6 August 2015

Close-ups and Longshots


I’m thinking about blank pages and scrawls, space and containment, yawning horizons and sharp focal points, and how they apply to poetry.  For if a poem ideally is a nugget of experience, how much padding do you include, how much wide angle?  

In Loutro, a former fishing hamlet on the south coast of Crete that can only be reached by boat, I spent a week this last June on a poetry course contemplating such issues.  It helped all thought processes that the sea, only yards away, could be swum in at 7.45 in the morning, that an intensity of blue was everywhere, and that bowlfuls of juicy cherries (and sunhats) could be bought from the shop just below my room.

Led by our tutor, the poet Henry Shukman, we delved into an array of work by Thomas Hardy, Sharon Olds, Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, Tomas Tranströmer.  We attempted to uncover the authorial genius behind decisions about precisely what to include and what to leave out.  There were poems diluted down to a few words yet carrying a full payload of history, such as Dan Pagis's Written In Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar, whose exquisite terseness needs no more than its six explosive lines.  There were more sweeping snapshots in the uncomfortable take on modern America, as  in Hard Rain by Tony Hoagland.  Or dizzying leaps between lines in extracts from Judith Taylor's Curios.

Henry used aspects of meditation to kickstart - or perhaps infuse - the day, drawing on his experience as a teacher at the Mountain Cloud  Zen Centre in Santa Fe.  But then came business, ten-minute exercises with the rules: write, don’t stop, don’t edit, use concrete images, and if you find yourself heading into uncomfortable territory, advance fearlessly and go for the jugular.  Spurred by his encouragement, we sat scribbling around a table outside the Scirocco Café, drinking tea and coffee (Henry swearing by Nescafe Frappé) and into my notebook sprang unexpected items about crossroads, fishing nets, wartime collaborators, and parrots.  

We were only four in the group - Hugh, already published, with his keen observation and perceptive critiquing, Mary Ann with her sensual poems about Greece, Juliana with a natural flair for rhyme, who also was the only one to attempt a piece based on the Fibonacci sequence (which she called Fiberace, conjuring up visions of the mathematician’s and Liberace’s lovechild).  One morning we welcomed an infiltration by the course’s enthusiastic prose tutor David Swann and his two students - Leandra (Juliana’s sister) bringing tales of life below the surface in the Bahamas and Dave with his raw stories of Liverpool and Toxteth.  As the sun crept higher through the awnings, we swapped ideas and considered whether examples of flash fiction, with syntax tweaks and different line breaks, might claim kinship with narrative poems.  

But back at my desk in the afternoons the ponderings continued.  The holy grail of all students on such courses is, quite simply, how to write brilliant poems.  What exactly are the tricks?  And how can I use them?  What can I learn from the greats, what can I absorb of their originality while at the same time unlocking my own?  Answers do not come easily, yet from the work we had seen it seemed to boil down to this - success apparently lay in the power of the emotional or philosophical charge, which could be conveyed in all manner of styles - concise, conversational, strictly adhering to form or more relaxed.  In essence, it appeared that the authenticity of the poet's voice mattered above all, and if, behind it, further layers could be discerned, so much the better. 

Well, duh, I've always kind of known this but now, with my own work and drafts more under the microscope, I began to notice that my, at times, over-zealous editing can beat the air out of an idea.  Efforts to slash and burn the 'extraneous' can run the risk not so much of creating hiccups in understanding as severing a reader's possibility of empathy or connection.  

Or so I think, for the moment.  

Between times we took canoes out in the bay, worried about the goat marooned on the rocky outcrop, and (the hardier) walked down the Samaria Gorge and spotted griffon vultures on the wing.  

On the last night, in an even tinier hamlet named Phoenix, we dined on a terrace and read selections of work as the sun set.  The close-up?  The bloom of bonhomie and wine on faces as we boarded a boat back to Loutro.  The longshot?  A night sky above us, punctured by stars.

I booked the course through Espirita, a not-for-profit organisation with intriguing trips on offer.  Check it out!