Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Writers' Circle

With the first full week of the spring semester finished, I find myself re-tracing a familiar circle, once more encountering some of the same issues raised by members of my creative writing classes every semester. Already, a couple of the students have approached me with doubt and conflicted emotions about whether or not they belong in such a course.

In the Introduction to Creative Writing course, the questioning usually comes from a young writer who has never shared his or her work with anyone else, and anxiety arises when workshop meetings are mentioned in the class syllabus or explained during the opening meeting. As always, I try to express my sympathy for their situation, understanding the vulnerability beginning writers feel, and I offer reassurance that those workshop sessions will not be as painful or embarrassing as one might imagine at first. In fact, I attempt to convince the concerned young authors that all of them are in a similar position, and the tone of conversations in the circular setting of the workshop, even those containing critical commentary, continually will be conducted in a constructive and supportive manner.

Similarly, sometimes a student eligible for enrollment in a more advanced creative writing course as an enjoyable elective—an option available in the college catalog and a selection especially popular among seniors majoring in a science who wish to explore the more creative side of their nature once before graduation—will seek to speak with me after a few class meetings to express reservations concerning his or her decision and wondering whether it would be advisable to withdraw from the course.

Usually, the student appears troubled by the high level of discussion about composition or seemingly strong knowledge of contemporary literature and writing techniques revealed by a few fellow classmates who are majors in creative writing or English. Again, after a conference with the student I normally discover any hesitation about taking the class is not truly warranted and, in most cases, the student eventually uses the knowledge and contributions by others in class discussions as invitations to investigate new works and previously unfamiliar writers on his or her own, leading to greater enrichment as a reader and as an author.

Certainly, as I addressed recently in a previous post on creative writing instruction, the goals for most undergraduate participants in workshops do not include initiating a career as a creative writer. Even the students who major or minor in creative writing often pursue a second major as well, combining writing with another area that might more likely provide a career path. Indeed, this need for a blending of studies even occurs at times on the graduate level, as I notice the Hamline University School of Law now offers a joint JD/MFA in creative writing.

Nevertheless, I understand the sense of uncertainty and natural nervousness displayed by beginning writers when they realize others will be responding to their work, particularly when sitting face-to-face in a circle during workshop situations. Fortunately, my many years of experience witnessing these feelings of anxiety among students have allowed me to demonstrate an authentic faith in their abilities and instill a confidence all will be well in the end. As I remark repeatedly in the opening week of classes, by the time the semester ends, I can almost guarantee the young writers will not only become comfortable sharing and discussing their work with one another, they also will band together, develop a bond as a group—even when engaged in friendly competition and contesting or challenging stylistic options—that urges each member to become a better writer, as well as encouraging one another to respond to literature with more perceptive readings.

To offer evidence I merely need to recall past classes where students who have had doubts later created wonderful work about which they could be proud. In fact, some students who had at first voiced their unease eventually delivered some of the finest contributions to class and surprised themselves. For example, one former student who had never written a short story before entering my fiction-writing course, and had asked after the first week whether she should drop the course, is currently negotiating publication of her third novel.

In this past fall my poetry writing class consisted of a few students who seemed to need reassurance, including a couple that considered dropping the course early in the semester. However, just as I had advised them, all the class members found themselves bonding and gaining strength from one another, especially when discussing their poems in workshop or through email correspondence on the class discussion board. A few students who had never shared their written work with others were soon relying on one another for assistance and assurance, and I was pleased to see the quality of the class writing grew immensely as the semester progressed.

I reminded them that writers frequently resort to their peers as trusted first readers of their work, and the classroom workshop circle in its minor manner resembled famous gatherings of writers over time, such as those who once clustered in Paris cafés or New York taverns, or the individuals who met regularly around the famous round table at the Algonquin Hotel, as pictured in the accompanying painting—writers’ circles. Perhaps circles also serve as an apt symbolism in this post, acting almost as a reflection of the cyclical pattern of teaching every school year, leading students gradually toward more confidence one semester, then starting the process over in the first weeks of the following semester.

