Jane Austen has a lovely little metafictional moment in her first novel, Northanger Abbey, when she observes that many women writers don't read or praise the work of other women writers. And if a novelist can't depend on another novelist, who can she count on? I think the same is true of poets. When you consider that more Canadians think that Elvis is still alive than read a poem in the last year, you realize that we are perhaps one another's most avid readers. That might account for our behaviour when we get together. No movie scripts, cat fights, or gossip columns here. What I have found is the most remarkable and imaginative yet rigorous support.
The monastery helps. There have been all manner of celebrations within these walls, and we hang around the dinner table with glasses of wine (sometimes to the dismay of our Franciscan hosts who would like to wash our dishes so they can finish their own days), telling our favourite (and often groan-inducing) jokes. But there is also remarkable discipline suggested by our monastic rooms. This sense of purpose is heightened by our sense of good fortune to be here working with Don McKay, one of Canada's finest and most generous poets. The Qu'Appelle Valley helps. Sometimes there are as many as seven of us sitting in the comfy chairs reading or writing in a magical, pregnant silence, uninterrupted. There has apparently been wildlife, though I've missed it all. People told of a coyote chorus last night around 1 a.m., though all I heard were banging pipes. There have been deer and owls and the obligatory and numerous ticks.
On our first full day together, we all talked about our projects, talked about their challenges and read a single poem out loud. I learned, first of all, that I have to get my classmates' reading lists. My own sense of what is happening in Canadian poetry right now is rather narrow, and I learned much simply from the joyous cacophony of styles and subjects my classmates are exploring. Now I can analyze a poem with the best of them, but they have a way of bringing up issues of craft that I'd never considered. (We're not just talking line breaks here.)
The first task Don set us was to take an object important to another classmate and write a poem that defamiliarized it, that looked at it as we might if we were from Mars. He urged us to make conjectures about its secret life, to see its independent existence unconstrained by our sense of its use, referencing some Polish phenomonologists who no longer trusted ideas but only things. I am ashamed to say that, caught in the drafting of a poem for my book and completely puzzled by what it was I held in my hand (it looked like a concrete bird that had been broken off something but was apparently the fossil of something--a claw, I hypothesized) I tanked on this assignment and would like to try it with something that perhaps wasn't arbitrarily chosen for me. Perhaps we can only defamiliarize the familiar.
Don also talked about the creative imperative. Some times we feel that there's a fence or earth wall or barricade in front of us. He suggests we simply cross it to find out why it's there. Sometimes those barriers are tabu, which makes them not only things perhaps to avoid, but things with energy. He asked about our allegiance to intelligibility; I can tell you that mine is high, at least when it comes to syntax. If someone can't sort out a sentence (I care less whether they can make it mean something), then I need to do some clean-up or rearranging. He talked about the energy enjambment creates, the way we leap across the lines, the kind of syncopation or swing it creates that end-stopped lines or lines that are simply phrases don't have.
Our second group meeting was a workshop where my classmates argued and suggested and cajoled about issues of craft, ideas about what belonged in a particular poem, about ways to read and ways to write. Even before they came to my work (I was the last one for the day), I learned so much from them that it made my head spin. Next morning I woke exhilarated, ready to revise, torn between doing that and finishing a poem I'd begun a day before. I feel as if I'm getting the hang of this syncopation that moves words in an entirely different way.
Don ended out first workshop with a remarkable mini-lecture that I certainly won't do justice to here. He said the eros of poetry came from the love between the lyric moment--which wants to stop time, to go on being a moment as long as it possibly can, and the narrative drive, which asks "And then?" and "What next?" He talked in a way I found helpful about the lyric novel which subverts that narrative drive with lyrical moments that don't want to go anywhere, and even explained what I might have been trying to do in Blue Duets. He says you can create a lot of energy when you break the rules, but if I know myself as a writer and as a social being, I know that I often don't know where the rules are, what the rules are. Sometimes that's a blessing rather than a curse, though if I knew the rules, I could ignore them, couldn't I?