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.