In the rural State of Maine where I was born, the only poetry was on Hallmark Cards or from my mother, the neighborhood rhymer: the birthday poem, anniversary, graduation, all with the lucky subject’s name included. The books in my house were the bible (rarely read) and The Readers Digest Condensed Novels. (three to a volume, a weight on my father’s stomach as he napped on his Barkalounger) And then Palmer Libby assigned our seventh grade class to write a poem and gave us copies of Robert Frost as examples. Even though I have had a variety of careers in my life, since that day in seventh grade, the only thing I’ve really wanted to be is Robert Frost.
I did not attend college until later in life and my continued exposure to poetry relied upon directed readings by my writing friends and my own curiosity. Much of my writing is to reflect on the world as viewed from the perspective of a person well beyond the age of most MFA students. Not with any less excitement that comes with the average age of an MFA student, but looking at what has happened rather than what will be, perhaps. As well as a constant push to publish, I also believe in the performance of poetry if poetry is to be nurtured and disseminated to the non-academic public. But the public’s positive experience is dependent not only on the well-crafted delivery by the poet but on the lucid accessibility of the works chosen by the performer. I actively give readings and believe this is an exercise as important as daily writing. Not all poems should be performed.
In mid-life, a promotion at my daily work took me to Northern California, Berkeley, and deep into the world of poetry. I served on the board of directors of Poetry Flash and attended Alan Soldofsky’s class at Cal, Berkeley for four years. (a sampling of some of the other participants in the class: Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, Jane Hirshfield) Alan was able to bring to the class for readings and critique, the top poets then writing; C. K. Williams, Robert Bly, William Matthews, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kiser, Donald Hall, Margaret Atwood, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Phil Levine, Carolyn Forche, Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg and others. The world of summer writing conferences was just starting to emerge and the Napa Writers Conference, at that time two weeks long, was just beginning and I attended the first four amazing years where many of the same poets as those in Soldofsky’s class gave lectures, conducted long critique sessions and we all went drinking at night.
During these years in Northern California, I finally went to college. I attended Antioch University San Francisco where I attained a BA in business and poetry. I continued at Antioch for my Master’s in Management. Then immediately began and completed another Master’s in Liberal Studies at Mills College in Oakland. When I look back at those years and realize I was able to complete these studies while working full time as an investment banker and raising a family, continuing to participate in the writing community, attending a bi-weekly read and critique group for seven years, it seems as though I’m remembering someone else.
Early influences on my writing have to begin with Jack Gilbert. Although some of his poems do not have the absolute clarity I really like, good Lord, the way he used language still amazes me. He broke all the workshop rules, used lots of gerunds, big simple abstract words: pain, agony, love, desire, etc. And shows you how to write that way, if you’re able. Carolyn Forche’s early political poems in “The Country Between Us,” and her supportive presence in workshops still come to mind whenever anything I write smacks of the political. The narrative nature of William Matthews and Phil Levine, the risk of Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux and the enthusiasm of Bob Hass and Robert Pinsky, their amazing lectures, have shaped what I attempt to produce today. And, although controversial in some quarters of the Poetry World, (note the capitals) Billy Collins and George Bilgere have taught me that humor can lead one to amazing, lucid poems.
That was then, my base. But now there is the exploding world of the lyric; the voices of indigenous people, immigrant voices, people of color, fluid gender, women, all the wonderful noise of poetry today. It’s loud, it’s busy, maybe a bit confusing, maybe a bit overwhelming. And in between exists marvelous poems. I completed my MFA in Poetry at San Diego State University in May of 2016, with publication of many poems as well as my book, Miss Desert Inn which was the Main Street Rag Poetry Prize winner in 2015. But my experience teaching topics in poetry extends back decades beginning at Antioch University San Francisco in the late 1980s where I developed and taught “Poetry for Business People.” I have continued to lead, read and critique workshops from that time until now; I lead a Wednesday morning read and critique poetry workshop for San Diego Writers, Ink in Liberty Station that began in 2013. Over the past seven years, I have also developed and taught many poetry craft classes for San Diego Writers, Ink. Currently, I have developed and teach their “Certificate in Poetry” program; twenty-five different craft and read-and-critique classes from September to May of each year.
Not every person you reach through your classes and workshops will become that recognized author or instructor. But you have no idea who that one person is so it’s imperative that the best be demanded from every student and to do that, the best has to be demanded of yourself.
Forty years of leading and attending poetry workshops and classes has exposed me to a great number and variety of teaching experiences and techniques. I have encountered students and teaching poets who advocated their own style as the penultimate, if not the ultimate, poetic methodology. And I have collaborated with those who were effective in an inclusive approach, able to move beyond personal style, culture and ethnicity to counsel and promote effective poetics across a broad spectrum. In my classroom, I strive to do the latter; it is my job to expose the writing students to examples and experiences that encourage the students to include unexplored styles that will foster a fertile opportunity for them to develop an effective voice and powerful emotional expression.
Reinforcement and encouragement are the basis of a successful writing class. But corrective direction must also be a component of that class. It is this balance I seek with my classes and individual mentorship. Without encouragement, the writer may become disillusioned, angry or frustrated and may recede from the community of writers. That disillusioned student might become that one you always hoped for. However, only encouragement without corrective direction can lead a beginning writer to assume technique, knowledge and development is closer at hand than it really is. In order to establish an environment where the student can feel comfortable stretching their usual boundaries in writing assignments and in analyzing the works of others that is sometimes dramatically different from their own, we work to create a relationship of mutual respect for how others think and their individual experiences. However, I emphasize not all poems are presented in a productive or appropriate manner. While kindness and open-mindedness are required, this does not mean we accept all poems as written. Rather, we strive to truly listen, evaluate, identify the poet’s intent, discover the spine of narrative necessarily embedded even in strictly lyric poems and identify the mood or emotion that often replaces the strict narrative. We/I engage in the machinery of poetry.