As part of challenging myself to interact with poetry, I also ended up taking a few online poetry classes. At first I just wanted to learn more of the poetry basics for a refresher and hopefully to be introduced to some new information. So, I took Coursera’s free course: “Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop.” This class met my expectations for going over basics. The professor, Dr. Douglas Kearney, introduces concepts in an engaging, sometimes goofy way, and the class is interactive with a peer review component. One of my favorite things we went over was a form new to me called the lipogram. Dr. Kearney introduced the class to Christian Bök, author of the poetry book Eunoia. In this book, Bök has entire sections of poems in which he only uses the vowel “a” and then “e” and so on. I interlibrary loaned this book, and found it so fascinating to read such restrictive poetry, but it was also obvious how much fun he had writing it. So I ended up writing a lipogram about my daughter who only has one vowel in her first name “a,” and I raided words from Bök’s “a” section and listed many of my own too. It was a fun practice in playing with language. I didn’t succeed entirely. The poem I wrote still includes a few uses of the vowel “e,” but what’s even more fun than this is I sent that poem to some friends and one of my friend’s mom’s was inspired to write a poem about her granddaughter who only has the vowel “e” in her first name. The poem she wrote was absolutely lovely and now her granddaughter has this poem written by her grandma. I love this effect when inspiration passes from one person to another.
After taking this class, I was still reading and writing more poetry. I decided that I wanted to take a course on revision specifically. I often felt that a few drafts into a poem, making the changes to include more images and remove extra language, to make the images and thoughts as fresh as possible, and to focus on the sound of the words, would leave me wondering now what? How do I know I have a finished poem?
I happened to be following the poet Ada Limón on Instagram, and she posted that she had read Ellen Bass’s Indigo. I interlibrary loaned Indigo and read through it, checked her Instagram, and saw that she was offering a revision course. So, I signed up. This one did cost money, just as a heads up. So, the course was 6 class sessions, synchronous if it worked and then recorded and sent to everyone who synchronous didn’t work for, including me as I watch my toddler. Bass covered a variety of revision topics and had a guest poet most weeks who stopped in for 10-15 minutes. One piece of this course was that she would show us so many drafts of her poems and her students’ poems (with their permission, obviously) and talk through the changes in such a detailed way. We would see that the seed of the final poem was often in the first draft, but often most of the first draft was no longer visible in the final version. She encouraged her students to be messy writers in which we open windows in our poems and add side tangents and invite in the “strange angels.” Bass used some of her own poems as examples, and discussed each one so in-depth and explained why she made certain choices, which was so helpful to me. We talked about the difficulty in deciding how to both open poems up and make them concise and purposeful. We talked about length, line breaks, endings, arranging the poem on the page, the music of the poem, diction, all topics which I could apply to my own work.
Bass started each class with some general thoughts on the topic of that class, including quotes from books about writing poetry. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes that Bass shared in her course: “Most good poems hold some part of their thoughts in invisible ink . . . The unexpressed can at times affect the reader more strongly than what is explicit, precisely because it has not been narrowed by conscious accounting. Lyric poetry rests on a fulcrum of said and unsaid” from Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows.
And one more: “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur Plotnik
- Written by Jodi Andrews, MA