Monday, August 14, 2017

CHATTING WITH SUSAN CHAST: A MARGE PIERCY WORKSHOP

My friends, we have something very special for you today. Recently, our staff member Susan Chast was fortunate to attend a one week poetry workshop with none other than Marge Piercy. I asked Susan if she would share the experience with us, so we could share in it vicariously. Make yourselves a cup of tea and settle in. This is going to be a very interesting read. 






Sherry: Susan, you are so lucky to have attended a workshop with the noted author Marge Piercy recently. I read Marge in the 70’s.  She was one of the women writers I turned to, seeking a map out of disillusionment and into strength and joy. I am looking forward to hearing about this workshop in detail. Will you walk us through your arrival?


Marge Piercy, 1974.
(Waring Abbot / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Susan: Yes, I was fortunate to be part of the workshop.   I love Marge Piercy and her writing.  I first became acquainted with her work in the 1970s.  My first read was Small Changes, a novel about women struggling to be independent, a gift from a friend when I separated from my husband.  It led me to seek out the women’s movement. Woman on the Edge of Time got me reading sci fi as a first love, including her He, She and It.  Her historical fiction is the best I’ve ever read.  Take Vida and City of Darkness, City of Light, for example.  And memoir?  I took two workshops with her on the genre and own both Sleeping with Cats and the how-to So You Want to Write (non-fiction).  I have 6 of her 15 poetry collections, the earliest 1973 and the latest 2015.  One of my favorite poems by her is “To be of Use.”  She’s influenced both my writing and my independent spirit.  Here’s a link to her bio and poems at The Poetry Foundation.


Marge Piercy, 2017, at this summer’s poetry reading
The Wellfleet Public Library, Cape Cod, MA, USA  June 2017

This quote always comes to mind when I think about studying with Marge Piercy:
"Come to the edge," he said.  "We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.  "We can't, We will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.  And so they came.
And he pushed them.   And they flew.

Sherry: I love that quote, and will enjoy hearing how it applies to this workshop. It must be much like jumping in at the deep end. Smiles. I envy you the memoir workshop especially.  I adored “Sleeping With Cats”. I must read it again.
Susan: I studied memoir writing with Marge at Omega Institute while I was still teaching.  When I retired in 2012 and started writing poetry seriously, I tried to get into her small summer poetry workshop.  It took me 4 years to get in.  Last year I was on the waiting list which gave me time to prepay everything—the week with Marge Piercy, the house I rented with another participant, and my budget for seafood dinners.  I knew that fried clams was the first stop and the ocean shore the second.  I picked up my housemate, Kellyann Conway, on the way, meeting her for the first time at a restaurant enroute.  She had the same priorities.  We arrived two days early with time to eat and walk together as well as to write and meditate in solitude.  The weather was beautiful, and I was ecstatic.  Kellyann is a sound therapist, and she had brought her tuning forks!  She worked a little on my hands and my back.  Lucky me.


Oceanside Wellfleet

Home


View  across Wellfleet Bay,  a great walk around

Sherry: What a gorgeous setting! And what a cute little cottage.  What was the first gathering like?
Susan:  First thing Monday morning, we gathered around a conference table in a room at the senior community center.  After a 4-minute introductory pair-and share, we plunged into the topics of imagery and metaphor.  We read poems aloud that Marge had brought as examples, and went home with an assignment to write an extended metaphor poem.  Here is mine:

Self-Reliance

Crying for hours with no
hope of rescue created
the river I needed
to swim out to sea.
Who knew what blessings
your absence would bring?
Now that I have descended cliffs,
leapt into currents, breasted waves
and tasted the sea, your little
rope swing and your caution
have no more appeal for me.

Sherry: What did the moment feel like right after you read your poem? Did you have butterflies?  
Susan: You know I love reading aloud, so no butterflies--except a little at the poetry reading, as I chose to read 2 poems from my book  that Marge had not seen. My classmates called me a rebel. But on the last day, I gave Marge a signed copy of my book. In a book she signed for me a week later (we did this through the mail), she wrote that she enjoyed my book and I should keep writing.  That made me happy.
Sherry: What a wonderfully validating inscription. How wonderful!
Susan: So yes, on the second day we handed out our homework poem and critiqued them all, handing written comments back to each other. In this first homework assignment I came to admire the other poet participants’ poetry and insights. I incorporated many of their notes and revised.  The middle lines take away the wonder of the narrative voice.  Suggested word changes (italicized) strengthen the poem, I believe, and increase its humor.

