Student Commentaries on Residency Craft Talks | Master of Fine Arts in Writing
Presenter: Marvin Bell
Title/Topic: How To Be a Writer Every Day
By Susan Cohen | Poetry 2013
Marvin Bell distilled a writer’s lifetime of experience into his philosophy of how to make a poem happen. He shared the process he uses not just to produce new work but also to discover the connections that exist “between everything.” He urged us to shed our habitual impulse to impose reason and resolution on a poem, and told us to “get in touch with your own wiring.” As impressive as his use of language, and the wisdom he’s accumulated, is the obvious pleasure he still takes in this exploration. He’s still learning. If he ever found the poetic process transparent, he said, “I’d give up poetry,” just as he gave up photography when he had “learned to see.” I found what he described as “cheap tricks” useful, of course. But I also found him inspirational — his willingness after a lifetime of achievement to “surrender to the…chaotic” and to “be loyal” to the form that results. In other words, to continue the process of discovery and follow where it leads, even if that means that readers who love one Marvin Bell book may hate the next. His tips include: keeping a daily free association scroll on your laptop, trying to write bad or “ugly” poems, using the third person instead of the first, and resisting closure. He advised participating in a writer’s group only if it allows you to change and to try “extreme writing.” But it’s the so-to-speak madness behind his method that’s most important: that there’s “freedom and joy” in “letting it rip” and that “poetry matters because of what it does for the person who writes it.” Poetry as selfish act! Don’t we suspect as much? And yet, what results, at least if you’re Marvin Bell, from this lifetime spent “making up new rules to break,” is also interesting to those who read him. How does a writer keep readers invested while still surprising himself? That’s a trick that doesn’t come cheap. He may have talked about how to be a writer every day, but he demonstrated how to be a writer for a lifetime.
Presenter: Sandra Alcosser
Title/Topic: A Match Flaring Up in a Dark Universe
By Leslie Schwartz | Nonfiction 2012
Sandra’s erudite and ethereal presentations never fail to move me. She nourishes the soul with her love for language and her vast intelligence. Without ever sounding pompous, she invites us to be as well read as she is, to be as daring in our love of language and to explore the aesthetic of writing in new and enigmatic ways. She spoke of brevity, and though she challenged us to think the way a poet might to “make quick small leaps,” I was inspired to think about her discussion in light of prose. Brevity is not holding out on the reader, nor is it suspension. Brevity is letting go of the punch line right now, right this minute, but with careful consideration of language and especially the power of right sized exactitude when choosing metaphor. I especially loved her story about the Chinese poet who wrote snippets on pieces of paper while on horseback, then deposited them into a stitched black bag, via the servant. There was no “austerity of the poet’s life” in this anecdote and though surely none of us have servants, let alone horses, it was a glorious story about the joy of writing, the joy of brief interludes with language. The final quote of the craft talk was this: “Is there any good in saying everything.” This from Basho, one of my favorite poets. It is a lesson not just in writing with the aesthetic of brevity, but living as well, with purpose. The object lesson: Wake up. “Absolute exact attention is prayer.” This was a talk whose spiritual undertones had as much to do with writing as with living and made me think, in the end, that living is writing.
Presenter: Kellie Wells
Title/Topic: The Heart Makes Freaks of Us All: Literalization of Metaphor in Fabulist Fiction
By Matt Terhune | Poetry 2012
Watching Kellie Wells read or give a craft talk always reminds me Susan Howe’s call to writer-scholars to write critical pieces creatively and creative pieces critically. In her talk, Kellie explored the limits of literalization of metaphor in narrative. This is solid, even heady material for a craft talk, but her language, her way of envisioning the world is so expressive and nuanced that it feels like an equally creative act. She began by stating, “all great novels/narratives are fairy tales,” and noted that “reality is a fuzzy concept with shifting contours,” which demands the production of fabulist fiction in which “anything can happen.” Kellie went on to cite writers who have written in the fabulist tradition, including Vonnegut and Murdoch, whose works wrest tired clichés and transform them through literalized metaphor. She used several examples of hackneyed metaphors that have been liberated from cliché through literalization, which reimagines and liberates the tired trope and breathes new life into it. She read from Geek Love, a novel by Katherine Dunn, in which a circus family literally sets out to produce freakish spawn: a successful literalization of the metaphor that all families are dysfunctional and “freaky.” She also noted the power of embedding the unreal in the everyday world. I think about this often in my own poetry: how to avoid cliché and make familiar subjects fresh. I’m not sure Arturo the Aquaboy will make an appearance in any of my work, but Kellie’s talk compelled me to reconsider my own approach to creating poems that honor both individual and universal experience and make it new.
