November 18, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
I was fortunate enough to attend Poetry Weekend hosted by The Great Books Council of San Francisco. The weekend began with discussion of ten different poems. The discussions were helpful, enlightening and fun, as always. However, the real meat of this conference, for me anyhow, was the time spent with poet Dorianne Laux. Over the course of the weekend, Laux listened to participants read their own work, explained how she envisions the field of poetry, and offered a reading of her own poems and one essay. Her generosity was unparalleled. The following notes are some observances from the weekend.
Laux mentioned that poetry is her connection to and communication with the world. Speaking about the differences between various literary genres, she noted that poetry is like a sketch, whereas novels are more like paintings. What stories elaborate with plots and movement, the poet does only with music, allusion, alliteration, and rhythm. In other words, rather than a plot device to move the narrative forward, poets utilize rhyme, meter and musicality. She called this a marriage of form, consciousness, and image. The sensually-based form requires sensory data, images, and metaphor, often resulting in a surprise, change or shock. Laux likened this type of play to the playground. When children imagine sticks into buildings and rocks into clouds, she says they are not frivolously at play, but hard at work. Just as children come to understand the physics of the world, so do poets, through playful attention to language, come to understand emotion and experience. Finally, she said that being a part of the conversation continues to inspire her. She writes to speak of her experience and add it among the list of voices.
Throughout the discussion, not only did Laux read her own poems, but cited a number of other poets. Much instruction can be made from hearing poets read aloud. Laux sampled poets such as Li-Young Lee, James Tate and Tony Hoagland. She also mentioned a number of lesser known female poets such as Mary Campbell, Phillis Levin, and Belle Waring. Laux noted that when we see a beautiful image, something within the reader responds and assembles that beauty into a recognizable order. In other words, poets speak of universals that connect directly to the human experience. Maybe for this reason, she quoted Tu Fu who said, “Poetry is like being alive twice,” it gives us the ability to feel and then remember and reconstruct that feeling in a very visceral and present way.
Laux also shared an essay about the importance of poetry from her upcoming book Finger Exercises for Poets. The essays grew out of lectures that she continues to give at the university where she teaches. When asked about writing in other genres, she mentioned that she had tried on many different hats during her years as a writer. In fact, play continues to be central to her writing style. Laux explained that poetry is most comfortable, and that she never felt successful with story and novel forms. Even when writing a novel, she claimed that what she wrote turned out more like poetry than anything else.
However, poetry itself requires much experimentation. Laux illustrated how many exercises had turned into published poems over the years. For example, she liked the word “vestibule,” so she challenged herself to fit it into a poem, which turned into “Vacation Sex” (in Facts About the Moon). (For the record, vestibule is in the poem twice.) Finally, Laux shared a number of personal stories that brought more life into her poems, but also created a warm, welcoming, connected environment.
Poetry Weekend would have been successful without Laux’s attendance. However, combining poetry discussions with a live reading, really blew the event out of the water. Many thanks to The Great Books Council of San Francisco for an excellent weekend. And a heap of gratitude to Dorianne Laux for her reading, attention, and energy.
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