Wednesday, January 30, 2013

from the archives: bread loaf, workshop one

originally posted on independent study, 8/13/09

Despite a bumpy travel day, I am here, tucked into a slim room with a single lamp that cannot be on at the same time as my laptop. There is lace on the bathroom curtains, the sound of glass and silverware beneath my window, and creaky floorboards abound.

I've made it to Bread Loaf, that mythical place, and perhaps I've discovered a bit of its secret--you see, from conversations we are having, it seems as if the staff at Bread Loaf hire writers who are not only stunning in their field, but, and here it is: they are also stunning in the field of teaching. So the names might be dazzling, yes, but subsequently, the pedagogy matches up.

My own instructor is Ellen Bryant Voigt, and in just the two and a half hours we had workshop, I have fully fallen--my brain was buzzing, and I thought it would be such a shame, given the sloppiness of my charming memory, to not jot what I can down here, though some of it might not entirely make sense:

Voigt started, of course, with the requisite introductions, and what she was most interested in was how we came to poetry, who we were working with now (especially if we had a peer group), and who our mentors / teachers in the past might have been.

Then, we discussed how we needed this to be a descriptive workshop as opposed to a prescriptive workshop. You see, we've only just met; a group of students in, say, an MFA program might benefit from the "I love..."s and the "I would change..."s because we've known each other and know where those lovings and changings have originated; our aesthetic has been established. But here, she did not want to "make this the auto body shop" but instead help the poets with the next poem they will write. She likened it to saying, "This neck is way too long and it's strange and ... it's a giraffe."

We discussed the notion of figuration and asked: How deep can a figure go? The discussion returned to this again and again. What's on the surface? What's beneath the surface? We used the terms "figure" and "ground," how one is the foreground and the other is the background (and its the poet's job to determine which is which, though it needn't be obvious).

She expressed the importance of our asking questions. When she was a young poet, as all these instructing poets seem to have been, though I can't imagine any of these poets I've admired and studied with or read essays by ever being "young poets," and this is from someone who rarely had trouble imaging her parents as young and as ridiculous as I was--so when she was a young poet, an instructor told her that her poem wasn't working because "the form and the structure did not match." And everyone nodded. Ahhh. This makes sense. She nodded too, though it didn't make sense, and later she looked it up in one of those little poet-dictionaries and saw that these words were nearly synonymous.

But they're not. If we think of it in terms of prose, they are easy to differentiate. The structure is the order in which the information is released to the reader, and the form is the use of those elements such as stanzas, etc. You see?

She asked us questions, easy ones, to get us going: What do we notice first about the poem?

This brought us to form: pattern and variation. She said we need sufficient pattern--"otherwise it's just a pile of words"; we need pattern and variation--"otherwise, a computer could have wrote it."

It was easy to talk about the first (couplets, which one fellow noted was a form of declaration with its opportunity for obvious end-stops) and the second (tercets, whose function seemed mostly to be slowing the reader down, though there are, of course, plenty of other manipulations). We additionally spoke on how couplets give us focus, which may make us miss the patterns in syntax.

We spoke of the use of mirrors and repetition. She used the word "lexical repetition." I wrote it down. She said the reason we turned to poetry as opposed to prose is that we have "a formal appetite." I wrote that down too.

She asked us: "Is this poem Apollonian or Dionysian?", referring to Apollo's clarity and Dionysus's' chaos.

Then the use of tone: How does the speaker feel toward the subject? What is the affect? (Always: how do we know?)

Specificity: (I remembered the importance of verbs here, though it was not discussed, what implications are brought to the table with verbs.) What other connotations are brought with the word? Is it blatant? Does it need to be? How does that work?

This was where she recommended Jim Longenbach's The Art of the Line, which explains what is called "the parsing line" whose end reinforces the syntax (where there is a natural pause, be it a full end-stop, or a comma, or a breath as in a clause), and "the annotative line" whose purpose is to add commentary, another value (an enjambed line, one example of purpose being to mis-read the line, to question what comes after that hang to the next).

In closing, she reminded us of the three important tools we need to hone in our craft: texture, form, and structure.

She told us she wanted us "not to read as a reader but read selfishly, carnivorously, and as a poet." Ask ourselves: what is the poem doing and what can I use?

See everyday-type post about first day here.


 originally posted on field | work, 8/13/09

Somehow, I've coaxed my camera to give me photos through the cord, but not to upload them permanently on my computer. I'm OK with that. Now, I can share a little bit through pictures, which is nearly all I can give you, as I'm directing my words to my writing notebook, to the margins of poems, to dance around (stomp around) in my brain. It's only been twenty four hours, thirteen of which I slept through, and I'm overwhelmed. Happily so.

