Sunday, September 15, 2013

What I Learned Teaching at Poets on the Coast

Last week, Susan Rich & I spent a four nights and five days on the Oregon Coast working with other women poets.

As the weekend came to an end, I felt fulfilled and inspired by poets I've met and their stories.  I felt good for being part of the literary community.  And now that things are settling down (though I have still yet to unpack), here are a few things I learned at this writing conference.

1)  The Right People Will Come:  
I have always believed this.  In regards to poetry readings and writing conferences or residencies, you will meet someone you needed to meet.  Someone will offer you something and you will offer someone else something.

I told a sorry at one of the sessions about how the famous poet, major-prize winning judge of the book contest I won suggested I remove a poem about my father's death.

I wanted to please this judge because I was a fan of his work, but ultimately, I felt strongly about this poem and decided to speak up saying, "I've thought about your suggestion and I really don't feel comfortable removing this poem from my collection."

The famous poet judge told me, "Then you need to keep it in.  Follow your instincts."

At last week's retreat, one of the women heard me tell that story.  She came to me later and said, "I know that poem, it is my favorite poem of everything you have written.  I've read it to my husband. We were both moved by that poem and I am so glad you left it in."

When she told me this, I felt as if I had specifically left that poem in for her.  And so touched that she shared her story.

We write because the right people need to hear our stories.
When we all gather in a group, there are deeper ways we are connected.  Listen to others and share your stories.  The more you connect with each other, the more you'll see why you have each arrived at this place at this very moment.

2)  Always Welcome All Levels of Writers and You Don't Feel You Have to Apologize if You're a Beginner:

Beginners come to the group fresh and can call shenanigans on anything that is weird or funky in the Po'Biz.

Well-established poets can help new writers learn to write better.
New writers can offer fresh perspectives on established writers.

Everyone has knowledge from other fields which can be beneficial.

Never apologize for learning or wanting to learn.

3)  Sit by Someone New & Skip the Small Talk:

I'm a routine girl. Once I find a place to sit, it's mine to keep (or so I feel).

One way I stretch myself when teaching or attending a poetry conference is to make sure to sit by different people.  Plus, because I am horrible at small talk, I go right to the heart of things-- What are you working on?  is a favorite question of mine.

At dinner, I asked, "What is something no one would ever guess or know about you?"  To get the conversation going and we had amazing discussions from being a Republican in college to wearing Whoopi Goldberg's shoes to meeting Elvis Costello to photographing the LA riots.

I learned the most interesting things about these women in 90 minutes without having to say, "Yes, the weather has been amazing."

4)  Write.  Take Time For Yourself:

When teaching at a conference, I usually can't write.  But this weekend, I was able to.

I took notes from what I heard the receptionist saying, "Yes, Melville is free Wednesday night" to random phrases from a poet's writing exercise, "buckets of condoms."  In words I sketched the Pacific. I let my surroundings inform my poems.

You don't need a huge amount of time to begin a poem.  Take 20 minutes and begin a poem.  Wake up early, stay up late.  Just give yourself these moments.

5)  Crying is Good:

Crying during and after a writing residency is good.  It means you are getting the toxins out of your body and moving forward.  You are letting something go.  You are experiencing being a human.

Don't *ever* be embarrassed for feeling. Or for crying.
Be embarrassed if you don't feel or you judge someone for crying.

Be the sacred witness.  Be the heart that tells the woman who is breaking down that you are here for her.  Be the hand on her shoulder or the note you had to her later in the day that says, "Let me know if you need anything or if I can help you."

6)  Try to Keep Your "Retreat Mind" When You Return & Settle Back in Slowly as Much as Possible:

I have come sliding into home like a wonky rocket--covered in dirt, dress above my head, eyes spinning, and papers flying.  Welcome home, mom.

This is not the way to do it.

Tell (warn) your family members, you may be a little vulnerable.  Ask for what you need--a clean living room?  No dishes in the sink?  2 hours of quiet time?  Ice cream in the freezer?

Returning is hard.  Find a buddy from the retreat or conference to stay in touch with.  Reconnect with the other writers.

Try to keep all the goals you learned during your time away--to write more, to stay offline, to keep your phone at home, to sit in quiet, to observe more, to write in your notebook, to submit your work.

Understand, it may be hard.  You may resent your friends, family, job, or anything you feel takes you away from writing.  This doesn't make you evil or selfish, it makes you an artist.

Make sure you get time for yourself to write.

Return to the regular world slowly and look at your life with fresh eyes, knowing you are more connected with other writers and no one can ever take that experience away from you.

Now write...

~ Kells

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  1. I haven't given myself a writing retreat yet. I intend to now. Yes.


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