The Hermit Poet

February 9, 2007

Poetry Reading Attended & A Recent Scrabble Match

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:38 pm

Just back from attending and participating in a poetry reading in downtown Vancouver sponsored by SFU’s Writing program. A nice bunch of writers whose work seems competent, although at times somewhat “workshop-ish” – ie. a little clunky in places, as if a draft or two away from completion. Some needed more focus. Others were over fixated on the apparatus of the narrative and did not deliver as compellingly on style.

A couple of readers stood out for me — unfortunately I failed to note their names. The first was an slightly-older-than-middle-aged woman who I suspect was a visiting faculty person or perhaps a successful alum of the program — she read a rather entertaining episode from her memoir concerning her “catastrophic wedding.” Engaging, well-written, and very funny though somewhat poignant. I liked it quite a bit. The other writer was the last reader on the program before the open mic — again, didn’t catch the name, but he read a rather solid excerpt from a novel about a French-Canadian boy growing up on the prairie. He also had a fantastic reading voice — comfortable and confident — the kind that makes it easy for an audience to be pulled right into to story without distraction.

I read as part of the open mic — actually, I was the only person on the open mic list. I chose four poems: “Credo,” “First Poem,” and two from the “Letters to the Unknown Wife” series. All were well-received. I ended up chatting with two writers afterward about the surviving post-MFA, applying for programs in the U.S., publishing work in the U.S. market, and how to make a living as a writer. I enjoyed the good conversation and the reminder that I’m not alone out there — other Canadian writers who have studied abroad and returned to Canada are facing the same struggles of isolation and displacement. It is hard to fit back in to a culture and country you have been away from for so long.

There’s a great irony, as some of my old MFA cronies pointed out, in the fact that my manuscript was based around the idea of exile — and the odd thing is that I feel more of an exile now than when I lived in the US.

In any case, look forward to the next few days of posts. I’ll be back on the clock writing useful posts about poetry and writing — even though my class on How to Write a Love Poem was cancelled, I feel like the information and notes are worth sharing — especially just before V-Day.

Oh, and in other news, I travelled out to Kitsalano last night for a Scrabble match and won handily at 386 vs 294. I had gambled at one point and passed a turn in order to play “beliefs” — a spot conveniently opened up the following turn. 90 points for the word. Not bad for a game that started with a handful of obscure consonants and one vowel. I opened with “wiz” and did not draw a single “r” or “t” the entire game. I did feel quite proud about expandin “wize” into “wizen” and later into “wizened” — talk about getting the most out of a “z” — well, almost the most — I never had the opportunity to add the “un” to the front :) My opponent had a great play with “boytoy” on a triple word score. The game appropriately ended with “hoser” — hmmm.. it’s a “Welcome Home Neil” sort of play.

3 Responses to “Poetry Reading Attended & A Recent Scrabble Match”

  1. Robert Says:

    Huh. I always considered “workshop-ish” to mean over- (not under-) wrought, as in “workshopped to death” and “workshopped the very soul out of it.” I know this from painting in opaque media – that you can “overpaint” something and, as I have seen, you can “over-workshop” something just as easily. It’s the poem-by-consensus: a camel. At least, that’s how I’ve always used the term.

    But maybe you mean by contrast that over-participation in workshops with the wrong mentality leads to writing poems with lots of holes in them, sloppy poems, under-baked stuff because you know you’ll get heaps of feedback from your workshop group no matter what you bring in (doughy or crispy). That’s a take I hadn’t considered on the “perils of workshop” so many like to tout.

  2. site admin Says:

    By “workshop-ish” I guess that I meant that the poems and short stories felt competent, but uninteresting — perhaps pre-workshop-ish would be a tad closer. In some cases, the “scaffolding” was simply too obvious, or overused (recipe stories, map stories, etc). I had hoped to see more innovation and more risk-taking in the work.

    And indeed, sometimes I do feel that workshops can lead writers to produce a level of work sufficient to generate feedback, but not of any particular excellence. When faced with a deadline, sometimes you turn in something that isn’t really done or even what you wanted to work on, but is what you have available. These poems get workshopped into final versions that still lack a strong passion or drive — why, because in some sense they are realizing only the expectations of the class/workshop and not really rising to the level or going the direction of the writer.

    There were some stories and poems that could have used a stricter workshopping — it felt like the work was being allowed too much leniency. Shifts of perspective and inclusion of information that the protagonist normally wouldn’t have access to showed up on a number of occasions.

    Again, in each there was something praiseworthy, but not quite fully realized. And perhaps, part of this frustration is my own longing to be back in a workshop or teaching position again — to be given an opportunity to work with writers in helping them finding the real poem/story behind what currently lies on the page.

  3. Robert Says:

    I think we’re on a similar page, then, about the “workshop-poem” lacking what I would call “heat.” I imagine it’s what Stafford meant about revising your life more than your work – finding the stuff that matters to write about. For me, the right subject (one with enough intensity, complexity and “heat”) and the right voice to tell it in seem to be most of the battle. But how to teach *that*?

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