Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Raising the Bar

Each year at the poetry retreat our poet leader for the year gives us an assigned reading for us all to do before we come, so we have a common reference point. This year it was the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems Late Wife by Claudia Emerson. The poems in it are uniformly beautiful: evocative images that focus on divorce, breaking up a home, and then a second marriage, the kind of poems that give you a little shiver up your spine after you finish reading.

One of the prompts Kathleen gave us was to select a poem from Late Wife and then write our own poem using both the first line and last line (not first sentence and last sentence, but focusing on the LINE), and then writing our own new lines in between. This was the prompt I most DIDN'T want to do. Claudia Emerson's images seemed so specific to her own experience, and also had such a rural sensibility - I just couldn't imagine grafting my own experience on to them. And it seemed MUCH too hard to use BOTH the first line AND the last line. It just couldn't be done! And I wasn't even going to try!

But then I did. Because really, what is the point of going away to a poetry retreat if you aren't going to try to stretch and grow? I chose her poem "Aftermath," that begins with the line "I think it is time now for the second cutting" and ends with the line "with the blunt edge of a practiced tongue." I made mine into a poem about a trial separation leading to an ultimate dissolution of marriage. I'm not going to post it here, because, well, because I don't want to! But I was amazed at how using Claudia Emerson's eloquent opening and closing encouraged me to take more risks with my own language. I think that the group of poems that our group produced from this prompt were my favorite group of poems, taken as a whole, from the retreat.

We really do get better as writers when we steep ourselves in the work of amazing exemplars.

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