Presenter: David St. John
Title/Topic: Intimacy, Narcissism & the Self in Free-Fall: Hitchcock’s Vertigo & the Detective Poet
In perhaps the most original and thought-provoking craft talk of the residency, David St. John compared the reader to a detective and the poem to a film (a psychological thriller, in this case) in which reality is unstable and constantly under question. David used Hitchcock’s Vertigoto explore the possibility of the poem that refuses neat resolution and closure as more interesting than the poem that provides a solution to its mysteries. He provided an in-depth summary of the film and its central themes: deception, insecurity, male narcissism, doubling/twinning, non-linear narrative, ellipticism. Regarding the poem and the film, he stated, “the more complete it is, the more banal it is.” Even so, he advocated for poems that present narratives while they resist linearity and closure. David’s talk came at an interesting time. Recently, I picked up American Hybrid, the collection of contemporary poetry he edited with Cole Swenson, and was intrigued. I’ve recently returned to narrative poetry, which is what drew me to reading and writing poetry in the first place. However, I am also drawn to more elliptical, experimental poems that honor the fragmented nature of memory and experience. I continue to write both and think both have merit. While I disagree that all poems must resist closure and linearity, I can’t deny being drawn to work that enacts, through language, our complex subjectivities as writers: both modes of writing poetry are very difficult to do well. One lifts the ordinary object/moment from our daily lives and elevates it to something glimmering and sacred. The other takes the whole object/moment and refracts it into another kind of truth: that our lives and the physical world that surrounds us each day are packed with contradictory meanings that require equally complex forms.
Presenter: Kwame Dawes
Title/Topic: The Cartographer’s Art: Poetry and Place. The Case of the Caribbean
By Jaydn Dewald | Poetry 2012
I was hooked from the title. Place, for me, is fundamental to the success of almost any poem. But Kwame not only deepened my awareness of, and appreciation for, place, he also upped the ante: he told us that a place must be “imbued” with the writer’s vision. To a certain extent, this is natural: we see what we want to see. Still, I think Kwame is suggesting (and it’s a bold suggestion, too) that we appropriate our surroundings, or at least our homeplaces, as a means of self-discovery, empowerment, understanding, clarity, etc. I love this idea. It is, even on the simplest level, an intelligent and artful lens through which to reimagine, and therefore make new, a common place. I’m trying, now, in revising a poem about a speaker (a man) whose lover leaves him for a woman, to “imbue” several remembered landscapes with this speaker’s vision. In other words, Kwame’s given me a terrific and challenging assignment.
Presenter: Leslie Adrienne Miller
Title/Topic: Looking for Art in Science: What the Poet Can Do With the Language of Science
By Brandi Herrera | Poetry 2012
“Physics says: go to sleep. Of course / you’re tired. Every atom in you / has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes / nonstop from mitosis to now.” ~Albert Goldbarth, from The Sciences Sing a Lullaby
What a breath of fresh air Leslie Adrienne Miller is! Her talk about the poetic appropriation of scientific material and methodology via language and metaphor was exactly the kind of craft talk I needed to reenergize my work. I have long had an interest in science, specifically theoretical physics, and have grappled with the ways it might be possible (or impossible) to incorporate it into my own poetry. I haven’t been very successful in the past, so this talk was of particular interest.
Though they may seem at odds, poetry and science actually share audiences with a sharp eye for form, and ear for language. Though they may come to the writing for different purposes, they are driven by similarities as well: the act of discovery, and the difficult task to quantify and encapsulate the ineffable.