Above: saying good-bye to the city as we fly to Newark. Little did I know, this would be the smoothest of the two flights, despite the smallness of this passenger plane, the way I was both aisle and window seat, the bumpy landing that makes sense for something without the width of planes I've grown accustomed to. And the next flight, Newark to Vermont, it wasn't really even that bad--it was the airport, which was so awful, with delays and delays and hearing them bounce around on the speakers for other flights, cancellations, and four planes later, we were in the air. I began to get to know the people around me and met Heather, who is studying non-fiction here. I've since lost her in the crowd.

Above: the propellers from our second flight. There, I sat next to a yoga instructor with a furious cold. We marveled at the swaths of trees, the lakes--you'd think it were northern Minnesota, but the mountains swelled, and I began to miss "home," as in the place of my childhood. (Chattanooga, Tennessee, for those who do not know.)

Above two: that's my room. I'm in a hall off the main inn, right above the dining hall. As I write this, I can hear the radio from the kitchen, listen to busboys pushing each other in the gravel teasingly, the clink of glasses and silverware. The room itself is typical of a dorm room: the bed juts into the tiny bookcase juts into the table juts into the closet juts into the dresser juts into the door juts into the bed. But it's a single, so I can keep my snoring and medical issues to myself.

Once settled, I stepped outside to the above sunset to the left of the main entrance. I'm always amazed at how sunsets translate on the camera; it's never quite what I see with the naked eye, but sometimes they're beautiful in their own way.

Oh, and I think I mentioned fog at some point--maybe in a previous jotted post, maybe in an email to my husband, but here it is--fog and trees and the mountain. Welcome to the mountain, they told us in the opening comments.

Full of vegetarian lasagna and spice cake, I headed over to the little theatre to listen to opening remarks.

Above: A glimpse in the dining room as I walked to the theatre. It's rickety and the food is decent. Everywhere is rickety though. This campus was gifted to the university, and the land cannot be developed. The buildings are old, wood planked.

There are so many of these Adirondack chairs spread across the campus. At some point, I'll end up in one, writing. Reading.

Michael Collier, who runs the program, gave the opening speech, which included speculation as to why Bread Loaf has the name that it does. One was the bread loaf shaped mountain; another was the bread loaf shaped bit of meteor discovered, part of which he "has here," which he wagged at the giggling audience.

Trish Hampl gave the first reading, and I cannot think of a better reader to do so. I've heard her read before, and last fall, had her as a professor for Reading Across Genres, the MFA class all first years take where professors visit and we get a taste of what it might be like to take a class from said professor. It was her that I fell in love with the most, and look forward to having her again for a memoir class in the Reading as Writers designation. Listening to her, I could hear how acute her word choice is, how precise her phrasing. It is no surprise that she started out as a poet.

Finally, Michael Collier came up again to read his poetry; Brigit Pegeen Kelly was supposed to read, but it sounds as if she was caught up in the airport nightmare half the participants seemed also to have been thrust into.

I'm still reeling. Still attempting to fall into the parceled schedule, the dips and peeks and find time to myself, to sleep, to understand where I am supposed to be and when. I have no alarm clock (no cell phone reception "on the mountain"), so a kind neighbor is waking me for tomorrow, and on Saturday, I'll buy the alarm clock the woman at the bookstore will bring from the main campus' bookstore.

I'll bring these posts a day after they happen--seems easier that way. And when I return, I will give you the rest of my Austin trip, since I can moderately access it, it would appear. Please also forgive the stumbling nature of my prose in these poets (or at any time)--I'm trying to save my best thinking for when I am outside this little room, my best words for my own work, my second best for the work of others, and when it comes to left-over, I'm plumb all out.

PS: For those of you interested in what I have to say about the poetry-side of things, I am writing about it on this blog, which is sort of my new space to keep me on track of being less lazy reader and participator in the writing world. This blog, of course, will be my center space, my everyday blog, my friends-and-family-and-welcome, stranger blog. But when I do want freedom to rhapsodize about, say, prosody, or parataxis, or the formal appetite, or figuration, and I don't want to worry about eyes glazing (too much anyway). I can't interest every reader, or even myself, all the time, but when I first started blogging, I did have an everyday blog, and I did have a professional blog (for teaching), so it only makes sense that when I finally feel confident about my place in this "profession" that I would find a space for that too.

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