Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My First Poetry Workshop

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


Th. said...


Sounds like a good workshop. Keep going!

(Did it really take 30m to come up with those answers?)

Ang said...

Sounds like a great time. As I've told you, I'm sure you'll do fabulously well.

I love that example, replacing the verbs and whatnot. I might steal that idea for my class. (Oh, and did you mean Deborah Keenan?)

Anonymous said...

How intimidating!

The only love poems I've ever written were of the Roses-are-red- type. (Not that I've written more than one or two poems of any sort.) I had one high school boyfriend write a poem for me and it was further proof that we had nothing in common (not because he wrote a poem, but because of how dumb/sappy the poem was.) I didn't break up with him on the spot when he gave me the poem -- I waited a few weeks for a different excuse. C
ome to think of it, at least one other guy I dated and maybe two (I have a lousy memory) did write poems for me (but not love poems.) And Dean wrote a pretty decent love poem (much better than the one by my high school paramour) for another girl before he met me, and he says the reason he wrote her a poem and has never written me one is because she asked him to write a poem and I haven't asked. Maybe I should ask. Or maybe I haven't asked because I figure you need angst for good poems (but not necessarily for good marriages.)

I like your poetry so much as it is that I'm afraid of others' input ruining your style, but that's probably a silly fear. I'm sure there are things any writer can do to improve his or her craft, so why not learn 'em -- right?

Laura said...

I'm so jealous! How fun (and scary)! I bet you will be awesome. Can't wait to read some of your new stuff :)

Sue said...

Sounds interesting. I hope you keep posting about it as you go along.

Cheri said...

Thanks for posting about it--so interesting. And good for you for just charging ahead into this new experience.

Tyler said...


You and I share some journal space in the Winter 2006 Dialogue and in the latest Irreantum (just so you know I'm not some weirdo who's been lurking around your blog---or am I?). I do stop by every now and then, especially when your stuff pops up on AMV's Mormon Arts Feed.

Anyway, I just wanted to wish you luck in your workshop. It sounds like it's not for the feint of heart, but that you're primed for the challenge.

All the best.

Darlene said...

Yes, I know who you are, Tyler, and I'm happy to see you here. (And congrats on getting Kent to publish your chapbook!)

Sue said...

The dark-colored grape juice only, sorry to say.


Tyler said...

"Congrats on getting Kent to publish your chapbook!"

As great as that would be, has Kent told you something he hasn't told me?

Darlene said...


Yikes! No! It means I have stupidly got you mixed up with someone else, another male poet whose book came out last year or so from Kent's publisher. How embarrassing for me.

I wish I could tell you some good news! Sorry to make your heart jump like that. I'll just slink back to my corner red-faced.

In the meantime, I have to say that I really liked your poetry in that last Irreantum, especially the one that begins, "I'm spotting." That's a gut-kicking poem.

It's so refreshing to hear a guy talk about family life.

And don't be thinking that's a bone I'm throwing you because I feel bad about mixing you up.

Darlene said...

That should say "Kent's publishing company," not "Kent's publisher."

Tyler said...


You don't need to sit in that corner for too long. I was just hoping maybe you'd heard some news that found it's way to me yet. ;) Alas...(although I've been kicking around the idea of approaching Kent about the possibility for a little while).

And thanks for your kind appraisal of my poetry. (I've posted more on my own blog, if you're interested in reading more. I'd be interested in your feedback, if you ever make your way over there...) I've been an at-home dad for the past five years, so my experiences with my kids have informed my writing in profound ways.

I also enjoyed your poems, especially "Postpartum" (I'll go into more specifics about why I like it in a forthcoming AMV post on Irreantum's 2008 poetry year.) Maybe one of these days we'll have to get together with some other Mormon poets and do something more market-shaking with our poems.

(BTW: congrats on the Segullah book. I hope to pick up a copy for my wife---or myself---soon.)

Tyler said...

That should say "new that hadn't found its way to me yet."

Th. said...


I went straight to Kent's site on reading Darlene's intelligence, but no notice. But then, I thought, it's not like this thing gets updated much anyway.

What the market needs is a poetry-chapbook/pdf imprint. It wouldn't be bankbreaking to do.

But I'm not a poet. So onetwothreeNOTIT!

Tyler said...

Good idea, Th. I've put the suggestion to AMV's readership here.

Pink Ink said...

Found you through Kristi's blog. I think it's cool that you went to the class. Sounds like a wonderful way to get to the core of your writing.

Write on!