Yesterday’s Emerging Writers Panel at the SFPL was a great event-solid turnout, lots of information and a diverse group of opinions regarding the pros and cons of various writing programs. It was an honor to be one of the panelists and share out some of my experiences. For more info and links on some different writing programs, check out the PAWA Inc blog.
And here is the text of my presentation:
I came into poetry in my early thirties and jumped right into the thick of it by frequenting a local open mic in New York City with little preparation except reading a few passages of Neruda and Eliot, and listening to the poetry of my fellow open micers. As you might imagine, my first attempts at poetry were horrific. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad, because I was lucky enough to receive the encouragement and direction from the resident poets of the A Lil Bit Louder reading series. The organizers kept encouraging me to read my poems aloud to develop a connection between the verse I was writing and how it was connecting with a live audience. Over time, as I was beginning to get an ear for what I liked to write, I would be given suggestions on what authors I should be reading and getting to know and so I was introduced to the books of Willie Perdomo, Patricia Smith, Junot Díaz and the Aloud anthology of poets from the Nuyorican Café. I didn’t know it but this was my first community workshop, after a good reading I would get direct feedback from audience members about the lines they felt resonated with them and if I had a poor reading, which still happened more times than I care to admit, a poet would take me to the side and point it out to me. When the opportunity to take a series of formal workshops with these poets, who were now collectively known as the louderARTS Project, came up, I jumped at the chance.
More than just learning the language and norms of a workshop setting, both in a formal classroom and informal live reading setting, I was also learning that the first lesson of community is to take your knowledge and pass it down to the next aspiring open micer.
Since those first workshops with louderARTS I’ve continue to seek out various community workshops, partially for the challenge of sharing a class with poets in various stages of development but mostly out of necessity. While some poets debate the merits and drawbacks of an MFA in creative writing, I don’t really have a choice in the matter since I’ve yet to complete an AA much less think about a post-graduate degree.
With that said, I still feel that community workshops have afforded me a space to broaden my own poetic aspirations with the ability to take classes with writers who, and I know this is gonna sound corny, are my heroes. Not only that but most of those classes have been fairly low-cost and in some cases even free.
This isn’t to say that the community workshop experience is a poetic paradise. I find myself often having to grapple with instructors who view poetry as a therapeutic form of expression with no rubric set in place for what makes a poem successful other than it should have an ethereal quality of power, emotion and purpose. Too often this kind of workshops seeks to open the world of poetry by validating anything that has been penned down with line breaks. Thinking back to my first experiences, if I had been told everything I was writing/reciting was the new hotness I would still be cranking out ambiguous, florid, morality fables to tepid, polite applause instead of trying to reach a higher level of creative language for myself.
A call to higher figurative language is one of the hallmarks of the instructors who have pushed me the most in my poetic development—informally, the advice and example of Roger Bonair-Agard kept me moving to the next different poem while also delving and identifying what the emotional core(s) of the poem were in recitation; in a more formal setting, the guidance of Willie Perdomo and Truong Tran has made me look back over my work to refine points of syntax and word choice that can both broaden the language while condensing it at the same time.
And, in the most informal sense, I think of the poetic conversations I engage in daily with my wife, Barbara Jane Reyes, who also happens to be the first reader/listener of all my poems. Whether we are discussing a literary event we attended, how I’m going to structure a new chapbook or just what exactly is the definition of poetry—we are constantly going over the points of craft and how it can be expanded for the sake of a better line, tighter stanza, finer poem, worthwhile manuscript.
All to say, whether your path is a community workshop or an MFA program, talking about your poems over drinks at a slam or analyzing the linebreaks of your favorite verse, the emphasis should always be on where your work is today, what you would like to see for it tomorrow and what is your game plan to get it there. They say there is no such thing as a dumb question and I think in poetry there is no such thing as a dumb poetry conversation. The only question is where will you be having that conversation and with which community.