In 1990, I lived in Los Angeles, had a room-mate named Michael. And he decided, rather whimsically, to spend that summer volunteering at a retreat called Omega Institute. Little did I know, twenty years later, how much that would impact my life.
You see, I just spent a week at the very same place: Omega Institute! The workshop in which I participated, along with 92 other poets, yes, 92!!!:
And here are a few things I learned, of the multitude of information, inspiration, and hope I consistently feel about this experience: Monday morning began with a room re-set. Marie Howe, who was our den mother, our morning star, our assimilator, and watchdog. Marie guided us, ever so wisely and gently to consider the negative, contradiction and surprises in poems. We also spoke about rapture, and read D. H. Lawrence’s “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” and John Berger, Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” and “A Green Crab’s Shell” by Mark Doty.
Tuesday arrived, rainy and dark. Patricia Smith was late, driving up from New York City in the rain, so Marie read several of her amazing poems, including The Boy, The Gate, After the Movie, Practicing and Sixth Grade. I was stunned, riveted, still am!
Patricia Smith – Wordwoman – Teacher, Poet, Writer, Performer extra-ordinaire, was a persona, writer to behold. She read a poem about her son, and another about her mother called “An All Purpose Product,” and a baking poem, memorized, about her father (I’ll never forget), and she spoke of writing as “process,” while she guided us, first in writing a limerick, and then through an exercise called PUSHING THROUGH THE WALL…this was one of the most terrifying, and difficult I have ever taken on in writing. They say poetry is about that which we cannot speak in words. Truly.
Tuesday afternoon, Marie led us through a non-dominant hand exercise, and a new way of accessing our work. That evening, I devoured her collection, What the Living Do, as thunder crashed outdoors. Her presence in the poems is, like the storm, electrically infused.
Mark Doty, one of my mentors, arrived Wednesday as the foul weather broke. His blue eyes acknowledged newness of work, as he read from a forthcoming collection, “Deep Lane.” He also read some poems from Fire to Fire like his “Theory of Marriage,” which I love. He spoke of the “Foray into the Unsayable!” Then encouraged us to create a list of word associations, and from this, craft a present tense poem, then when we’d completed a draft, to change the point of view in the poem (from first person to third, for example). Mark believes that poets quit too soon. Urged us to continue to walk around our material. We read a poem by Lynda Hull called “Shore Leave” that was an amazing example of musicality and diction, as well as polarities in writing. Lynda Hull
On Thursday morning, we had the honor of being lead by billy collins, poet celeb and gentle soul. We read Ruth L. Schwartz’s “Swan at Edgewater Park,” (a great poem about two topics simultaneously) and Michael Donaghy’s “The Break,” (a poem in which the author takes a simile and goes inside it). We spoke about the beginnings of poems and their importance to a reader, and also poems that have, in Billy’s words, a “visible game.” (an example, Robert Frost’s “The Woods”). We read poems by Richard Jones, Bukowski and George Bilgere. Billy says “The Flea” by John Donne was the first poem he was jealous of and wanted us to consider what poems made us jealous that we were not the ones who crafted them. We spoke about how poetry has to orient us first, then disorient- transport, as well as transform. Billy lead us through a stimulation exercise, in which we all created our own lists of “Twenty things I did yesterday” in random order. From my list:
I swam in Long Pond Lake (my blog header photo), skipped lunch, wanted to touch your face, had a conversation with Mark about breaking decorum in the Omega Cafe.
On Thursday afternoon, Marie Howe helped us all create a list of Political writers, as this topic had prefaced in questions. We spoke about how “political” has multiple meanings. Some of the writers mentioned were: Adrian Rich, Sharon Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucille Clifton, Grace Paley, Martin Espade, CD Wright, Gary Snyder, Jack Hirschman, Ken Prufer, Carolyn Forche, Brenda Hillman, and Kamiko Hahn, and Eve Ensler.
We then chose a thread of a story/image that we personally carry in our heart. Throw one and then one more ball into the story: juggling! Let myself become enchanted!!!
The last exercise of the day was 5 line stanzas in which we did the same thing in small groups of four. Then we passed our notebooks and the person on our right continued the story. This was an exercise I was familiar with, having done something similar with our summer kids writing camps.
Thursday evening was a poetry reading in which James Navé, fellow writer and traveller, hosted. Allotted 4 minutes, I managed to fit in Bed, Cucumber and Miniature Golf (Blue Lotus Review), Cowboys & Indians at Clutching at Straws, and amphibi.us » Shades of Gray.
Friday morning arrived and everyone was exhausted! Marie read her latest poem, “Magdalene and the Seven Devils,” published in July/Aug American Poetry Review. We spoke of negation in poetry, it’s not this! We cannot know this…let the NOT be a pivot! We spoke of the investigative role, there are not any answers, no corrections, no erasing. The going is the poem, looking for the poem is the poem. We spoke about Rilke’s “The Annunciation” (from The Unknown Rilke, trans. by Franz Wright, one of Marie’s most important books). We spoke of the notion of delay, in poetry. We read Alan Dugan’s “Closing Time at the 2nd Avenue Deli.” (The last poem in his last book). About it’s refusal to be romantic, and the gorgeous syntax. The use of repetition in ‘Shall I? no! Shall I? No!’ “This” opens and closes the poem. We read W.S. Merwin’s “For The Anniversary of My Death.” Also Tony Hoagland’s “Disappointment.” and Jack Gilberg’s “Falling and Flying.”
Our last writing exercise, Marie suggested we begin a 14 line poem with I don’t know, It isn’t just that, Everyone forgets, or Shall I say this? No! We then got into groups of four, and read them aloud to one another.
In the words of the illustrious Marie Howe: “Creativity is when I don’t know what I’m doing!”
Here is the work I’ve published since my last blog:
WUWM: Lake Effect – Flash Fiction Friday: Strangers with local author Mary Jo Thome and national author, Susan Tepper’s piece, “Tool.”
Temporary | | The Brooklyner Web and Literary You can also hear me read this story at their amazing site…thanks for listening!
Gratitude again, master teachers and poets: Howe, Smith, Doty and Collins. Oh what a lucky man I am.