Despite a bumpy travel day, I am here, tucked into a slim room with a single lamp that cannot be on at the same time as my laptop. There is lace on the bathroom curtains, the sound of glass and silverware beneath my window, and creaky floorboards abound.
I've made it to Bread Loaf, that mythical place, and perhaps I've discovered a bit of its secret--you see, from conversations we are having, it seems as if the staff at Bread Loaf hire writers who are not only stunning in their field, but, and here it is: they are also stunning in the field of teaching. So the names might be dazzling, yes, but subsequently, the pedagogy matches up.
My own instructor is Ellen Bryant Voigt, and in just the two and a half hours we had workshop, I have fully fallen--my brain was buzzing, and I thought it would be such a shame, given the sloppiness of my charming memory, to not jot what I can down here, though some of it might not entirely make sense:
Voigt started, of course, with the requisite introductions, and what she was most interested in was how we came to poetry, who we were working with now (especially if we had a peer group), and who our mentors / teachers in the past might have been.
Then, we discussed how we needed this to be a descriptive workshop as opposed to a prescriptive workshop. You see, we've only just met; a group of students in, say, an MFA program might benefit from the "I love..."s and the "I would change..."s because we've known each other and know where those lovings and changings have originated; our aesthetic has been established. But here, she did not want to "make this the auto body shop" but instead help the poets with the next poem they will write. She likened it to saying, "This neck is way too long and it's strange and ... it's a giraffe."
We discussed the notion of figuration and asked: How deep can a figure go? The discussion returned to this again and again. What's on the surface? What's beneath the surface? We used the terms "figure" and "ground," how one is the foreground and the other is the background (and its the poet's job to determine which is which, though it needn't be obvious).
She expressed the importance of our asking questions. When she was a young poet, as all these instructing poets seem to have been, though I can't imagine any of these poets I've admired and studied with or read essays by ever being "young poets," and this is from someone who rarely had trouble imaging her parents as young and as ridiculous as I was--so when she was a young poet, an instructor told her that her poem wasn't working because "the form and the structure did not match." And everyone nodded. Ahhh. This makes sense. She nodded too, though it didn't make sense, and later she looked it up in one of those little poet-dictionaries and saw that these words were nearly synonymous.
But they're not. If we think of it in terms of prose, they are easy to differentiate. The structure is the order in which the information is released to the reader, and the form is the use of those elements such as stanzas, etc. You see?
She asked us questions, easy ones, to get us going: What do we notice first about the poem?
This brought us to form: pattern and variation. She said we need sufficient pattern--"otherwise it's just a pile of words"; we need pattern and variation--"otherwise, a computer could have wrote it."
It was easy to talk about the first (couplets, which one fellow noted was a form of declaration with its opportunity for obvious end-stops) and the second (tercets, whose function seemed mostly to be slowing the reader down, though there are, of course, plenty of other manipulations). We additionally spoke on how couplets give us focus, which may make us miss the patterns in syntax.
We spoke of the use of mirrors and repetition. She used the word "lexical repetition." I wrote it down. She said the reason we turned to poetry as opposed to prose is that we have "a formal appetite." I wrote that down too.
She asked us: "Is this poem Apollonian or Dionysian?", referring to Apollo's clarity and Dionysus's' chaos.
Then the use of tone: How does the speaker feel toward the subject? What is the affect? (Always: how do we know?)
Specificity: (I remembered the importance of verbs here, though it was not discussed, what implications are brought to the table with verbs.) What other connotations are brought with the word? Is it blatant? Does it need to be? How does that work?
This was where she recommended Jim Longenbach's The Art of the Line, which explains what is called "the parsing line" whose end reinforces the syntax (where there is a natural pause, be it a full end-stop, or a comma, or a breath as in a clause), and "the annotative line" whose purpose is to add commentary, another value (an enjambed line, one example of purpose being to mis-read the line, to question what comes after that hang to the next).
In closing, she reminded us of the three important tools we need to hone in our craft: texture, form, and structure.
In closing, she told us she wanted us "not to read as a reader but read selfishly, carnivorously, and as a poet." Ask ourselves: what is the poem doing and what can I use?
See everyday-type post about first day here.