Friday, August 19, 2016

Ellen Bass poetry workshop, Presentation Center, Los Gatos

Ellen Bass poetry workshop notes:

What's at the heart of poetry is something we don't know. When we write the poem. if it is a successful poem and we learned something of ourselves that we didn't know before, and the reader is also not the same person after they've heard the poem, then it's successful.
There's not a lot of monetary rewards in poetry, but that I get to teach it gives me a way to grapple with it. She gives us handouts of poems of Joe malar Mark Jody and Sharon Olds.

Ellen continues: We have to enter into the poem it's a state of not knowing.
Ann Sexton said to put your ear to the ground, the pattern is an instrument of discovery. A poem is a flashlight, or a Geiger counter, not a recording device says Billy Collins. And Robert Frost said, No surprise for the riter, no surprise for the reader. Vivian Garnet said to look to the saturation of the story, i.e., the context of the emotional experience.

Ellen elaborated: Truth in memory is not a recording or recital of actual events. What matters is what happens to the writer, and to the reader. The writer is on a voyage of discovery, moving from unerring certainty to thoughtful reconstructed emotion, to self-knowledge. This clarification process leads to empathy, compassion. Poets using your life as a stand-in for all people.

An absence of sympathy shuts down the mind, versus empathy which provides movement. The loneliness of the monster, the innocence of the self.

Quality of discovery. In Joe Millar's poem, there's a foreshadowing of the discovery. I can hear you all now saying: "Oh, I forgot to foreshadow." Everything you do, you can connect to the outside world. Note the use of artless lines; for example, "I should be happier. " The physical description conveys emotion. Note the use of realistic dialogue. In real life, people don't answer each other's questions. "Have you ever done it with someone you don't love? Eat slowly, I say."

Write about what is said, and unsaid, versus the Hallmark card. You learn more by focusing on what you can steal from other writers, versus what you don't like. What we want most is to become stronger poets. Ask the poem; What can I learn from you?

Gregory Orr shot his brother in a hunting accident. Which brings us back to poetry. It saves lives. The emotional and the chaotic. Poetry makes order from the chaos of life. The use of our ordinary language. Let's look at Sharon Old's work. Sharon says also try to be accurate. The breast, beautiful but accurate.

In Stephen Dobbins' poem, the end is surprising and inevitable.

Susan Wooldridge mentions that imagery conveys emotions in its specificity. Mark Doty and Stanley Kunitz say avoid clichés.

Some instructions for your writing. Stay open to the new direction, to the leaps of association. Allow yourself to make associations you don't understand.

Dina Metzger: just say yes. Be willing to disturb the story you know. How to lose your story completely, find the story you most love to tell. What was your role? Look for another angle—especially if you were a victim. It's not about what happened to you. You are a stand-in for the human condition. Write to save your life. Use this as an opportunity to look for the real subject.

Richard Hugo said to write of the triggering subject.
Be brave, be willing to not know. Write about what you don't know. Put pressure on the assumptions of the poem. Move the frame off dead center.
Practice asking questions: use investigative questions versus writing in the expository mode or the declarative mode.

Embrace frustration. When you hear the inner censor, say stop, then write about it. Look at it and then let it happen. Don't hold the reins so tight.

We do a 10 minute freewrite, then she asks us to go back in and underline all the verbs.

  first draft

The sunlight, tinged orange

Smoke roiling through the bowl of valley
Blue shadows, curl of spine
The way an engine whine in a pocket canyon
lonesome for lost kin
disruption of chainsaws.
But the trees are dying, they are dying,

It's not about the smoke, or the fires

Black Death, the trees weep,
their sap collects in amber lakes.
Is this what happened when
amber was new?
Did the trees die off then too?
Did they weep lachrymosal tears,
where insects clamored
And became frozen in time?

Our tears, the ones unshed, fossilized inside the heart

occluded smoke, frozen in time
The hum of an air conditioner keeps the smoke at bay
But the trees visit us, they coat our cars with ash
As if ladies escaped from the 1940s
dusted themselves with lilac-scented talcum powder
Only the powder is gritty, as if from a volcanic eruption

I write my name in the dust on the back window

taste its acrid ash, the carbon sum of trees
Unshed tears and grief, parched earth summons revenge
Dare I flush? Naked ladies all face east towards the pond. 
Belladonna, beautiful woman, Amaryllis  by any other name,

Eva cups the phone to the shell of her ear

And talks in low earthtones
only the mountains will understand.

Ellen Bass workshop


How we floated in the hot springs 
and talked about the process of writing. 
Funny, how names arise. Billy Collins. 
I have been reading for school 
and she saidhis voice inhabited hers.
Don't we all take on the mantle 
every timewe write ?

Susan is shuddering because we are writing 
in the chapel. She can onlyperceive her horror 
of crosses as something evil and sinister, 
whereas I see how the Carmelite nuns 
revered this place is much as they did their religion.
But failing, they saw the light opens their doors, 
those wimpled recluses who sought he light of God.

