I don’t know
what I don’t know about writing poetry.That’s annoying.That’s also the
way it is. Receiving feedback on my
poems teaches me how to improve them. However, one of my
challenges in learning anything is this: I am a visual, tactile learner.Hearing comments is helpful, but seeing them
written is better.Better still is
sitting with someone who can tell me how to improve what I’ve written and show
me how to change the poem around; show me on paper.Then I “get it.”I see, I learn.I can capture the concept in my mind and
The SpringWriters’ Retreat offered by University of New Brunswick provided the
opportunities I needed.In addition to
time learning from and socializing with other writers, I submitted ten pages of
my writing to share and to be critiqued. Each of us did.I read my poems aloud and then made note of
the comments on my work, from Ian LeTourneau, the instructor, and from the
other writers.Any feedback given was positive and constructive.No
personal attacks or personality issues were permitted.After everyone had commented, I had a chance
to ask questions or make my own remarks.We spent all day Saturday rotating turns reading our work and listening
bonus for me was receiving written feedback from three writers.I took these pages home where I could study
their suggestions.These three didn’t
make comments and leave it there, they wrote notes explaining to me why
something worked well or didn’t work.Those explanations were gold.
On Sunday, I
met one-on-one with Ian LeTourneau to ask questions and to receive advice.He explained in thoughtful detail a concept I
had misunderstood.He suggested a book
for further study.His feedback was
encouraging, yet realistic and truthful.I left with new lights on in my mind and optimism about my writing
Prior to the
retreat, I had received the copies of the other writers’ work.For two days, I poured over their words,
making notes on what worked and why, what wasn’t clear, what made me green with
envy, and most challenging, what didn’t work and why.To my surprise, I learned more from the
discipline of having to write why something didn’t work in their submissions,
than from making the easier comments on what did and why.
over a week since I attended the Spring Writers’ Retreat.I’m still processing what I learned.I’m grateful to have been in the company of
writers for three days, for their casual conversations about their own writing,
for their questions and their critiques.
It was a
fine way to learn what I don’t know about my own poetry writing.
I'd go again in a minute.
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remember the first time your child wandered away from you in a store, or the
library or in a parking lot?The sudden
sickness in your stomach.The worry
dense behind your eyes. Do you remember
the rising panic when your child didn’t arrive home for hours and hours after a
school event, or after they had just received their license, or after a date
with someone your gut told you not to trust?Can you recall the pain in your chest as you answered the phone and heard,
“This is the police, we’re calling about…”?Or the weakness in your legs when you answered, “Hello this is the
hospital.We’re looking for the parents
how old or how competent my children and step-children are, if they don’t
arrive when they are expected, I worry.I know they will call…if they can.For the first hour, I do well.There are many reasons for delays.After the second hour, I begin pacing a little and worry just a little
more.After three hours, my organized
mind begins searching for scenarios and possibilities. And when they are four or five hours overdue,
I have to work hard at staying calm.
evening, I was nauseous, pacing, tight-lipped and teary. My inner calculations told me they should
have arrived at least four hours before they did.And anything can happen to bikers…other drivers,
breakdowns, loose gravel, deer or moose.Anything can happen, can’t it?
I was so
relieved to hear the rumble of their bikes driving up our street and into our
driveway, so happy to hug their bug spattered bodies, to see their road-dirt
faces.So relieved and thankful.
had been to Bike Week at Laconia, New Hampshire and were due here at
suppertime.On the way back, his
motorcycle broke down just outside of Ellsworth, Maine.Her cell phone had lost its charge.We had no way to check on them, so were
unaware the bike had died at the side of the highway.
It took over
four hours to reach a motorcycle repair shop, have the bike checked and to buy
a new battery.
they are adults, the thoughts of losing a child still make my throat close and
my chest ache.
We have peonies and we have ants...boy, do we have ants. The peonies are about to bloom and the ants are busy.
There is debate about whether ants are needed to help the double buds break open, by eating away the nectar-glue that coats each one. Some say no; some, yes. I don't know.
I do know when the ants show up, within a couple days I'll have peonies in bloom at the back of the garage...a display that forces me to stop whatever it is I'm doing. Stop and stare.
Peonies are extravagant: lush blooms, opening and opening, scenting the air, nodding under their own weight in colours difficult to describe. Generous with full-bodied loveliness; layers of petals, each one a different tone, each layer coaxing, "Come closer."
The blooms make me remember summer barbecues with my great-aunts; each auntie wearing an ample hat to protect against the sun, each hat festive with silk and velvet flowers, delicate, handmade, often peonies. Make me remember the first grown-up dress I ever wore, a satin the shade of the inner lip on the palest pink peony we grow. Make me remember the gardens of my childhood with peonies spilling over their cages and filling the yard with perfume; peonies floating in a crystal dish on the table, lending elegance to our ordinary suppers.
And if an ant crawled to the tablecloth, my grandmother would shrug, capture the ant and remove it. "You have peonies, you have ants," she'd say.
Just life, this mix of irritant and perfection.
Words and photo are copyright 2011-2013 Carol Steel.
I haven't been blogging as much as usual because I have been preparing to go to the Spring Writers' Retreat offered by the University of New Brunswick. Each participant has sent in 10 pages of their work, which have been circulated to the other students and the instructor for review and comments prior to the retreat. I've done lots of writing, reading and note making.
This week has already given me a couple new opportunities to receive feedback on my poetry: a brief one-on-one meeting with a well-respected writer and editor; and participation in a writers' group meeting. Both have been rich in advice.
For example, an "expected phrase" or "expected word" means I have used a cliche, like "whirling wind" or "a beautiful day." These aren't bad words, just not great ways to paint a picture for someone else to see. Poetry is meant to freshen the world. "To freshen" means to use words in ways that offer new and different perspectives, on something we see in ordinary ways, or we don't see at all.
I discovered that I need to develop a better reading voice. I kill my own work by reading it poorly. I am sharing a story or an experience in a poem; I am not reading the newspaper out loud. I read too quickly without stopping to breathe. This robs a listener of the benefit of the pacing in the piece I've created, and of a chance to process the words. I am so nervous that I'm choking my words and my poetry. Others read with a firm and disciplined modulation, with intensity of feeling (though not over done), and with a different timbre from their regular speaking voice. There is an aura of "This is important. Listen while I share this experience with you. This is how I see the world. Can you see it too?"
It helps to be told, "This word or phrase or structure does work, or doesn't work" and more importantly, to be told why. It helps to hear other poetry and to recognize why and how it is working. It helps to stay away from envy of the poetry written by someone else. This is a hard bit for me. I recognize good poetry; I am thrilled and awed by great poetry. I make myself remember that even those writers had to learn, to try, to write bad poetry as well as good in the learning process.
And that's where I am, in a learning process.
I leave for the Spring Writers' Retreat this afternoon and return on Sunday late in the day, another step on my writing journey. I am both excited and terrified. And isn't that the creative combination I need to crack myself open, to see the world in fresh ways?
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I've not written on my blog this week. I've busied myself with other writing and with working in my garden. Well really, working on the weeding.
This house came with overgrown gardens. Boy, were they overgrown. We've struggled with taming them and have now worked out a truce of sorts, where we weed until we're tired out and then we sit around admiring what we've accomplished and drink a glass of wine.
Taming them is work requiring a bulldozer.
It's good to have a garden that demands we rest in between attacks on the weeds. We've learned to enjoy them more because we can relax and pace ourselves and can accept that our gardens are just wild old things.
Perhaps we are becoming wiser or perhaps we simply like sitting on the porch with a glass of wine...