Self-Reliance

Crying for hours with no hope of release
created the river I needed
to swim out to sea.
Now that I have ascended cliffs, leapt into currents,
breasted waves and tasted the sea,
your little puddle and your rope swing
no longer appeal to me.

Neat, huh?!  One person suggested I change the title to “absence,” but I left it unchanged.

Sherry: I’m glad you left the title as it was, for that is the essence of the poem. The suggestions do make for a concise, very effective poem. But I loved the first one, too.

Susan: Even if you would have made different choices, I had invaluable practice in seeing more clearly with each aspect of Marge's workshop. And this was the pattern of each of the 5 days.  We met from 9 to noon to read and critique poems, gain insight on the next topic Marge highlighted, and have a homework assignment.  I saved a pile of poetry Marge used to illustrate imagery, sound, line length, provocative titles, poetic patterns and line breaks.  This was the meat in the workshop “sandwich.”  I loved the examples and Marge’s delight in the poems and poets she brought together.  She had known many of the poets, and told us about the backgrounds of several poems.   So the class was both review of what I knew and a challenge to advance to another level of craft in achieving my intended effect. She treated us like the poets we are.  I never felt talked down to. 

Sherry: This is all fascinating. I am attending vicariously, through your description. Tell us more.

Susan:  And then there is "the bread" to the sandwich, the major reason I wanted to attend this week: Marge had read 15 of our poems pre-workshop, and had prepared comments she shared with each of us in individual afternoon sessions.  My conference took place on the first afternoon.  

Sherry: How did you feel? Were you nervous?  What a valuable experience it must have been, a private conference with such a noted writer.

Susan:   More eager than nervous. I admire Marge's poetry, and wanted her critique. I gave her 15 poems I was not quite happy with but couldn't figure out why.  I wasn't trying to "please the teacher."  I’m glad I volunteered to be one of the first, though, because I did get more vulnerable than I expected and it gave me time to ask questions.  Some of her critique was relatively easy--to go for detail and juicy images, to sermonize less--and she showed me where and how.  Brilliant.  For example, in "Small Change," my poem raising questions from the Women's Post-Inauguration March, Marge pointed to 5 lines that could be cut or condensed to make it stronger.  "The poem is all here, but wordy," she said.  She suggested I look at every phrase and ask why I need it and what it does for the poem. Here and in other poems, Marge reminded me of the importance of asking “why.”  She asked why constantly--why this word, this title, this image, this line break.  I had neglected the lesson I used so well in staging drama--why costumes? why a set?  why move?  why anything?  As a stage director, I followed director Peter Brook as he explained it in The Empty Space.  Everything is purposeful in art. Even if we discover it by accident, the decision to keep, alter or discard it is purposeful.  


Sherry: I love that question “why?” That is a very useful tip.
Susan:  Yes.  But some of the critique was harder because it involved how I articulate my faith experience. 



The gazebo where Marge held our individual meetings.

Much of my poetry depends on inner life that I don’t always clarify for the reader, especially concepts connected with Quaker ministry and testimonies that are obscure to most people.  For example:

Step Three: Rest

A friend reminds us, as always, that we
know how to ease the load, to smooth the road.
We can decide to trust a greater Truth.

I can’t retain this in my head without
an act of will.  Remember this address,
my Mom would say.   It’s where we live.  It’s home.

And I rehearsed and I hung an ID
on my lanyard.  Like this landscape, like this
rock we can see and hold, God’s reminders.

Mercy, my friends, is there if we want it.
Mercy and gratitude to give and take
Rehearse it.  Carry prayers in pockets.


