Jane Attends a Poetry Class
and Writes some. . .
THE EVENING OF DECEMBER 5TH, 2000
Not a dream
Werner drove me to Point Arena. I so rarely go out after dark that I was thrilled, not only with the new Botts Dots on the highway, but also the several houses decorated for Christmas. Even Point Arena had its tree up and lit. None of the strings of lights had yet been stolen so it looked very festive. The tree, not Point Arena.
Lights seemed to be on in the library, though the sign on the door said "closed". Inside I could see some women seated at a table. I tried the door and it was unlocked. I stuck my head in to ask, "Is this where the Stephen Kessler meeting is to be held?" "Yes." came a voice from behind a stack of books. As I drew closer I could see four women seated around a table. Next to them was another table circled with chairs. The stares of two of the women and the backs of the other two warned me not to join their group so I sat alone at the second table. It was uncomfortable for them to get back to discussing something that an intruder could eavesdrop on. They tried out various sentences and topics with decreasing degrees of skills and success.
One woman skidded a small tablet across the table to me as she said, "Write your name and address on this." I was so overcome with shame and shyness that I did as she commanded even though I truly did not want my name or my address to become their property. I pushed the tablet half-way across 'my' table when I finished. Another woman picked it up and began to read what I had written. She got up from her table to lean across to me to say, "You have two h's in your last name." "Yes," I said politely, "there are two h's in my name." "Oh." she responded as she printed over my signature so the letters were legible to her. On a tiny edge of my personality I resented her implying that my handwriting was not legible when I pride myself so much on my hand. I let the feelings go. I was definitely in hostile territory and out-numbered. I looked at the books on the shelves in an effort to tune-out their voices as they importantly furthered their library business in impressive tones of high business.
I was greatly relieved when the door opened to admit a cluster of five-six persons, one of which was S. Kessler, himself in black beret, turtle neck sweater and khaki pants and sweater. He immediately began to complain of the table/chair arrangements and began directing us women to do what he needed to have to feel comfortable. I still had not been introduced to anyone in the room so I stepped back farther away from the activity and resumed my perusal of the book covers on the shelves. Having my face turned away from the others permitted me to enjoy a small smile when Kessler asked, "Is the water here fit to drink?" and the head librarian (as I found out later) replied in a stiff-starched voice, "We drink it." That was Kessler's last joke of the evening. He went to the bathroom. Someone handed me a chair, and in this way, I , too became involved in furniture moving. Fortunately, this way I could put the most comfortable chair in the farthest corner in the back row and lay my sweater and purse on it. As more and more people came into the room, I shirked the furniture business and scooted into my hiding place.
When every one was seated Fionna made her grand entrance and took a place in the front row on the table. She laid her pile of books down, looked around the room nodding her snow-white head to her acquaintances. All of sudden she stopped, jerked into a stance like a bird dog pointing at a prey, squinted and said in a tiny, whispery voice, "Jane, is that you, Jane?" I simply nodded and she said, "I wasn't sure." as she ran her hands down her chest to indicate my braids.
Slowly but surely Kessler tried to retrieve the attention of the group from her to himself by clearing his throat, taking a sip of water from a paper cup, rustling his papers, taking a pen out of his pocket and waving it around as if directing the various conversations. Since I was facing the clock I could see that until seven minutes past seven he attempted to gain order. Finally a big, tall and fat guy in the back row bellowed out that it was time to begin. Kessler blinked, either in thanks or panic as the 17 pairs of eyes rolled in his direction. After six minutes of explaining who he was and what he wanted to do, he asked us to go around the room telling our first names (only?!?) and to say how many years we had been writing poetry and why we had come to this meeting. It panicked me so much that I would have to say anything out loud that I was only partially aware of the fact that we should be giving our last names and saying our writing experience and that I had books behind me. Cowed again, the good girl in me made me say only, "I am jane, sometimes called haikujane. I came to meet you." as I looked at Kessler. As the other people went through the same painful process I began to criticize myself for not saying what I felt was important to say about myself instead of sticking to the 'instructions'. Even as the lecture got underway, I continued the dialog with myself about myself, pumping me up and giving me courage and permission to be myself and not what others wanted me to be.
The only notes I took during the lecture was the line: "Melody is instrumental to poetry!" I wanted to cackle and hoot every time I read that. It was so rich. Perhaps I would have found the lecture more enlightening if I had not been cautiously staring at the others in the group wondering who they were and what their connection to poetry was.
