I returned from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference in Chicago this weekend inspired by the most unlikeliest of writers: Marie Ponsot, a poet. I do not write poetry, but I do care about the role of the writer in the world and the craft of writing. I worry that my sense of how and why I write is antiquated, to help others into explorations of ideas often unmarketable and unusual. As a contrarian, a loner, and an Aristotlean, is there still a place for me?
In the panel, “The Duty of a Writer,” Marie Ponsot said simply, “The duty of a poet is to write poetry.” The work of writing defines a poet, she said. The struggle to write a poem. The action of writing a poem. Not the thought, nor the hope of writing poetry. “The mastery of skill is the mastery of oneself.” This mastery is internal; it is inexpensive; it is ongoing. Above all, this is a practical mastery. To listen is one of the most important skills a writer must cultivate; to listen in a world full of noises and phenomena is difficult. The act of work sharpens and deepens the writer’s listening skills. I am paraphrasing Ponsot’s words, leaving out so much, and perhaps distorting her at once complicated and simple message.
To improve as a writer, I have tried to slow down my thoughts, and my fingers, to ponder words and sentences before they become entities on the page. Every writer, I believe, must work against his or her weaknesses. Mine are that I write too fast and too colloquially. I can create a story (plot plot plot!), yet I often find the care missing from my words. I do often ‘see’ beyond what others see: I read as much philosophy as literature and I do not care for the crowd. But often that ‘sight’ is not translated into the words that reveal a new world on the page. I am trying to improve.
In a recent essay, “Trapped,” I wrote about how my body and its “loin energy” at once give me an advantage and a disadvantage. I love to work; the more I work, the more I can work. Yet this nervousness, or incessant thinking and doing and wanting to do, hampers my listening. To write better, I need to quiet myself. Reading poetry and studying the mechanics of poetry and listening to poets have helped me to counter my weaknesses as a prose writer.
I returned from Chicago, and discovered that I already knew Marie Ponsot’s work. Scott Hightower, another poet-teacher, had long ago recommended Beat Not the Poor Desk, by Marie Ponsot and Rosemary Deen. This is the best book on teaching writing I have ever read, and I had forgotten the authors but remembered the impact this book had on my work years ago. Without friends like Scott and teachers like Marie Ponsot, where would I be? These good writers are good people who care to teach.
Incidentally, I attended another panel, “Big House/Small House,” with LeAnne Howe, Rilla Askew, Tracy Daugherty, Molly Giles, and Allen Wier. This was also, in my opinion, another excellent panel at the AWP. In particular, Tracy Daugherty’s thoughtful reflections on the right expectations of literary writers for their careers, their relationship with an editor, and ‘what should be enough for the good writer’ brought me back again to how and why good words on the page matter most of all. I will be in Denver next year, again to listen and improve.