Sherry: How I love “Carry prayers in pockets”!
Susan:  Me, too. And the poem is part of a series that links the AA's 12 Steps with Quaker ways of thinking.  Step 3 is  
"Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over  to the care of God as we understood Him."
 But I didn't include that, not even as an epigraph under the title. I had capitalized truth as a stand-in for God and as an illusion to the Biblical passage from which Quakers take our name: to be Friends of Truth.  I could make this clearer and illustrate it with a clearer parable than the name tag. Without some knowledge, the capitalization seems Victorian and the concept obscure. "Mercy" is also an obscure concept in this context.   Marge wanted me to make her care more about the content without resorting to sermonizing, and I see her point.  Now I will have to choose for each of this type of poem how much to alter. And I want to be certain that the poems do what I want them to do. Those that are closest to recording a Still Small Voice, I may not alter at all even if they require a Specialized Audience.  Others I intend to revise with more images and less emoting.  What I mean—and something I definitely experienced most emphatically in Marge’s workshop--is that I want to arouse the emotion in my reader—not convince them that I myself have been moved.  
Sherry: Ah, that is a very key distinction, and a good piece of wisdom to take away and share with us. Worth the price of admission, I dare say. Did you come away with any other realizations?
Susan: I hadn’t realized until this workshop how much I rely on concepts, skimming the top of my experience. And I often sermonize to readers who are already among the converted, especially in political poems.  (I'd give you another example, but this is already too long.) Also, LOL, I never even made choices about capital letters! I asked you to capitalize "still small voice" and "specialized audience" above--and truly, it does make them appear old fashioned, doesn't it?  And for what purpose?  Why?  For some readers that certainly could be off putting, whereas details and images and metaphor root the best pieces.   I was able to discuss this with Marge in depth during our conference.  

And I will revise "Step Three: Rest." I want to make a clear distinction between the past and the present in my line breaks, and I want to point up the parallel between rehearsing the address and rehearsing turning to God.  That prayer in the pocket, then, could be nothing else but the reminder to turn to God.

Sherry: Wow, you really did get to the meat and potatoes of it, Susan. You came away with so much. 
Susan: Marge found parts of almost every poem that worked, and she found 2 of my 15 to be “complete”--I love her use of that word.  Her comments on the following poem are “This poem completely works. Excellent.  Character created, rich with specifics. A fine piece of work.”
Sherry: I would say that about all of your poems. Let’s take a look!

In the Voting Booth

Harried and hot, she finally entered
the voting booth and quickly pressed levers
for her choices.  She paused before the last
lever that entered her free vote.  How long

she had waited to arrive!  Not just lines
today, but photo ID and proof of
residence, citizenship test and Eng-
lish classes after years of exile and

insecurity.  She placed one tired hand
on the cold machine’s grey edge and she sighed,
inhaled and sighed again, a moment’s peace
and pride energizing her to move when

a voice penetrated her private space,
“Any problems, Ma’am?” spoken kindly
but urgently outside the closed curtains.
“No,” she replied.  She pushed the last lever

registering her vote and opening
the curtains simultaneously.  She
noticed the levers now in their upright
positions, turned tall and made her exit.

Sherry: It is interesting to read this poem, knowing what Marge Piercy said about it. I do get a complete sense of the person, the setting, her feelings, and especially her weariness. Wonderful, Susan!
Susan:  Thank you.  So there you have it: The meat and the bread to put it on, along with all the seasonings!   By the end of the week, I no longer felt vulnerable, but energetic, courageous and grateful.  

Sherry, answering your questions has also helped.  I’ve written fewer poems in the last few weeks, but I like what I’ve written.
Sherry: I'm glad. I especially like your feeling "courageous" as the workshop progressed. I’m glad you are integrating what you learned, and are kind enough to share it with us. It sounds like a transformative and highly motivating  experience, and one that will give you solid ground on which to build your poems in months and years to come.
Susan: On top of all this, Marge urged us to explore the Cape, she insisted it was part of the workshop.  She planned three early evenings: a beach bonfire Wednesday, a public library poetry reading Thursday, and a dinner party at the home to end the week. Yum.
Marge and her husband Woody (Ira Wood) farm their land—that’s how big their garden seems.  I think they delight in community gatherings. The reading was crowded with friends and so was the party. Friendly personable smiles, great conversation.  And the class of 12 she pulled together made the time very special indeed.   