I am drawn to the past where my namesake, 
María Concepción de Arguello retreated 
to a beach in Carmel, to commune with God, 
rather than marry. Her first love, Count Rezanov
who died from a fall from his horse, 
never came back and she waited ten years for his return.

Did she find him in the ashes of the past? 
And the cloistered rooms, where other nuns 
came to join her, first in Carmel, then in Benecia.
Why am I telling you this story of Conchita?
Because of the one who got away?
Because sometimes the only honorable way 
is to retreat from the world.

What do you do, when the one you love 
holds words to his breasts, suckles them, 
strokes them, until they become hardened—
as if that were a way out.

My mother tried that more than once.
The dynamics of certain words:
faith, love, suicide, evoke visceral reactions.
Why can't he see that? 
Just the other day he said he was ready 
for his exit strategy, then he stayed out late. 
No phone call, no way to reach him,
the bridge with its red thighs and amber necklaces, 
shrouded in fog the buoys moaning.
While he lifted another pint to his lips, 
at that no-name bar, my mother's old haunt. 
Waiting for open mic. Business as usual. 
The show must go on.

What is my role in all this?
My complicity in it? 
Did I seek out my mother?
After all the things which I most dread, 
I have become, has become me.

Ellen Bass workshop

Ellen says look for the places where the poem fat or thin, then add metaphor.
Lose the excess, cut what is not needed, lose three syllables in each line. Make line breaks, and look at each line.  Underline all the verbs look for 3 to 5 substitutes. Replace verbs.

Either make the poem more accurate, or contradict yourself. Rearrange the order of things. Share in a group of three maybe confidential. Say, I noticed rather then add information or judgments.

Holly O'Meara chose to write from images; she went first; then Linda went. There wasn't any time for me. Typical. 

Ellen says: Talk about using words you don't know, and find exactly right word.
She reads a poem with Scottish tartle in it. 
In August heat. Boiled apricots.

What is the word that conveys freshness?
The small country of our bed with two native speakers 
She reads the first draft, untranslatable words from the German, versus the Brazilian,  introducing someone who's name you've forgotten.

"Everything is in service  to the poem."

The whittling down begins. Do you need more lemon blossoms in the poem? Do some serious pruning and try reversing the images.

"The first draft is a garden in need of weeding." MH

It comes down to how much to tell the reader who inhabits the same world and its probably smarter than you, so don't overexplain. I don't take the conservationist approach to writing. I don't put them in the scrapbook and save them. If it's important will come back. Not to go back and salvage something.

If one in 20 makes it, great, the rest go to the poetry cemetery. The longer I can stay in the moment it's clear, then I am in the process.

When I was younger, I wrote every day. I don't now. Don't beat yourself up. Do as much as you love to do, as much as possible, do what you love.

Workshopping: no one will be right about your work. I take that into consideration.

Assignment # 2

Describe an item of clothing. Many associations. write about someone you knew and loved from the past, and write about it.

       first draft

When I wear the poet's vest,
people stop and stare.
When I walk down the street, 
they follow me. As if mellifluous words 
were trapped in the hemline.
My poet's vest has bolstered me 
through many poetry readings where 
I doubted my words, but they became whole 
and imbued with context. 
My poet's vest made from war-torn Highland
huipils of women no longer alive.
Their voices speak to me 
when I wear the poet's vest. 

Indigo flowers teach the fabric 
of the midnight skies, 
where an Aurora flits and dances 
like a raucous parrots and star clusters 
contemplate the sky's jewels.

My poet's vest, older than all my relationships, 
I bought on sale, it cost a month rent. 
My friends urging me on, saying: it's so you.
It was a great thing to do, I am so frugal, 
especially when it comes to the self, 
I counted out my money, 
friends chipping in $10 here, $5 there. 
Leap of faith that all would work out in the end.

See, I had just given a reading in the gallery 
where the walls were cloud banks. 
All that investment of summer sky 
and night secrets. Susan says 
nichtallaludi, a Greek word 
of hidden muses wanting to dance 
on the tongue of night.
To paint flowers on the tongue
iI was not a feathered cloak,
but it was my passage to another world.

Ellen Bass Workshop

In this poem you want to close the aperture or stop the lens even more. Narrow your depth of field. "Narrow your aperture through which the words come out." (Sharon Olds) The balance of the self-conscious, and the unbalance of self-conscious. Work harder if you're a facile writer, put more effort into it.

Assignment # 3

       first draft

She says to write about the things I've forgotten
But if I've forgotten them
how can I possibly remember what was forgotten?
She says the poet wrote an entire booklength poem
on what he remembered, and when he reached the end,
he committed suicide.. He had remembered enough for a lifetime.
And in this way I realized that the things we've forgotten
have committed an involuntary suicide of memory
The synapse, gone I imagine the ganglion as large rubber bands
like sergeants standing to attention yelling hoorah
What we remember, what once was forgotten,
gathering proverbial dust on the shelf of memory.
snapping to attention like the nuns with their match boxes,
as we lined up for confirmation, all in rows,
with our blue capes, the color of the sky.

Ellen Bass Workshop

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