Unmaking the Unpoetic
Whether it’s language, format, content/subject matter, etc., there is an “acceptable” range of poetic material that we often feel “allowed” to work within. Of course, there is nothing wrong with staying in that range but there are ways, if one is interested, to push into a new field, to broaden the range of acceptable poetic language.
Probably the most common way to make the unpoetic poetic is to write about something that poetry hasn’t touched yet. Before poets wrote about/with/inspired by jazz, jazz was considered unpoetic. Before poets starting writing about social media, cell phones, the internet, etc., those topics–and the language associated with them–were considered outside of poetic language and construction. Neruda’s odes are a good example of this. Did anyone consider socks as poetic material before “Ode to My Socks” or large dead fish as valid elegiac subjects before “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market”? Who knows. Probably not, though.
In this workshop, we will read and discuss mentor texts from Neruda, Marwa Helal, Will Alexander and others in order to examine what it looks like when the unpoetic is altered. Participants will also work on a series of generative exercises meant to exhume what they are passionate about but have left out of their poems because it seems ill-fitting or out of place. We will give ourselves any permission we need to step outside of any notion of what “counts” as a poem and see where it takes us.
Theft as Practice
One of the foundational aspects of any poetic practice is poetic lineage. Who inspires you? Who makes your work possible? Who changes/shifts/expands your sense of what is possible in a poem? Whose work is yours in correspondence with? None of us write in a vacuum; none of us came to our poetic proclivities fully formed. We owe debts to the poets whose work shaped our perspectives and tastes.
It’s important that we not only know where we fit in a lineage, but that we also know how the poems that hold us enthralled weave their spell. One of the best ways to figure that out is to steal. To imitate. It’s how anyone learns a craft, from blacksmiths to ballet dancers and poets are no different. The poets who grab you, whose work is affective in the best ways, are a path into your own work. Reverse engineering exactly how a poet arrives at a certain effect can have profound implications on what’s possible within your own writing. Figuring out how an image, or set of images, functions, how a sonic landscape is being created, how a line break reflects intentionality, etc.; all of these things hold keys for us to unlock another hidden room in our poetic practice.
In this workshop, we will look at poems that have “stolen” (in the kindest way) and the originals they are using as a base. We will also go through a series of exercises with the goal of arriving at a draft of a poem that uses another as its starting point. The goal is for us to really chase what is affective, what speaks to us, what draws us in. We will diagnose exactly what
those aspects are, how the poet accomplishes it, and how you’d like to both incorporate it into a poem of your own and expand on it some way.
The Value of Repetition
Poems function on an economy of tension and release, of anticipation and payoff, surprise and expectation. There are many ways to engage in the building of tension and the offering of release but one of the best is through repetition. Whether it’s anaphora, epistrophe, or the repetition of lines, stanza structures, or other formal elements, repetition, when used well, channels all of its incantatory powers to produce wonderful effects.
One of my favorite poetic maxims is: make it strange. Repetition is one of the best pathways into the strange, the surreal, the dislocating, but it’s also a way into tenderness, rage, grief, care, because it is a fantastic way to manage and play off of the reader’s expectation. Because repetition is hitting on sound, sight, and sense simultaneously, when it’s skillfully placed, its draw is almost impossible to resist. Of course, even when there is no sense, in the ways we would expect, the heavy sonic presence of effective repetition has the ability to make a kind of sense, a sonic/rhythmic sense that opens up the field of possibility within a poem.
The difficulty with repetition is that it absolutely must be done well. The line between repetition and repetitive is one we never want to cross, and it’s intentionality and surprise that keep us on the proper side. Repetition that isn’t seen as a deliberate author choice becomes distracting, and the best way to sidestep that problem is to think of it as an organizing, structural principle for your poem.
In this workshop, we will read mentor texts from Fred Moten, Patricia Smith, Agha Shahid Ali and more. We will use a series of generative exercises to explore the different ways that repetition can be used as an organizing principle with the goal of arriving at least one draft of a poem, if not more.