Our Bonfire (Photo by S.E. Venart)

Sherry: What a spectacular setting! It would add much to the workshop, for sure. I love the gazebo, where you met with Marge. I could sit there by the hour. What a heavenly setting! Marge has created a charmed world for herself (and wrote a lot of books to have it!) How lovely that she welcomes other writers to enjoy it. 

Susan: It's amazing. And you can imagine how hard it is to really be a working poet. Her books wouldn't possibly support her without constant talks, readings, editing, publishing others and staying productive.  She bought her land before Wellfleet was upscale and groomed, and she has become an essential member of her community there.

Sherry: She created a wonderful life. As the workshop continued, did you find yourself looking at your work differently? Did your process change?

Susan:  Yes and yes.  I have new eyes for some of it and remain true to the urgency I experienced for some of it.  I’m reading through it all again--I wrote over 1500 poems in 5+ years--and finding much I like as well as much to improve.  I'm ready to put another book together.  

Remember when I left I said that I would agree to an interview if I still felt I was a poet when I returned.  Well, I do.  I gained confidence this summer.  The workshop was worth it--the money, the risk, the time.  Marge Piercy delivered.

Sherry: Indeed, she did. It is always good to stretch ourselves and grow as poets. Bravo for meeting the challenge.  I knew, since you were such a fine poet going into the workshop, that you would emerge just as fine. So I was certain we would be having this chat.

Susan:  You were certain?  I wasn't!  But I'm grateful to be here and hope I haven't been boring.

Sherry: Boring? You? Impossible!  Thank you for allowing us to enjoy your adventure vicariously, through your experiences and photos. You went to the edge, Marge pushed you, and you flew! Bravo! 

For any of you who might be fortunate enough to attend one of the workshops, application directions are on her website at https://margepiercy.com/




Well, my friends? I told you this would be interesting! We do hope you enjoyed it. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!

25 comments:

  1. What a great interview - thanks to both

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  2. Well, thank you both for a fine and educational interview. Susan, thank you for sharing your experience at the poetry work shop and I look forward to reading more of your poetry.

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  3. This is an absolutely excellent article, Susan and Sherry. I have absolutely NO time today to comment it, but I will be back tomorrow morning so that I can do it justice. Whew, what an experience you had, Susan. More later.

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  4. Susan - Incredible! the interview by Sherry and your sharing of all that went down. Such an amazing way to learn and to share.

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  5. I knew people would find this interesting. Especially those of us who can't attend such a workshop - thank you, Susan, for sharing your experience and what you learned. I know it resonates with all of us.

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    1. Thank you, dear Poet! I needed the opportunity you provided to look back and digest the experience. Onward.

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  6. Splendid work on this, Sherry and Susan. It is so wonderfully written, and constructed with such an engaging clarity, I really felt - as the reader - that I was carried along on this fantastic ride. The location, is stunning ... the stuff of dreams ... to say nothing of the experience - which I am sure was incredible. The poetry you have included here, is awesome. A fascinating share.

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  7. Thank you so much for this, Sherry and Susan.

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  8. I really enjoyed this interview. It sounds like you really had to go outside the box in this workshop. Thanks for sharing with us!

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  9. Wonderful to get a peek into the workshop; thank you Sherry and Susan. I have been an admirer of Marge Piercy's poetry and novels for many years and I too own a number of each. Her insights must have been so valuable! The things you have shared here are certainly useful reminders for the rest of us. I feel re-inspired just reading about your experience – and in what wonderful surroundings, too!

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  10. How very exciting to have such a special workshop and you wrote some amazing poetry. I am not aware of the writings and poetry of Marge Piercy but will check it out for sure. What a beautiful setting in the Gazebo and I love bonfires. Thanks for sharing

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  11. Thank you Sherry and Susan. This was well worth the reading, and then some. Always, there is room for learning and growth and this certainly felt like just such an opportunity. Thank you for opening those doors to all of us,

    Elizabeth

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  12. Thank you so much, Sherry and Susan for this excellent interview!💖 My goodness it must have been so exciting to write with Marge Piercy, a most wonderful and talented writer! I love the poems which you have shared with us here, Susan especially "Self-reliance" speaks to me on so many different levels.. sigh I must admit I'm very grateful and inspired after reading your words!💖

    Many hearty congratulations to you on your glorious workshop experience. I hope you have the opportunity to share even more adventures with us in the near future!💖


    Lots of love,
    Sanaa

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  13. Susan.. that was fantastic! Beautiful writing and wonderful insights into the creative process. A workshop sounds delightful but I doubt I have the courage to read aloud in front of the class! Thanks Sherry, this was an amazing read.

