When I told a few friends and colleagues last week that I was heading off on vacation, they asked, “Great! Where are you going? Anywhere fun?”
At that point, I would light up, and exclaim, “Yes! I am headed off to Cape Cod for a week-long poetry workshop!”
The friends would then frown, and consider my comment for a brief moment—before wondering if I should be committed somewhere. They’d look at me and say, “Really? You’re going to the Cape and not going to the beach or on a whale watch? And by the way, since when is studying poetry an actual vacation?”
Keep in mind that at that moment, those friends were having flashbacks of high school literature classes trying to understand The Odyssey, remembering which Shakespearean character said, “Out, damn’d spot!” and the difference between iambic pentameter and a dactyl.
I understand the concern.
Only other closet artists would understand why I would be thrilled for this kind of week away. Having the opportunity to study with an amazing contemporary poet—Rowan Ricardo Phillips—and talk about sound, subject, and the imagination with other poets for three hours a day, five days in a row, was simply a breathtaking concept.
We also got to spend many of our off hours actually writing so we could share a new poem each day with the class.
(It’s probably worth nothing that one of the poems we had to write was a sestina, which is a 39-line poem with 10 syllables in each line. We also had to end each line with one of six words that repeat in a specific pattern. And not only did we have to write in that form, but we had to look with the picture on our driver’s license, and write the poem from that person’s point of view, however bad that photo may be.)
That’s where the insane part came into play.
It was poetry boot camp—simply awesome.
As we moved through the week, I found that the lessons that Rowan shared for writing poetry are equally apropos in life. For example, he gave us four rules to follow when we worked on our sestina:
1) Commit—to writing the sestina (or to anything you do). Don’t give up or bag out early on.
2) Don’t Panic—when you find that it’s really hard partway through, don’t give up. Go for it.
3) Don’t Overcommit—if you find yourself struggling, going in a direction that isn’t working, don’t be afraid to start over.
4) Finally, Overcommit—in the end, give it your absolute best. Let ’er rip.
This advice was wise. I was determined to write this sestina on Wednesday night (Rule #1)—I had never written one before. But once I had written two and a half of the six necessary stanzas after a few hours, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I felt stifled by the direction my poem was going and was getting crankier by the minute (Rule #2).
Fortunately, Rowan had reminded us that this work is all about putting our poetic imagination under pressure. That’s part of being a poet. So I started over (Rule #3).
In the end, we all wrote our sestinas (Rule #4). And they were really good. Our tiny group of seven poets was amazed that we all produced great work in just five days.
Of course, everyone knows that poets, like painters, are a little crazy. There are plenty of stories of poets going off the deep end. And do also know that the sestina was invented by Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour from 12th century Provence. The form was later refined by Dante, who also wrote “Inferno” (see the connection? The hell thing?).
The form has evolved even since then, and wow, sestinas can be really cool! We did have some other stretch assignments—we wrote an ekphrastic poem, a poem that is in response to another work of art. One afternoon, we walked the local galleries in Ptown and each found a piece of artwork we really liked, and then wrote a poem in response to it.*
Rowan reminded us that just like a lot of creative endeavors in process, poetry is a plastic art—each line needs to be put through a stress test. The line, and the poem, needs to be bumped to see what falls off. What’s left will hopefully be a damn good poem. It’s plastic…until it’s not.
I guess that’s just like life, just like being human, really. And I’m just a tiny bit more in alignment with who I am this week, coming out of this happy place in Ptown.
*I chose a sculpture for my Ekphrasis—check out “People Could Fly” by Walter Horak.