Literary Criticism Poets

Colgate Writers Conference (June 16 – 22, 2013)

I thought readers might like to hear about the Colgate Writers Conference (CWC), my first workshop experience. The CWC is not just a writing workshop, which congers up visions of what I have heretofore understood to be a classroom experience that is divorced from the rest of the day’s activities. The CWC is a solid week’s immersion in the writing life, an opportunity to interact with accomplished and aspiring writers and poets, hear new creative work, and socialize with colleagues who are enthusiastically pursuing their own literary dreams. Because the site of the workshop is on the rolling hills of Colgate University’s campus (deemed the most beautiful in the country by The Princeton Review in 2010) in Hamilton, NY, each day was invested with a calm that seemed to be a province of yesteryear, of college days gone by. Yet, each day was as demanding and rewarding as my own college experience, for the daily schedule began at 9:00 a.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m. (except for the initial Sunday, which was devoted to orientation, and the final Saturday, which was a half-day session ending at noon), after which each evening’s partying began.

As Colgate is only a half-hour’s drive from where I live, I commuted by car each day, a ride that took me through the lush green farmland of Central New York, some of the most beautiful vistas in the country, where I became quietly absorbed in thoughts of the previous day’s experiences while listening to public radio’s classical music station or a choice CD. Riding back at night was a little trickier because, although I was GPS-equipped, the region is known for the highest rate of vehicle-deer incidents in the state. There were a few heart-arresting occasions during the night ride when I had to slow down quickly to give a deer the right of way or sound the horn to send it safely back into the fields, feeling the chevron of hackles slowly subsiding on the back of both of our necks.

But most of the conference participants were from farther away and elected to stay on campus in the college dormitories, one benefit of which was that those folks could leisurely take breakfast at the college dining facilities. On the other hand, I would normally grab a yogurt or bowl of cereal before my morning drive, which some days included a quick stop at my office in Clinton before proceeding on to Colgate. [All participants, including commuters, were entitled to breakfast, lunch and dinner as part of their tuition.] Because I read and write early in the morning, usually beginning between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m., by the time I got to the poetry workshop I had already been up and about for roughly five to six hours.

Each day at the CWC began with a Morning Craft Talk. The introductory craft talk was by the poetry workshop leader, Bruce Smith (“Speaking and Shattering”), and on the following days we heard John Robert Lennon (“The Agony of Influence”), Jennifer Brice (“Against Flow”), Joni Tevis (The Long and the Short of It: Writing the Lyric Essay”), Brian Hall (“Metaphors that Suck, Plus a Few that Don’t”), and Paul Cody (“Opening Lines”). Each lecture was accompanied by printed handouts of writing exemplars that enabled us to follow the lecturer’s points. Bruce’s talk focused on Louise Glück’s quasi-jeremiad, “The Sensual World,” a poem that begins, “I call to you across a monstrous river or chasm. . . .” (which is linked here). Bruce drilled down to the poetic kernel of Glück’s poem, examining her choices of language, structure, metaphor and symbol. Although I had seen Bruce read his own work, this was my first opportunity to witness his tutorial presence, as a practicing poet interpreting another contemporary’s work.

As I learned during the course of the conference, Bruce is highly regarded by his fellow poets and writers. Comments that he made during his introductory lecture would often find a place of honor in the lectures of later speakers. His credentials warrant it: Guggenheim Fellow, National Poetry Series winner in 1984, twice National Book Award finalist for The Other Lover and his most recent work, Devotions, for which he won the William Carlos Williams Award. Bruce teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, where he has been the poetic pole star for many years. For these reasons and others (I knew Bruce carried his brilliance genially, that he was easy to talk to and was more or less of this earth), I was going to be in good hands in his workshop.

After the morning lecture we had two plus hours of workshop. The poetry workshop was limited to ten participating poets. As part of the application process, each member was required to submit a manuscript consisting of five to eight poems. Thus, in anticipation of the workshop, Bruce could become acquainted with our work and evaluate the relative attributes of our very diverse group. One of my surprises at CWC was the geographic, cultural and occupational diversity of the participants. In my poetry workshop alone there were poets from California, Tennessee, Ohio, Texas, and New Hampshire, as well as New York; they were various ages (the youngest at 19, the oldest at +65), some still in school (undergraduate and graduate), others in the work force, including one working artist (a sculptor and writer).

Bruce broke each day into readings and critiques of five participating poets, during which the poet would read his or her poem and then listen to the discussion led by Bruce. Importantly, the reading poet was not permitted to speak during the discussion since the objective was to educate the poet on how his or her poem was being received and interpreted by the others. Bruce first focused on “favorite licks,” i.e., phrases that struck the reader’s eye and ear as remarkable for their linguistic inventiveness and sensitivity; then commentary would proceed on structure, theme and metapoetic character. Pluses and minuses of the poem were discussed, and if there was a negative aspect, it would be problem that the poet needed to consider solving in a revision (made at some later time). Importantly, workshop members would markup the poems of their fellow poets so that each member would have a written record of the thoughts and ideas of his or her colleagues.