What about the 16 year old blonde country princess sitting next to the guy with white hair and a beard down to his waist whom she called 'Daddy' and said that "he made me come". Daddy looked at Kessler as if he had just left a very smelly fart and was far too close the beautiful, dutiful daughter. In the opposite corner to the west was another parent with two of her children. She was a strong, large country woman with a bush of white and blonde hair frizzed out into a Cleopatra look. Something about her hooked nose and large, down-turned mouth made me think of a Mayan goddess figure who had gone pale with rage. Her son, Gabe, was very dark with black hair and large brown eyes who had inherited all of his mother's best features. The daughter was much lighter with a strange small mouth, so thin-lipped and drawn that it almost seemed deformed. Her hair, braided in a single plait down her back, was covered with a small brown kerchief held in place with two aluminum hair clips. Her silver velour zip jacket was too small for her and pulled under her armpits but she seemed more interested in growing a strong jaw than adjusting her clothes. At the opposite corner was a Sea Ranch looking woman, the only one wearing lipstick in the whole crowd, who had dressed down for her visit to point arena by wearing a lilac cotton knitted sweater and dark purple pants. Behind her was the head librarian who was also wearing a similar patterned knitted sweater only in a much darker purple and about six sizes larger. Next to her was the big, husky logger-looking guy (think he gave his name as Brian) and next to him was another man whose name began with B but he was a teacher at Elk. He immediately bragged that everywhere he went he recognized kids who had been his students. With that laugh he said hello to Gabe but not his sister, silver shirted Nicole.
In front of these two guys were the honored guests. When it became known that they had come all the way from Calistoga and Santa Rosa 'just for this workshop' Kessler could not hide his admiration for their dedication to him. The male reminded me of Roger Verran: cosmopolitan, large, white-haired, jovial, very bright. His companion, Eve was also very large and Rubinesque with long salt-n-pepper hair and red plastic half-glasses which she took off and put on with every other sentence. Fortunately I was behind her so I missed most of her dance with her eyes as she tilted her head down to peer over the red frames to give Kessler her own toothy grin. Directly behind her was an older woman, thin and also wearing white, with reddish curly hair. She said she had been writing poetry for 60 years but she must have added years from a previous life-time as she did not look old enough for the claim. I was wedged into the far corner so I could use a bookshelf as elbow prop. The woman in front of me who blissfully hid me from Kessler's glance was named Linda. When she read my name on the round-robin tablet paper she turned to me and said, "I know you. I remember reading about your trip to Japan in the paper." I was amused that she felt she 'knew me' from that. Beside her was a strange woman who loved to take charge of things. I could not tell how old she was. Her face looked about 70 but her hair, undyed, long and thick seemed about 30. In one of her poems, much later in the evening she used a word none of us knew – "kreel". She claimed this was the name for cocaine, so perhaps it was from that she was given her old face and hands. Or maybe it kept her hair young. I have heard dope does weird things to one.
The audience hung in with Kessler through the teaching lecture. When he decided to read us some poems I was very interested in finding out what he admired. He soon and long told us how great this guy Knotts was. None of us had ever heard of him. This threw Kessler and made him even more insecure about picking Knotts as his explanatory poet. Instead of launching into reading the poems so we could judge him for ourselves, Kessler would dive into another paean of praise for this guy. Feet began to shuffle, eyes began to wander and roll upward, breathing became ragged. And still Kessler hammered away at how great a poet this unknown was. The men started to set their jaws as their minds said, "Just read the bloody bloke." Being sensitive, Kessler opened the book, looked at the poem he had picked, closed the book over his finger and tells us once again why this guy is so great.
One could hear the exhale of breath in relief as Kessler finally read the title of the poem - something about the "praise of hair of heaven". Okay. Continue.
"Heaven rains down on us with the hair of something, something
as her thoughts unravel her mind like the hairs of heaven."
Kessler looked up at a circle of faces waiting on the next couplet. It sound like the typical beginning of a ghazal. "That is the whole poem." he said lamely, closing the book. There was stunned silence. This caused Kessler to explain to us numbskulls how witty this guy was, what a master of words he was, how subtle he was. A deep male voice from the some occupied chair said, "Read the poem again." We were all sure we had missed something. Kessler begins to flip pages. Back and forth he flips pages. Pages are flipped. Front pages are flipped to the back. Back pages are flipped to the front. Eyes begin to move sideways in discomfort. "Well," Kessler says, "here is another example. It is titled 'Poem'."
"A piece of paper blows down to my feet, it is white.
It is a petition signed that I may not die."
This time when Kessler looked up for the applause, all he got was a groan. This poem was even worse. A true bomb. Quickly, he laid Knotts to rest and took up a book of Denise Leverton. Again he launched into his hymn of praise for her. Again it was a deep, male voice which interrupted him by saying, "Did you ever meet her?" Thank goodness he had and he could be switched over into telling us stories of how he met her and how she had encouraged him and fostered his poetry by including him in an anthology (thought it never made him famous, he said). I knew enough of Leverton to wonder which of her poems he would be choosing as choice. "Something City Streets in Winter"
"On a winter evening when the shops close the streets open themselves to blue
and to crowds crowded with people rushing home in the shadows speckled with mica
The cold making brittle the voices of two women, one with crooked heels. . ."
Suddenly Kessler began coughing as his voice froze up. He drank water, but there were no words in the cup. One lady offered him cough drops. We sat in perfect silence waiting on him to unwrap the lozenge, lick it experimentally, click it around on his teeth, but no other sound came from him. He tried again and again to speak. A syllable or so and the voice would go. It was so pathetic. Finally the school-teacher guy spoke up and said, "It seems time for a break. Then you will have time to recover your voice." Like a pistol crack the chairs released about a dozen butts which ran pell-mell out the door.
