WORKSHOP WITH MICHAEL WATERS
IN DAY 4 OF workshopping, I learned that each faculty member has his/her own individual style facilitating a workshop – letting the poet read the poem first vs. letting someone else read the poem first; letting the workshoppers comment on the poem, allowing the poet to comment only after they are done vs. letting the poet comment briefly on the poem before the other workshoppers give their feedback, etc.
In addition to differing attitudes toward protocol, I also realized that each faculty member seems to have a different craft specialty, or shtick. For Anne Waldman, it was intentionality. For F.D. Reeve, it was identifying what the poet hasn’t seen. For Michael Waters, it is indubitably the line.
During Peter Johnson and Russell Edson’s lecture on the nefarious “prose poem”, it seemed that Michael was about to bust an artery anytime anyone suggested that a poem in line breaks be “unbroken” and presented as a prose paragraph. It seemed that Waters held the line as holy, sacred. And in today’s workshop, we learned his scriptures.
“The beginning of the line is as important as the ending,” he said. “The line needs to function as a poem in itself.”
Michael noted that many poets end their lines with muscular nouns and verbs, but often begin their lines with weak articles and prepositions. By starting lines with weak words, he argued that poems lose momentum. They build toward the end of a line and then start over. It was a new concept for me, as I must say that I have been negligent with line beginnings, so I asked him for some exercises that we could do to work on building lines.
The first exercise he suggested was to scan a poem – not by stressed and unstressed syllables, but using a system which he developed marking meaningful words (indicated by an ”X”) versus insignificant words (indicated by a “—“). Taking three lines from Yusef Komunayakaa’s “The Whistle,” it would scan like this:
_ x x _ x x
A titanous puff of steam rose
_ _ x x x
From the dragon trapped below
x x _ x
Iron, bricks, & wood.
For a successful line, according to Waters, a poet would want to have more X’s per line than –‘s. These three lines (4-2, 3-2, and 3-1) would thus be successful lines. It is an invaluable exercise which I will incorporate into poetry writing for the remainder of my writing life.
As another exercise on crafting a good line, Waters suggested that we take a foreign language poem and a foreign language dictionary and attempt to translate the poem line-for-line. Keeping the lines intact, the exercise is to make the lines as interesting as possible.
Beyond the line, Waters also emphasized the music of a poem and introduced the idea of extending a poem by sound as opposed to by logic and quoted the poet, William Stafford, “You can’t tell when strange things with meaning will happen.”
Waters also used Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” to demonstrate music through a sort of rhyming in modern poetry akin to slant rhyming that doesn’t seem to yet have a name – the rhyming of penultimate syllables: killing with belly; hesitated with waiting.
It was a refreshing perspective and, by far, the most scientific poetry workshop I've ever attended.