While this sounds like a clockwork rendering of the classes, it was much less so in practice. Bruce’s workshop had structure, but there were many instances where Bruce would react to ideas discussed among our group and then contribute improvised and intuitive instruction to address certain points. I am sure he planned to cover the basic concepts of poetic craftsmanship, like Ezra Pound’s concepts of the three kinds of poetry, phanopoeia, melopoeia and logopoeia, and how every poem has aspects of the Shakespearian characters, Prospero (standing for the scientific and detailed vehicle of information of story and structure) and Ariel (for its spiritual, symbolic and fantasy aspects). Yet Bruce reacted to individual poems in different ways, and used those occasions to heighten our awareness of principles of craftsmanship, like noting that sounds within the poem had special significance (e.g., when a poem has a lot of “r’s” it evidences anger, a more or less growling effect). Although I had become acquainted with these concepts in school many years ago, I’d forgotten to make conscious note of some of them in my regular reading of poetry, and so this instruction became a pleasant refresher for me.

Bruce would also quote from the precepts and poetry of many other poets in reaction to our poems, leading me at times to believe that he has a photographic memory or something close to it. I often found it necessary to take detailed notes of his commentary which I would later unpack after class. These points and others were tracked during the discussions of our poems and became the model for our analyses. Although I considered myself fairly well read when it comes to poets and poetry, there were always others I had not yet read or heard of who were considered indispensable. One was Stephen Dunn (see, e.g., David Jauss’ Essay: “The Reverse Side: The poetry of Stephen Dunn). Another was Dennis Johnson, whose fictional work, Jesus Son, was briefly discussed in Paul Cody’s lecture on “Opening Lines” and whose poetry (Incognito Lounge) was extolled by Bruce. Johnson’s view of the poetic process was that you should think through your ideas to the end of a prospective poem and then begin the actual poem there. Johnson also advised that you needed to “get past judgment” when writing (like playing ball past the coaching or playing golf without the instructional aspects interfering with your game). Bruce also used phrases like, “no allegiance to the sentence”; every line should be like a “station of the cross”; every line should be a breath; and quoting Keats’ advice to Shelley, “load every rift of your subject with ore.” Bruce noted two contrasting views of the ending of a poem: Yeats advised that the ending of a poem should sound like the click of a box locking; while Dickinson’s poems often purposely lacked closure. On figuration, Roethke felt “all things reveal infinitely,” and Blake, along the same lines, recommended that the poetic should take its place in “minute particulars.” These are just a few of the concepts that were tossed into the air by Bruce while discussing our poems.

For me personally, one of the true gifts of the workshop was the effect it had on improving my ability to read and appreciate poetry that I was not normally disposed toward, either because of style or subject matter. I found virtues in certain kinds of poetry that had previously eluded me, and for this experience alone the workshop was worth every dollar.

Outside the workshop Bruce privately met once with each poet, either at lunch or dinner, to discuss the participant’s poetry and provide a more personal critique which was designed to point the way for future work. With ten poets Bruce’s dance card was filled up all week.

After lunch, we were allotted approximately two hours of “free” time for writing, working out (participants had the use of the college fitness facilities), golf (which I did on Friday at Colgate’s wonderful Seven Oaks Golf Course) and other leisure activities. Then at 3:30 p.m. on most days, instructor readings would ensue (usually two instructors shared the hour reading from published work or a work-in-progress). These could be very dramatic and thrilling readings, especially when they were non-fiction pieces, as some writers seemed to relive the subject matter as they read, no matter how many times they had seen the words before. On a few days there were other practical and informative lectures, like the (“harsh”) realities of self-publishing (by Lorelei Sharkey) and the experiences of a literary agent (by Kendra Harpster). After these the speaker would customarily take comments and questions from the participants. These sessions were very well-attended by participants, irrespective if their own discipline was fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.

From Tuesday through Friday, participant’s readings would take place from 4:30- 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner. Participant readings became an eye-opening experience because it gave me an opportunity to hear my fellow writers’ work in its raw, unpublished form, the brilliant peaks as well as some of the cloudy valleys. Every writer had something to offer. Of note, I heard the first chapter of a novel by a young county prosecutor who could be the next Fitzgerald; a short memoir by another lawyer whose work reminded me of David Sedaris; and a heartbreaking non-fiction piece by a gynecologist who wrote about losing both baby and mother in childbirth. I also heard my own poetry classmates read poems that had not been submitted in workshop, and discovered other sides of their writing identities. Participant readings were always warmly received by the group of attendees.

After dinner, there were readings by instructors and other professionals. Bruce read at one of these, again awing me with selections from Devotions. Mark Doty, the featured poet on Thursday evening, was as impressive and masterful as a great poet should be. All the readers took questions and comments from the audience, which consisted not only of participants, but members of the public who were routinely invited to these evening readings.

After 8:30 pm there was socializing and schmoozing, which was one of the conference’s highlights and a great way to end each day, for then I had the chance to speak with the other writers (including featured speakers and instructors) who I’d met or heard read at one of the sessions. There we exchanged thoughts on our literary pursuits and talked about our lives outside of writing as well. My memory of these also included a portrait of myself as a tireless advocate for the poetry of J.H. Prynne, Keston Sutherland, Michael Robbins, Melissa Broder, Emily Barry, Liz Berry, Michael Gizzi, Ange Mlinko and Kim Addonizio.

Returning to my workshop experience, Bruce’s also gave homework assignments (which I tended to complete early the next morning) consisting of limiting exercises designed to take our writing in different directions.

As I digest more of my CWC experience I will incorporate those thoughts in later blog entries.

Finally, I want to thank Matt Leone, the director and virtual heartbeat of the CWC, for making this experience one I will never forget. I am already planning for next year’s conference, as I am sure many of this year’s participants are.

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