In addition to anxiety about sharing their work with one another in workshops, every term my poetry-writing students also must confront a fear of public presentation, since they are required to participate in a formal reading of their work at the semester’s end. The annual reading is open to all on campus and in the community, where it is promoted in advance, and held in the magnificent setting of the university art museum’s main gallery. These readings are always well attended, sometimes drawing an audience of more than one hundred listeners.

Last semester’s group presented their compelling and competently written poetry with an ever-emerging confidence, appearing to gather strength from one another. The various poems they offered from those they’d written throughout the semester—revised and edited after class workshops, commentary on the discussion board, office meetings with me, or private consultations with a classmate—proved to be graceful, polished, and often profound. The audience was attentive, engaged and entertained by the readers.

The variety of styles and subject matter was especially rewarding to me, as the students had struggled all semester to identify distinctive voices and illuminate important instances within their works. Most poems were written in free verse, but some students attempted the traditional forms of the sestina and the sonnet or wrote in syllabic lines.

Of course, there were poems about different variations on the theme of love and loss. One student wrote a haunting poem about a relationship in which the speaker declares in its opening lines: “I haven’t died / though you leave / all of me untouched, / our bedroom door closed, / only ghosts dare / carry one another / across the threshold.” A second offered a comically offbeat and satirical view of love through allusions to Looney Tunes characters: “Porky Pig has Petunia! Even a pudgy, / pink, sputtering pig finds love! I spit / and sputter too, much like Sylvester, / tongue-tied in your presence.” Another poet spoke of the temporality of life, and emphasized the necessity to appreciate what we have while we can, quirkily commanding: “Hold my hand while you still can, soon / we will be brains in jars, electric currents, flashing lights / with only our synapses to cuddle against.”

Two students examined dramatic scenes in moments of tragedy inspired by personal history. One wrote forcefully and poignantly of family members who had perished or survived in concentration camps during World War II: “crooked numbers, embedded in his wrist, / tell of Stefania dragged away to her death.” Another very powerfully chronicled an uncle killed while serving as a medic in the war zone, and subtly evoked emotion with directly blunt lines about the notification after his death: “Someone was calling / A list naming the lost.”

All the class members wrote wonderful ekphrastic poetry perfectly suited to the environment of the art museum. For instance, one chose to relate a task undertaken by Michelangelo: “close friends / nicknamed him Il Divino: / the Divine One rubbed shoulders / with angels, wrestled pale saints. / His brush wet with paint, he cursed / the scope of the Sistine vault, / the ache and whine of his spine— / he prayed for rasp and chisel.” Another poet imagined a story line for a pair of figures portrayed in a painting, a couple caught forever in a frozen moment as they were fishing from a rowboat: “Each morning, they bobbed in the old boat and watched / for nibbles on their long line. Bobby loved to smell her hair / when leaning in to help . . ..” A third poet chose to depict the puzzling figure in a more surrealistic artwork, beginning his poem: “I’ve watched your back retreating through the field, / and find myself unsure just what you are / here to do, or why you are trying to shield / your face when you are all alone, and far / from home.”

A number of the poems caught lovely natural images, as when one captured a scene in a snapshot: “She clicks her camera through a car window / and sees fir trees on the rocky shore, / dotted in dry, yellowed grass like rooted cows so thick / the only world beyond is the burning / blue sky and a smoky trail of stretched / cloud disappearing behind . . ..”

I thank my students for permitting me to quote very briefly from their poems, even though they did not know in what context the works would be cited. I am certain I’m unfairly excerpting bits and pieces from the poems, and these represent only a small sampling of the impressive output by the class during last semester; however, I hope to give a glimpse at the admirable results attained by these students, a few of whom questioned themselves and wondered to me at one point early on if they would be able to be “poetic” or expressed concern about being unsure they had anything significant to say. These questions would be answered by the students themselves, since they demonstrated by the end of the semester that their poems proved the reply to both comments is a positive response. They had participated in the workshop circle, developed their own circle of writers on whom they could depend, and they had completed the class cycle, moving from anxiety and doubt toward more self-assurance and a certain amount of faith in their own growing abilities as authors.

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