Leslie gave us a diverse selection of poems to consider by writers I’d not yet encountered: Mirsolav Holub, Sandra Beasley, Linda Bierds, Heather McHugh, Forrest Gander, and Albert Goldbarth. She went on to use each poem as an example of how a poet is able to borrow from the sciences (whether through the endless variety of subject matter, or via structure/form) in order to craft a piece rich with dimension and nuance.
“Unit of Measure,” by Sandra Beasley, was the runaway hit of the craft talk. Beasley draws on scientific methods in order to set the subject of her poem, the capybara, as the standard by which all else is measured, and creates a sort of essential dialectic where the creature’s characteristics are applied to what we know and can identify with.
“Consider the year of your childhood when you had / exactly as many teeth as the capybara— / twenty—and all yours fell out, and all his / kept growing.”
Presenter: Ellen Bass
Title/Topic: Writing Political Poetry
By Dorothy Dannenberg | Poetry 2011
Gerald Stern, when asked to write a poem for September 11th, said, “I already did. It’s all I have been doing.” Ellen Bass’s class on writing political poetry introduced the idea that every poem is a political poem affirming life. While political poetry in the United States is not honored the way it is in many other countries, it is still an important and powerful medium. We should venture away, Ellen advises, from ranting about our opinions—about what outrages us. Most political poems need the tension of struggling with something we don’t understand. She quotes George W. Bush: “I have opinions of my own. Strong opinions. But I don’t always agree with them.” We should not be the hero of our own poems. Don’t point fingers. Aim for grief rather than grievance. Questions are a key element. Answering questions is not our responsibility—we should try instead to formulate them correctly.
Ellen quotes Marie Howe: “If the poem says what you knew when you began it, you’re still on the diving board. You haven’t jumped off.” Issues that upset us are a good place to start, but the poem should always move towards discovery. Ellen also recommends Howe’s advice to take an idea and move the frame just off center. This, for me, ties in with Tayari’s talk on choosing a point of view—choosing the journalist or the teacher instead of the jilted lover. With political poems, taking the focus away from the most obvious parties can be a way not only to make the poem interesting, but to write towards discovery—towards questions rather than statements.
Presenters: Elinor Langer with Jennifer Miller and Erik Schmidt
Title/Topic: Research-Based Nonfiction
By Tabitha Blankenbiller | Nonfiction 2012
This engaging talk revolved around three very different nonfiction projects and experiences. Elinor Langer is working on a biography of the last queen of Hawaii, Eric Schmidt is researching a WWII German pilot, and Jennifer Miller is trying to get to the heart of an Arkansas lynching. The variation and lives of these projects are incredible testaments to what can be done in Pacific’s MFA Nonfiction program. These speakers encouraged us to try writing researched-based nonfiction, especially all of us whose repertoire in the genre hasn’t extended past the personal essay/memoir. The group advised us that “bare details tell you nothing. Without vivid detail of place, description, the past of these people and situations, you can’t actually see what happened.”
Despite any notions we may have, research-based nonfiction is not laying dry facts out on the table in textbook form. No one, except for some historians and cultural anthropologists, will ever read that. Research-based nonfiction is about “finding something about your subject that no one else sees, and fleshing out that unique perspective.” As we have discussed in other classes and talks, the truth is a continuum. Vivid detail and description make the truth interesting. We may not have a time machine to travel back and extract definite details from an era or person, but through research and our creativity as writers, we can reconstruct their world in a way that is fresh and relevant to the reader. Jennifer Miller’s description of tracking down the truth of a story, trying to peel away what has been accepted as history and seeking the truth, was exciting and inspiring. “Keep Digging!” one of her informants told her. We should all keep digging; digging into the past, digging into ourselves. Digging and rebuilding is the burden and beauty of nonfiction.
