Poetry Magic for Humans

I’ve been fascinated by magic and magicians since I was a kid. When my parents went to Orlando on a business trip for my father they brought me back a Mickey Mouse Magic Set, and I spent a few weeks putting on shows for the family. As a teenager I got into Dungeons and Dragons and studied hypnotism from school library books (I never got it to work). I’ve since (mostly) given up trying to perform magic, but I find poetry satisfies similar needs and works in similar ways.

By the way, I also wrote a book of poems called The Magician’s Handbook. Funny how our childhood obsessions express themselves in adulthood.

Anyway, I’ve recently been watching the Netflix series Magic For Humans. Most of the show revolves around the magician Justin Willman stopping people in the street to perform tricks for them. They’re usually in-close tricks—coins, cards, etc. rather than disappearing elephants (yet)—the audience, both in person and over television, is captivated and bewildered. And that’s where the connection to poetry comes in for me.

Willman’s magic, in part, relies on his ability to draw the audience into his world. He makes them feel welcome, safe. In short, though they may be skeptical, they trust him. His demeanor, his forthrightness, his easy smile, break through people’s built-in skeptic barrier. The audience opens up to the experience, whatever will happen. Yes, by default everyone knows it’s a trick, a series of gestures, mechanics and slight of hand to convince the viewer of the veracity of what they’re experiencing. It’s that trust that solidifies the experience, that makes it work for the viewer, even when they’re being manipulated.

For me, that’s a lot of what I look for in poetry, or what makes the poetry I like work for me. In the same way that a magician needs to establish a trusting relationship with the audience in order for them to enjoy the show (and gasp with delight at the end), a poet should also form a trusting relationship with the reader. In a poem you’re asking people to follow you into some unknown place, and for many people, poetry is an intimidating place. How do you get them to go along with your gestures and slight of hand? Through trust, which leads to a relationship, and ends in communion—a sharing of the experience. In magic, that experience is usually (hopefully) delight and astonishment. In poetry it may also be those things, but it may also be shared sorrow, regret, nostalgia, and sometimes joy (there’s sadly not enough of the latter).

Poetry does magic in another way too, the transformation kind of magic. We’re astounded when we see Willman turn something into something else, and that’s exactly what good poems do all the time. Poems take a thing—an object, image, experience—and turn it into language. That alone is a feat of magic that isn’t lost on linguistic historians. But even more, the language of poetry takes those words and transforms them into insight. Poetry for me is a way of seeing the world, not just as a series of things and experiences, but as a series of insights—the essence of metaphor, which is what makes poetry valuable for me, and what I think makes poets interesting people. They just see differently.

Which is all to say that I think poetry is a kind of magic.

So what makes a poem trustworthy? Well, I hope you forgive me, but now’s the part for a little shameless self promotion. This spring I’m running a short (six week) workshop at Rosemont College called Writing Trustworthy Poems, in which I’ll talk about things that work toward trust and things that work against it. If you’re in the Philadelphia or Main Line areas, check it out. It’s open to anyone. Rosemont is a pretty campus that looks a little like Hogwarts.

Also, watch Magic for Humans. It’s one of my favorite shows.

Ode Workshop at Musehouse in November

For two Saturdays in November I’ll be leading a group in the study and writing of odes. Why odes? That’s pretty simple. I love the idea of odes. While the old classic odes could be formal in purpose and structure, what passes for an ode today is much more broad. That doesn’t mean you can take any old poem and pin the title “ode” to it (well, sure you can if you want to). Odes are honorifics, but they’re also explorations. They celebrate as they deconstruct. Look at Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. At one point the speaker is rejoicing in the “happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.” But by the end of the poem his mood has taken a turn as he observes “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!”

Odes have a way of doing that—start in one place (or one thing) and follow a train of thought to another conclusion. Odes are a sort of chemical reaction, or maybe an experiment. You take X subject and add Y language; mix it up into a metaphor with insight and hope it doesn’t explode in your face.

There are some fantastic contemporary odes by Kevin Young, Dean Young, Rita Dove, and Pablo Neruda. In the first day of the workshop we’ll talk about the many ways odes can function, options for structure, use of metaphor and of course look at lots of examples, then send everyone home with an assignment. The next week we’ll look at the odes each participant brings in.

If this sounds like something you’d like to try, you can sign up here. The class meets on two Saturdays from 10AM to 12PM or so, 11/15 and 11/22. Cost for the two days is $60. You can register here or call Musehouse at 267-331-9552.

Below check out Kevin Young’s Ode to Gumbo:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/86829168″>ode to gumbo</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/aspokendish”>A Spoken Dish</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

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Interview with Me for Missouri Writers’ Conference

MWC interview grant ClauserIn April I’m traveling to Missouri for the 2013 Missouri Writers’ Conference. I’ll be teaching two sessions there, a one-hour session called Core Issues and a longer, three hour, session called Building Trustworthy Poems. You can learn more about and register for the conference here.

To help promote the confernence, Margo Dill conducted an interview, which you can see here.

Musehouse Featured on WHYY Friday Arts

Musehouse, the new writing/literary center in Philadelphia, is being featured this month on WHYY (public television) Friday Arts show. In it director Kathleen Bonanno talks about why she started the center and importance of writing in the community. She shares some of her poems from Slamming Open the Door. You’ll also see cameos from Leonard Gontarek, David Bananno, Amy Small-McKinney and Joanne Leva.

By the way, I teach a class in poetry writing at Musehouse. You can check it out and sign up here.

You can watch the Friday Arts program on TV or check out the video here.

New Musehouse Workshop

Looking for something literary to do on Wednesday evenings (if you’re in the Philadelphia area)? I’ll be leading a new poetry workshop at the Musehouse Writing Center in Chestnut Hill (down the street from the Chestnut Hill Hotel). This workshop will be for beginner to intermediate poets. Honestly, I don’t know what that means, as I think we’re all a still beginner poets each time we sit down to write, but at least don’t show up planning to get into pedagogical arguments. It’s a six-week class meeting every Wednesday 7-8:30 beginning Dec. 7th. There’s a cost for this workshop, but right now I don’t know what it is. I think it’s $120. When I find out I’ll post it here.

If you want to learn more about the Musehouse Center and its events, go here.

The catalog description is here:

In this session we’ll discuss what makes poems work and where good ideas go off course and where to take risks. Elements including image, sound, line breaks and form will all be addressed. Participants will discuss poetry craft, practice writing prompts and explore techniques for discovering poems in everyday life. A wide variety of poems and poets will be read, and students will write, share and discuss their own poems in class.

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