by Clara Burghelea
Inside the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. It’s a Friday night, raining cats and dogs. On the 6th floor, a warm room full of books and twelve aspiring young poets. We are taking a writing workshop with this tall, smiling, accommodating professor and poet. His name is Kaveh Akbar and when he starts talking, his eyes make each of us feel important. “You are important,” he says, “because you are willing to share your unprecedented experience with the world.”
There are introductions, and Kaveh answers every poet with a kind remark. When I tell him that English is not my native language, he tells me that he envies me. Apparently, I hold the privilege of harnessing the language in a different manner than the native speaker, by splitting idioms and phrases and reconstructing them into infinite nuances. Again, I feel important.
As poets, we owe our readers some measure of delight, and at times this comes from the language or the message of the poetry.
The workshop begins with the reading of a poem: “For Long to Hold” by Carl Phillips. Kaveh reads it first, then someone else is invited to do so. Each reading stumbles upon the complicated syntax of Phillips’ sentence. One girl shares with the group that she is puzzled by the poem, and not sure what she is supposed to make of it. Kaveh tells us there are no given answers and, though we could always speculate about it, only the poet himself knows what he intended to convey. At times, not even poets are able to deconstruct their poems and explicitly render their intention, or the meaning behind the chosen structure of the poem. He says this is hardly the purpose of reading poetry. As poets, we owe our readers some measure of delight, and at times this comes from the language or the message of the poetry.
Everybody heaves a sigh of relief and smiles. We nibble on Italian biscotti and Polish chocolate plums and get ready for the first exercise of the workshop. Kaveh tells us about bibliomancy which he explains as “divination by books” and shares his own poetry writing routine. He likes to enrich his own internal dictionary, which is finite, by reading from different poetry books and choosing words that strike him or catch his eye. He builds on such a list until he feels he has reached the moment where his own poetry comes to inhabit the page. He never complains of writer’s block and he is never fearful of employing the same vocabulary in his poetry. He shares with us a pile of thin poetry books and every person starts with three volumes. After five minutes of browsing and writing down, we pass our pile to person next to us, clockwise.
This is not something new or unheard of. The English poet, Robert Browning is known to have used this method to ask about his relationship with Elizabeth Barret. His first choice was disappointing—a grammar book—but he persisted and opened his eyes on a sentence used in a translation exercise: “If we love in the other world as we do in this, I shall love thee in eternity.”
“Humans with holes punched in them.” Delight.
We enthusiastically start, and after having gathered the desired number of words, Kaveh invites us to weave our poems. At the end of the exercise, we read unexpected, beautiful pieces that he again gracefully praises for the startling associations. “This is a lesson in trusting the algorithms in your brain,” he says. When I read my poem, he laughs enthusiastically at one of the lines: “Human with holes punched in them.” Delight.
We continue with a little meditation exercise. Eyes closed and lights out, we let ourselves be taken away by his voice—reaching for our deepest memories and imagery. We then put on a sheet of paper all five senses (plus the thinking) then use a chosen memory of a place, person, food, or situation. We alternatively use the five senses to write about it. Everybody is thrilled, and hopeful that their exercise is the beginning of a longer piece. Kaveh wraps up the workshop by speaking again of our unique voices, and he reads to us Russell Edson’s poem, “The Neighborhood Dog.” He confesses that he finds the image of the dog climbing the side of a house, tongue throbbing from his open mouth, to be one of the most extraordinary lines ever to be put in a poem. Nobody in the whole world could have described such dog with such detail and intensity but Edson. Like him, we are bound to write our own lines in our unique, singular voices and this workshop is meant to reassure us of our path.
We end on happy faces. We hug and take pictures. His positive vibes are floating around the room and permeating our own mood. We have witnessed ourselves enter into a bonding writing experience that speaks of the higher need and purpose of a poetry community—how the written word connects benevolent strangers in a most creative and unexpected manner.