As I gear up for the new Skin & Stories workshop this fall, I am reading the text-book I will be using. Writing and Being: Embracing your Life Through Creative Journaling by G. Lynn Nelson offers ways to take your journal writing into public writing and everything in between. I good friend and poet, Bob Stallworthy recommended it to me and I am so grateful. As I was sitting in Starbucks last night having a writer’s date with myself, I decided to read a little bit of this book before going home. I was on the chapter about community and was struck by its honesty and connectivity. He talked about how we live in a world where we need to keep up appearances. Groups judge us and accept us based on our “resumes” and we proceed to try to keep up this image of ourselves that others find there. Nelson said that he went to AA with his father (who was an alcoholic) and he was struck by this place where people were completely vulnerable and had gotten to this place where they needed to be taken as they were, failures and all: “After seeing how AA works to heal those in its circle and how powerful it is, I hungered for such communities. For a while, I even considered becoming an alcoholic so I could belong to AA, but I was afraid I might fail. I wondered: Why does it seem we have to become alcoholics or drug addicts or have mental breakdowns or attempt suicide before we can come together as a whole people, without pretense, before we can speak from our hearts and tell our stories to each other?” (p. 132). Nelson goes on to speak of a love-energy created in these types of groups.
I started to think of the first Writer’s Midwife workshop and how I think it was so hard to let go of because we had all created this “love-energy”. Every writer felt safe sharing and exploring in their journals because there was no judgement nor expectation. I was in one poetry class that had this ingredient in University and my writing flourished. It didn’t flourish because I was being critiqued. It flourished because I felt like I could be myself and it was okay. My intention is to create this for the new workshop as well and every workshop moving forward. As social creatures, community is everything. True community is essential. When we commit such a vulnerable act such as writing, the difference between a group with love-energy and one without can mean the difference between whether a person writes or not.
When Bob Stallworthy graciously spoke to the Skin & Stories workshop this past Monday, he really cemented the magic of poetry for me. Bob Stallworthy is a poet, although he was speaking to all genres. Naturally, the first question that flew his way was, “What the heck is poetry, anyway?” With that question I immediately was transported to this place of wondering how I would write poetry if I had no idea how. More importantly, how do you teach poetry to someone who has never dabbled in the genre? After pondering this question for some time, I realized one of the most important things a person can do who wants to write poetry is to READ it! High Schools have ruined many future poets with their boring worksheets on “elements of poetry”: personification, metaphor, simile and alliteration. Poetic devices. No one reads poetry and thinks, “Oh! There is some personification!” Unless that person sets out in search of those devices, they don’t usually surface that way. Poetry works as a whole. Poetry is an experience and we get the pleasure of seeing a poem work the magic of language.
Poetry has been one of those forms that I naturally gravitated towards but never knew what I was doing. Even now, when I workshop a poem (get it critiqued), people will notice something such as a line break or the placement of a word that created an effect I had no idea was there. My unconscious mind wraps itself around poetry quite easily and it isn’t until I rework a poem that I get to ask myself what just happened.
Currently, I am reading a book called, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield which is indispensable when attempting to ask the question: What is poetry? Hirshfield defines it as, “the clarification and magnification of being.” My mentor, Richard Harrison, would define it as “the dramatization of a voice” whereas, a short story as the “dramatization of a character” and the novel as the “dramatization of a world.” For me, poetry is less about emotion and feeling and more about a focus and a dance with language. Poetry gives you very little space to move around in, so everything has a purpose. Every comma, period, line break and combination of words had its own meaning that also works with the poem as a whole. Rhythm emerges in the cadence of the speaker’s voice. Lastly, it is about experience of an event which Bob pointed out to us. I always look at poetry as a ride through someone else’s gaze, someone else’s lens. I get out of my own head for a while when I read poetry. I want to be along for the ride!
If you are attempting to write poetry for the first time, try to abandon everything you were taught in high school and write about an experience…I have the most fun when it is seemingly inconsequential such as your fish swimming around on the mantle or my baby girl kissing the spines of books in the shelf. These apparently insignificant memories trudge up meaning when set to poetry…you might be surprised what you find.
The place where inner writing demons come out to play most in my mind is when I attempt to revise. A good friend/poet, Bob Stallworthy calls it “re-vision.” Many of my poems have sat ignored in drawers after the first or second draft from hearing the constant drone of “I am not good at this.” Despite how Bob offered me a way of re-naming the act of editing, I still sit down and dread moving on to the next draft. However, I am getting better.
When I was tutoring a high school student last week, I asked her to write me a creative piece about the love between two inanimate objects in the room. She could barely touch her pen to paper and she had a sheepish grin on her face. “Where are you stuck?” I asked her. She replied that she didn’t know if what she was about to write would be good enough. I told her to tell me what she was thinking and she said she was thinking that the love between the bookshelf and the table was like a Taylor Swift song. She continued on to tell me that the love between these inanimate objects was sad because although they were always close to each other, they could never actually tough. Furthermore, she said they had to bear the pain of watching people express their love all day through affection. I thought this was brilliantly creative! So what had stopped her before she even allowed her pen to touch the page?
I have often wondered if having our writing is evaluated in school is where it all begins. Seeing red scratches on the page and grade levels is stressful and sends the message that how our thoughts are conveyed is prone to criticism. People talk about writers in polarized terms of “good” and “bad.” My student is clearly a victim of this. The fact that she saw me as someone who was better than her at writing, caused her to freeze up for fear that I would see it. The fear that I may have judged her. I’ve been there many times. In fact, it took me three years to work up enough courage to take an English class in University. From what I had experienced in high school, I had received the message that I couldn’t write essays. I carried this message with me to University and it wasn’t until a professor who taught me upgrading showed me a different way to write them. Even then, I believed that I was not good enough to be at the level the University expected me to be for essay writing. It wasn’t until my interest outweighed my fear that I took an English class. After that, I was hooked and I switched my major.
How many writers never make it past the high school mentality of being evaluated? Everything counts for something, including first drafts. In the real world though, there is more freedom with first drafts. First drafts can become eighteen drafts. I believe it was Yeats, who wasn’t satisfied with one of his poems and it took him ten years and countless drafts before it reached the masses. I have made a commitment to myself to not let my first drafts sit idly in my poetry folder. I have made a commitment to set aside some time once a week for “re-visioning.” I create space to let the poem speak to me in a different way. To tell me whether this line is needed or give me clarity on the central image. Some days are harder than others. I remind myself that I am my own creative authority and there is no judges peering over my shoulder. I wish the same for you. First drafts are just that, first drafts. Honour your thoughts, your self and your birthright by being gentle with yourself and your creative side. Writing is a process, try to clear your mind of the final destination.