The Gift of Learning
I love teaching poetry workshops and have taken them frequently, many from some very well-known poets, such as Thomas Lux (RIP), Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Denise Duhamel, David Bottoms, Kevin Young, Carol-Ann Duffy (when she was the UK Poet Laureate), and Laure-Anne Bosselaar. Because I don’t have an MFA (I have an MA in music history), I feel compelled to learn as much as possible from other poets I respect. My writing has always been bumped up a notch after a weeklong, in-person small class. And making connections and friendships within the poetry community has had its own rewards. I’ve also attended some valuable half-day poetry workshops online. I think my favorite was with poet Maggie Smith last year. I’m an aha moment junkie, and she gave me plenty!
Whether you’re a poet, a lover of poetry, or another type of artist, how about looking into taking a class this year? Online classes proliferated during the pandemic, starting a trend that will likely continue because they happily offer access to people everywhere. You’ve probably noticed that many institutions are also opening back up to in-person events.
I’ve taught writing classes at a wonderful place in Western North Carolina, in a lush Blue Ridge Mountain valley. It’s like camp for adults. Writers and their spouses or friends can take separate classes, according to their interests: blacksmithing, weaving, pottery, oil painting, cooking, contra dancing… so much fun to choose from. Though I’m not teaching there this year, you can find all the classes described on the John C. Campbell Folk School website.
The How-To Poem
Several years ago, a participant in a class I taught at John C. Campbell wrote this poem, so I reached out to her to ask if I could post it here. It’s about a chicken, and of course, as Poet Laura, I must sometimes discuss chicken poetry. In this poem, the reader becomes the chicken.
It’s a how-to poem of the very best kind: Besides teaching us something, it has so much heart. Also notice Jeanette’s attention to sound and detailed images.
How to Hatch an Egg
Find a quiet corner—unused nest or drift of hay
behind the feed barrel. Announce your intention
by going silent, by turning round about until
the hollow shapes itself to your body, by plucking
the down from your own breast to soften the bed,
by careful arrangement of a last few straws
across your back. Just so.
Settle low, flattened and melting shadow
into shadow. One by one come your sisters
to crowd in beside you, each leaving her offering:
pale or speckled, coffee or chocolate, hot
from her making and keeping. Tuck each egg
under your naked damp belly, arranging them
until the nest is full from wing to wing.
Say nothing. Move into the world of dream.
When needs must, for a taste of food and water,
burst forth screaming from the coop as though
your babies were being torn from your breast by wolves.
A bite, a sip, and rush back to them. Step in
delicately as a ballerina, never jostling these oval hopes.
Cluck and murmur yourself into a trance.
Repeat twenty times. On the last day
speak each new being into our world.
I fell in love with that hen when I first read the poem, and I fall again when I re-read it. I’m especially enamored with these motion and sound images: “Step in / delicately as a ballerina, never jostling these oval hopes. / Cluck and murmur yourself into a trance.” And that most sweet and perfect ending! You can find more of Jeanette’s poems in her chapbook Patriate, which won the Longleaf Press Chapbook Competition.
Lots of ideas can be embedded in a how-to poem, transcending the “how to” aspect. In the following poem, I’m talking about grief, because I have found that employing a different poetic form or device can help me express difficult emotions or situations. In this case, I also try to use a little exaggerated humor.
Warning: Don’t Cry & Drive
Projectile tears will speck your glasses with salt
or your contacts will feel like dry rocks.
Even if you have 20/20,
you’ll take the wrong left through your haze,
not notice for ten miles.
When you finally get there—maybe
a friend’s dinner party—
mascara will track your face,
veins will worm your eyes.
Do not listen to the songs you and he listened to,
or the ones he liked, but you didn’t.
Even KC & the Sunshine Band’s Rock Your Baby
will devastate you now.
Instead, listen to a Wagner opera
or a self-help book. Better yet,
try the Comedy Corral on WRXM.
Bawl it out before you start the car, even if
it’s for half an hour in the lawyer’s parking lot
after spending $600 on a divorce consult.
Or in the airport deck as your daughter flies off
for a two-year stint in Singapore.
As you drive, find animals in the clouds.
Study the shapes of pines.
Turn your eyes from the ring of gold
under the ginkgo in late fall.
—Karen Paul Holmes, from No Such Thing as Distance
Do you have an aha poetry moment you’d like to share? Or do you have a favorite how-to poem—yours or someone else’s? Please post a comment or share a link below.
(Note, if you plan on submitting your unpublished poem to a journal, please be advised it will be considered previously published if you post it here. Publications like Every Day Poems, however, gladly welcome previously published work! A good poem is a good poem, after all. Worthy of being experienced again.)