Although April is almost over, it doesn’t look or feel like it’s even begun yet here in northern Vermont. One sure sign it’s April, though, is Mary Jane Dickerson’s annual poetry workshop at the Jericho library. This year’s theme, History and the Poetic Imagination, has led to a variety of poetry from the 15 participants, who will have the opportunity to share their new work this evening at the Deborah Rawson library in Underhill at 6:30. I’ll be reading the poem I’ve written for it, which I include as today’s post.
With the girls grown and he, too, gone,
she stood at the edge of the fallow field,
behind the two horses—Fetch and Freya—
looking toward their flanks. She clucked
and the team began their work, white fetlock
feathers swishing like snow in storms
finished for the season, sweeping the grass
still brittle and brown as under the single blade
plow the earth roiled, rolled up and under itself
in constant undulation of revelation
and concealment. She trod in the six-inch trench
they cut, knowing the first pass must be straight
to set the pattern for following rows, and locked
her calloused hands on the wooden handles
trying to control the jump of the blade
should it hit rock or start to veer off course.
She cooed the horses’ names, felt the sureness
of this one thing. At the end of the first furrow,
she threw the blade to its side and let the team
continue a few yards before calling: Haw!—
Come round Fetch! Come round Freya girl!—
and stopped them at the edge of the second pass.
She sat down then, out of shape from winter’s
indoor work. She’d been proud, once, of the farm,
of him, even of herself, but now the sharp
edge of the plow lying a few feet away,
the black rump of Fetch, and Freya’s
champagne mane, and their waiting
for a simple command, humbled her.
She studied Fetch, and snorted herself.
She had more in common with the horse–
a temper and a restlessness–than she’d ever
had with her own husband. Fetch stamped.
She stood up and put the horses in motion. She wanted
the beautiful tension of tugs between horses and plow,
plow and arms and her whole self, a balance she’d watched
him patiently create over the years as he learned
how to orchestrate the crude instrument, the creatures.
She knew what sweet rhythm could rise from this labor.
Her ankles twisted in the ruts behind the horses’ sure
plod. By the end of the second row, sweat shone
on the team’s backs and she set them up for the third
furrow before resting them, wiped her sleeve along
her own forehead. What good was it all now?
Was she wasting her time? She could leave,
follow the girls and live comfortably with one
or the other. They’d have her, probably would
be relieved if she gave up depending on rain
and sun, the cold wet mornings, wind in February,
August dust. She narrowed her eyes at the team;
they had a long way to go, and there was life
in her yet. She would make it. She’d shown the girls
how to do it, hadn’t she? She had plenty of time, years even.
Forecast for the week was good. Fetch! Freya! Come up!
Feedback isn’t exactly an element of poetry, but it’s an important aspect of writing poetry. A tricky aspect at that. I workshopped the above poem with a small group of poets when we split in to two groups at Mary Jane’s workshop mentioned above. I also showed it to my good friend and accomplished writer and artist Nancy Hayden from The Farm Between. It was especially important to get her feedback as she has actually plowed with horses. I also received feedback from Mary Jane in a one:one conference and from another poet-friend, Patricia Fontaine.
It’s good to get feedback from 1. people you trust and respect; 2. people who know something about the topic you’re writing; 3. people who are well-versed in writing themselves, especially in the genre in which you write.
That doesn’t mean that getting feedback is easy. My heart races when I ask someone to read my poem for the first time, and I have to try hard not to get defensive when they question a decision I’ve made about the poem. But by choosing people carefully to critique my work – not people who are going to think everything I write is great – I create much better poetry.
One of the best persons I’ve received feedback from is Neil Shepard. It’s not because Neil loves everything I write. It’s because Neil takes what I write seriously and puts in a lot of thought about what I’ve written. In his feedback, he references other poems and texts for me to check out and analyzes what I’m doing even though I might not even know I’m doing it.
Getting feedback can be hard, but giving feedback can be difficult, too. There’s a way to do it so the person will listen and a way to do it so the person becomes angry and defensive and doesn’t take your advice, no matter how good it is. Two bits of feedback advice that I try to remember is 1. the writing workshop purpose is to keep the writer writing; 2. there isn’t such a thing as a bad poem, only poems that aren’t finished yet. Okay. Some poems might be a looooonnnngggg way from being finished, but chances are if the person took the time to write it down and share, there’s a nugget of something to shape into a gem.
Sometimes I share a poem when it isn’t ready to share. It’s not a good thing to do. Just because I’ve written down something on paper doesn’t make it worthy of someone else’s time. Share your poetry when you can’t take it any further by yourself and when you’re distant enough from it so that you can stand to have someone suggest changes.
Most of the poems in this blog are quick-writes and early drafts that I have subsequently changed through revision and feedback. Once I’ve emotionally distanced myself sufficiently from the initial creation, it can be fun to go back and see what I can do with it, armed with ideas and suggestions from the supportive critics that I know and trust.
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