Yesterday I attended a conference sponsored by the League of Vermont Writers. First in the line up was a presentation by Barbara Dozetos on the different channels of social media (facebook, twitter, google plus, tumblr, etc.) and why writers need to pay attention to social media. Lesson learned; I will be on facebook soon. This was followed by a talk by poet J.C. Ellefson, Professor of English and Poet in Residence at Champlain College. After lunch, we had the honor of listening to former governor Madeleine Kunin discuss and compare the lives of politicians and writers. Her third book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family, is a must read for anyone interested in learning about fair “family leave insurance” in order to care for your newborn, your sick or disabled dependent, or an elderly parent.
It is Ellefson‘s exercise at yesterday’s conference that leads me to today’s poem. That, and this morning’s reading of the first few poems in New American Poets, edited by Jack Myers & Roger Weingarten. The idea was inspired by the former event, the form by the latter.
Violins and Apple Trees
So I’m in this workshop and the guy poet,
(there’s always a guy poet leading
a group of women) he says, “I’m going to
take you to dream land,” and I know
he doesn’t know nothing about my dream
land where the lobsters are black
with shaggy fur and where a goat’s
face turns into a baby’s face and back
to a goat’s face then dies in my arms.
But hey, I’m open to almost anything,
so I close my eyes to go to dream land
at the white table-clothed round table
at the edge of a group of white table-clothed
round tables in the Double Tree Hotel
conference room. Music begins to play.
I open my eyes to peek and the poet guy’s
actually playing the violin, softlike. That’s when
my daughter at age ten pops into my head
and I see her running down the driveway
and climbing the apple tree. I know
she’s slammed the door to the house,
I hear it after she is already in the tree –
the slam juxtaposed with the image of her
cradled in those gnarled branches –
I see her sitting there and I hear her heart slow
to a thumpy tap thumpy tap thumpy tap
right when the music picks up: the guy poet
has turned his violin into a fiddle.
Now, when those who have the need to share
do so at sharing time, they say they went
to Ireland or back to the Civil War
when the music picked up, but I see,
right at this moment when her heart slows
and the bow bounces lighter and quicker
off the strings, I see my 10 year old daughter
look out across the field at something moving.
My eyes dart to the moving figure and back again
to the girl in the apple tree, and I see she’s watching
herself as a grown woman walk across the thigh-high
grass, heading for herself. She, the grown daughter,
is straight shouldered in a soft green flannel shirt,
she is blue-jeaned, and she is walking real easy
but solid-like. I don’t know what happens to the music
at this point, I think it has ended, but for a few more
seconds I watch my 10-year old daughter
get down from the tree, walk back to the house,
and hear her close the door with a little click.
The above poem is written with apologies to Jim Ellefson. It is not his fault that he is a guy poet and mostly women attend these Saturday conferences, but that is the nature of the beast at this point, at least in Vermont. The important fact is, Ellefson did take me on a dream journey with his music AND provided the context for the poem, which to me makes the poem multi-dimensional and much more interesting than just conveying the dream itself. After the music exercise, Ellefson discussed how we can take images, dreams, and experiences and transcribe them on paper. He used Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream as a leaping point. In the introduction to this book, Janet Burroway explains that Butler, both actor and lecturer, uses the “Stanislavsky Method” that leads him to teach, “In place of the body, it is the imagination that must be a strong and supple instrument, ready to lead the reader through moment-by-moment sensual experience. And it is in the realm of the unconscious rather than that of technique or intellect that the writer seeks fictional truth” (p. 2).
How does this translate to writing fiction and poetry? In Ellefson’s workshop, he had us first act out skits then transcribe these sensual experiences using dialogue, intonation, gestures, physical appearance, setting, positioning of characters, and timing, to name a few of the elements. When I wrote the first drafts of the poem above, I jotted down the ideas that popped into my head while Ellefson played the violin. Then I tried to work them in a poem. Trying to work something in to a poem is a big mistake. My lines were stiff and too confining. I knew what I was writing was too contrived and pretty crappy (maybe they still are, but they are better than what first appeared, believe me).
Frustrated, I put everything aside and picked up the book, New American Poets, that I just purchased at Ebenezer Books. Whenever I’m stymied by my writing, I read. It always, always, allows the subconscious to take over in regards to my own work. I relax and as I relax I find myself suddenly jotting things down. I always read with a notebook and pen at hand. So it was when I read the first two poems of my new anthology, “Deuce: 12:23 a.m.” by Barbara Anderson (read this poem), and “Man In A Window” by Ralph Angel (read this poem). Even though I had been trying to write today’s poem from the body as Ellefson instructed, it was these two poems that allowed me to do so, that blew open the structure to allow the poem. I backed up and began at the beginning of the poem with the setting that allows the narrator’s voice to come through in the personal dreamscape. I allowed myself to express what I was feeling. With that came, low-and-behold, dialogue, intonation, gestures, physical appearance, setting, positioning of characters and timing. Thank you Ellefson, Butler, Anderson, and Angel.
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Demonstration of Creative Process by Robert Olen Butler
Aboriginal Art and Culture Center– 100% Aboriginal owned and operated
Dreamtime Chart from the site above