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  14. Susan, you were fortunate to study with Marge Piercy twice in your life! Wow! This last experience sounds amazing, and what a beautiful site you had for your study. And also impressive that Marge Piercy read your book & said you should keep writing. That is high praise! (I smiled that your classmates had called you a rebel - I think this is also high praise.

    I like Marge Piercy's idea that one look at every phrase and assess what it does for the poem. I do this sometime myself, and it is amazing what one can cut out to tighten and strengthen a poem.

    I also liked her idea of arousing emotion in reader rather than convincing the reader that the poet herself has been moved.

    I love the poem "In the Voting Booth," and I understand why she would think this poem is 'complete.' This poem SHOULD have a wider audience.

    I truly am glad you had this experience, admire you for your risk of being poetically authentic with several other poets and with a master teacher. I think your work is often brilliant, Susan; and I have no doubt that what you learned at this workshop will impact your writing.

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  15. Thank you for a great article, Susan and Sherry. I love Marge Piercy's poetry and have read some of her novels too. Susan, you were very lucky to attend her workshop.

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  16. The experience of getting to the essence! How wonderful that you did such an enriching workshop, Susan! We need to have that 'why' always with us while writing, isn't it? Thank you Sherry and Susan for this interesting read.

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  17. Thank you all for reading and adding your thoughts! And thank you, Sherry, for the interview. It's a wonderful thing to take ourselves seriously as poets. There were times I heard poems read by Marge or classmates that made me wonder if I had a right to be in the number of "real" poets, living and dead. Haha! But bliss led, and leads me. Workshopping poems with poets we love to read is a wonderful thing. If you feel at all interested, all I can say is do it. Do IT! You cannot lose. And then, too, remember, you don't have to do it! There is a time to think of these workshops like refreshment only. We are not students anymore. I'm joining a Friend--a Quaker--on leading a workshop on Love poems and spirituality this September. I feel love for all of you.

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  18. My pleasure, Susan. How i wish i could attend YOUR workshop on love. Maybe we can do a chat about the high points after.

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  19. wonderful so wonderful inspiring full of poetic romance ideal setting atmosphere and excellent poetry...Thank you Dear Sherry for indeed a great recount of an amazing time with immense talent..I felt as if I was actually there.Dear Dr Susan your talent shines through..wish you more successful opportunities My Allah Bless You and All at Poets United.Thank you

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  20. Thank you so much to both of you. I know I read her work in the 70's would like to refresh and read again. I keep wondering. Given some time, I wonder how you will feel, and if the workshop will change your work?

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  21. I would so love to meet Marge Piercy! What a lovely and inspiring experience to have Susan. I am so happy for you, and glad to have stopped by. Wonderful interview as always Sherry!

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  22. Wow what a special workshop with inspirational folks all working together....and that setting is heavenly. I loved seeing how your opening poem evolved....Thanks Sherry for bringing this to us, and thanks Susan for sharing your experience.

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  23. Thank you to both Susan and Sherry. Glad Susan,that your experience was so rewarding and inspirational. The cabin is very sweet where you stayed and what a beautiful location!

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  24. Thank you, Sherry for this insightful interview!! It’s humbling to me to hear how deeply people are reached. I love coming into communities like this. Poets love to be with poets after all. Smiles..
    The poems and pics are beautiful...Susan. And the care, attention and support/feedback that you received from the eminent poet is exemplary. Lucky, you got the chance to meet and work with Marge Piercy. Thanks for sharing!
    I’m thankful to have learned a great deal in this interview, Sherry and Susan. Thankfully, I didn't miss it this time.

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