My life was changed by a writers’ conference I attended in 1985. I was three years removed from concentrating in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Writing poetry had been at the center of my life since junior high school, and despite working at boring jobs, living in tiny, crowded spaces, and receiving form rejections on the poems I sent out, I kept writing at the center of my life. When I shared a small studio, I spent hours writing in the walk-in closet, hunched over my notebook and manual typewriter among shoes, shirts, skirts and coats. I wrote at my job, too, hiding drafts under budget forms I was supposed to be filling out. I read poetry while walked to work, dodging cars as I turned pages, and I revised my poems endlessly, searching for something I knew was missing, some larger conception of poetry I couldn’t see.
I had been determined to make it as a poet on my own after college, without networking or workshops. But when I saw the ad for the Napa Valley Writers Conference, featuring several of my favorite American poets, I decided it was time to see what the poetry world I had shunned had to offer.
What I wanted, of course, was for my favorite poets to tell me how great my poetry was. That didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself one among many different kinds of writers. No longer my own private center of the poetry world, I was simultaneously chastened, challenged, and inspired. But what changed my life was a craft lecture by Robert Hass, one of the great theorists of contemporary American poetry.
Hass was speaking about the problem of form, a problem free-verse poets like me, who don’t follow established poetic forms, prefer not to talk about. According to Hass, form in all art, including free-verse poetry, is not a matter of counting syllables or arranging rhymes: form is the embodiment of the artist’s vision of existence. The forms in our work reflect our sense of whether life is whole or broken, comprehensible or mysterious, tragic or redemptive, overflowing with meaning or “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” When we work on form, Hass said, we are revising not the only the lines of individual poems but our own visions of existence. To write great poems, we – I – had to grow beyond our cramped visions of existence.
Hass’ words not only changed my relationship to writing, they changed my relationship to life. The conference ended almost three decades ago, but what I learned there still reverberates in every word I write.
About the Seminar on Jewish Story
On May 18 at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, Joy Ladin will read selections of her poetry and memoirs on two panels. This is a great opportunity to enjoy great literature and meet and learn from the people who write and edit it. Panels include:
- Jewish poetry
- Jewish memoir
- Jewish fiction
- Jewish children’s books
For more information, please see Seminar on Jewish Story or contact barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)com.