Writers' Vocational Meeting
Redeemer Presbyterian Church
New York NY
27 February 2012
Redeemer Presbyterian Church hosts a wonderful type of "small group" function known, collectively, as the Center for Faith and Work. The idea is that these groups draw people together based on their vocations. Redeemer says it much better here. If you live in Manhattan, or any of the five boroughs, I recommend that you consider attending one of these inspiring meetings!
This time around, everyone met (I think for the first time?) in Redeemer's newly purchased and renovated space: a former parking garage transformed into a sanctuary, fellowship hall, and five storeys of meeting rooms. One of the pastors gave a talk about our "priestly" roles in our vocations. I was a bit distracted by thinking about my upcoming talk, trying to catch the eye of an old friend who was sitting across the sanctuary not answering her phone or checking facebook, and making room in the pew for a new friend--whose musical compositionsI recommend for your listening pleasure.
Then we broke up into groups based on our vocations, and I headed to the Writer's Vocational meeting. There, I spoke for a while about how writers can speak vicariously, on behalf of someone else -- can, in other words, be a voice for the voiceless. Some members shared the journalism or other nonfiction work they do to speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. We talked about how we're speaking for someone else whenever we take on a fictional character.
Then I shared the method I use when I wrote my "persona poems," seven of which are in Caduceus. Here's the method:
1. First, a story takes hold of me, and I want to tell it. In most cases, the story was that of a friend of family member, and I wanted to speak on behalf of that person.
2. But you, as a reader, don't necessarily know my friends, so if I just named the poem after, say, Andrew, that wouldn't convey much to you. So the next step was to choose an archetypal character from myth, legend, etc., some of whose characteristics you might know. In each case, the archetypal character leapt into my mind as a representative of my friend almost immediately.
3. Then I chose a poetic form to use for that composite character. A villanelle, for instance, often suggests loss, or a sense of entrapment. A pantoum tells a story that repeats, cyclically, with no hope of escape. Free verse (which I consider just one more of the forms) is more conversational, good for expressing anger. I invented forms for some of these.
4. Then I wrote the poem in first person, speaking through the mouth of the archtypal conglomerate character.
While this may sound pedantic, the result (I do believe) is immediate and emotional. Take this one, about Wotan, for example. It is not one of my best, and I didn't read it at Redeemer, but it's online, so you can access it easily.
After talking about my process and reading a few poems, I set the group an exercise. First, I told them to brainstorm, quickly and without pause, a list of 6 to 10 people whose stories they would like to tell. These could be friends, people in the news, historical figures, or categories of people (such as "the homeless").
Then a few people shared who they had on their lists, and we talked about that a bit.
Next, I told them to start matching up each person on their list with an archetype. This proved a little harder, but I went around chatting with each and helping them come up with ideas. Characters abounded, such as The Snow Queen and Salome.
We discussed that for a bit, then we went off on a tangent in which I explained Charles Williams' concept of Exchange or Substitution to them, because that relates to speaking on behalf of someone. You can read about that concept here and here.
Finally, I just said "WRITE!" and they did. For a good fifteen minutes and more, heads down, pens and pencils and iphones sending out soft noises, they just wrote bits of poems and prose in the first-person voice of their composite characters. One lady they shared hers, and it was an awfully good first draft. I was hoping some folks might send me their end results, but no one has quite yet. We'll see.
It was a marvelous evening, full of inspiration and good work. To read the other persona poems in my collection, you'll have to purchase Caduceus on amazon. If you do, please consider writing a little review on amazon or on your website -- and please let me know that you have done so. Thanks!