Recap of Poet As Art Reading and Workshop, Jan. 27-28

Last weekend was poetry bliss here in Bellingham. On Friday evening, Megan Snyder-Camp and Christopher Howell gave  stellar readings at the first installment of the 2012 Poet As Art series. The Lucia Douglas Gallery in Fairhaven was packed to capacity with lovers of poetry. Each poet read engagingly for two segments. Christopher Howell divided his material about evenly between poems from such earlier books as Light’s Ladder and Memory and Heaven, and new pieces included in the 2010 collection Dreamless and Possible:  Poems New and Selected.  Megan Snyder-Camp read mostly from her volume The Forest of Sure Things, which won the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book award in 2010. She concluded, though, with a set of new poems relating to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, placing these figures in contemporary circumstances. Reader, I swooned. Snyder-Camp told me she is still working on this series and hasn’t published them anywhere yet.  I have to be patient, but I’ll be keeping an eager eye open for them to start appearing in journals.

On Saturday, I was one of a dozen lucky writers to attend the workshop led by Christopher Howell. He introduced his topic–the relationship between “image” and “voice” in poetry–with remarks on the dramatic features that image and voice can create in a poem.  For instance, within any poem the speaker’s voice is inherently dramatic because it is a presentation, and gestures that the speaker makes can be played up to heighten the distinctiveness of the voice. The dramatic nature of the poem increases when the voice contends with the literal meaning of the poem, or when voice pulls against the poem’s images, creating irony.

This attention to dramatic elements within a poem interests me because they help me understand, also, some interesting ways to tell a story within a poem. Though a good proportion of my poems have some story-like aspects, I rarely attempt to write fiction, since I can’t seem to narrate my way out of a paper bag. This is probably because I shy away from conflict, which is the primary engine of a story’s plot development. What Howell’s analysis suggests to me is that useful narrative conflict can derive not only from characters and setting, but from tensions between the subtler elements of image and voice. If dramatic irony counts as conflict, and therefore as a way of moving a narrative forward, I can approach writing narrative poems with more courage. (Don’t hold your breath for any fiction from me, though–I still have no idea how to construct a plot.) And, Howell assured us, we don’t even need to think of a poem as a complete narrative; it’s sufficient, even desirable, to envision a poem as an excerpt from a story.

Though I’ve reflected on these points at length, during the workshop itself Howell moved on quickly from these remarks to show us examples of poems that demonstrate these techniques of image and voice. He took us through a thick packet of published poems by a variety of poets, and gave us a second packet to study, imitate, and enjoy.

And early on, he had us begin writing. To help us generate poems using new, unexpected voices and images, Howell provided us with prompts using repetitions, word salads, and provocative first lines. These were very productive for me, but my absolute favorite exercise was based on the poem “Spar” by Tomas Transtromer–in the original Swedish. After verifying that none of us knew Swedish, he instructed us to make an impressionistic translation of the poem. I got one full draft and a second start out of this exercise, and both took me into poetic spaces I’d never have sought intentionally. Here, for instance, is the start  of the second poem I drafted using this exercise:


The knowing clock it all:  the men gone. Grief has stood
within each doorway bloodied.
Long the rememberers bear those lintels
in their satchels of doubt,
at once always losing their beloveds again
and promising themselves it never happened.
One night in the year,         [and then  the time ran out]

I don’t even know what the subject of this poem is. The Passover? A war or raid? These images–really, all of this material–completely surprised me. I’m eager to get back into this draft and continue my “translation” to see where it ends up.

This was one of five new drafts and starts I left the workshop with:  a full and superbly productive day. I thank Christopher Howell sincerely for his wisdom, his keen perception of how a poem works, and his tremendous generosity as a teacher. He made the workshop terrifically worthwhile.

THEN, Saturday night, since I was too exhausted to write but not to read, I sat down with Megan Snyder-Camp’s book and read it cover to cover. Not only did I get to re-experience the pleasures of the poems that I’d heard her read Friday evening or that I’d read previously on her attractive and informative web site; I also learned a great deal from it as to how to tell a story over the span of a book of poems. I discovered, through her gradual assemblage of narrative elements, that poems do not need to be arranged chronologically in order to convey a story, nor does the poet need to use up space within the poems to provide explicit exposition. Rather, I found I was able to piece together the bits of narrative more impressionistically–and with even greater attentiveness, once I became aware that there was a story to discover. By the end the book, I’d experienced a felt connection to a place (a small town on the Olympic Peninsula) and to at least two families who’ve lived there. The poems’ light touch with such subjects as grief and motherhood actually creates a powerful emotional impact. I suspect that Snyder-Camp’s frequent playfulness with language and syntax slips these effects past our accustomed emotional defenses, and they affect us all the more strongly as they accumulate. I look forward to reading The Forest of Sure Things again to discover what further illumination and enjoyment it offers.

