By Suzanne Simons.
The work of a poet is many-fold – to ferret out gems in ordinary lives on ordinary days, encourage us to imagine, connect with one another, transform the personal to the universal or nearly universal, highlight beauty, shine light on injustice, help us feel more deeply, pay attention to the present and our place in it, to understand truth with big and little “t”s. The poet does this through imagery, rhythm, patterns, diction, literary devices and all within a container of story.
There are many definitions of poetry. Carl Sandburg wrote “Poetry is the report of a nuance between two moments, when people say, ‘Listen!’ and ‘Did you see it’ ‘Did you hear it? What was it?’ ” Meena Alexander added, “In this time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.”
My first semester in the poetry sequence of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College has been one of immense pleasure, challenge, connection and depth. I was surprised and delighted at the ease which poetry rolled out of me, and on demand. While much of my writing career has been focused outward on telling other people’s stories and observing events, with poetry I got to participate and also share some of my own stories that need telling. I was also surprised and delighted by my enjoyment of writing patterned poetry. Other than writing haiku, this was a new experience, and couplets short and split, heroic sestet, tercet, spatial, and villanelle were among my favorite forms for the lyricism they provoked and the mathematical challenge they demanded. Much of my patterned poetry began as free verse. Placing poems within an assigned pattern and crafting them further improved the quality.
Creativity often flourishes better inside a container or basket of parameters, and I would like a substantial number of poems in my thesis collection to be patterned. Sometimes a poem fits naturally into a pattern, sometimes not. For example “At Dusk, Salmon Spawn” fit easily into the villanelle structure. “Beach Chairs” I literally dreamed in sestina, illustrating the usefulness of keeping a dream journal. On the other hand, “Traces of Ritual” was not going to be wedged into a pattern, regardless of which one. At least for now. Work with patterned poetry has also inspired me to teach it. I recently taught a community poetry workshop on revision for the Olympia Poetry Network, and patterns were one of the techniques I encouraged participants to try. In spring, I will be part of teaching another community poetry workshop more focused on specific patterns. In my spring poetry program at Evergreen, “Poetry for the People,” I will put a fair amount of emphasis on reading and writing patterned poetry.
In order to further their craft, poets need to read broadly and deeply, drawing ideas of content and form from others. Key readings this semester were Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, Dorianne Laux’s and Kim Addonizio’s The Poet’s Companion, Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry and the many Writer’s Almanac poems I read and annotated. Hugo’s book taught me that reality is merely a jumping off point of imagination and meaning. Laux’s and Addonizio’s book was inspiring for the amount of creative and innovative writing prompts and in very useful categories, such as family, erotica, witnessing and place. Several of the exercises I tried became poems. The book also is of great value for discussion of craft, such as imagery, music of the line, simile and metaphor, etc. Williams’ work opened up a whole new world of patterns and made them accessible with clear definitions and engaging examples. Whenever I think of spatial poetry, I think of Jo McDougall’s “The Black and Small Birds of Remorse” shifting from foot to foot.
Key activities which deepened my understanding of poetry and poetics were annotating poems from Writer’s Almanac. This exercise gave me an opportunity to read and reflect on a variety of contemporary poets, themes and styles while applying some common poetic language and terms I learned from MFA director Brian Turner’s handout. The book annotations helped me to read more closely and consider which concepts might apply to my own work. Writing an essay on a nonfiction book was a brilliant assignment which led to developing concepts of how the book might spawn a collection of poetry. An alternate option for this assignment could be to write an essay on a novel and how it might work as poetry. The essay on the sonnet encouraged me to consider the pattern in depth through a close reading of Sara Henderson Hay’s Story Hour. Similarly, the annotation on Jimmy and Rita was an opportunity to consider the verse novel. Of course, writing poems, whether through exercises or full-blown drafts, and the final assignment of revising, were the pinnacle of the semester. Choosing only six to revise was difficult, and I believe that several poems that didn’t make the cut are important to bring to the world after further revision, such as “Double Nickels,” “Duotone,” “The Dark Side,” “Unpacking,” “After Dinner,” “First Swim of Fall,” “Hometown 1973” and “Tale of Two Lakes.”
One of my goals for earning an MFA is to learn to write quality poetry that doesn’t sound like journalism with line breaks. I believe I achieved this and largely due to faculty mentor Gailmarie Pahmeier. Her feedback on my poems, exercises, essays and annotations – via e-mail, snail mail and phone conference – was abundant, affirming, inspiring and very useful. She taught me how to open a poem, tighten diction, count those feet and meters, and poets to read that I might find useful due to content and/or form. In other words, how to craft elegant, meaningful poetry. She also shared suggestions and insights which resonated deeply and provided ideas for future poems and collections. This ranged from making “Traces of Ritual” into a series of poems or numbered poem, and using the four elements of fire, air, water and earth as a framework for my thesis collection.
Re-establishing a regular writing practice is another goal for my MFA. While the setting bounced back and forth between my favorite coffee shops and writing at home in my pajamas, I did mostly stick with my intention of writing and reading much of three days a week. After an initial adjustment, I also settled into a pattern of prioritizing my writing and related graduate work over teaching – and it felt wonderful. In the course of my professional life, I have felt most satisfied and felt my work most valuable when engaged in jobs or projects I believed in. My enjoyment of writing had petered out in journalism at a time when I needed to find a creative medium truer to who I am and also be a medium for continuing social justice work. Poetry satisfies both needs. In writing poetry, I choose whether to focus on present, past or envision the future. From working on a variety of poems this semester, I learned that my most satisfying writing was about the present and asking the reader to consider the everyday gems that land in our laps and that we also share with others. In teaching poetry and as a board member of the Olympia Poetry Network, I experience the power of poetry to connect people across age, class, race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. As John Gardner wrote, “True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values…Moral means nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that in the long run as well as the short we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done. Moral action is action which affirms life.” As the word “moral” comes with the baggage of rigidity, perhaps “best” or “true” are more fitting. Our best action affirms life. Our best poetry affirms life.
Gardner, John, On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979. Print.
Nastasi, Alison, “20 Poets on the Meaning of Poetry.” Flavorwire. 8 Sept. 2013. www.flavorwire.com, on-line.