Often when a feature reader comes from out of town to present at the Tree Reading Series they remark something along the lines of: that was a fantastic open mic. Usually you have to suffer through those but I got something out of each reader.
Back in 2009 Rod Pederson was the director at Tree and he saw the pool of open mic readers as something of an opportunity. There are people keen to do poetry but some wanted more direction. Some were thrown in the deep end when featured poets were far from the verse storytelling tradition they understood poetry to be. Some had never read much poetry, only written it because they needed to. Some defined real poetry as that written by the dead.
The target audience for workshops didn’t have orientation, in some cases, to the wider history of what is done in poetry here and now. Others could use some help in becoming confident presenter after thinking about refining and editing poems guiding away from first thought, best thought.
Rod came up with the idea of a bridge that would be a way for interested poets of all levels to learn more.
What was later dubbed the Tree Seed Workshops would be a chance to sit with peers, think poetics, be guided in craft.
Rod asked me if I would organize something like that.
By plan there would be a chance to up the bar of what people make by workshopping poems they are making, or make new ones in light of poetic devices or modelled after forms, schools of poetry or particular exemplars, in a sort of open university. It was conceived as free drop-in and with a rotating roster of poets who could do mentoring.
Fast-forward and we’re already nearly 3/4 of the way though the 4th year. It’s been a remarkable privilege to see people’s eurekas and spurred interest in new corners of the poetry spectrum. There has been a wonderful wealth of people who have given their time to share and mentor. There’s a richness of inspiration in this poetry community. Anywhere from half a dozen to over two dozen may come any given time, university students to midlife to senior. Some come raring with ideas, others wallflower.
Last year one participant who came to her first workshop said to me afterwards, with something of a mixed shock/delight in her voice, “but this wasn’t scary at all. It was kind of…fun”. She said she was afraid she’d be graded and given essay assignments and be in a formal classroom. It’s a matter of people coming together with their curiosity hats on and seeing what happens. Sharing what they know. Asking what they don’t. Learning something new.
Some people have met people and started their own groups of test readers. Others have felt the sort of open university has allowed them to find fodder for their curiosity and inspiration for their craft. To read a poem in a book is one thing, but to read a poem in discussion community deepens the understanding once all the angles are on the table. Appreciation is deeper to take that extra time. Instead of being presented with something, you can be in dialogue.
The core group has shifted over time, new members joining it, older members disappearing or starting to be published in journals or making their own books or chapbooks. To mention a couple Paul Macken has put out a few chapbooks and books since he started. Mike Caesar has got Honourable Mention in the Diana Brebner Award.
Some come regularly. Others due to life, work, childcare, transportation, health, or amount of personal need for poetry, come occasionally. Some topics bring out new people curious in that aspect.
Some suggest what they want to know more about, or people they want to hear more about. That has guided the choice of new topics and facilitators.
In the time the workshops have been running the workshops have covered a lot of ground. The format may be hands on, conversation or teacher-fronted. What I look for in presenters is someone who is passionate about some aspect of poetry that they want to share.
It is meant to get deeper into poetry. For this reason, prompts of I know, free write about this random thing aren’t very useful. It’s to get more depth and breadth of knowledge.
It may be a close reading of poems they love. Jay MillAR had a group reading of the long poem with examples of Christopher Dewdney and others from The New Long Poem Anthology which people found eye-opening. To have someone’s words in your mouth in real time instead of skimming a page is a different way to experience poetry.
The workshops are about world-widening and sharing. Terry Ann Carter gave an introduction to Akiko Yosano, and beat poets including Gary Snyder, and using found text. rob mclennan introduced writing from language, and introduced writers from PENN sound. Brenda Leifso was doing how-poems-work in magical realism and had people busting with questions. Cameron Anstee looked at the personal poem and the list poem with examples from Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan and Jim Smith giving that orientation to who else writes, except for Shakespeare and Leonard Cohen.
That’s not to say people who come to the workshop are always newbie closet writers. Some are. A few are people who don’t write and are interested in writing. Some have a book or few, or have taught writing. There’s always something more to learn.
