Today we have poet and workshop leader Nan Fry, in a post that originally appeared in The Carousel, Winter 2008. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Relearning the Dark (WWPH) and Say What I Am Called (Sibyl-Child), a chapbook of riddles she translated from the Anglo-Saxon. For over twenty years she taught in the Academic Studies Department at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, anthologies, and textbooks. Her poems can also be found online in the archives of The Journal of Mythic Arts, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and Beltway Poetry
Quarterly. Here she is discussing her upcoming workshop.
“Sources and Origins of Poetry,” one of the workshops I teach at The Writer’s Center, grew out of my practice as a poet and instructor. Early on, I was intrigued by poems about ordinary objects by writers such as Charles Simic and Nancy Willard. At the same time, I found myself re-reading the Anglo-Saxon riddles that I’d studied (and translated slowly, word by word) as a graduate student. In these poems, a familiar thing or creature is described in ways that are both accurate and mysterious. The accuracy comes from closely observed details, while metaphor creates a sense of mystery. I admired the way those Old English poets presented the ordinary in ways that were still fresh and surprising. With that model in mind, I found myself describing—and addressing—the sprouts I was growing under my kitchen sink.
You’re born and grow in secrecy,
in moisture and darkness.
Together you’re a shock
of thick, wavy hair.
Singly—a small green heart
squeezing out a spindly stem.
When I tuck you into an omelet,
wrap you in that bright yellow blanket,
you stick out all over
like curious children
who won’t go to bed
or like those people in pictures
hanging out of the dragon’s maw,
all dangling arms and legs
their final protest.
As I eat you I graze
back to my animal past
munching the earth-sweet
grasses and hay.
(From Relearning the Dark, Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 1991)
In working on this poem, I realized that one source of poetry—my experience—was as close to me as the blanket on my bed and the darkness under my sink. I also discovered that if I was stuck, I could sometimes lure the muse by placing an object such as an apple, a plum, or a roll of scotch tape on my desk, staring at it, and then describing it or letting it or letting it describe itself.
Like the Anglo-Saxon riddles, which were probably composed during the seventh through the ninth centuries, all poetry was originally oral and had to be memorable in order to survive. Though we no longer face that particular challenge, poets today still use some of the strategies of those early bards. In “Sources and Origins,” the participants and I seek inspiration in ancient forms such as proverbs, lists, chants, charms, and riddles, and also explore how contemporary poets draw from these inexhaustible wells to create work that is fresh and compelling.
For instance, proverbs, which distill the traditional wisdom of a people, had to be brief and to stick in the mind like a burr in a dog’s fur. Often employing rhyme, alliteration, parallel structure, and striking imagery, proverbs are models of poetic economy that suggest much while saying little. They have inspired poets as diverse as William Blake, the French surrealists Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret, and Mark Strand. Whether or not we wish to write actual proverbs, I’ve found that reading traditional and current examples can help us to write evocatively and precisely and to approach the sound, structure, and imagery of our poems in new and useful ways.
List poems, which also have an ancient lineage, provide a more expansive model and a way of bringing sensory detail and the richness of experience into our work. Our sources here might include American Indian chants; Homer; Ovid; Walt Whitman, with his exuberantly long lines; or Gary Snyder, who turned the to-do list into an art form. Another contemporary poet, Joe Brainard, took the association of catalog verse and memory to new levels with his I Remember books. Even people who swear they can’t remember what they had for breakfast find themselves inspired by his wonderfully inclusive lists.
In their experiments, scientists bring together different substances to see how they will react, often in the hope of creating something new. I suspect something similar happens with poetry. Whether they are drawn from ancient or contemporary works, the models I use in this workshop are presented not for slavish imitation but as catalysts, as points of departure, and examples of possibility. Poems written against or in negative reaction to the models are always welcome. In-class exercises and longer at-home assignments are offered as experiments, something to try in a spirit of inquiry and exploration. Such practice will, I believe, strengthen our ability to observe and to imagine, two sources of poetry we all have within us. Our goal is not to “get it right” but to write—that is—to generate material and to find fruitful ways to approach the creative process.