Saturday, May 9, 2015

MOOC Experience: How Writers Write Poetry 2015

68º ~ high clouds leftover from last night's storms ~ trees and eaves dripping, shedding the last of the rain ~ birdsong ~ swish of tires on wet roads

This morning I've been luxuriating in the freedom that arrives after final grades are posted. This freedom allows me to do the things I've pushed to the bottom of my priorities for the last month, and today, that means actually starting the University of Iowa MOOC: How Writers Write Poetry 2015.

For those unaware, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. These are free courses hosted at major universities or by private groups. They offer online content, usually in the form of videos supported by discussion boards and sometimes quizzes and assignments. A person may sign up and participate to receive a certificate of completion or the like, and that means doing all of the assignments. Or, a person may sign up to absorb the content but not participate in assessments or assignments (therefore not "earning" official completion). I'm the latter.

How Writers Write Poetry 2015 is a repeat, with new content, as the same course was offered in 2014 with a huge following. While the course began on April 13th, this is the first I've been able to devote any time to it. I'm so glad that I threw caution to the wind and signed up. I say "threw caution to the wind" because I'm well aware of how hairy the spring semester gets toward the end, and I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to give the course much time in April-early May. Still, by signing up, I now have access to the material and have gone back to the beginning.

This morning I watched the videos for Week 1: Notebooking, Sketching, Drafting and Week 2: Form and Content. I already knew I wasn't going to participate in the quizzes or discussion boards, so I could simply watch the videos and take notes for my own enjoyment.

In Week 1, we heard from Lia Purpua, Kate Greenstreet, and Robert Hass about how writers generate material. Of the three, I'm probably closest to Purpua's approach, having my handwritten journal ever at the ready and collecting scraps throughout the day to stuff between the pages.

I was a bit surprised by Greenstreet's process of using a single Word doc to collect all of her scraps. Each morning, she transcribes whatever she's scrawled on notecards and receipts and such from the day before, "stirring the new fragments" into the document. Then, she reads over the document until something coalesces into lines for a poem. There's a lot of cutting and pasting in a new document.

I confess, I've always championed the idea of writing generative material by hand (Purpura's message as well), but I'm now intrigued by the digital form of journalling that Greenstreet accomplishes.

Hass had more to say on simply generating lines and getting to drafting. He began with Mallarme's saying about poetry not being made of ideas but of words, which was a great reminder for me as I'm back to square one in terms of writing. I'm in search of my next obsession, and I need to go back to the words.

This dovetailed beautifully into Week 2, in which we heard from Mary Jo Bang, Carol Light, and Carl Phillips. Bang reminded me that "all sound carries weight," and that the best poets have an intimate knowledge of the weight of individual sounds within words, within lines, within stanzas, and within the whole. She also reminded me about the vital element in poetry: repetition. Of course I know all of this, but it's good to re-touch that base.

Then, Carol Light, a poet with whom I'm not familiar but will now be investigating, got me back to the words. She talked about "sonic association" and how she drafts from a "word cloud," very similar to my own word banks. However, instead of mining other writing for words, she builds her clouds on sonic associations. So, she takes the line that strikes her (that inspiration) and then she riffs on building word chains that are only sonically related. She resists the temptation to create a narrative at the beginning and instead focuses on linguistics. She PLAYS. She creates words associated by consonant pairs and rhyme reversals and by drawing out the unaccented syllables. An example she gave was this list: shipreck to recreate to creation to ration. When she's built a long list of words in her "cloud," then she reads out loud again and again letting her mind make connections and associations. Here, she finally lets narrative and meaning enter the picture. Again, this is very similar to my own methods, but it gives me a new twist to try out.

Finally, Phillips explicated two poems to show how their form on the page reflected their content. I was most struck by what he had to say at the beginning of his segment, that there has to be a reason a poem looks the way it does on the page. It isn't finished until it has found its final form. He mentioned the idea of liking couplets and "neat" tercets because they made a poem look "finished" on the page; they made a poem look "well dressed." But, now he is suspicious of gravitating to these two forms too quickly because they might hide a poem's flaws. Wow!

As I watched and took notes, I was also thinking about my role as instructor. I do not know that the videos will be available once the course closes on June 1, but I hope they will be. There are some gems here that I'd love to share with future students.

For now, there's a lot to process here, and Monday, the administrators will post Week 5, so I've got some more catching up to do.


Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed this one so far as well. The sonic word association thing has been fun to play with, and the master class on the line gave me some excellent revision ideas.

I have gotten through Week 3, but only because I watched some of the classes while my husband was in surgery a couple weeks ago. I also save the transcriptions of the videos and print them if I'm gong to be somewhere I can get some reading done but don't want to carry a book.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Great idea about the transcriptions.
Going to do that now.