Thanks to my generous benefactor, professional net worker and very close friend, Avi, I managed to stumble into a bi-weekly poetry workshop here in Chicago with some fantastic local poets. It’s a bit nerve racking. They’re all older, published, honed in their craft. Yet, the atmosphere is convivial, loving and supportive. We meet at B___’s house every other Monday night bringing our works in progress and bottles of wine to share. We read our poems and make candid critiques. All told, it’s one of the scarier but more rewarding things I’ve committed myself to in recent years.
A sad thing happened, coincidently around the time I started the workshop in September. I stopped writing poetry.
I thought I’d cure the problem in a week or two but I realize now I’m stuck. I wrote to B_____on Sunday night asking him for a homework assignment to spark an idea. He instructed me to write a poem touching on all of the following:
A food I hate
The senses of smell and touch
I spent my morning at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, chatting with hordes of visiting high schoolers, trying to gently explain the difference between “writing desk” and “sculpture” among other worldly concepts. I witnessed a particularly distressing exchange in the powerful new photography exhibit “Purple Hearts,” portraits of young veterans recently returned from Iraq. Later, I migrated to the Asher Library at Spertus to burn the afternoon oil and attempt my first poem in two months. Eventually jettisoning the segment dealing with unsavory food (Ikura, if you must know, those salty red roe balls you get at the sushi shop….ewwwwww) I, dashed off my effort in attachment form, reasonably confident that 3 out of 4 wasn’t too bad.
I arrived at B____’s particularly giddy and nervous as he’d informed the group that we’d be guest hosting his good friend, a prominent writing professor and current poet Laureate of a mid-western state. B____introduced me to the guest of honor and as is his affectionate, curmudgeonly way, began picking at my work, shaking his head and saying things like “Didn’t they teach you punctuation at Oberlin?”
When everyone arrived, B_____volunteered me to read first. It’s hard to resist the temptation to retroactively edit, but to be fair, I’ve decided to share with you exactly the poem I shared with them:Field Trip
Specialist Jose Martinez has lost his face.
Some of it evaporated into the air
(Lusty matter conserves, eloping at the alter of Elvis)
And the rest, like party gamers, changed place.
Now, at age 20,
He’s a real phantom of the opera
Whose exploding aria began in Karbalah
And echoes still in Texas.
Sustained, through a year of surgeries,
It’s the curse of a crescendo turned infinite.
Two boys come before Martinez.
“Do this,” One says to his friend,
Leaning his face into the photograph closer and
Closer until I, protector of the artworks, get nervous.
His pimply cheek nearly grazes
The swimming, shadowy puddle of flesh
Where surely kisses once fished.
“And smell it,” He says
Conjuring in an instant the crackle of tinder
And the thrilling terror of marshmallows
Melting onto sticks.
“I thought he was gonna bite me,”
Says his friend and in a cloud of crumbling giggles
The dome of portent descends.
I stand in the doorway consumed by a singular thought:
“My God, you little shits.”
Clearly, this poem needs some work. There’s some vague and bloated language. There are some problems of perspective. It’s a grammatical morass. The assertion of the author’s presence is dubious, perhaps it could be served by a more regular form etc.
My usual workshop buddies raised these points in their usual encouraging manner, adding the odd compliment along the way. And then we got to The Famous Poet (I’m withholding her identity because as hurt as I maybe, it seems in poor taste to name her). Adjusting her spectacles (and they really were spectacles, not glasses if you know what I mean) TFP begins with the disingenuous, self-deprecating excuse “Now I’m sure you’re all much better poets than I am
, but this poem really fails to even hook me in…”
From there she went on to criticize the dubiousness of the word “Specialist” (someone tried to explain that it was a Military term and she eventually conceded, but not without a long fight), find fault with virtually every line of the poem, saying it was very confusing, not very interesting, and concluding imperiously that she did “not like poems that are like Easter egg hunts.”
I guess I should have brought that other poem I had. You know, the one that’s a manual on how to set the alarm clock on your cell phone.
I sat there through her screed, dying inside. From across the table, Mary, attempted a wan, consoling smile. Bonnie gently nudged the bottle of Shiraz towards my glass. I summoned every cell in my body to an emergency no-crying summit. Numb, I nodded and thanked everyone for their remarks.
It’s true that I am a thin-skinned crybaby. I’m a proud lion and I bruise like over-ripe fruit. But it is also true that this TFP, I’m afraid to say, is a complete and utter bitch.
Workshops are not free and as you can imagine I have to work several hours of depressing retail to afford each session there. This night was ruined for me. It took so much energy just to maintain my composure I couldn’t comment on anyone else’s work. Great. Not only does the TFP think I’m a lousy poet, she also thinks I am incapable of discussing anyone else’s poetry.
For anyone wondering how it’s done, getting me to shut up that is, I can now offer you this simple, highly effective method: humiliate me, shame me and attack my art, (preferably in public) and you will find the most enigmatic of beasts: a meek, withdrawn and utterly tacit Abbyg. She’s hiding in the Yeti’s undiscovered blustery grotto, curled up weeping in a cavernous paw print cast in cold, crunchy snow.
For the record, TFP went on to graciously praise everyone else’s work.
We closed the evening with an writing exercise the TFP brought which consisted, egotistically enough, of freeing our minds by attempting a poem based on a poem of hers translated into Ojibwa (which she read in the way you can tell someone who is feigning familiarity with a foreign language, fudges it and hopes that no one else will notice). Everyone seemed kind of puzzled about how the assignment worked. I think we were supposed to translate it, even if we got it totally wrong. As a hint of sorts, she offered each of us the opportunity to ask her one yes or no question about the poem.
I passed. I Guess I just left my ribbon-trimmed basket at home.
After the workshop I tried to make a quick getaway but B_____ snared me in an untimely discussion about Judaism and Patriarchy, something I’m usually only too eager to debate. As I hedged uncomfortably in the doorway, TFP came over to “apologize.”
“I’m sorry I came down so hard on you (hesitating, trying to remember my name), Abby. I realize now that you worked very hard on your poem.”
“Actually, I didn’t. I just wrote it this afternoon.” I said flatly. How little or much work I put in to it was not really the point.
“Well I’m sorry I’m such a hardliner. I’m really tough on my students and it’s like I always tell them ‘I’m gonna be honest. You might hate me forever but I’m gonna be honest.’”
I simply gave her a half-nod. It was truly the kind of tepid, defensive apology that people who have trouble apologizing tend to make. To really ask for someone’s forgiveness means to check one’s ego at the doorway to the temple of Otherness. She wasn’t sorry. She didn’t care.
As soon as I stepped out into the night, the tears I’d been holding back for two hours sprang free, pouring down my cheeks with a piteous teleos. I knew I would cry at some point but I’m proud she never saw it.
I have always maintained that there is a tender art to delivering criticism. When a friend or colleague places trust in me to reveal the plastic renderings of her spirit and soul, I can, and will, ALWAYS find some thing nice to say. I will also speak honestly to the flaws in any work. But I will try to do it gently, respectfully, aware that I’m holding that person tenderly in hand.
Don VanVliet, the Immortal Captain Beefheart once said, “The way I stay in touch with the world is very gingerly because the world touches too hard.”
To that famous poet who shattered me that night: surely you must realize how hard words can touch; otherwise you wouldn’t handle them to the extent that you do.
As I embark on the daunting task of sifting through potential MFA programs, there is now at least one school I can confidently strike from the list