The workshop is often an angle of technique or a subjects for poetry. Bruce Taylor gave a thwack of poems to show different ways of using sound’s power of euphony and cacophony, with close reads from Edith Sitwell to Charles Olsen, Stephen Morrissey to Mary Oliver, Louis Dudek to Derek Walcott, and a look at nonsense and riddle verse. Jenna Tenn-Yuk presented on how to negotiate the complexities of your identity in poetry. Brandon Wint focussed on imagery and sensuality. Claudia Radmore gave examples and exercises on linking and shifting the tone and content as in in renga. Another time, she showed senryu. Bruce Kauffman did guided stream of consciousness writing. The how of poetry is pretty and wide.
Ian Keteku did mind-mapping exercises to show how to extend a metaphor and finding fresh phrasings. Jeff Latosik had a session on switching the pov of classic poems; Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters” was re-made contemporary. Barbara Myers had us consider flipping out pov; alienated insiders or as outsiders wanting in, and led close reads of poems to consider how syntax work for you or doesn’t.
Sometimes it is a mixture of theory and practice with exercises. Jenny Sampirisi on hybrid texts that cross genres looked at samples of Beckett, Cixous, Anne Carson and John Cage and had rapid prompts that has us lifting parts of text. Stuart Ross had the group do various poem techniques after Joe Brainard, Gwynn Scheltema with an intro to OULIPO such as The N + 7 Exercise and homophonic translation, and Ikenna Onyegbula was teaching poem structure for memory techniques in spoken word going back to the ancient world.
Hands on can be literal: Christine McNair put needles in our hands and showed how to choose paper and the group did a few book bindings.
The focus has been a sub-genre of poetry: Guy Simser lectured on tanka’s developments overseas and in North America; Mike Buckthought did exercises to introduce ancient Greek epigrams; Phil Hall thought us though on triptychs. Terry Ann walked us through glosas of women writers.
Some sessions with exercise components do an optional sharing time and immediate feedback to what was just made. Sometimes we have a facilitator who looks at the poems brought in and leads the round tabling. I have done that. So has John Steffler.
Sometimes it’s about the performance aspect. Jennifer Pederson ran a few on how to use different kinds of mics. Actor John Koengen did a few on stage presence, using your breath, being in your body. There’s a mix depending on the week. Cathy MacDonald-Zytveld did 10 writing prompts and another session of exercises on projecting your voice. LM Rochefort spoke on the bilingual poem, Imagistes, cut up poetry, collage poetry and techniques for projecting your voice.
It has been nittygritty details. We’ve looked at structure(s). Glenn Kletke gave an excellent set of handouts demonstrating the effect of stanza types and effects of line breaks and stanza breaks on sense. Ronnie R Brown on using line and stanza breaks to enhance your poetry, and on finding an effective title. I’ve done one on sestinas and another on combining the material of disparate poems to remix. We’ve looked at the use of space & punctuation, bare bones density and compression.
Sometimes it is more global, top down thinking poetics and origins or poetry: Robin Macdonald on yoga body/mind listening in finding your direction as a poet; Pierre Brault on comparison of poetry and stand-up comedy; Roland Prevost had charts and thinking points around our motivations for writing; Sandra Ridley led discussions around on linear vs. oblique and risk vs. silence and Lesley Strutt roundtabled a discussion of the challenges of translating poetry and the nature of language and experience as translatable or not.
It’s been with assignments out into the community to build a project. Monty Reid looked at the connection between place and poetry, mapping and the muse, making aa poetry map of Ottawa. It can still take entries of poems, photos, sound recordings of particular places in Ottawa, the poetry lives and poetry history of them.
The workshops run through the Tree season, twice a month, the second and fourth Tuesday of each and have continued thanks to the new directorship of Deanna Young, Margaret Zielinski and Colin Morton, the funders that be (to give honorariums to the facilitators).
Has silence ever prevented you from speaking your voice and story? This week Jenna Tenn-Yuk will be running a workshop on facing your fears, and finding and speaking your voice through poetry.
The next session is by spoken word artist Jenna Tenn-Yuk on February 25th at SAW Gallery at 6:45pm. The previous by her was full and enthusiastic. I expect this one will be the same. No worries, there was no homework but people are invited to bring in a poem that you wrote that pushes your safety zone and that scared you to make.
Later session include Frances Boyle on getting to your wild mind, some time with Phil Jenkins, and French-Canadian poetry with Stephen Brockwell. John Steffler and Bruce Taylor are back towards summer.