Well, I was scared.
I don’t know why.
Yes, I do.
I was scared that my old brain wouldn’t be able to keep up with the twenty-year-olds.
I was scared that I would be the slow student in the class.
I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to hold my own. (Truly, I know so little about poetry, having never really studied it—at least not the writing of it. This is my first class.)
I was scared (still am) that the poetry I bring won’t measure up, or will be too shallow or too “sweet” or too religious for the class.
I was scared I’d get lost, park in the wrong place, etc.
I was scared of the potential work the class would require. This is the busiest month I’ve had in years, and I’m still not sure I’ll survive. (New calling, vacation to plan, contest to judge, etc.)
But I went.
The class is held at Westminster. Kurt Brown, a poet and teacher of poets who is the founder of the Aspen Writer’s Conference, is the teacher. He is, apparently, a visiting professor at Westminster. Half of the class is Westminster students who are taking the class for credit—some by choice, and some reluctantly under advisement from counselors (almost all are Creative Writing students in fiction). The other half of the class is members of the community who get to take the class for free but who had to submit writing samples in order to be accepted. (I’m extremely curious about how many applicants there were. Does having been accepted mean anything? Does it mean I show promise? That I am teachable? I’d REALLY like to know this.)
The first half of the class we introduced ourselves and talked in-depth about the kinds of writers we are. I mean, excruciating depth. We had to go around and tell what we write and whom we read. Already I was getting scared because I can’t really say whom I read. Because really, except for a couple of books that dear friends have given me (thanks Angela and Kathy) I mostly read poetry in anthologies. Or from the library. Which means I read stuff and then promptly forget it. Some I like a lot and try to remember but I really don’t. I remember, of course, the ones I own and re-read, so I could at least mention them.
And then we spent way, way, way too long on a questionnaire asking things like “What images appear over and over in your work?” “What kind of poetry do you write?” “What metaphors do you find yourself using?” “Describe your lines.” “What kind of poetry do you hate to read?” “What kind do you hate to write?” “Describe your tone.” “Whom do you read?” (Again.) He gave us like 30 minutes to answer these questions (way too long—did I mention that?) and then we each had to read all of our answers to the others. (I discovered that I wasn’t the one who had read the least poetry there—but still I felt very underexposed.)
So, in case you’re curious, I’ll include some of my answers below.
The second half of the class we studied three or so poems (one by Silvia Plath, one by Gerard Manley Hopkins, can’t remember the other poet but it was a great poem about a snake) in detail, looking mostly at diction (active verbs!). Kurt had taken the Plath poem (“Suicide Off Egg Rock”) and substituted all of her verbs with more commonplace ones. So we read that version and compared. Then he passed out another in which he had also substituted nouns and adjectives. It was pretty amazing.
And made me realize what a handicap my own lack of vocabulary diversity is. I don’t know how to fix that other than reading lots more poetry of the “mouthful” kind (Hopkins is a good example: “For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim”). I don’t want to ever make my self inaccessible through vocabulary, but could certainly use more color and punch!
Then the assignments: read one book of poetry a week and write a two-page review of it (impersonal). Memorize one poem by the end of class. Bring a new poem of my own to each class.
And now comes the big panic as I try to produce for a deadline, and for people I don’t know and trust and whose backgrounds are much different than mine. Wish me luck.
(This is good for me. It will be hard but good.)
Some answers to Kurt Brown’s questions:
1. What themes do you often write about?
Family life, motherhood, the intersection of religion and daily life.
2. What is your tone usually like?
Conversational, chatty, informal.
3. What are your lines like?
Usually short, too often iambic.
4. Whom do you read/like?
Billy Collins, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Frank O’Hara, Mary Oliver, Nancy Keenan (thanks, guys), Lance Larsen.
5. What kind of poetry do you hate to read?
Inaccessible and ungrounded. Also, most nature poems. Sappy religious stuff.
6. What kind of poetry do you find it hardest to write?
Nature poems, of course. Anything longer than a page. Also, love poetry. And this drives me crazy. How many poems have I written about my kids, about family life, and I can’t manage one decent love poem? What’s up with that?
7. Name a type of person, different from yourself, that you would like to “possess” or inhabit.
[Don’t know what’s up with this question.] A musical comedy stage actress. I’d love to be able to belt. Or a member of a vocal jazz group, like New York Voices, living in the city and having gigs.
(cross-posted at DarlenLYoung.blogspot.com)