“It probably needed another line.” So said my poetry teacher, David Wagoner, upon being congratulated on his latest poem in The New Yorker. Imagine, to be published in The New Yorker and still feel the need to tinker! So beautifully humble. Wagoner, well into his eighties, then smiled and said in that signature voice of his, “They can’t keep a good man down.” I was smitten.
I enrolled in David Wagoner’s six-week course at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House titled “Writing Poetry” for two reasons:
- I’d heard about Wagoner and what a gem he was, a local living legend, or if that is too strong an attribution then certainly a great American poet right in our backyard.
- Some of my favorite prose writers are poets by training, and I hoped a course in writing poetry would benefit my prose.
Over the past five weeks I’ve gleaned that many of my classmates are hard-core poets with multiple readings and publications under their belts. Far and away, I’m the novice amongst us. Before arriving at class I hadn’t written a poem, with the exception of an occasional Haiku, since fifth grade.
The first two weeks I simply listened. This wasn’t hard to do. I could listen to David Wagoner recite poetry all day long, and my classmates’ poems ranged from good to great. When the third session arrived, it was my turn. The poem I wrote and read aloud was extremely personal and emotionally charged. In hindsight, not the best route to take in an already intimidating environment.
As feedback was given, there was a lengthy debate amongst the listeners if the poem was autobiographical. Per workshop etiquette, I sat silently until asked if I’d like to respond. I confirmed that, yes the poem was autobiographical. Then I burst into tears. Not just a trickle out of the corner of my eye tears. More like uncontrollable sobs. I was mortified.
My classmates were very kind, assuring me that, “A poet who doesn’t cry isn’t a real poet,” and so on, but my self-consciousness soared. I felt a pressing need to tell the rational people in the room that, I knew the difference between a poetry class and a therapy session. “Really I do!” But, I was speechless. It was horrifying.
Despite dying to ditch class the next week, I followed my own advice to my kids – you signed up, you have to go. I couldn’t bring myself to contribute a poem, but I got my butt to class, a victory unto itself.
In preparation for week five, I deemed my poem would be about something completely innocuous: my cat. Once again, upon reading my poem to the class, I received constructive feedback. One classmate kindly noted that she liked the poem in spite of an editor’s advice to never write poems about pets. I’d successfully managed to pick the most pedantic subject possible! This time I didn’t cry. Progress.
Seriously though, I felt I was making strides. The class was undoubtedly helping me tune my ear to an ultra-fine frequency, tighten my language and take word-play to new heights. I’ve always read my work aloud to hear the cadence and tempo of my sentences, but writing poetry demanded I listen to the music of words with an intense precision that I’d never before applied. I began to learn that really great poetry leaves marginal room for error. Yet even a poem worthy of publication in The New Yorker, can apparently be improved upon.
Next week is my last class. I’m a crap poet, but I’ve written a draft of a poem, two actually, and publicly read one of them without Kleenex. Mortification aside, it’s been a positive growth experience for me as a writer. I’d highly recommend other poetry writing newbies give it a go, and if they can learn from David Wagoner, even better.
And now for my poetry debut…
Mitts curl beneath a
he prowls a Netherland
where slow rodents roam.
Ears ever alert
to a child’s touch,
the rat-a-tat of my keyboard,
a semi’s uphill heave.
Eyes scan the boudoir, blink, close.
Sleep is deigned more worthwhile.
Belly expands and contracts.
Claws, used in youth when he’d hang like
a caricature from the banister.
Haunches on sabbatical
from cushioning falls.
Our old fellow dreams
of snares, ambushes,
of wriggling tails
between whip-sharp teeth.