Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sandra Beasley on "The Strategic Poet"

The Strategic Poet 2 is Sandra Beasley's fall poetry workshop at The Writer's Center. You may have heard Sandra on Diane Rehm recently. She was promoting her new memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales of an Allergic Life. But Sandra is also an award-winning poet and popular workshop leader. Here she is discussing her fall workshop.

Why title a class "The Strategic Poet"? Because I've been in a lot of poetry workshops over the years, and I've seen the frustration generated by moments of feedback where the meaning is right--
"it needs to be tighter"; "I feel emotional distance"; "maybe play with line breaks"--yet the means are vague. How does the author get from his or her current draft to a tighter, more intimate, more formally experimental version? What are some of the strategies that the great poets before us have used to invigorate their work?

One thing that motivates me in workshops is the memory of attending the 2008 Sewanee Writer's Conference on a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship, assisting  poets Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser in their classroom and serving in tandem with the amazing Eric McHenry.  Among them all, my work showed the least influence of classical form; I was the renegade, the one more interested in anaphora than iambics. I loved the experience, but I also remember the delicacy of the position in being only a few steps over the line into being a mentor. Sure, I had the authority of a book under my belt, but I also remembered the vulnerability of being a student.

I soon realized that the moments that felt most productive were not when we were fixated on the complaints of student readers (who could be fickle) or the solutions of mentoring teachers (who were, at least in my case, eminently human). What worked best was when the whole group was responding--whether enthusiastically or critically-- to an impartial third party, a canonical voice, or a tactic of editing. So ever since, I have found the sharing of craft essays to be a vital part of my approach to leading workshops. Not because I believe and agree with every word I pass out, but because I believe in the powerful discussions that a common reading can spark.

My favorite part about teaching is that moment that you see a poet's eyes light up with the excitement of what they can do with their draft. Sometimes it is as simple as suggesting a switch in the order of stanzas, or giving someone permission to cut their last two lines (which, oh so often, attempt to tie a pretty bow around what has come before). But sometimes someone leaves workshop with a substantial Gordian knot to undo. That's okay. My goal in a class is not to show off how easily we can "fix" a poem on the spot, but rather to give people confidence in their own abilities moving forward.

Anyone who tells you that the goal of their workshop is to give you "finished" poems is short sighted. No one poem is the point , no matter how polished. The goal is to make you a better poet-- and in my case a more strategic one.

Sandra Beasley is the author of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales  from an Allergic Life (Crown), a memoir and cultural history of food  allergies, as well as two books of poetry. Her collection, I Was The  Jukebox (W. W. Norton) won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize selected by Joy Harjo. Her debut, Theories of Falling (New Issues), won the  2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., and  serves on the Board of The Writer’s Center.

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