poetry MFA summer residency, days 3, 4 & 5

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the floor of my dorm at my MFA summer residency: covered with poems & notes
the floor of my dorm at my MFA summer residency: covered with poems & notes

if you follow the link, you’ll see what my room looked like days 1 & 2 of the MFA residency. and then it started to look like this (above): shoes kicked off. bed unmade. papers covering the floor… all signs that carolee’s excited about sitting down to write. if it lasts, if it lingers, then i will take home exactly what i aimed to get out of the residency. yes, i’m exposed to poets who are new to me. yes, i’m taking notes on craft. but what i’ve really been missing is the affection for it. day three (monday), it came back to me.

monday began our ‘regular’ daily routine here at ashland: workshops 9-12 (i worked w/mark irwin), lunch 12-1, craft seminars 1-2:30, followed by thesis defenses (some days), dinner at 5:30, readings at 7. it’s entirely exhausting, but very often exhilarating.

the workshops
when i returned to poetry in my early 30s, i used strange images and took lots of leaps. for some reason, especially the last 2-3 years when i’ve really been struggling with new material, i lost track of that playfulness. i developed some other skills — better line breaks and use of sound — so it wasn’t all time wasted. but what’s come out of the workshops (both the instruction and the critique) is a reminder to be playful again, to bring sexy back (ha ha).

that’s not how it’s been worded, of course, but that’s what it comes down to for me. here are some other great reminders — some poetry 101 stuff that’s easy to get lazy about, along with some meatier suggestions — that have come out of the instruction/workshop so far:

  • take risks & create “spiky” moments. the poems should hurt to touch but make you unable to stop yourself from picking it back up.
  • each word must the be exact right word; “if you’re not thinking about every word, you’re not a poet.”
  • beware of titles that are like “hats” on the poem; try to add a new dimension instead.
  • do not think when you write; “pull up something sloppy and wet.”
  • distort things; make them wilder.
  • are your poems getting strange enough? revise toward the strange!
  • don’t explain anything; that’s for prose. the reader wants to discover things, not be told them.

the craft seminars
tuesday’s seminar was on formalism in yeats, and though it sounds dry, it was really about what can we, as contemporary poets, learn from him. Primarily, this: experiment with form. in fact, deborah fleming says yeats “plays fast and loose with form.” and it’s fun to hear what excites other poets. wednesday’s seminar was on investigative/documentary poetry. it was a label i hadn’t heard, but it’s very intriguing. in addition to learning about the genre — we discussed how “witness is not a passive act” — we got several ideas about topics we may use in our own work.

the readings
monday we heard faculty members deborah fleming, kathryn winograd and leila philip. tuesday was also faculty: steve harvey, angie estes and bob cowser. both evenings a mix of published work and works in progress, which i like. i enjoy hearing not only what people have published but what they’re currently working on. wednesday’s reading was visiting writer alicia ostriker, who also read published poems and poems from an upcoming manuscript. it was a delight and a privilege to hear her read! (i’m going to give her reading/visit its own post after i return to albany.)


i’m not only re-energized as a writer (monday night i wrote a draft that i’m really happy with and looking forward to revising), but i’m re-energized as a reader, too. even in my writing dry spell, i’ve continued to read, but realize that i haven’t had the appetite for it that i used to have. i don’t just mean failure to dedicate as much time to it. i’m talking about voracity. i’m talking about allowing myself be moved by a really amazing poem and reading it over and over because it’s just so powerful.

mark irwin likes to say that you should “blow up a really good poem the size of this table” and “get down on your hands and knees with it” and “touch each word.” call before you come visit; i may be groping some poems.

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