Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Steve Kowit on Writing the Poem as Revelation: Esalen Writer's Retreat with the Sun Magazine

Steve Kowit, winner of two Pushcart Prizes, is a proponent of saying what you mean in a poem. “People often withhold the narrative or aren’t explicit enough for the reader to fully understand the story,” he told our intimate and eager group of writers at the Sun magazine’s Esalen retreat two weeks ago.

According to Kowit’s book, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop, “poetry is to a large extent about the music of the language.” Poems use craft elements like figurative language and sound repetition to convey a particular experience and evoke emotion in the most economical way—one that is also pleasing to the ear. But the tendency for beginning poets is to employ clichés, awkward clauses, and garbled English in their attempts to use poetic language.

“Be careful not to prettify,” Kowit warned. “A poem is a balance between musicality and narrative, but paying too much attention to sound can take the reader from the story.”

For his poetry workshop Kowit chose the theme, the poem as revelation, using his own poem “Leah’s Daughter”—in addition to poems by Kim Addonizio, Jan Lee Ande, Dan Gilmore, and Nicanor Parra—as models for what he calls “writing in real English.” 

First, we read and discussed these revelatory poems, paying close attention to the assonance, alliteration and internal rhymes that made them sound so appealing. Within the rhythm of the lines, each poem captured the intensity of an event, a conversation or an occasion through vivid imagery and straightforward but graceful language. 

Next, Kowit used each poem as a prompt to write our own—asking us to tell a moving or entertaining self-revelatory story briefly and intensely (no longer than 22 lines). “On the other hand,” he said, “it might not be your own story you wish to reveal but someone else’s.”

We sat on the sunny deck or set out to a corner of the lawn that overlooked the blue Pacific, heads bent over the notebooks in our laps. Letting the words flow and then reconstructing their arrangement for almost an hour gave each of us something tangible to read when we reconvened. The challenging part? Making the story believable and engaging the reader by telling it well.

“For a reader to be moved,” said Kowit, “the writer has to be too.”

Here is the opening stanza of my revelatory poem, about a visit by a friend when I was 20, which I read aloud and Kowit asked me to repeat:

For years I couldn’t look at
The ocean without thinking
Of the way she rollicked
In the waves, then rocked
Herself, repeating, I want to die,
I want to die,
Just after retching magenta on the roadside,
But before the paramedics came.

Unfortunately, the rest of the poem lost its clarity; it got convoluted between characters and timelines. Fortunately, I purchased Kowit’s “lively and illuminating guide for the practicing poet" (click the link above). This 270-page reader examines dozens of poems and provides corresponding writing exercises, making the art of poetry accessible to the burgeoning poet. Plus, there’s a lovely forward by poet Dorianne Laux—once a “young woman in a waitress uniform with tips in her pockets and poetry in her heart”—who calls Kowit a “gifted and inspiring teacher.” That he surely is.

To hear a poem read by Steve Kowit, return to the post, Cultivating Your Writing Practice.

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