Poetry lessons learned at Esalen, Big Sur, Part 2

As promised from my earlier post, here’s Part 2 of the lessons I learned while attending Ellen Bass’ Life of Poetry workshop at Esalen, in Big Sur, California, during the first week of December. Please click here to read Part 1.

Long-armed poem: The third craft talk was about the “long-armed” poem, where we scoop a lot of disparate material into the poem, but all is related ultimately. To do this, Ellen suggests:

  • Be as open as possible, allowing the world to intrude, allowing in things I don’t know
  • Start with disparate things
  • Make a list of words, such as names of foods, books, movies, pieces of clothing. Or gather poems and take a word from each poem.

Frank Gaspar, in his long-armed poems starts with a time and place and within that goes other places. But then he comes back to his starting point.

Here’s a long-armed poem I wrote a couple of years ago that was published In The Words of Womyn International 2016 Anthology.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Stop and Go

On the drive up the coast
I pass through Vista del Mar
with the Pacific Ocean
on my left.
This morning it looks like silver glass.
I get on the 405 chugging along
through the construction at Sunset
the Getty, Skirball and the depths of
the San Fernando Valley.
It is alternating stop and go
with bursts of 80 mile an hour straight-aways.
My mind wanders, not paying enough
attention to my audio book,
Mary Coin, about that
iconic Oakie lady,
gaunt and gray,
taking a sit-down
by the side of the road
while photographed
by my favorite Dorothea Lange
But this is fiction.
No one knows the real Mary,
or even if her name was Mary.
I keep going,
moving my feet about the floor
one pushing down on the pedal
the other pumping in and out
trying to soothe the vague pain
in my left calf.
I press my hands on the ceiling
one after the other
but my car has no room
for a full stretch.
Once I pass Santa Barbara
the hills are vast with mustard,
the sky stormy,
overcast with lingering clouds.
I turn off the radio
relish the silence
of driving alone thinking
about getting to Big Sur,
my calming and writing place
and try to forget last week.
I had a blood clot ruled out.
The same day my husband had
carpel tunnel surgery.
The next, a seven-foot hole
that looked like a grave
was dug in my garden
to replace a broken pipe.
Saturday night I served dinner
for ten friends.
We ate sushi, tzatziki, chicken,
swordfish, and my mother’s peach ping recipe
made from this season’s sweetest fruit.
We talked about six degrees of separation,
who do you know,
what a small world this is
while I tried desperately
not to think of Cynthia’s
recurring cancer,
her sad, scared eyes,
gazing at the white lilies
adorning the table,
her thin body looking thinner yet
in all black,
as I hope someone
somewhere will find
her a miracle cure.

Pablo Neruda

Ode: This is a genre that I’ve hardly used, but as a result of this craft talk I had a lot of fun with it.

An ode is a praise poem that could be sung or chanted. I’ve always liked Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but now that I’ve become familiar with Neruda’s odes to ordinary things, that’s what I’ll strive to do. Some things to think about when writing an ode are:

  • Be specific in detail and description
  • Look, listen
  • Don’t assume you know what something is like
  • Try to be accurate
  • Beware of abstract language
  • Try to enact rather than report (the usual – show, don’t tell)
  • Write about a thing rather than an idea
  • It has the qualities of a list poem

Here’s an ode by Ellen Bass.

Ode to the Pork Chop

As oil blisters in the cast iron pan, my dog does
adoring prostrations at my feet and the pale pink chops
with their arc of rib and ribbon of fat lie innocently
on the white bone china we bought at Macy’s
when Janet asked the salesclerk what kind of bones
the dishes were made from and the woman confessed
she had no idea, though surely they were crushed
from sorrowful creatures. Everything you do will cause
harm, so I start forgiving myself now. But this
pig was a happy pig and his death, though death, was
a good death. I’ve boiled up his vertebrae, femurs
and fibulae, his head and his hocks
and now the stock is cooling, the creamy lard rising
to the top like a thick slab of heaven. When these
choice cuts hit the skillet, the hiss and spit is
a lullaby that’s soothed homo sapiens
since the discovery of fire. And lured the dogs
into the circle, shoulders hunched toward the flames.
As meat sears and butter bubbles,
I’m carried back to a time when this scent
meant survival–we’d see
another day. That deep craving for grease
that’s stuffed into every cell of our bodies,
that sizzling smell that tells us
all will be well, we’ll be fat enough to release
an egg, to suckle a baby. With all its
murder and mayhem, life will go on.

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