Notes from the Palm Beach Poetry Festival

This past January I had the good fortune of attending a poetry workshop with Linda Gregg at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in Delray Beach, Florida. 

I was excited to attend a workshop with Linda Gregg; before it began, I had a kind of expectation that something magical would happen. Of course, the reality of an event usually does not meet our preconceived notions.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.” –Lao Tzu

The magic has only recently begun to work in me, and it hasn’t been in the form of new poems. I have had to allow a bad cold and some low spirits to churn their way through my body and mind, but now, as I write these words, I’m beginning to feel like I can return to poetry and the magic I am experiencing in hindsight from Linda Gregg.

In an effort to share everything, to refrain from hoarding, I am giving you these notes I took during the workshop with Linda Gregg and also from the craft talks, interviews, and readings I attended. I haven’t framed these notes with any kind of commentary or explanations. If I have made a mistake in conveying Ms. Gregg’s ideas, these mistakes are my own.


Notes from Linda Gregg’s Workshop and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival

Some of the concerns of Jack Gilbert’s poems: Serious, delight, dearness, God, nature, spirit, sacred. Most of what LG says about craft and aesthetics comes from Jack Gilbert.

Some exercises:

  1. Read “Danse Russe” by William Carlos Williams in class and have the students answer the question “Is he happy?”
  2.  The building you’re in is on fire, and you won’t survive. You have fifteen minutes to write. You won’t survive, but somehow your writing will. Either give the time or act as if the person has only fifteen minutes. With this exercise you can’t be cute or funny. You have to take it seriously.
  3.  Cross-gender. Write a poem from the point of view of the opposite sex. Don’t use this poem as revenge. Imagine a situation and go deeply into it from the inside out.
  4.  “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It’s about thirteen ways the mind can see a single object. Every time you look at the thing you have to re-create what it is. LG gave the example of her art teacher telling her to paint the same lemons over and over, but every time she painted them she should re-invent what art is.
  5.  Archilocus: Look up some of the fragmentary poetry by Archilocus translated by Guy Davenport and finish the poems.
  6. Seeing six things. Make a list of six things that you see for a week. Then choose two and write a poem. See if the things have resonance. One might ask, why does it have resonance? Why does it matter? Think of Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” You wake up to your life.  We need to care how the reader experiences the poem–J. Gilbert did. The poem intuits how the reader will believe. Like “Danse Russe,” we believe in the images of the poem. Read “The Art of Finding.”
  7. Write a poem as an animal. She read her poem “The copperhead.” It’s not a Disney cartoon. Inhabit the animal from the inside. As Jack Gilbert said, “Dig deeper. Go deeper.”
  8.  Write about a question you can’t possibly answer, like “What is the face of God?” Write a poem you can’t write. Take on the impossible.
  9.  Live with a tarot card with a week and then write a poem about it.
  10.  Find a scene like a German matchbook toy and then read her poem “The Beckett Kit.” In this poem the speaker describes placing the objects in the toy kit on a table. Then the poem turns on her observations of the things she has heard outside the window. Describe the toy and then make observations.




Let the words mean what they mean, don’t turn them into plays on words. It gets to be too clever, distances the poem from what it wants to say. Stepping from stone to stone can be an adventure. Strategy can be fine, but use intuition also.  Try to stay in the poem, not talk about the poem. She suggested reading Keats’s last poem to Fanny Brawne as an example of staying in the poem.

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—

I hold it towards you.

–John Keats

Linda Gregg: “I sit down at night around 10:00 and ask the gods if they will help me with this. Or I walk up my father’s mountain if the poem doesn’t come. The brain doesn’t get to run the show, even though it’s there in the background.

Dismount: this is where the poem discovers something, usually at the end. If the poem is good, it knows where and when to end.

Read Selected DH Lawrence, edited by Kenneth Rex Reed. JG loved Lawrence and Thoreau. “The White Horse” by DH Lawrence. Lawrence didn’t revise his poems. He re-wrote them instead.

The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on

and the horse looks at him in silence.

They are so silent, they are in another world. –DH Lawrence

LG comes to the page in a prayerful state. Looks for the shapeliness of things. She told a story of Ezra Pound, about a cloth, a magnet, and metal shavings. If you put a cloth over a magnet and then sprinkle metal shavings on the cloth, the shavings will come together in the form of a rose.