Poetry Reading Friday, January 27 Featuring Megan Snyder-Camp and Christopher Howell

If you live in or near Whatcom County, be sure to catch Christopher Howell and Megan Snyder-Camp’s reading at the Lucia Douglas Gallery in Fairhaven (1415 13th St.) on Friday evening, January 27, at 7:00 p.m.  This event, sponsored by The Poet As Art, a branch of the Whatcom Poetry Series, is free, though a $5 donation is welcomed if you can manage it.

Here’s more information about the poets, compiled by Jim Bertolino:

Christopher Howell was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up on an ancestral farm which the city (and Highway 205) has now completely devoured. He was enrolled in the local public schools, and later attended Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, where he began writing poems, originally as a means of understanding poems his course work required him to read. The first contemporary poet he read with complete enjoyment and understanding was W.D. Snodgrass.

He was a Navy Journalist during the Viet Nam War and afterward earned graduate degrees from Portland State University and the University of Massachusetts, where he read deeply and productively from the work of W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and James Wright—poets of the so-called “Deep Image” school. His principal teachers included Henry Carlile, James Tate, Maxine Kumin, and Joseph Langland. He was close to the late William Stafford and learned (and continues to learn) much from him, as well.

About writing itself he has said, “Poetry, for me, is the only means of reconciling the objective, everyday world with the inner life, the ego with the self. In that reconciliation, that enactment, it seems to me very like worship: a humane and primary response. If I felt otherwise, it would not be worth doing.”

The most recent of his nine full-length collections of poems are Memory and Heaven (Eastern Washington University Press, 1996), Just Waking (Lost Horse Press, 2003), Light’s Ladder (University of Washington Press, 2004), and Dreamless and Possible: Poems New & Selected (University of Washington Press, 2010). A new collection, Gaze, will be published by Milkweed Editions in February.

He has received two National Endowment Fellowships, fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission and the Washington Artist Trust, and three Pushcart Prizes. His work has twice won the Washington State Book Award. He was director and senior editor for Eastern Washington University Press from 1998 to 2010, and for thirty-six years has been principal editor for Lynx House Press, and in 2006 was awarded the Stanley W. Lindberg Award for Editorial Excellence in recognition of this long service. 

He has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Portland State University, Colorado State University, Willamette University, The Pacific NW College of Art, Pittsburg State University (Kansas), Whitman College, Emporia State University, and, since 1996, at Eastern Washington University where he is also Director for Willow Springs Editions.

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Megan Snyder-Camp’s first collection, The Forest of Sure Things (2010), won the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse Book Award. She has received a 2010 Individual Artist Award from Washington’s 4Culture Foundation, as well as scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Espy Foundation, Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest’s Long Term Ecological Reflections program. Her poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Field, ZYZZYVA, the Sonora Review, the Cincinnati Review, 88, and elsewhere, and have twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has taught at the University of Washington and the Richard Hugo House in Seattle, where she lives with her family. She is the Advisory Board Chair of Seattle’s chapter of the national literacy nonprofit First Book.

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On Saturday, January 28, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Chris Howell will teach a poetry writing workshop at Egress Studio. The charge for the workshop will be $50, and participants are encouraged to register in advance by calling Jim Bertolino or Anita Boyle at 398-7870 or by sending a check made out to Whatcom Poetry Series, 5581 Noon Road, Bellingham, WA 98226. Here is Chris Howell’s description of the workshop:

“Ezra Pound said that poetry is comprised of a variable and a constant.  There are all kinds of ways of interpreting this binary assertion; in this workshop we will think of it in terms of Image and Voice, their differential, their interplay, their effect on a poem’s movement and structure. Examples of how each facet may be made to work will be followed by corresponding in-class writing assignments and discussion of the resulting poems. Sounds serious, I know, but it will be serious fun, I promise.”

I hope to see you at the reading, the workshop, or both!