Thursday, February 26, 2009

Guest in Progress: Judy Leaver, Part III

The conclusion of Judy Leaver's wrap-up of her experience at the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar....

A Key West Literary Seminar Retrospective: Part III
“Maneuvering the Poem,” continued

By Judy Leaver

“Maneuvering” followed a traditional workshop format. Each of us was instructed ahead of time to bring three poems to be critiqued over the three days. In addition, Collins gave us exercises that focused on the spare, yet astonishing form used by William Carlos Williams, a writer and pediatrician who wrote and practiced in New Jersey in the early 1900s. Our homework was to ‘copy’ the exact form—same title, exact line length, same punctuation or lack of, and number of syllables/per line--of this Williams poem:

This Is Just To Say*

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Mine looked like this:

This Is Just To Say

I drank the last
slushee in
the freezer

though I
knew you were counting
on it
tonight, but

I needed
it more than you did
so crisp
so calming

This exercise is great fun and helps you laser in on every syllable, every line. It is a helpful way for a writer to focus on the form of a poem, and not just its content. Try it yourself with this Williams poem:


As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty

I can clearly see one of my cats doing this! And that was Williams’ point. He wanted his poetry to "escape from crude symbolism, the annihilation of strained associations, complicated ritualistic forms designed to separate work from reality". Hear! Hear! Collins’ poetry is similar in that respect. He stresses the value of using quiet language, the language of things, invoking Emerson who said that the language of things is sufficient.

Collins suggested a number of books that are excellent primers for poets, regarding the issue of form especially. My two favorites are Rules of the Dance by Mary Oliver and Best Words/Best Order by Steven Dobyns.

*Both poems can be found in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1 1909-1939.

About: Judy Leaver, M.A. has worked as a professional writer for nearly 9 years, following a 20-year career in social work and mental health advocacy. Her creative writing includes poetry, essays, short stories, and untold vignettes that appear to be pointing the way to a memoir. She has participated in a writing group that is fourteen years strong, and in the spring of 2004 was selected to participate in the Jenny McKean Moore Community Workshop at George Washington University, under the tutelage of poet, Rick Barot. In January of this year she participated in “Maneuvering the Poem”, a workshop with former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins in Key West, FL. Her work has been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. She guest-blogged here in April of 2008.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.