The Healing Art of Writing conference

So the thing is… (one of my favorite prompts!)

…this week I’m attending The Healing Art of Writing conference in San Rafael—actually on the park-like campus of Dominican University—with my friend and AWA facilitator Terri Wolf, living the pseudo college life. Dorms, three meals a day that require a credit card-like thing (what happened to meal tickets?), walking around campus in search of wi-fi spots (not easy to find, which seems odd for a college campus—we hear say they’re concerned about poachers) so we can email our daily poems in for printing. It’s all a bit more difficult than our cushy, well-ordered lives at home, but that’s part of the adventure of it.

There are two tracks—prose and poetry. The prose writers (like Terri) bring a piece of up to of 13 pages for their group of eight or nine folks to read. They review two pieces each morning. The poets must turn out a new poem each day (no pressure!), and every poet gets a 10-minute critique of that poem. All group are led by guest faculty, some of whom turn out to be Big Time Writers.

Like today, my poetry group was graciously led by Jane Hirshfield., a Berkeley poet whose latest book of poetry, After, is one of my favorites. She wrote a great book of essays about poetry called Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. She’s been featured in two Bill Moyers PBS specials, and her poems end up in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, as well as in The Best American Poems. She is a Major League Poet.

Yesterday, the poet who led our group was not in the same league—at least not in her approach to leading a critique session. Her bio says she is known for writing “disturbing, edge and provocative” poetry and prose, and that’s an accurate description. The challenge yesterday was that in her role as group facilitator, she was very brusque and efficient, and so the group was, too. I felt like my poem got kicked around by an unruly soccer team. Admittedly, mine was a very rough poem; it turned out (surprise!) to have some confusing parts, so it probably deserved some kicking. But an AWA-style review, it was not.

Today, Jane (we all felt we could call her “Jane”) sat her lovely self down at one of the tables and instantly changed the tenor of the room. She explained how she likes to run critique sessions—10 minutes per poem; the poet reads then has to remain silent until the end; the group takes a “Quaker moment” of silence to digest the poem before jumping in; she speaks last but does guide the discussion, and she likes to offer specifics about where to trim and what to add, if anything. Then she flashed her sweet smile, and we were off.

My poem was first, and after the day before, I was ready for the group to Let Me Have It Again. I was prepared for Jane to do the same. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to get nervous. I was pushed into the pool; I had to swim. But the nicest thing happened: They liked it. Jane liked it. Jane called the poem “terrifically successful” and “a pleasure to hear.” I felt myself get a little squishy at that.  She said the poem was “beautifully ordered” with “acute observations” and “all kinds of interesting language.” They all offered helpful suggestions, especially Jane, who, it turns out, is one of the best editors I’ve ever seen. She knows exactly what should come out to make it the tightest poem possible.

I left the room a few inches off the ground, trying not to jump up and down hollering:


In fact, I kinda did at lunch with Terri, who grinned and said, “Of course, she did.” She’s a good friend, Terri Wolf.  She spent a lot of yesterday reviewing a very shitty first draft of a poem and helping me spiff it up. Then I had to put it away and start over again—we’d kinda beaten the life out of it. The start-over version is much better, but I’m not sure the poem will see the light of day.

Here’s the lesson for me today: Jane said to one of the poets around the table about reworking her poem, “I think you’ll know how to turn the wheel and give it another spin, or thank it for being a good exercise and put it in the drawer. It depends on how magnetized you are about the poem. If you are, keep working on it. If not, let it go.”

I love this. It reminds me that it’s OK to appreciate much of what we write as simply exercise for the writing muscle. Not every poem or journal entry or story is successful. That’s not only permissible, it’s necessary to get to the next piece of writing that might be more successful. It’s wonderful to look at piece and say, “That’s OK for now. On to the next.” And then, move on.

I needed to hear that today. My poem from the first day’s critique may be one of those “on to the next” poems.  I do not have to beat it up, thinking I’m actually spiffing it up.  I can let it go.  It doesn’t mean the topic isn’t worth pursuing; it means it’s not necessary to chase after it today.

Also, it’s important to feel comfortable with the person who’s leading any writing group you’re in. The first poet who led our group probably has people who adore her style, but she didn’t resonate with me. Remember that Pat Schneider says you want to find a facilitator who makes you want to write more. If one makes you want to write less, it’s time to find a new group. Jane makes me want to write more.

And Jane Hirshfield liked my poem. Just in case you missed that.

You don’t have to like the poem, but here it is, with most of the group’s, including Jane’s, suggestions in it:

Night watch

From my bed, I hear it—
soft plump of a furry body dropped,
tiny nails scrabbling to flee,
a pounce. I sigh, tap on the light,
feel my feet hit hardwood.

She sits, head bowed,
looking at her downed prey
curled into a C. I can see it
breathing hard, imagine
the staccato of its heart.

As I reach for a towel to scoop
up this possum-playing mouse,
hoping to return it to the night,
it springs, scurries behind the bookshelf.

The cat looks up at me.
“Your fault,” I hear her think.
“You’re right,” I say.
We both study the wall of books.
She settles down for the night watch.

I know how this ends.
I go back to bed, lie there, knowing
one heart will stop beating in my house tonight,
knowing I cannot save this one little life,
as I could not save yours.

Jan Haag

About janishaag

Writer, writing coach, editor
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5 Responses to The Healing Art of Writing conference

  1. Sonya says:

    Ah, what a great poem, especially since I think I know who the predator was. Braver than I might have been having the “prey” loose in the house, but s/he probably wasn’t for long.

    Your workshop sounds fantastic. Thank you for sharing.

    Love, Sonya

    PS All is well here.

  2. Georgann says:

    Well, of course she loved it. And another thing. I don’t like mean people. There is not one thing that they bring to the table that has value. I just don’t get the beating people up for their own good and expecting something improved to come from that. What is poetry, if not a message from the soul. So, you beat up your soul to find a better metaphor and you get what? A beat up soul. Kindness always trumps. Everything. The brusque efficient soulless of the world do not add to the plus side of the balance wheel. And another thing. That poem ROCKS. Love, BFFGAT

    PS I do so love the idea that some stuff is done and it’s time to move on, even if we think it’s not done yet. I seem to stop at the other end of the spectrum; I hate going back after I write something. Unless of course I am inspired by a brilliant editor such as yourself. Love, GAT again.

  3. Georgann says:

    WEll, what I meant to say is that the efficient critic did not help creat a better poem, she probably intimidated many in the group from wanting to write more, she did not bring forth writers. You do. You bring forth writers. Now that’s a gift to the world. We have enough mean folks. We never have too many writers.

  4. hilary abramson says:

    OF COURSE SHE LIKED IT! It is chill-producing. X

  5. Vonnie says:

    This is a taste of standard IOWA MFA workshops–tear it down and if the writer is serious enough they will go back in and revise. A workshop is one that gives you a way to get back into the piece. Jan, you are resilient–and so keep writing.

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