ASK A SHORTLISTER: Writing lessons

We asked the poets shortlisted for our 2019 Book Awards some questions about their writing lives, inspirations and -of course – poetry. Join us for our weekly series Ask a Shortlister until the winners are announced on June 8, 2019.

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What lesson that you learned through a creative writing course/workshop/lecture sticks with you most presently?

 

Tanis Franco: While doing my BA at York University, Richard Teleky said to memorize the poems you don’t understand. I also remember Priscila Uppal’s generosity, warmth, encouragement, and thoughtfulness that she brought to every workshop. 

 

Mikko Harvey: Once in poetry workshop Henri Cole drew two diagrams on the chalkboard, one representing narrative poetry and one representing lyric poetry. The narrative diagram consisted of several horizontal lines, like this: 

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The lyric diagram consisted of a circle with several lines shooting out from it, like how a child draws a sun. I still think about those two diagramsthink I disagree with them, but the disagreement feels somehow textured and good. 

I also think fairly often of a marine biology lecture I once attended, where I learned that humpback whales have a music culture not unlike human music culture, in terms of how new songs spread across the ocean, become popular and fade season by season, get remixed by other whales, etc. 

 

 

Jenny Haysom: When I was an undergraduate student, I was mentored by Steven Heighton (who had a stint as writer-in-residence at St. Marys University). I still remember how much I learned during our first meeting; he sat down with me for about an hour and showed me how to make effective line breaks, use enjambment, and generally improve the flow of words on the page. It was a simple, hands-on lesson that stuck. 

 

Stevie Howell: Nick Flynn saying he was once told, about poems in a somewhat themed manuscript: “you’ve got to find other ways up the mountain.”
Shane McCrae saying: “‘it was’ & ‘there was’ are bad constructions.”
Ocean Vuong saying “every poem in a book is a line in the poem of the book.”
Sharon Olds saying: “kiss yourself on your wrist,” & “get weirder.” 

 

Jim Nason: Many years ago I read Millicent Dillon’s A Little Original Sin: The Life Work of Jane Bowles. That biography reinforced my desire to live a writer’s lifealso love John Ashbery’s use of language.  His Self Portrait In A Convex Mirror has inspired me to write many, many poemsAlthough I tend to be social, I value my solitude as well. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude are books I read early in my writing career. They’re both very fine books bursting with heart and insight

 

 

 

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Hear more from our 2019 Shortlisters here.