Sunday, January 8, 2012


If I were to use one word to describe my experience at the poetry retreat this year, the word would be: humbled. I'm inspired, yes, and I'm growing, yes, but I'm also stunned, astonished, slain by what some of my fellow poets are producing. We take a pledge not to share details of anybody's poems - at this stage so raw, so private, shared only with those who are also willing to make our work vulnerable to others' eyes - but I think I don't run afoul of this agreement by saying merely that some of the poems are amazing. I have known many of these poets for many years now, and I am seeing work from some of them at a level I have never seen before.

But what I'm also seeing, sad but true, is that at least here at this retreat, the most truly amazing work is coming out of a place of pain. People are dealing with extremely difficult and agonizing burdens in their lives, and they are transforming those into exquisitely moving poems. In the past, that was sometimes me, as well. But this year I'm happy. I'm just happy all the time. And that's good. For me. Less good for my poems.

Though maybe it's not so much that we need to have pain to write. Surely that's true. But as we're learning to be poets, groping to explore new forms, it helps to have a standing topic, a subject matter already intimately inhabited, so that we can focus not on what to write about but on how to write about it. It helps to have a theme.

Yesterday I remembered, in the nick of time, that the theme doesn't have to be about me. Or, it can be about me, but only obliquely. I decided to return to an old favorite of mine: fairy tales. For the prompt to write a pantoum (a form of poetry that has repeated, braided lines), I wrote about Hansel unable to retrace his bread crumbs in the woods. For a prompt about under-rated pleasures, I wrote about Rapunzel opening her tower window after the rain. And for a prompt about using repetition in a poem, I wrote this:


Straw my father claimed I could spin into gold,
Straw in that dusty chamber piled high,
Straw upon straw, all the straw in the world,
Straw I must spin into gold or else die.

Straw that he spun for me, strange little man,
Straw in exchange for the child he would take,
Straw for a promise no mother could keep,
Straw for a promise I knew I would break.

Straw, little darling; straw, sleeping babe.
Straw is the reason I have you to hold.
Joy of my arms, light of my heart,
You are the straw spun into gold.

But I haven't been spinning as much straw into gold as usual this time around. The fact is, I just haven't had as much straw as usual, for the spinning. And for that, I guess I should be grateful.

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