I drew up a chair.
I spent a warm Saturday in Kingston sitting around a table with five creative people. They were all poets (except me; I cannot describe myself as such. OK, you can call me a tentative poet, if you like). We were in The Drawing Room.
The Drawing Room is a comfortable space, where people’s thoughts can meet and intersect; where ideas can merge and then, perhaps, go their separate ways. This project was founded by Jamaican poet Millicent Graham and Joni Jackson in 2007. George Davis, Hyacinth Hall and Sonja Harris are also members. This summer, three poetry workshops will have taken place; the third, with Mbala will take place on September 21st (10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.) And a writers’ retreat – in the country, of course – is also planned. It is not all about writing; the project aims to foster collaboration among artists of many kinds, who are willing to share their work and create a community. You can read much more at the link below.
Last Saturday, we were Autopiloting, with the young poet Ann-Margaret Lim handing over the controls to us. Actually, we were challenged to write poetry in ways that we had never written before. Not to write in our “usual” way (for me, being a complete novice, there was no usual way). I was somewhat awestruck by the high-powered people around me, who were established poets. But I tried to hold my own.
As we got stuck into the haiku form, for starters, wonderful phrases like “Saturday’s breeze” floated in the air. By the way, haiku have three lines; the first has five syllables, the second seven and the third five. One marvelous Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, made the haiku popular back in seventeenth-century Japan. He was a full-time poet. I recall reading his poetry when I was at college; he made four long journeys on foot, writing poetry along the way. (I have a degree in Japanese, and focused a great deal on literature).
But I digress. We walked around the front yard of the house, to get some inspiration from nature, and diligently wrote our haiku. Then, exploring other poetic forms, we touched on iambic pentameters, and then the villanelle. What is a villanelle, you might say? It sounds more like a dance than a poem, and in a sense it is. It has a great rhythm to it. It is nineteen lines long, and it has a repetitive quality, too. The example of a villanelle that we studied was the plaintive, yearning “Mad Girl’s Love Song“ by Sylvia Plath. Ms. Plath is one of Ann-Margaret Lim’s most beloved poets, along with Derek Walcott, Olive Senior and others. “I think I made you up inside my head,” the poor mad girl repeats.
I was relieved to learn that we were not going to attempt a villanelle. I’m not sure I was strong enough for that.
In between working on poems, we philosophized quite a bit on the nature of poetry, and what it meant to create poetry. “The purpose of art is to be, and to be true.” Millicent told us that we should write, at the very least, three drafts of a poem before we can begin to be satisfied. Form is a vehicle, we learned. It’s important, but it just helps you to express yourself. Form is not an end in itself. And we nibbled on cheese and crackers and fruit and other brain food (and, in my case, large quantities of caffeine).
We were accompanied, from time to time, by the gentle guitar strumming and singing of musician, percussionist and poet Mbala, an all-round creative Jamaican. There was a touch of Bob Marley, of course. When we struggled with love poems, he chimed in with “You Don’t Know What Love Is” – a beautiful song recorded by everyone from Chet Baker to Cassandra Wilson and back (I happen to love Kurt Elling‘s version). As we relaxed a little, we were treated to some Jobim - “Corcovado” … Quiet nights of quiet stars / Quiet chords from my guitar / Floating on the silence that surrounds us / Quiet thoughts and dreams / Quiet walks by quiet streams… And that girl on the Brazilian beach. You know the one.
On that note, we started auto-piloting. We threw all form to the winds, and were instructed by Ann-Margaret to write, and keep on writing. At least six pages. But to write without thinking, in a continuous flow of consciousness.
Like James Joyce? I wondered. But I suspect his flowing stream was very much contrived. Ours was not to be. We were not to think before writing, but just write. I got lost in a long thing about the sea, and water, and colors. From such auto-piloting – a free run of thoughts and images – at least two or three poems can appear, said Ann-Margaret. Once we got started, we all rattled on, scribbling and scribbling until the end of the workshop.
When I left, there were still a couple of auto-piloters, pens running across paper as fast as they could.
Words have a way of doing that.
Footnote: Millicent Graham was born in 1974 in Kingston. She is the author of the poetry collection “The Damp in Things,” published by Peepal Tree Press in 2009. In that year, Millicent was one of 17 writers selected for the prestigious University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, a three-month residency. She was a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont in 2010. She has been published in journals and anthologies, including Jamaica Journal, Caribbean Writer, BIM and City Lighthouse. Her work has been presented at the Calabash International Literary Festival and has received numerous literary prizes and grants in Jamaica.
Ann-Margaret Lim lives in Red Hills, St. Andrew. She is the author of the poetry collection “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” published by Peepal Tree Press in 2012. In the same year, the book was nominated for the UK Guardian First Book Prize. It was named on the longlist for the prestigious 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Ann-Margaret has also participated in the Calabash International Literary Festival.
http://thedrawingroomproject.webs.com The Drawing Room Project website
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSBJaPeBUWM The Damp in Things – promotional video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCDWAv1Sx98 Ann-Margaret Lim at the Poetry Society of Jamaica
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130310/arts/arts5.html Jamaican poet named on 2013 OCM Bocas Longlist: Sunday Gleaner
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/word-flow-word-play/ Word Flow, Word Play: petchary.wordpress.com
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/the-father-of-dub-poetry-gets-a-fine-award/ The Father of Dub Poetry gets a fine award: petchary.wordpress.com
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/jamaican-women-write/ Jamaican Women Write! petchary.wordpress.com
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/the-joy-and-the-business-of-writing/ The Joy (and the Business) of Writing: petchary.wordpress.com