Presenters: Barry Lopez
Title/Topic: A Conversation with Barry Lopez
By Sunny Maxwell | Fiction 2012
This was without comparison the most inspiring hour of my time on campus. Barry Lopez addressed every reason I have ever longed to write and articulated each one in an utterly simple and compelling way. He made clear the idea of writing as a higher calling in a way that resonated for me more deeply than any other speaker. Every new idea he brought forth was a new reason to continue to write, and to write harder. Lopez described the writer as an artist willing to introduce himself to the darkness of the world and come away with something beside darkness and despair to show for it. He described writing as pattern making, an attempt to make real and beautiful and coherent something that is chaotic and incomprehensible in the world. Do this well enough, he said, and the writer can give some new life, hope, and order back to someone broken, chaotic, and disordered in themselves. Lopez found a way to make the practice of writing both elevated and manageable.
I came away with the feeling that writing for him comes equally from the intimately human and from the intimately divine. He called writing a calling to “go inside and find out who it is you are and what it is you mean. And then find he language to say it.” Make a beautiful thing, he said: a child, a poem, a line of prose. Do that and you’ve fulfilled your human obligation to combat the darkness in the world. This advice is beautiful in its simplicity and urgency. It is one of many parts of this talk that I have copied out to keep where I can read it every day. To write well and honestly from within oneself is an exceptional act, and more than that; it is enough.
Presenters: Jack Driscoll
Title/Topic: He Who is Still Laughing Has Not Heard the News: The Use of Humor in the Service of Serious Poetry and Prose
By Gwennis McNeir | Poetry 2012
Comic appeal is deeply ingrained in human nature. Writers from Cervantes to Philip Roth have used humor to address serious themes. Driscoll cautions, however, that “being funny is serious—and risky." He notes how quickly the “ha ha” can overplay its charm and result in cleverness for its own sake. Humor also can’t be purely cerebral, but must “come from the gut.” Driscoll illustrates by reviewing several examples of both poetry and prose. Stephen Dunn’s poems “John and Mary” and “At the Smithville Methodist Church,” contain language that is simultaneously serious and light on its feet. This “harmonious discord,” calculated to disarm, reveals the poet’s big-hearted concerns. In “Giving Head,” a poem by Dzvinia Olowsky, the polyphony of multiple meanings deepens and complicates the tone.
In prose, humor tends to be found more in voice than in plot. In Lee K. Abbott’s “One of Star Wars, One of Doom,” the narrator’s grim perception of others is comic, but also self-deprecating. “The satiric bite is nipping pretty close to his own ass,” Driscoll observes. “Aren’t You Happy For Me?” by Richard Bausch, achieves absurdity though characters’ use of the absolute wrong words for the circumstances. The humor in this piece veils the underlying despair of being unable to communicate. This lecture was an intriguing counterpoint to St. John’s craft talk on the poetry of loss and reflection, reminding me that—when used skillfully—humor can be as effective as pathos in connecting readers to powerful human emotion.
Presenter: Kwame Dawes
Title/Topic: Stolen Art: Chameleon of Suffering
By Brandi Herrera | Poetry 2012
Kwame’s central theme for this talk dealt with the notion of poet-as-chameleon; appropriation via camouflage. The chameleon, and poet, “steal” their material from other’s experiences and then translate them through empathy. This isn’t the work of a journalist who transcribes their accounts or interviews verbatim. These are poetic moments, taken in, and then rendered into the form of poetry in order to create a work of art.
Poets and chameleons are also freaks of nature, transforming themselves in color and shape in order to please their audience (and also blend in, when needed) with magic and alchemy. The mark of a great poem, he says, lies in its ability to “delight.” This can only happen if a poet is able to balance the line between being engaged and disengaged with their surroundings. They must be both of the world, but also removed from it, inside and outside of experience simultaneously. Poetic nature can be driven by compassion, but more often, it’s the poet's (sometimes annoying) need to absorb the outside world fully, in order to feel they’re a part of it. The poet should be careful not to allow this tendency to overwhelm their experiences. In short: Take in the stories and experiences of those around you, but don’t attempt to reproduce your subject’s voice or story. Instead, refashion them, and color them, and use your poetic nature to turn this silver into a bar of gold. Don’t simply relate or rely on facts. Rather, mine your subjects for the truth of the matter. And then return the favor by giving them what they imagined, but could not speak themselves.
