Something about questions…

Self-portrait with walking sticks on E. 34th Street. September 2011.

A question I often ask the artists I interview is “What decision has had the most impact on your arts career?”

My answer would be a poetry workshop I took in 1996 in Chicago. I lived in an artist’s building, and I’d seen the flier advertising a “YMCA Writer’s Voice poetry workshop with Maureen Seaton” for days and days and days. I, of course, waited till the very last day to apply and had to send my application via Fed-Ex. I had just been rejected by three graduate creative writing programs (I mistakenly thought you went to school to learn how to write), and I wasn’t even sure what a poetry workshop was.

In that workshop I met the wonderful women who would become not only my writing group but my lifelong friends. I’ve noticed that younger siblings are always chasing after their older siblings trying to do what the older brother or sister is doing. Younger siblings seem to walk at an earlier age, talk at an earlier age, all in service of keeping up. And that’s how it was for me with the Divas ( a name given to us by Maureen Seaton when she suggested we form a writing group together). I sent out work and gave readings and applied for workshops despite my limited experience with actually studying poetry because that’s what they did. Without their pushing and prodding and fearless examples, I never would’ve applied to the Fine Art Works Center program, a fellowship I still can’t really believe I won on the first try.

In that workshop I also, of course, met the wonderful Maureen Seaton who gave me the best advice I’d ever received about reading poetry: “You don’t have to understand it. Take what you can from a poem—a line, the sound, an image. It’s okay to not “get” everything all at once.” That gave me immense freedom to become not just a better reader of poetry but a better writer of poetry. Her fingerprints are all over me in other ways: she introduced me to Joy Harjo and Denise Duhamel, who made me fall in love with anaphora and list poems of all kind. She introduced me to the idea of collage, to “English-to-English” translation, to prose sonnets—all of which remain part of my writing vocabulary.

When I was working on Folio (the literary magazine at American University), I interviewed Maureen over lunch at my now long-gone favorite teahouse in Chicago. It was just a few months after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and I asked her why people turn to poetry in the face of tragedy. Here’s what she said:

I think poetry is really close to the spirit. Poems can almost serve as ritual or worship, I think. I asked my students in my beginning poetry class on Wednesday why they write. We had just listened to a very depressing song that one of my students had brought in. It was a great class, but everyone was very sad, so I asked the question just as a way to turn the energy a little. I didn’t want that sadness to go away because I think that’s a very important energy to feel, but I wanted them to leave knowing that there’s more than just this sadness in the world right now. So I asked them to say in just one word why they write poetry. As each one answered—there are 16 students in the class—to me it sounded like I could have said to them, “Why do you go on living?” It’s sort of connected with the spirit and with life.

I was trying to think if they were a group of novelists if I would even have thought to ask them that question. To me, poetry—I won’t say it’s a replacement for spirituality—it is people’s spirituality or it’s in addition to spirituality. It comforts, consoles, nurtures. It does all the things that God can do, that people lean on God for.* I always feel that I’m so lucky to be teaching poetry as well as getting to write it, but the teaching feels like a way to bring a spiritual dimension to people’s lives. And my poetry’s not spiritual necessarily. It is not connected with God. But there’s a spirit among humans. I think how am I to other humans? And then to some other hting, too, some power somewhere, the Universe, whatever. My students all got this kind of spiritual look on their faces and all came out with these amazing words—from the 17-year-olds to the 32-year-olds. They even seemed transformed just answering the question; they took it very seriously.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with this particular sentence, the idea of poetry taking the place of God. I think, instead, that poetry is—or can be—an act of worship, even if God is not explicit in a particular poem. Your thoughts?

Posted on February 10, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. yes. that amazing Maureen Seaton! and Paulette, what a great question to ask when interviewing artists, and for us to ask ourselves. thank you.

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