved me. And today
I hear her, she did not say enchanted.
The woman in whose thrall I was
was in my thrall. I came into being
within her silks and masses, and after we are
gone would she caper here, my first
love, would she do me the honor of continued ensorcelling?
Pull out an old or current poem. Read it silently and out loud. Where does the poem feel unbalanced with a sudden burst of lyrical or flowery language? If you find clusters, trim them back, asking yourself what holes this reveals in your narrative. Try to be honest with yourself. What is it you're not saying? If a rewrite is too daunting, simply scribble notes in the margin of your poem until you decide whether you're ready to rework the poem.
Writing explicitly doesn't necessarily equate to writing about emotionally difficult things. For the purposes of this exercise, however, we're going to shake hands with vulnerability.
Write down something—an event or feeling—you'd prefer to keep to yourself. (It doesn't have to be dramatic. I once wrote that I hated my mother's carrot salad.)
Write down five supporting details as full sentences, being as explicit as you can.
Sit with what you've written for a few minutes. Read your sentences silently or out loud.
Now, choose whether to shred your sentences or shape them into a poem. If you keep them, you might write them in first person or change them into third. You might alter supporting details. The goal is to be explicit and give your readers a bridge to cross.
Ruminate Magazine is a favorite of mine—a reader-supported, contemplative literary arts magazine. Click here to learn more about Ruminate's submission opportunities, including their 2020 Broadside Poetry Prize (September 2020 deadline).
Since we've been talking about secrets, it seems only fitting to provide a link to the history of Secret Sauce and one blogger's recipe for it.