Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Poetry Summit

I like summits. And lately they seem to be in vogue as a way to solve intransigent problems, or at least let competing ideas bounce around the room.

When I have the scantest, thinnest, roughest start to a poem and am of little faith, I gather a congress of former teachers around an invisible table and imagine what each might say in response to my new draft. I call this my telepathic critiquing summit – diverse, contradictory, and multi-partisan.

First to arrive is Betty Shipley, my original prime poetry teacher, saying: image, image, image. Don’t amass abstractions. Power up your verbs. Tighten lines. Trim.

Betty tends to go on and on, so I pass the talking stick to Judith Johnson, mythopoetic wonder-woman, who gets up from the table and dances some kind of rumba and insists that my poem needs space to breathe and is cramped in too-tight stanzas. Reformat, release it. Read it from the bottom to the top and feel the way it opens up.

Mark Doty, with whom I’ve only had one chance to learn from in a workshop, smartly orders me to write longer: you’ve stopped too soon to know the possibilities of this poem. Push forward. Don’t be lazy or afraid.

I always love to see Naomi Shihab Nye,(shown in picture) whose teaching is as wise as it is kind, advising me to look in my notebook for the line I may have left out. Write three sentences a day in your early-morning voice. Listen to the voice.

Uh, oh. Ed Allen, the dreaded one-time writer-in-residence, frowns: these poems are so dull you should just give up! (Excuse me, Professor Allen, who invited you to my special summit?)

Jane Hirschfield sits at the table, lovely as Kuan-Yin, quietly pointing out the place where I am being clever. The striving to be a smarty-pants makes a sour note.

Teacher extraordinaire, Anita Skeen, who knows my trouble spots so well, suggests my poem doesn’t start until stanza two and perhaps ends stronger earlier. This is Skeen’s “hats and booties” test. Many poems are too warmly dressed with unnecessary openings and closings weakened by a tendency to make things click. Where is the negative capability? Heaven help the poem that turns into a little sermon-ette.

At one of my recent sessions I was visited by the amazing Francine Prose, who never mentioned poetry the one time I heard her speak on the creative process. Now she looked around and said, oh, excuse me, I was looking for the writing room.

I remembered how she had told us that when she sits down to write the room is always full of people—her mother, grandpa, lovers, teachers. As she writes the room begins to empty out until she is alone. And then when she falls deeply into writing, it’s as though she herself goes missing, and only the creative energy remains.

Indeed, sometimes that happens. In summit, I might find just the right advice, then go on to write away all my dear advisers. I like summitry… as long as I don’t forget who holds the gavel.