Monday, September 7, 2009

Degrees of Engagement: Our Poetry Workshop

Participants in this week's collective of poets in the Community Room in the Springfield (MA) Central Library on Saturday, September 5th (9:30-11:30): Caren, Jeremiah, Linda, Marion, Melody, Ron, Ana, Magdalena, Katie, Jeremy, Robin, BettyJean, Abigail, Marcus, and I.

Every time we meet, I wish I had a recording device because the responses to the poems often are as inspiring as the poems themselves. Every week, I marvel at how each response weaves itself into the ephemeral, complex fabric of each poem as many poets share which moments in a particular poem resonates or irritates or both.

This week was no different. Caren's narrative poem about her family's intergenerational struggle with American identity prompted responses about character identification, the concept of the Flying Dutchman, and the significance of "40 acres and a mule". It also prompted challenges: to edit further the length in order to make each line matter and to re-examine and to rephrase phrases that sound too familiar or cliched in order to strengthen the poem.

Jeremiah's poem about Provincetown immediately transported many poets, even those like me, who have never been there, to the Cape. This poem communicated a vibrant sense of place -for fishermen and for poets and writers alike - as, we all agreed, it engaged our senses of smell, taste, and movement.

Melody's powerful poem about domestic violence elicited strong visceral responses. Many agreed that the poet's vivid imagery, conveyed in such short and terse lines and phrases, underscored the impact of the piece; it is "a story in bullets", as one poet pointed out. A brief and intense discussion ensued about post-traumatic stress disorder, survival skills, and the link with trauma experiences by Vietnam veterans.

Marian's homage to a woman who embraced unapologetically her whole, complicated self, despite the externally perceived contradictions in her identity and her loco-motion, or the way in which she moves through our world, evoked admiration and a discussion about code-switching, more specifically, whether specific cultural codes of reference should be footnoted or not. This poem, which resonated with Caren's, prompted a further discussion about race, gender, class, and identity in America. Suggestions for improving this poem-in-progress included to pay more attention to line breaks and breathing pauses and to make the title a recurring refrain throughout the poem.

Ana's poem about passion evoked another love song, a bolero. This time, though, as many in the group who have read Ana's poems before pointed out, there was a sudden shift. In this poem, the poetic speaker, the "I", seemed more in control of the love situation than in other poems. A few even commented that there were erotic undertones.

Ron's prose poem conveyed a sense of nostalgia and of loves almost permanently lost in past memories. The litany of questions underscored, for many poets present, the poetic speaker's doubt, cynicism, bitterness, nostalgia, even hope.

Abigail's short poem evoked for many the quintessential mama in the kitchen. The musical references in the poem evoked, for one poet, a metaphor for mama's movement in the kitchen, and for another, the times that we turn on music in order to make chores more bearable. The poetic ambiguity about "the book" mama was memorizing elicited more than one response, much to Abigail's delight.

Finally, Katie's occasional poem, a tribute to Michael Jackson, rounded out a two-hour morning workshop that passed, for me, much too quickly.