Saturday, July 18, 2015

Dispatches from the 2015 West Virginia Writers’ Workshop: Day Two

For our second day of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, the writers began with a continental breakfast in the Stalnaker Hall piano lounge, and then convened at nine for a craft talk with Joanne Veal Gabbin called: "Seeding the Future of African-American Poetry." Joanne is a professor at James Madison University, specializing in African-American poetry, and she was the perfect presenter this morning, because she got our brains working, and kept us interested in her topic with her warmth, intelligence, and humor. You can tell that Joanne is a teacher and that she enjoys her subject, because we were answering her questions immediately, and she really wanted our responses!  She concluded with a DVD for us to watch about James Madison University’s work with African-American poetry out of the Furious Flower Poetry Center. I also loved getting Joanne’s husband’s input, because he’s an accountant, and he told the room, “You write because accountants need to read!” Truer words never have been spoken. Mark suggested we get that printed on a t-shirt or something. :-) It was a really great morning craft talk.

After a brief coffee break, David Hassler began his craft-talk: “Spinning Straw Into Gold: Making Threads of Meaning.” We all know the tale of Rumplestiltskin, where the fair maiden has the little dwarf spin straw into gold, and then the dwarf has the maiden on the hook to steal her firstborn child until she can guess his name. David believes that these folktales are powerful in our lives, helping us to transform the “straw” we experience (what troubles us, and what obstacles we might face) into gold, or into meaning. He talked about the death of his mother when he was a boy, and how that was repressed until his mid-twenties, when his absent mother became an overwhelming presence in his life (the way that the dead mother is such a presence in folklore and fairy tales). David traveled to Asia, where he paralleled the image of his twelve-year-old-attempts at unicycling at the time of his mother’s funeral, into understanding Asian mantras and prayer wheels.  So he saw the wheel of the unicycle as a potent location for meaning, or in his mind, the “gold” from the "straw."  The real work of the imagination for David is building these gold threads of meaning. It was a lovely and truly poignant craft talk, and David was then kind enough to give us some time for writing with his brief writing prompt, where we wrote metaphors to “bless” parts of our bodies. He read an example written by some twelfth-graders, who, “bless the heart, that beats even when it is broken,” and "bless the bellybutton, the scar of love.” Though obviously it’s tough to follow acts like that, we all set out to write our little pieces, and then shared them as a sort of call-and-response choral poem. I could tell that everyone really had a great time working with David this morning.  

After lunching independently, Workshoppers gathered for a real treat, because John Hoppenthaler is back in town! John is such a great writer, it was a great turnout for this afternoon reading. Probably because John knows everyone here in Morgantown (and specifically in Colson Hall) and most likely he invited them on Facebook.  All month long, John has been following the Workshop Facebook fan page very closely, and helping me hype the Workshop up.  I am in John’s debt for his kindness, and his generosity when he is sharing all of his writerly clout with us. John loves our Workshop very much, which clear in his reading, as he interlaced his poems with musings on his time working for Toni Morrison, failed camping trips, (with successful drinking components), adorable dogs, and West Virginia. As he ended one of his poems, “And yes, I’ve got on John Denver, and it’s West by God Heaven.” Thank you John, for giving us your best, the way you always do. And Tenants, be sure to pick up John’s newest book: Domestic Garden, out of Carnegie Mellon.  

The next reader this afternoon was Colson’s own Kevin Oderman, and that was really exciting for our Workshop as well! I love Kevin’s quiet, frank voice, and it actually complemented John’s work in a really cool way. There’s something very elegant about Kevin’s writing that is incredibly appealing.  He’s also very well-traveled, and talking about his travels in his work from his forthcoming book showed the audience how smart he is when he puts the pen to the page.  I had never heard Kevin read before, believe it or not, and I really loved it. Towards the end, Kevin ended up paralleling David’s craft talk a bit, when he alluded to Asian art and mythology. I love when that happens at a workshop; two writers have work that intertwines together so gracefully, even when it might not be intentional. Be sure to pick up Kevin’s latest: Cannot Stay out of Etruscan Press, and read more about his travels!

Some of our MFA students provided us with light refreshments after the reading, and then it was off to the evening workshops with Mark, Renee, Erin, and Rebecca. And you know that these four aren’t just running workshops each evening, either. This weekend, our writers have a chance to meet one on one with their writing instructors, to read through their comments, and talk about craft. I saw our writers in their one-on-ones throughout the day, peeling off from our craft talks to meet with their instructors. Our Workshop writing instructors go above and beyond to advise and counsel the Workshoppers each year, and every year I know how much the writers appreciate the extra time and effort they put in.  

After dinner the Workshoppers convened in Colson 130 for our night reading, this evening starring David Hassler and our own Mark Brazaitis.  David is the Director of the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University, as well as the author of two books of poetry and several works in other genres. He had already proved during his morning craft talk that he was a brilliant writer who cares about the “big stuff.” His obsessions with the primal, archetypal, mythic and epic were apparent this evening as well, as he mused on fatherhood, the loss of his mother, fairy tales, traveling in Asia, and the world at large in his essays and poems. He quoted from the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales, and the children’s book The Dancing Man by Ruth Bornstein. Dave read so sweetly and tenderly about his family, and his reflections on those images of them that still move him to this day. It was a gorgeous representation of his writing, and you could see that the audience was really touched by his work.

Mark read next, keeping with the theme of fairy tales as he recounted a story of his time in Guatemala, coupled with some devastating reflections on his experiences there, before he moved to the biting humor (and a self-satisfied smirk) of “Prince Charming’s Confession” poem. But by far the funniest piece that Mark read aloud was about the little lies we tell in social situations regarding pregnancy and childbearing. Or the really big lies. You know the kind: the ones that might involve threesomes with identical triplets, or turkey basters... 

...I love these nighttime readings so much, I can’t even tell you.  But the turnout was fabulous today for all of our readings and craft talks, and you could tell that everyone was having a great time. It was a great day to be Workshopping here in John Hoppenthaler's West-By-God-Heaven.

Stop by Colson 130 tomorrow, Tenants, for readings by all of our high school Workshoppers, our chair Jim Harms, and Paula McLain: the author of The Paris Wife. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We'll see you tomorrow! 


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