Quenton Baker is a poet, educator, and Cave Canem fellow. Their current focus is black interiority and the afterlife of slavery. Their work has appeared in The Offing, Jubilat, Vinyl, The Rumpus and elsewhere. They are a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the recipient of the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust. They were a 2019 Robert Rauschenberg Artist in Residence and a 2021 NEA Fellow. They are the author of This Glittering Republic (Willow Books, 2016) and we pilot the blood (The 3rd Thing, 2021).
In Media Res, Beginning a Poem
As in fiction, a poem begins at the moment of greatest emotional load, often even at the end of what we are drafting. A poem is not a riddle with a surprise ending. Most likely, that ending is where it begins. If you know the ending of your poem before you write, that is the clue for where it begins. From that moment, the poem reaches out into the unknown and leads the writer (and the reader) somewhere they have never been before. We’ll look at some poems with great beginnings. If you want to bring a draft poem or poems, you can try out different beginnings and see where you go. Or begin a poem with one of the great first lines we’ll be looking at.
Ellen Bryant Voigt: The Art of Syntax
We’ll explore some of the ideas Ellen Bryant Voigt presents in her slim volume, what she calls “rhythm of thought, rhythm of song.” In free verse, syntax, line break, free meter and phrase create a poem’s rich tension and rhythm. “This structure―this architecture―is the essential drama of the poem’s composition,” she argues.” Using prompts I provide, we’ll draft a poem and think about its syntax.
Alice Derry is the author of five volumes of poetry, most recently Hunger (MoonPath 2018) along with three chapbooks, including translations of poems by Rainer Rilke. She taught for 30 years at Peninsula College where she curated the Foothills Poetry Series, holding some 12-15 readings per year. Since retirement, she has been active in helping local tribal members access poetry and has taught a number of community workshops in poetry. She has printed the first in a series of essays on native plants, collaborating with artist Fred Sharpe. Raymond Carver chose her first poetry manuscript, Stages of Twilight, for the King County (Seattle) Arts Prize. Strangers to their Courage was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. Her new manuscript, Asking, will appear from MoonPath Press in 2022. She lives and works on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Her website is www.alicederry.com
Finding Our Way Through the Poem
Sometimes, this means getting from the top to the bottom of the poem—answering questions like, How do you begin a poem? How do you come up with a title? How do you know when the poem is done? You know, the basics. Other times, finding our way through the poem means something greater. It means using the poem as a compass—a figurative GPS that helps us navigate the tangled thoroughfares of our lives and find our way back to the places we want to return to again and again. In this offering, we’ll talk about the practice of writing poetry—what it means in our lives, why we do it, and how we can hone our skills.
Snapshots of the Essential
“…all / the stuff they’ve always talked about / still makes a poem a surprise!”—Frank O’Hara
In this information-laden world, it’s easy to document, file, and forget the greatest marvels of our lives. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a poem is a technology that records the human spirit. In this workshop, we’ll read and discuss poems that preserve a moment or capture the essence of a person or place so that whenever we encounter it, even hundreds of years later or for the hundredth time, it always feels fresh and alive—surprising. We’ll also respond to a series of generative writing prompts.
Music and Identity in Poetry
One of my favorite lines of poetry is by Mark Strand, who writes: “Any idea of yourself must include a body surrounding a song.” (“A Suite of Appearances III”) Embracing this idea makes for an exquisite sense of identity and an excellent place to start a poem. In this workshop, we’ll talk about the music of our human language and how to harness it in our poetry. We’ll talk about how to control pace and tone, as well as how to use silence and jarring juxtapositions for emphasis. We’ll also discuss voice as identity and respond to generative writing prompt
Rena Priest is a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. She is the incumbent Washington State Poet Laureate and Maxine Cushing Gray Distinguished Writing Fellow. Priest is also the recipient of an Allied Arts Foundation Professional Poets Award and fellowships from Indigenous Nations Poets and the Vadon Foundation. Her debut collection, Patriarchy Blues, received an American Book Award. Her second collection, Sublime Subliminal, was published as the finalist for the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Her most recent book, Northwest Know-How: Beaches, includes poems, retellings of legends, and fun descriptions of 29 of the most beloved beaches in Washington and Oregon. Priest’s nonfiction has appeared in High Country News, YES! Magazine, Seattle Met, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College
What to expect:
To learn more about the Port Townsend Writers Conference experience, please click this link to view the PTWC 2023 Catalog.