I truly had pity for Kessler as I could image the exact thing happening to me. Since I was between him and the bathroom door, I offered to refill his glass. Later I wished I had gone out for a breath of air.
When the crowd reassembled the old bearded guy and his beautiful daughter were gone. Kessler seemed to feel keenly their loss. Others took the opportunity of getting a better quality chair with more built-in comfort. Now able to speak, but not trusting his voice, he took up the Leverton book as if he was going to read to us again. Again the school teacher, who was now sitting next to him, suggested that we do some writing exercises to save his voice.
The first assignment he was prepared for. He took a small object out of his briefcase. It seemed to be made of horn with a wire handle. The top and bottom were strangely curved as if to fit one's hip pocket. The sides were thin strips of bone to make the slats of a cage. I wondered if it was an insect cage from Japan, but I could not see it clearly enough. Kessler passed the object around the room beginning with the other side of the room. We, on our side, saw that we would be disadvantaged because we had to wait for the object to make its journey to our hands. I, like others began to write with the information we already had.
When the object finally came to me I was very sure it was an insect cage because there was a cleverly hidden door. I tried to open it but something resisted so I didn't force that. I did have to force a small poem out of me:
some have left
yet in the bookish room
with its door stuck shut
no words come to mind
and a haikuish thing:
a cage from Japan
traps the mind
As people began to read the results of the exercise, I was blown away by the poems they had written. They had simply scribbled at top speed 20 - 30 lines of fairly decent stuff, right of the tops of their heads. Had they prepared before? Were the results their normal portion of thoughts? Truly, I was amazed at the quality of the work over half of them came up with. My five lines seemed very little and I was not eager to read them. In fact I turned my note pad over, When Kessler had then spotted me as holding back he later wished he had ignored me as my poem reminded the group that two had gotten away!
The next exercise was suggested by Eve as one she joyously related how she had enjoyed it at another workshop. So Kessler gave us three words which had to be in the poem: snow, run, and blue. Somehow not only the choice of words but the lack of an image left me cold. I sat and stared at the ceiling as if God just might write me a poem in florescent lights. No luck. This time Kessler did not press me to read my non-written poem. The school teacher guy had written a very short poem, rather like Mr. Knotts' example. Someone said the poem sounded like it wanted to be a haiku but didn't seem quiet right. Fionna said, "Ask Jane how to fix it, she knows all about haiku." Before I could say a word, Kessler, looking straight ahead and above the group said in a strong ever voice, "Haiku is a Japanese poetry form and because we do not write Japanese we cannot write haiku." Boom! Final! Without thinking, my hackles were up and I was saying in the loudest, clearest voice anyone had heard from me: "That may be right, but we can be inspired from haiku and we can learn about haiku and we can write in English our own versions of haiku and it is still haiku if we call it that. No other poetry form is as popular. We are making English haiku and it is growing faster than any other poetry form." Silence. More silence. It was very clear that someone had disagreed with the teacher and no one else was taking sides!
Nervously Kessler picked up one of those heavy mag flashlights which was lying on the table. Waving it around in a threatening manner, he announced our next exercise. We were to write as if from the point of view of the flashlight. Gratefully everyone fell to work. To seem as if I was truly cooperating (finally) I began to write but was determined not to read the results. Again I was struck as Kessler had combined "point of view" and "flashlight' in his assignment.
a point of view
that's all you are allowed
in the bright room
so many spotlights
one in each poet
then I doodled on the page and still had time left to write:
my eye to your eye
see how bright we are
when turned on
the darkness becomes holy
with our holes of light
How relieved I was when all my ideas appeared in the poems of the others so I felt no urge to read my poor stuff. I was shocked when the school teacher, in talking as if he was the flashlight had his second line as: "a sweaty, nervous hand grabs me in the butt.". When he finished his poem, Kessler asked him to read the line again. None of us could believe he had written that. Then Kessler said, "keep that line and throw out the rest. That one line is the only good one here all evening." All of us old ladies, and especially the mother of the kids raised our eyebrows and bowed our heads in embarrassment. I wanted to look at the two kid's faces but was simply too overcome to force myself to peek. When they read their poems they were so into their own majesty that nothing else mattered or fazed them. Eve wrote an excellent poem and her friend, whose back she rubbed constantly, truly flabbergasted me by writing as if the poem was in Latin: "blackius, metallicum, nicolodiam batterismus, etc." His poem had great music and left us with the feeling we understood the poem even though the words were full of nonsense. That was the best work. I applauded.
By now it was 9:00 - the promised time to quit. Kessler began to ask the people for feedback and the logger guy said, "The first part was pretty boring, but I liked the second part." Nicole was now smiling so her mouth seemed okay and she was nodding and excited. She had loved the exercises and reading her poems aloud - three times!!! No one else had anything to say so the circus was over. Instantly people were standing up, folding up their notebooks, capping their pens, wiggling into sweaters and coats.