The secret that no one knows about old people is that they are angry.

You have to be willing to give up your darlings.

Poems work on both horizontal and vertical planes. We have to be wiling to go deeper.

After you’ve written the poem, the poem has rights. Pay attention to what the poem says to you.

Keep the poem taut, like Ariadne’s thread.

Be careful with similes. We can let the image speak for itself.

LG is more intuitive, archetypal.  She gets the poem on the page all in one move. Jack Gilbert was more strategic. He would walk around all week with them poem in his head and then use strategy when he wrote it.

The poem is not the dream. It’s the relationship between the poet and the dream. She told us a dream she had once of her mother. In the dream, LG is outside the room where her mother is, and she hears terrible screams. Either the mother is being attacked by a terrible beast, and LG needs to save her, or the mother has turned into a beast and if Gregg goes in the room the mother will tear her apart. Her poem “There She Is” came out of this dream.

If there’s no magic in a poem it’s probably not a poem. Magic changes one thing into something else. Think of Wakan Tanka. Doing the impossible. Take on a large subject. The brain will start to stutter [the mind will get out of the way and the self will rise].

“All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any ridin’ done?” Bob Dylan song.

Messages are not poems. The magic is in the oblique telling. It can’t be done mechanically.

Writing is like a dreamcatcher: catching what is inside of you and putting it on the page. What does the poem want us to believe?

LG: “ I write plain because I want my poetry to live as long as Sappho’s”

Don’t make the reader do too much guesswork.

She compares her poems to Michelangelo’s sculpture. He wanted to make sculptures that could roll down a flight of stairs and nothing would break off.

What we need to do is find our poetry and just write it.

A poem is a boat and it’s only supposed to carry what can fit in one boat. Use economy of language.

Essays by Jack Gilbert, From 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate: “Real Nouns” and “The Craft of the Invisible.”


Notes from interview with Natasha Trethewey

Turning hurt into poetry.

“Calling”: I have to have a particular vision for what I want to write. Social Justice is important. Biblical verses that hold secular meaning.

Let the seams show in the poem, leave the meta-poetic in the poem, the why I am writing the poem.

Our quarrel with others is rhetoric. Our quarrel with ourselves is poetry–Yeats.

It’s not just about what literally happened but what we make of it.

To write is to re-create the truth, to establish it. What is true is the mind at this moment needing to make sense of the past. Mark Doty suggests that we begin to describe before making figurative sense of what we make of the description (she’s talking about her ekphrastic poems in Thrall).

Going back to a past that never really existed at all.

Flannery O’Connor: You can’t go home again because you have changed.

Language in the service of social justice: Josephine Jacobson, Jeff Brown–poetry dealing with social issues.


Notes from Tim Siebles’s craft talk:

Nobody writes poetry so that no one will listen.

Poetry and metaphor create the kind of life that pushes back the shadows of distraction. Poetry allows us to see magic in action. It wakes us up out of our stupor. 

AWP Recap

I’m one of the 10,000 plus who descended upon Seattle and the Washington State Convention Center for AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. And here I am back at home, thank God, but in bed with a terrible cold.

The best part of going to Seattle was seeing my friends and getting to explore a new city with them. It’s ironic that the majority of folks I spoke to at the conference are writer friends who live in Atlanta, people I could see almost any time, except for two who now live in Colorado and Tennessee, respectively.

Coming home with a cold has clouded my view of the whole event. What stands out about the conference are the rows of very similar tables and booths at the book fair, the very similar journals that publish very similar poems, the masses of writers churning up the four levels of escalators, lines for the the public bathrooms, and all those hands touching the railings. I must have touched the wrong railing.

But wait. I AM letting the cold spoil my memories. There was the very pleasant experience of meeting the editor of Pilgrimage, a beautiful magazine from Colorado State. And then there was the sip of Wild Turkey at the excellent Birmingham Poetry Review table. District Lit represented, without the backup budget of a university to foot the bill, as did Sundog Lit.

I had a nice chat with the managing editor of the New England Review, a fellow Middlebury alumna (I’m from the Language Schools, not quite as Midd as the four-year undergrads).

