Do-It-Yourself Writing Retreat
Three of my favorite poet friends and I got together on Saturday to have our own writing retreat to generate new work. We arrived at my friend's house at 9 am, our arms filled with books, food, blankets, pillows, paper, pens, notebooks, slippers, and laptops.
The first half-hour was basically setting up, eating, talking, finding our space, and making garlic & cheese muffins. We found our spaces, two poets on the couch, one on the love seat, and me in the rocker (I usually sit here during our poetry workshops too, so it's a comfortable and usual place for me).
J passed out 4 small slips of paper to use and we were to write an evocative image or line. Some came quickly to me, others I took from books I had piled around my chair. These were our warm-up exercises.
For these exercises, one person chose a slip of paper from the bowl, read it, then said how much time we'd write on it. Since these were warm-ups, we said mostly 3 minutes and 4 minutes, just to wake us up.
After we'd write, we'd go around and you could read what you wrote or say "pass." I know I said "Pass" on the first two, but read another.
We did two more writing exercises that I brought on "How To" do something, one that took phrases we had written and mixed them up, and one where we opened fortune cookies and wrote a poem inspired by or that incorporated the fortune. Then we took our first break.
To be honest, I was eating my way through the exercises, completely hooked on the trail mix and blueberries.
On this first break, we had a snack and did some yoga stretches together. We all felt great and inspired about what we had done so far. Basically, we knew the rest of the day was just extra because we had all written something we were excited about revising later.
After lunch we pulled an I-Ching card and did an exercise inspired by that and some interesting objects that J had brought.
We also did 2 exercises where we would write and someone would say a word from a list of words we had created from books of poems. J & I each chose 5 words each from our chosen book of poems and R & A chose 5 words each from their chosen book of poems.
We put these words in a bowl then started with a phrase, our was something like "...years above the dizzying bridge..." from a Madeline DeFrees poem. We would freewrite then every 30-90 seconds, one person would draw a word from the bowl and we'd have to incorporate it into our poem. This makes you add things into your work that you might not add and stretches your brain. It's very hard to write the cliche poem if you're writing about flying and someone gives you the word "marsupial." It takes your poem to surprising places. (This is our group's favorite exercise at the moment.)
After that we had another break then went to the beach for a quick walk where we saw the local heron and just enjoyed the sun. R has a photo of this that I will post later when I receive it.
We came back and did one more longer exercise that required us to make a list of words from our past, present and future. While this exercise produced a poem I'm going to continue to work with, it was pretty difficult coming up with words and phrases pre-poem at the end of the day.
We did 2 quick anagram poems after that based on poems by Kevin Young where the title of poem is a word (say Believer) and the end of each line is a word made up from letters in the title (i.e. ever, lie, bee, relive, vile, etc). This is another favorite exercise by our group because you cannot help but get music into your poem when you are using words all created from the same source.
After that, we had more snacks, a glass of red wine, and then cleaned up and while one of then went on to a scotch-tasting event, the rest of us went home and to bed. I was asleep by 8:30 pm. Very tired, but very inspired as well. We will definitely do it again.
Some notes we came up with how to make this better--
Do the longer assignments earlier in the day.
If you need to generate material to do a poem (say a word list, images from childhood, etc.) do this BEFORE you get there.
Have assignments for the end of the day that have more structure so when your brain conks out, you still have something to draw from.
Other notes from me--
I think one of the main keys is success in these retreats is to keep an open mind. We each brought new exercises, some we'd never tried before. We did not know if they would work or what would happen. Some exercises produced fantastic first drafts for all of us that we will continue to work on, others fell flat. We did not base our success on what we had written, but on the fact that we had tried something new and were all there together.
You need to do these retreats with writers you feel close with or would feel comfortable spending 9 hours of intense writing with. Also, do this with writers that are open to new things and will try anything. We have a very positive group of poets so even when things didn't turn out so well, someone always found a positive which I appreciated.
Also, having a lot of different, easy to reach snacks is important. As is lots of water. And lots of books to reach for when your words aren't quite coming. Reading a poem can inspire you quickly. Always bring your favorite poets with you in book form, they are your mentors at these retreats.
Find a place where there isn't a lot going on that day. A's house was perfect because it's cozy, comfortable, and quiet. We all feel comfortable there as we've spent so much time there as a group.
If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask. It was something we've always wanted to do and it was truly a great way to spend an afternoon. We created so much.