Presenter: Brady Udall
Title/Topic: Action-Packed!!! A Discussion of Action: What It Is, Why It's Important, and How to Make It Work for Your Story
By Dorothy Dannenberg | Poetry 2011
What’s more important in a story: character or plot? The conference room murmurs, “character,” and Brady Udall shuts us down. Plot, he says, action, is the most important aspect. As writers we have to bring the reader into the action of the characters before we can ever make them feel what a character is feeling. Fixed action is the day-to-day stuff. A character gets out of bed, goes to work. Received action has a character deviating from fixed action because of a disruption. Beginning writers, Brady warns us, frequently forget about received action. Moving action is action that requires a character to make a choice and act it out, causing the character to become more completely themselves. Here, action actually leads the character into an internal change. All good action is in some way reaction. All good action has some kind of history on the page. Dialogue is the heat of the scene, intensifying the action. Landscape itself has energy, and influences characters. Otherwise, it’s just window dressing, and that’s useless. Poetry, Brady quotes, aspires to stillness, and fiction aspires to movement. And yet, in poetry, I think change is the movement. A little internal shift. Brady says that in fiction, characters are not who they are when the story started, but who they are when the story ended. In a way, poets should view their readers this way—pulling them along so that once they finish the poem, they are new.
Presenter: Brady Udall
Title/Topic: Action: What it is, Why it’s Important
By Sue Staats | Fiction 2011
The literary devices of plot, character, and point of view don’t always do the job – in this talk, Brady examined the role of action in our writing, thinking about it as a tool to make our stories better. Aristotle says what we do is all that matters. The action of the characters reflects their feelings and thoughts. Action comes first, because it is the most important of the elements in fiction.
He described three kinds of action: fixed, received, and moving. Fixed is a habit, an action performed daily or habitually. Received action is a significant, disrupting event that causes a deviation in the fixed action. Moving action requires a character to make a choice, act out the choice in an observable manner. By deviating from the usual pattern, characters become more truly themselves. Moving action forces the character into becoming something else. Action puts pressure on characters, makes them break apart so you can see what’s inside them. Types of action include: what people do, dialogue, discovery/recognition, landscape/setting, perception or POV.
All good action is in some way a reaction to another action. Motivation is action with a history. Dialogue in the heart of scene, which is the heart of the story. Discovery/recognition is like eavesdropping – it’s intimate, intended for the reader alone. Landscape, the setting, has energy, exerts power and energy on the characters. Perception/POV has to change and move. The location of most action in contemporary fiction is in perception. Perception is the location of most epiphanies (crisis of the mind). Brady used an example from Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” where action is happening while two characters are talking, an example of how the dialogue of our lives actually doesn’t do much – we need action to move the story. If something happens in a story that wasn’t foreshadowed by some action, the reader feels cheated. What I love about Brady’s craft talks is that they’re so practical. He defines and uses the elements of craft as tools. It was nice to hear him champion action, which is often ignored as we focus on character and detail. Because what is action other than the forward movement of the narrative – and without it, we’re sitting still, which is desirable for meditation but not for writers.
Presenter: Jack Driscoll
Title/Topic: The Auditory Imagination
Anyone looking for validation that the auditory is important to literature only had to attend the first five minutes of Jack Driscoll’s talk, where the words of a poem set to guitar music had the woman next to me weeping, and me close to it. The layer of nuance and emotion generated in the sounds of words is something we don’t think much about as writers – but we should. Poets think of it all the time, and fiction writers should think of it more often.
Jack started with examples of poetry – poems that might or might not be prose poems, but all used rhythmic language and sound, techniques that can be used in prose. He quoted Robert Pinsky on the difference between the poet and the fiction writer. The prose writer shoots arrows at a target from fifty paces and has to hit the bull’s-eye every time. The poet has to do the same thing, only on horseback. Robert Bly says, “The eyes report to the brain. The ear reports to the heart.” Jack used the poem “Ochre” as an example of an unashamed delight in the nature of the sound of language. Wallace Stevens says: “An ear is an eye. To hear more clearly is to see more clearly.” Flat prose – with no poetry in it – is entirely unconvincing. As an example of a story with poetic use of language, Jack introduced us to Stuart Dybek’s story, “They Didn’t.” It’s a complete story with plot, rising action, denouement – but it’s full of poetic techniques: alliteration, plosives, guttural stops, etc.
