Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Creating a space for poetry (poetry, rich and independent as the Vatican)

Poet Marilyn Nelson recently announced she was about to clean up to create a space for writing.

(If I mention names it's simply to give credit and not to drop. I've met Marilyn once; she is a poet and human I admire vastly.)

Granted, a tidy bedroom or desk may not generate safety and fortress for every writer. In the movie Smart People, Thomas Hayden Church, playing Dennis Quaid's charming slacker half-brother, is told by his teenaged Republican niece to make his bed. “It sets the tone for the day.”

“How do you know what kind of tone I want to set?” he drawls, becoming a hero to Sarah Sarai (who is ever hopeful slackerdom will come through with a living for her one day).

Chuck (Church) is hapless and forgetful, but moral. He is, as we say these days, appropriate with his niece, and therefore a man who has created space in his life to be a true adult. By way of counterpoint to my beloved messy slackerdom I recall reading a profile of writer Ray Carver, who could find exactly whatever story he was looking for in his cleanly organized files, without missing a step. He probably didn't even devote an hour a week to searching for his eyeglasses.

I won't tell you how I create space to write, partly because my technique is haphazard and partly because it is a protected moat. I guard carefully my writing -- egress, inspiration and the activity of it.

Public writing is the horse of a different color. I am not a workshop person (it would take years, years and years, to unpack that simple sentence). But I showed up for two stand-alone workshops over the past year. One of the workshops revealed I am part of something, poetry, rich and independent as the Vatican. It has many novices and novitiates.

What I'm working toward is that no one workshop exercise or series of workshop exercises will make anyone a better poet. What does the trick is creation by the workshop leader of a space for the writing of poetry. Enthusiasm and joy help with that. An ability to reside serenely in his or her body while in front of a class, to push out from the core, exude energy and light—marks of a writing facilitator who creates a beautiful space.

When leading a group of poetry lovers, abandon self-consciousness. When pointing the way to The Way Of Poesy, be yourself and know you are rapid sunlight, joy, a reflection of greatness (no need to be great when we can reflect if).

There are as many writing exercises as there are names of the God. All refer to one and the same thing, a source of holiness. Belief in deities unnecessary; belief in poetry is, however, vital. Not a belief in grants or awards. Not a belief in status, ranking, publications, copies sold. A belief in the lifesaving poem.

And voila! (as Julia Child might say), you have a lovely chicken or a lovely poem. Hard to argue with either...

(Thanks to poet Lee Ann Roripaugh, whose stray comment got me thinking.) Also. Note to self: Time to start sending out resumes to teach? Sarah, you want to try creating a space in which others can writer, don't you.


  1. A post can be both funny and interesting...
    I can't believe the new information about Carver. He is my writer hero and this information diminishes him a bit. Not even an hour a month looking for his glasses? Or hunting for the keys? Looking through piles of paper in the hope of filling a recycling bag from them? Wondering why it's all chaos? And having your friend say, "Where does all the clutter come from?"
    I wish you great speed in spending out resumes and thank you for the mention of Jack Wiler.

  2. I hope you dust off your resume....
    and thank you for writing about Jack Wiler
    and am dashed by the idea that Carver didn't spend an hour a month looking for his classes, for his keys, through papers he wanted to put most of in the recycling. That ruins it for me, and he's been my hero poet.

  3. Thank you for your blessing as I gather together my teaching resume. I can use all the help I can get. I'm being called to it. There's that.

    As for Carver, well, after all those years of hard drinking and drinking-related romping, I'd say he would have to become organized to help reorganize his life. Of maybe that's how he managed during all those years--a bit of grace of alphabetical order. Or maybe the interviewer was lying. You just never know.