Writer’s Dialogue: ASU Writers’ Share Poetry Tips with Young Poets

posted by pooja das sarkar and bishan samaddar

From January 11th to 13th, our literary friends and allies from Arizona State University’s Graduate Creative Writing program came for a visit to Kolkata to converse, dialogue and work on poetry with Kalam. Here’s what happened:

On January 12 at the Kalam workshop studio, writers and mentors from ASU (Professor Melissa Pritchard and her group of graduate students – which included Darcy Courteau, Aimee Baker, Max Doty, Tina Hammerton and Michael Green) engaged in a casual dialogue with youth poets who are active in Kalam. Of course this was a bilingual conversation – with ASU folks speaking in English, Youth Poets in Bangla, and Bishan and me mediating between both linguistic worlds.

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There were about six youth from the youth staff at Kalam who attended the informal interaction. This included Bina, Saraswati, Nargis, Bobby, Chandra and Rina. Among them Bobby and Nargis had queries about the craft of revision and the use of sexual content whereas Rina and Chandra were more interested about the protection of identities of a particular person in a poem.The organic dialogue thematically revolved around the Craft of Poetry. Prominent themes of the conversation were: 1) Revision 2) Protection of Identities in Poetryand 3) Sexual Content.

Interested? Take a look at our conversations:

Q. What does one do to revise poetry?

Tina had a lot to say regarding this point since she was a poet herself and had conducted workshops of poetry earlier. Some of the points she made were:

i) The first thing one can do is to take out the extra articles that one tends to use in a poem. According to her, the poem is a condense package of images which is diffused by the extra use of articles like a, an and the. She also resists the excessive use of “I” in the poems. In this way the images are more compressed and hence more effective.

ii) Second is being cautious about the line breaks – is there a reason why you chose to go to the next line – is the choice based on meaning or is it based on visuals. It should not be only because it looks good.

iii) The third point she made was to also check whether the poet has written past the poem or has written a pre-poem. This meant to be aware of the actual content of the poem as opposed to the extraneous matters that one writes to either start or end the poem.

Darcy: after some days of writing a poem I go back to it to check the truth content of the poem. I check the core emotions and the truth that the poem is meant to convey and also am conscious of not falling in love with my own language while writing. Maintaining a distance from one’s style to filter the truth of the poem is also very important.

Melissa: Another way of revising your poem is simply reading it aloud to yourself a number of times – that way you will know what sounds good and which words are extraneous.

Q. How does one come out from the rut of using the same words in almost every poem

Aimee – take something you’ve never described before and try describing it.

Melissa – Try to develop a new vocabulary by reading a lot of poets – poetry by peers is very much required as well as reading poetry of those whose sensibility matches with yours. Immerse yourself in poets and read everything! I read everything from the cookbooks to the sports pages. Newspapers also provide new and interesting words/situations.

Q. How does one use material from one’s life and yet not reveal identities of the people involved?

Tina: Try to use the qualities of the person but in a totally different of imaginary setting; stay away from the narrative format and use images instead. It is the essence of the person that you want to write about – so what you can do is to maintain the emotional integrity of the person/relationship that you want to portray and leave out the particulars involved.

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Melissa: You could also try to disguise the outer self of the person you want to write about. The outer self could be the exact opposite of the person to throw the readers off track but the inner details could remain nonetheless.

Q. How do we handle the sexual content of a poem that we see renowned authors do so openly? Sometimes we are vulnerable to ridicule by our peers when we read it in public.

Michael: there’s no easy way around it. We are still struggling and trying to find a way to do it right. But if it is a question of being ridiculed, one should just go ahead and write what they want to. Poets have to be courageous! They are the one to break the barriers of complacency so if you want to talk about sexuality, you should go ahead and talk about it. This will not only be a liberating process but also be a beginning of others’ being able to talk about things more openly once they see one doing it.

Bishan’s Impressions

Although all the ASU students and Melissa were a little tired by this time (second half of 12th Jan), and for good reason (most of them had been indisposed at various stages during the trip and yet they had taken a couple of trips to the mind-numbing lanes of Kalighat), it was surely not felt as sparks of ideas flew when they met Kalam’s youth for a writing workshop.

Some of the Kalam writers, Nargis foremost among them, had already expressed a wish to talk about revision of composed poetry. And that is how the workshop began. Although everyone pitched in, Tina’s tips seemed very helpful for the youth. Tina is not only a devoted poet (whereas the others are more into fiction or creative non-fiction) but she has also had extensive experience of working with marginalized youth. So, here too she connected with the youth immediately. Kalam’s young folks were very forthcoming with their questions: especially Rina, Bobby and Nargis. And their queries raised questions central to creative writing: ‘How do you write about some specific person, and yet not reveal that to him/her?’, ‘If you write about a person and use methods to hide his/her personality, then is that a true portrait?’ ‘Can writing about sex become a gimmick?’

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The youth said the workshop was very valuable for them. Rina said she has been really inspired to write after many days, and promised that she would start working on a poem right away. Bobby and Nargis were also quite excited. Nargis said that she now had the courage to be more open and frank in her poems on ‘controversial’ subjects like physical love. Bobby said she would revise her half-written poems with new vigour. Bina stressed on the importance of such workshops every now and then. She also pointed out that local Bengali poets are not as helpful in guiding young writers like the Creative Writing graduates are. This, I feel, is a very important point made. Local poets and writers, since they have mostly not been trained in writing, are not aware of the methods and strategies of writing which are crucial tools for guiding young writers. This is why Kalam needs more help from the grad students or trained writers who are also into teaching writing to young people. [Direct results of the workshop were palpable in the next day’s Rooftop Poetry reading, where Bobby read a poem in which she had added overnight a few lines describing poetically an intense physical courtship between herself and her imagined lover. It was widely accepted as a very well-written poem].

The workshop went well, but there is one concern I would like to share. As the ASU folk were speaking in English, Pooja and I were translating their words into Bangla. But there were times when there were too many things being said in English and I could see the young Kalam writers getting a little zapped and feeling somewhat left out. Not everything was also being translated, and there were moments when it seemed we, Pooja and Bishan, as facilitators/translators, were too engaged in our own learning process, jumping from one subject to another without much explication to the Kalam youth. This should be worked upon (on the part of the facilitators/translators) and be eliminated in the future.

1 Response to “Writer’s Dialogue: ASU Writers’ Share Poetry Tips with Young Poets”


  1. 1 Tina Hammerton January 28, 2007 at 1:48 am

    I wanted to let everyone know how warm and welcomed I felt the moment I walked into the Kalam Workshop Studio. The words used above to describe the earlier part of our day, “mind-numbing”, were incredibly accurate–the haunting things I saw had shuffled my mind like a deck of cards. But the moment I saw the smiling faces of the students, all of them so excited and yet with a calming energy I can’t explain, it was like coming home. I guess because this is my favorite kind of workshop, where the students are not just here to learn writing–they’re here to live better lives. You can feel how hungry they are for more knowledge, that it isn’t just a fun puzzle they’re trying to work out and then put aside–that their poems are essential to the core of their development as human beings. This, I think, makes their questions seem more urgent…and that urgency somehow makes me want to give them the best answer I can find, one that comes from the heart and the brain combined. I could feel how that energy from the students spread around the room because all my friends from ASU who had been stumbling with exhaustion just minutes ago were listening and contributing with great care and attention. I can’t thank you all enough for organizing this event and for the privilege to meet such motivated, graceful, and talented young writers.


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