But – the danger of lyric language is that it can lead to too much incantation, too much purple prose. It becomes full of private pleasure, and the writer can never forget the reader in the ecstasy of the beautiful line. Lyricism cannot compensate for a story that is not compelling. What Lois tells Jack: Think language. Think character. Think digression. Think story. These things must be in balance. All these provide crosscurrents of energy – it makes the language serve the event. Reading your writing aloud will reveal the musicality, or lack of it. As his final example, Jack read aloud the opening paragraph and the closing paragraph of James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” explaining the poetic and musical elements of the prose, which in the beginning serve to create bustle and excitement, and at the end create the grand adagio, the triumphal broadening out into the universal, the stillness. In the end, as a special treat, and because Marvin Bell thinks it’s a good idea, Jack sang a poem about a woman in a bar, and I didn’t catch the title of the poem or the poet, but it didn’t matter, it was great. Jack sings, of course, a true and lively Irish tenor.
Presenter: Benjamin Percy
Title/Topic: Meaningful Repetition: Rhyming Action in Fiction and Nonfiction
By Susan Tanabe | Fiction 2011
There are the oranges in the Godfather movies, the rug in The Big Lebowski, and the bubble gum in Lolita. Unexpected objects that become icons and anchors. They are different from metaphors, more thoughtful than clichés. They are beyond literal, and most importantly, they are discovered within a story, not planned. Before Ben Percy’s talk, I had never noticed the oranges in Coppola’s trifecta. I felt the usual “I can’t believe I missed that—and I call myself a writer?!” self-deprecating comment coming on. Fortunately, Percy added that it’s best to not notice these objects at first glance—that to do so might make the object more heavy-handed and obvious. I thought about this. I realized that in my own writing, I have experienced this phenomenon. I wrote a piece on depression, and for some reason, the element of water kept coming up. As a place of birth, death, cleanliness, solace, freedom, identity. I didn’t plan for water to have such a supporting role, but the slippery object became the thread in which everything else made sense. Like Percy said, these objects “start out as fairy dust.” I didn’t pick water. It picked me. It’s not my job to assign it meaning, but it is my job to notice how it transforms the story.
Presenter: Pam Houston
Title: All That Glitters
By Jan Bottiglieri | Poetry 2011
The small moments that catch in our consciousness –the phrases, objects, and juxtapositions that leave an emotional residue – the resonant memories to which our minds repeatedly return. Pam Houston calls these “glimmers.” As writers, she says, our job is to collect them.
The first step, Pam tells us, is to Pay Strict Attention. “Don’t let things be lost on you,” she warns, urging us to notice, and to catalog, the moments that jump out as somehow “writing worthy.” The world is made of physical things: objects, conversations, sights and smells. By collecting those that seem particularly compelling, we can build a library of images and impressions that bring our work vitality. As Pam says, “We’re all trying to do the same thing: represent the world as we experience it, catch what it feels like to be alive in a certain way.”
The next step is to string our glimmers along in the “right” order. Of course, glimmers don’t arrive with a clearly-marked “Tab A” and “Slot B,” ready to be assembled into a finished piece of great writing. It’s probably for the best that they don’t. According to Pam, doing the assembly mindfully – intentionally – kills the power of the resonant moment. Instead, she urges us to let our intuitive sides prevail, to let the “magical, associative thing” happen.
Though Pam’s talk was directed toward fiction writing, these ideas address what I feel is poetry’s most important challenge: to infuse each poem with layers of meaning while inviting readers into a shared experience. In my own mind, I’ve always thought of it as alchemy: a constant quest to combine the right amount of the right common elements in the precise order necessary to produce something pure and shining.
At the heart of the process is the power of associative meaning. Logical assembly leads only to logical association, I think – writing that is expected, dull, and offers nothing new to either the reader or writer. We must work to let our unconscious minds determine the order in which we string our glimmers; in a sense, almost letting them choose the order themselves. The result: writing that contains deeper feeling, larger meaning, and truer detail.