I’ve taken fiction and creative nonfiction workshops in the past, so I assumed a poetry workshop would be easy in comparison. No word count minimum for workshop pieces? Sweet. Shorter reading assignments and written responses? Sign me up.
Well, guys, I was wrong. Writing a good poem is really, really hard.
When I sat down to finalize my first workshop poem that was due the following evening, I began to feel that all-too-familiar wave of anxiety wash over me. For me, anxiety looks like sweaty palms, shortness of breath, and racing, repetitive thoughts. Thoughts like: You’re not good enough. This isn’t good enough.
This reaction surprised me. One of the things I usually feel the most confident in is my writing. Why was poetry so scary? I didn’t feel this amount of anxiety when writing longer pieces of fiction or nonfiction. Sure, there’s always a slight knot in the pit of my stomach when I write. I call it my Muse. It’s the little voice telling me whether or not an idea is exciting enough to make me feel nauseous. But, I’d never felt flat-out terrified to submit a piece for a workshop.
With great trepidation, I handed out my piece the next night to my classmates. Then I had to wait an entire week before it was read and discussed. That was a long week.
Over all, my workshop went well. Many of my classmates had kind and encouraging words to say. My professor—whom I love by the way—looked at it with a bit more critical eye. Which is what I expected. She told me that I– like many young poets– was hiding behind metaphors and similes instead of describing things truly. She directed me to the following quote by poet Linda Gregg:
“I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. […] To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing.” (source)
My professor was right, of course. And that’s why I find poetry so hard and downright scary. In long pieces (fiction or non), there’s space to hide. I have room for errors and meanderings. In poetry, every word holds such weight. I have to be brave and describe things truly.
Maybe I’ll practice describing unremarkable things. Maybe I’ll work on allowing myself to use my own words to describe my own experiences. Regardless, I was humbled by my first poetry writing experience. And, I think I’m going to learn a lot about myself as a poet and a human being by the time this class is finished.