July 20, 2018
A Novelist Walks into a Poetry Workshop…
I approach poetry much like I do a Jackson Pollock painting: that is, while I fully appreciate the value and artistry of the work—and even, depending on the piece, can quite like looking at it—I do not, at my core, understand it. I know this. I know this, because if I am being honest, I cannot fully differentiate what makes his work Art, while the paint that accrues along the drop cloth on an artist’s floor is not. And this is on me, because I know there are people who do understand it. I know there is something there to be understood.
Similarly, I do not entirely “get” poetry, even when I like it. And I do like it. Sarah Kay’s No Matter the Wreckage is gorgeous, and the novel-in-verse Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough left me shaken for days. So of course I try to write some myself. I have some skill with words, after all. I understand metaphor, imagery, symbolism. I can take my pen and dip it into the well of my thoughts, fling some words onto the page. But I cannot tell, in the end, if I have in fact written a poem, or merely splattered paint on the walls.
Or, to put this question in meme form:
This week, I attended a poetry workshop.
I want to preface this by saying that the presenter is a lovely person who is genuinely enthusiastic about her craft. And she does a good job leading you through how to take a starting spark, and dig deeper, and create something that could, in the end, be a poem. It was a solid workshop. Assuming that you understood what a poem was in the first place, and roughly how to craft one.
Again, this is on me. I went into the experience thinking it was slightly more introductory than it was, and confident that my writing skills would be up to the task even if I was wrong. And there were a lot of factors that particular day that led to a dry creative well: I had just come off my day job, which already saps my energies; I don’t really do well creating in groups on command anyway; I was out late, by my standards, and tired, and worried about getting to bed on time considering I had to wake up at ass-o’clock to get back to work the next morning.
So I didn’t get too much out the workshop itself, but then the presenter offered to let me stay and chat with her for a while about my struggles with the form. She listened to me try and fail to explain what I didn’t understand, and to my questions that were both inanely basic, and oddly existential at the same time. What is poetry? How does it differ from prose? Are these poems, or just random thoughts with line breaks? She tried to answer these questions as best as she could, offered permission/encouragement to just jump in and play with it even if I didn’t quite get it, and suggested several books to read, both poetry itself and how-to books that might explain what I am missing. She really is very nice, and it’s always enjoyable to connect with another writer, even if our styles and genres are wildly different.
In the end, I went home jazzed. And as I tried to fall asleep that night, fragments of poems were floating around in my mind. I lay there feeling like something had finally clicked, like the “voice” of poetry made sense to me. I had visions of awaking a new writer, of churning out a half a dozen poems my first day. Of making poetry a warm-up routine before I tried to work on my novels, a refreshing pleasure that would get me keyed up to work with words all day.
Five hours later, zombie-shuffling into the shower, that voice was gone, and I was forced to wonder if it had ever really been there in the first place.
It still has not come back to me.
The truth is, I don’t know if I will ever really understand poetry, and that’s fine. Not all forms of art need to be for all people. But I know I will keep trying anyway, if for no other reason than the effort costs me nothing.
P.S. Here is a really good list of poetry books, if you are interested in that sort of thing: 42 Poetry Books By Women To Read For Women’s History Month. Don’t let the time of year put you off—be a rebel, read women always. Also: Poetry Rx is both a fantastic concept and a phenomenal read, please and thank you.