Remembering the Banff Wired Writing Studio

I’m back after a long summer of working on poems for the book, copyediting, and migraines. It’s been a busy few months when I haven’t had as much time to write as I would wish, but then not many people can afford to work full-time at poetry.

It’s almost a year since I went to the Banff Wired Writing Program and, when I look back over the year, I am so grateful for all I learned from working with Don Domanski. And also, from being part of the community of writers. I feel fortunate to have attended the same year as so many talented and supportive people. We had a great time together, in person and online.

Two of the three poems that I have coming out in Descant soon were written as a result of working with Don. They show how he taught me to go deeper into each line, to not settle with a surface, however pretty.

He also taught me how to convey emotion. Look at these lines of his from ‘Riding the Train in Secret’ in All Our Wonder Unavenged, where he talks about taking train trips with his mother:

the town where we arrived was the same town where we left
except my father didn’t live there    never lived
or walked the street’s with harm’s custom
the accepted practice of removing warmth from language
There is such quiet power in these lines. Don doesn’t tell us how his narrator feels about his father. He allows his imagery to carry the emotion.

Reading back through my poetry file, I am glad Don taught me a whole new way of approaching writing. My poem a day was useful while I learned how to to do it but it was seriously holding me back by the time I reached Banff. I was ready to try something new. Don’s advice to experiment with wordplay (as I call it), the juxtaposition of two opposing ideas and finding their common ground by image, was helpful, but even more was his advice to be a magpie, to collect phrases as I hear them and to lift and steal from my own discards, to find the shiny bits and place them in a new poem, constructing it as one would a fence or, better yet, a dress. And then, to edit.

To go from here:

And this is what winter looks like, a week lost
to barbed wire wound around an unarmed
head as you hear others’ voices speak
your own words,

To here:

She is what winter looks like, a week lost
to barbed wire as you hear others’ voices speak
your words
(from: It Happens Every Morning, to be published in Descant)

From this:

I visited the place
where you lived today, thinking
I should return you. The grass looked
flat without your edges. And those
who’d sheltered under your roof
had moved away, thinking
you’d abandoned them.

To This:

I visited the place
where you lived today, thinking
I should return you. I saw
the sorrow of grass without
your edges. And the small ones
who’d sheltered under your roof.
They were leaving, believing
your absence was a choice.
(from Apologizing to a Rock, to be published in Descant)

In both cases, I knew I had something I wanted to work with but the bones weren’t set right. I had to find a way to phrase the idea that was new. The following quote from an old Six Feet Under episode, spoken by the art teacher, Olivier, sums it up well for me:

“Every work you make has to be a surprise to the earth, a seeing that never happened before, because it’s what happens when what exactly is inside of you confronts what exactly is outside of you.” (Season 3, Episode 3, written by Kate Robin)

In the first except above, I was writing about how I look when I have a migraine, how it feels. I could have simply described my face as being white as a sheet, but that image is tired. And I could have said the pain is like a knife stabbing my head, but that sounds overly dramatic. Saying “She is what winter looks like, a week lost/to barbed wire” conveys the same information but in a much better way.

Rhyme can also help to transform an image. I’m not, in general, attracted to rhyming in poetry but these lines, “had moved away, thinking/you’d abandoned them” work much better with this rhyme in it: “They were leaving, believing/your absence was a choice.”

In future weeks, I’ll look at other techniques I’ve used to edit my poems. I’m not going to post every week, as I did for my first year with this blog. I’m too busy working on poems for my poetry manuscript. But I will post as often as I can.



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