This was the second literary workshop I took part in my life. The first had been a Saturday morning, about writing science fiction narrative, years ago. The difference was that this one was in the United States, about poetry, a week long and the person who was giving it was Marge Piercy.
I was first introduced to her work through my studies of science fiction when I read about her most relevant works to that field: Woman on the Edge of Time published in 1976 and He, She and It, published in 1991. Her work is amazing and every essay, novel or poem I read by her made me feel more compelled to know more, to share them with friends. And it is no small feat: she has written and published more than 40 titles: 17 novels, 18 poem collections, a play and some non-fiction books. Three of her books were written in collaboration with her husband Ira Wood.
Last year, I interviewed Piercy because I am studying her two aforementioned novels. Out of this interview, I produced this poem. In December, she started receiving applications to the Poetry Workshop she gives. For you to apply you need to send her 5 poems. I had 5 poemsin English. They were raw, but I could include this poem I had written to her and it would be my chance of having her reading it. It would be an honor to be rejected by her. The thing is, some weeks after I had submitted the poems, she wrote me back and she said: “You are accepted to the workshop. Your poetry is too verbose and needs tightening and less rhetoric, but I like you and think you'd be a good addition to the mix. Plus unlike too many poets, you have a lot to say, and that matters to me. I look forward to working with you. I think I can help you.”
So, she talked about my weaknesses but she saw some potential in me. I stared at this message for hours, in disbelief, until I could finally answer her that it was great to have been accepted.
The following step was to create a portfolio with 15 poems, the five I had submitted and ten new ones. I didn’t have ten more good poems in English. So, I selected two and the other 8, I would translate from my poems in Portuguese. As I was helping my friend Taryn with translations from Portuguese to English, we helped each other and she gave a lot of hints and ideas. I wrote three new poems and there it was, a collection of fifteen poems.
When we started to introduce ourselves through Facebook, I got a little suspicious. Most of the people had been writing poetry for decades. They had been published. I felt my poems would be so amateurish and weak when put side by side with them. The mask would fall and they would see me as the academic playing poet I was. But if Piercy had believed in me, so should I.
The first day of class we finally met. I remember how nervous I was. I got there before everyone else. People came and the first activity was to introduce ourselves verbally and concisely. All the participants were so happy we only had 12 people in class. Normally workshops are for 40-50 participants. We were a heterogeneous group: one local, some people from the northeast of the US, two from San Francisco, Oregon, Glyn was Welsh but has lived in the US for a couple of decades and some of the girls were from Canada.
We had classes in the morning. The first day we talked about images. Piercy gave us some theory on aspects of poetry, then we read examples she had selected. It was good exercise for us to practice reading poems. Our assignment for next day was to write a poem selecting one image and working it out until the end. I wrote the first version of The crossing. The next day we talked about sounds. Our homework was to write a poem exploring the strategies of sound. That afternoon I had a conference with Marge.
The conferences were half an hour, and we would go to Marge’s house and she would comment on each of the 15 poems we had sent her. She gave me mostly ideas on changing words, cutting A LOT (remember the verbose?) and we talked a little bit about life and what was happening in Brazil. That gave me the idea to write the poem for the following day. People liked it. Here it is.
By the middle of the week I had realized two things: the fellow poets were super friendly. I imagined they would have big egos and would patronize me. They did exactly the opposite.
I understood how little of poetry I had read and how I was still afraid of it. That made me see all poetry as valid expression of something. Criticism was beyond me. I had no power to say it was bad poetry because if there was rhyme and verse, there was an intention to be poetic and I should praise the person for that. It was what made my editing process so difficult. It was high time I was not afraid anymore. I had to be able to select good poetry from bad poetry. Doing that would not only make me a better poetry reader but a better writer. A critical sense was in the order of the day and the workshop was the chance I had to seize it.
There was the reading night and there were a lot of people to watch Marge and us. I calculated more than 70 people. I was the first to go. I read two of my poems: Truce in Troy and Recipe.
The next days we talked about titles (we had to give better titles to poems the others had written), line length and Thursday morning we started asking Marge a lot of questions and it was a Q&A session, basically. We talked about pattern poems (poems as list, image, recipe, dialog, etc).
One of the participants, the sweet Emily, wrote about her impressions on the workshop. You can find it here.
What I learned from the experience was:
* Poetry is our experience in a different perspective. I should not fear it.
* As usual, it works better in groups. Joining a writer’s group was a hint she gave us
* Piercy is a wonderful person, who has had a rich and interesting life. I already knew that but it was just nice confirming in person.
* People can be very warm and friendly about my poetry even if I am from a country where English is not a mother language.
On the last day of classes, we had a party. Almost everyone was there. There were friends and family. The food was terrific, plenty to drink, talks about many things. I had a chance of sitting with Marge and talking to her about my research and the future. Glyn, one of the poets, who is Welsh, made an impersonation of the poet Dylan Thomas and the sun setting made it just a wonderful way to end that fabulous week.