Friday, October 26, 2018

Tobi Alfier - There’s No Place For Bullies In Poetry! (Part Two)

Want the bad news first or the good news? Last week I said “stay tuned for my horrible experience with a poetry class, and why I LOVE workshops”.  Bad news first?—you hear all about the things you did wrong, and then you get the amount of your small raise. Good news first?—you get your small raise, and then find out everything you did wrong and why it’s not bigger. BOTH sound like hell to me!!! So I’ll tell you the bad news first that’s really good…

I learned the hard way that semester-long poetry classes are generally not my friend. Years ago I took the class from hell. Besides the evening traffic, the instructor was a very well-known and excellent poet, and had a number of groupies who followed from class to class. Unfortunately, we just did not have the same aesthetics regarding poetry. Or teaching.

In response to a poem written for an assignment, the teacher said to me “Hearts don’t crack, change it”. I know hearts don’t crack (my career plans when I was younger were mommy, then doctor). I thought it was an appropriate line for the poem, and the subject.

The teacher said to me again “Change it. Everyone always does what I say because I’m always right!

I dropped the class and did not change the poem. 

Winter Water

The tide burbles up,
rushes into the toe-holes
our feet make as we take
our last walk.  We converse
about the small things,
kick stones with
misplaced grief.

Salt spray refracts our hearts
cracking, we see the shells
as if mounted under glass.
We head toward our sandals—
my dress absorbing the
colors of the crashing foam
your legs purpled with the cold.

Small crabs clamor in
the warm wet of our
impressions—the front
of mine deeper as I
lean toward you, your
heels deeper as you lean
away.  I feel spent as beach grass.

The symphony of winter is an
appropriate final audience for us—
witnessing our undoing.

Previously published (and nominated for an award) in Seven CirclePress


They are an opportunity to live the writing life for a week, meet fellow writers, go to craft talks, discussions, and readings by poets AND other types of writers as well. Generally the mornings are spent in your dedicated workshop with a brilliant, generous, wonderful workshop leader who is there for YOU, not for themselves.

Sometimes there is an “I got my MFA from BFD college and I know more than you” person in the group. I watched one of these people decimate the nicest woman because she liked Larry Levis! Workshop leaders can, and do, handle this kind of crap. I have learned something in every workshop I’ve attended. Living in a dorm room is a memory I could probably do without, but it’s totally worth it for the good stuff.

A few notes about my workshop experiences:

  1. I have always gone to workshops on the West Coast. When my son was little I wanted to be close enough to get home easily. My guess is East Coast workshops might be a bit more competitive but I really have no idea. (Full disclosure: I did apply once for Breadloaf and was denied). {Editor's comment: note that MUCH great poetry is written in between the "coasts."}
  1. Google the faculty and read their work. Choose a leader who would be a good match for your writing style. This is NOT because you don’t want to grow. But for example if you don’t write political poetry, don’t choose a workshop leader known for their political poetry. It wouldn’t be fair (or fun) for you, or the rest of the group, to spend a week in that environment. 
  1. Sometimes I choose a workshop for the subject. For example, I spent a week with Mark Doty on “crossing genres”. I learned that I will never write a memoir—I’m so boring, I wouldn’t even read it. But I learned about micro-fiction. I’ve only written seven or eight micro-fiction pieces but they have all been published. Thank you, Mark Doty
  1. I learned that Heather McHugh is funny as hell, and more generous and brilliant in her pinky than I am in my whole body. I wrote my first (and probably last) “literary” poem ever, in her workshop.

…who hears the voice
in rooms unseen,
but cannot bear to
tip the hand
or risk all portent of

A constant in otherwise bewilderment
the beneficent sun bestows a quiet heat
of fragile summers.

Sorrowful and
solitary, the one
voice an anchor in
an abundance of drowning.

  1. Kevin Young explained Odes in the most beautiful and articulate way. When I came home I wrote “Ode to Candy”, a poem I NEVER would have known how to write before. (It’s too long to post here but if you put your name and email address in the comments below, I’ll send it to you).
He also explained why I hate words that end in –ing and that they’re called gerunds. I still use them when I have to, but it will be a thoughtful use of them, not a lazy use. I try to find ANY other way possible to write a line before I use a gerund. {Editor's comment: and others of us will keep on activating our energizing world and going on with our poeting =:-)} 

And on and on. Yes, they can be expensive. And the whole dorm thing is kind of odd. But if you choose wisely, and find a workshop, and leader that excite you, you will learn and grow both as a writer, and as a human. And you will remember everyone (in a good way). When I read that Pete Fromm won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for “If Not For This”, and remembered that I sat in the front row sobbing as he read a portion of it one afternoon at Tomales Bay, that’s an experience that’s mine, and I will hold it forever.

Note: a lot of workshops are for full weeks (or longer) but some are for long weekends. You’ll still get a lot out of them, and of course they are less expensive. Obviously, unless you live in France, Greece, Hawaii, or Italy…they will be more expensive too. As I said above, choose wisely. You will have a blast, learn a lot, and you will not regret it.

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Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Slices Of Alice. She is also co-editor with Jeff Alfier of the San Pedro River Review. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.

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