Three years ago I was asked to give a speech and a one-day workshop for the Edmonton branch of the Canadian Authors Association which I felt obliged to do as a teacher and because I took a number of creative writing workshops in university that helped me along my path to becoming a poet. I don’t advertise myself as a workshop instructor because my life is such that I do no have a lot of time to conduct them, but when I am called upon I feel a duty to lead them.
I think such workshops do not necessarily help people to write better, but they do teach people how to read poetry and they can provide resources and knowledge which may inspire people to undertake the long apprenticeship to becoming a serious poet.
I suppose what I find most striking about meeting people who have taken my workshops or else showed up at one of my readings because they read one of my books is how some of them look upon me with that eager lighted look which suggests they think I might have some special knowledge to confer upon them, or perhaps it is more they think they can use me as a key to unlock something within themselves. I don’t know. All I know is that after 24 years of trying to write poetry, I find myself at a crossroads asking what have I learned about the writing of poetry? The truth is I am not sure.
Certainly, I have learned something of craft, the economy of language, the musicality of words, etc. I have absorbed a great deal of poetry and poetic influences from many countries. I know what I like and what I do not, and I can articulate reasons for these preferences.
But writing a poem is still an exhausting task for me. Where will poetry take me and in what direction in the coming years? The path, as they say, is uncertain. However, I am still hopeful, or perhaps naïve, enough to believe that wherever poetry might lead me, people will understand the language I speak.
Here is a comprehensive list of 25 books in no particular order that have helped me to learn the difficult lingua franca of poetry:
1. Reluctantly by Hayden Carruth
2. The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo
3. Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
4. On Poetry and Craft by Theodore Roethke
5. Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns
6. The Other Voice by Octavio Paz
7. Vis a Vis by Don McKay
8. The Friendship by Adam Sisman
9. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
10. Argument and Song by Stanley Plumly
11. Claims For Poetry edited by Donald Hall
12. Keats by Andrew Motion
13. Selected Poems and Letters by John Keats
14. The Weather of Words by Mark Strand
15. The Verse Book of Interviews edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki
16. Imagination in Place by Wendell Berry
17. Off to the Side by Jim Harrison
18. The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser
19. The Secret of Poetry by Mark Jarman
20. So Ask by Philip Levine
21. The Gazer Within by Larry Levis
22. Poets Teaching Poets edited Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryan Voight
23. Hunting Men by Dave Smith
24. The Necessary Angel by Wallace Stevens
25. Poetry and Consciousness by C.K. Williams