Wednesday, May 7, 2014

At last weekend's Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I spent some time talking to Kyle Potvin, one of the editors at Mezzo Cammin, an online journal of formal poetry by women. I'd vaguely known about the existence of this journal, though I've never submitted. What I didn't know is that it is now actively seeking essays "on any aspect of poetry in form by women." Kyle tells me that the editors aren't necessarily looking for strict scholarship (though scholars are welcome to submit). They also want personal essays, craft essays, interviews in essay form, and so on and so on; and they are interested in contemporary unknowns as well as canonical poets. I'm sure that, while they are focusing on the work of women poets, they would be more than happy to receive essays written by men. In my experience, women writers and editors are generally thrilled to learn that men care about their work.

I'm passing this along because I know that most of you have strong feelings about the poets who matter to you, and this may be inducement to put pen to paper and write about one of them. At the festival Kyle and I spent some time talking about ways to make the essay archive easily available to teachers, who are always eager for source material. And what I said is that I'd like teachers to write some of these essays. How does a particular poet matter in your teaching practice? How has her use of form influenced the way in which you share that form with your students? How might your students react to the story this poet tells of her life in poetry? How do your students feel about the fact that a particular poet is your personal friend, or a strange and distant figure in history, or a striving but obscure poet working in an unfamiliar country or language?

Because Same Old Story includes so many sonnets, I, too, have been thinking lately about the role of form in my own life and practice. My attraction toward sonnets has not always been salutary: in fact, when I was writing the poems that ended up in my first collection, Boy Land, Baron suggested that I try hard not to allow myself to fall into formality. He said the form was too easy for me; that I was too facile a writer; that I used structure and pattern to avoid writing what I needed to write. As usual, he was right. I needed to push myself to speak, not hem myself neatly into corners. It took me more than a decade to return confidently to form--a decade of writing bad sonnet after bad sonnet, but also copying out other poets' sonnets, studying how they work, writing about how they work. Maybe I'm a slow learner: yet I have always loved sonnets; I have always wanted to be a formalist. What I couldn't do for so long was to synthesize the sonnet's interactive potential with my own drive to speak and dramatize. I had to shed form in order to return to it, and I wonder how many other poets have followed a similar path.


Christopher Woodman said...

Your natural gifts are so profligate you get away with writing for writing's sake even when you have nothing to say. Eventually you will out-grow all the ways you want to write and at that point you will emerge as a truly great writer.

I mean that, dear friend Dawn. You will be successful writing as you do but you will not shake off all the anxiety and anger that so confuses and retards you until you write as you are without trying to write what you're convinced would be even better.

I say that because I believe in you.


Dawn Potter said...

I'm neither angry nor anxious about my relationship to formal poetry, which was the topic of my post. Its primary purpose was to encourage others to write essays about women writers who matter to them. I merely used my own case as a capsule example of the way in which writers can have lifelong relationships with the idea of form. As far as "confuses and retards"? Well, I'll assume your intention was kind and make no further remark.