And I got to meet for the second time the wonderful and talented Anya Silver, who signed my copy of her latest collection, I Watched You Disappear. More on this moving and powerful book in another post.

Of the hundreds of panels and readings I only attended two, but they were both superb. One was a panel of poets whose work is included in the anthology of devotional poetry, Before the Door of God, which is now on my to-read list. Mary Szybist read a poem about her mother that had everyone weeping. I was looking forward to hearing her since I had recently read her book Incarnadine, winner of the 2013 National Book Award in poetry. She read like an angel, as if she were transmitting the voice of Mary herself.

The other panel I attended was a moving tribute to poet, essayist, and literary entrepreneur Kurt Brown. His wife, poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, read one of Kurt Brown’s final poems, a short lyric about his last kiss that he never gave her, that is still inside of him. We were all wiping our eyes.

I was in Seattle only two and a half days, not even enough time to adjust to the time change between the Pacific Northwest and Atlanta. So I am grateful for the chance to have run around the city with my friends, to have seen Pike Place Market, and to get to know a few new journals. I don’t know if I will attend the conference next year, though. I might prefer a writers’ festival of no more than a few hundred. Maybe a retreat is more what I need.

Thoughts about Meditating and a Haiku

Sitting on a bolster

Eyes downcast, thoughts turned inward

Ice reflects on walls

When I meditated today, I thought about what I would write for this day’s mindfulness writing challenge. But I need to forget about writing when I sit to meditate.

My imagination is another distraction I don’t need to add to my deck of wandering thought-cards.  Thinking about what I will write is delightful and entertaining, but I want to focus on the breath, on the happiness I feel having, for the length of one breath, nowhere to go, no one to talk to, nothing to do.

Mindfulness Writing Challenge, Day 29, Writing Our Way Home. 


End of the Day Haiku

In the sink, broken glass

We each pick up the pieces

No one cuts a finger 


Mindfulness Writing Day 27, Writing Our Way Home


Today I read poet Jane Hirshfield’s The Heart of Haiku. In this wonderful essay, Hirshfield explains some of Basho’s life story, traces the history of haiku, and then offers translations and interpretations of some of Basho’s poignant and deeply mindful verse. A practicing Buddhist, Jane Hirshfield has insight that allows her to shed light on Basho’s poetry for those who are unfamiliar with Japanese culture and Eastern philosophy. 

Another short article well worth the time is Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “More than the Birds, Bees, and Trees: A Closer Look at Writing Haibun.” She emphasizes the importance of cultivating aware, “the quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy.”

Jane Hirshfield also mentions this important aspect of haiku and how it was Basho who encouraged his students “to feel sabi.” She goes on to explain that “to feel sabi is to feel keenly one’s own sharp and particular existence amid its own impermanence.” 

Daily mindfulness writing and writing small stones are a beautiful way to feel sabi and to cultivate aware in poetry and in life. 

Indoor Swimming in January

If you close your eyes and focus on the space between your eyebrows, a white light will appear. Sometimes the light will crystalize into a sphere lined with purple. Some longtime meditators who maintain focus will even see a white lotus lined with purple. I have only seen the sphere, sometimes called the pearl.

Today swimming laps the sun spills into the pool through the glass wall. On the other side of the wall is a stand of very tall pine trees. Beyond the trees, a robin’s egg blue sky and a single cloud.

I focus on the breath, sometimes kicking a little harder to increase the amount of air I need to take into my lungs. I don’t try to go too fast, just fast enough so that my mind stays focused on the sensations of swimming–my shadow swimming with me along the bottom of the pool, the shaft of light I swim through each time I reach the deep end, the axle of my shoulders as my arms arc up and down, scooping the water, driving the rest of my body forward through the water.

There is no rush, just back and forth through the water from one side of the pool to the other, pushing gently with my feet  off the side  of the pool to propel myself back into the lane. Nowhere to get to, no goal other than to breathe, glide, and enjoy those moments at the far end when the sun shines on my face.

Maybe it’s the memory of the sun that allows us to see the pearl in the mind space when our eyes are closed. Even when we’re in the dark the light exists.

Mindfulness writing, Day 17, Writing Our Way Home.