Antioch Writers’ Workshop 2009

by Ed Davis on July 30, 2009

The Mask: Answering the Call

“If you want a man to tell the truth, give him a mask.” So said Rebecca McClanahan at this year’s Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) held from July 12-17 in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

It’s true of Bob Dylan with a guitar, Jon Stewart with a microphone and most teachers with chalk or powerpoint slides. Give a creative person a role and he/she can often make magic. At AWW this year, all of us in Ms. McClanahan’s class donned the mask of poetry.

Serve the Language

Rebecca McClanahan is one of the most inspiring yet truly substantive teachers of poetry currently traveling the workshop circuit—and I’ve seen more than a few, having been a workshopper since 1978. She hit us between the eyes the first day by focusing on sound in poetry, dazzling us with an array of poets and techniques. “You’re here to serve the language,” she told us, “and not vice versa.”

It’s just like I tell my own students: self-expression is for the journal; shared poetry, public poetry, communicates and heals through kiln-fired language that has led us, hopefully, “where no man (or woman) has gone before.” If we surrender and let it. Thankfully she taught us many ways to do just that.

Blow the Mother Up

And sometimes, as McClanahan said (quoting a poet-friend of hers) we have to take our poems (and those of others, when asked) and “blow the mother ______ (s) up!” She taught me to look at my work more critically as well as more lovingly (for example, to seek joy, “the last taboo”).

Other McClanahan gems:

  • “Writing begets more writing.”
  • “We play the language.”
  • “The way you’d sing it is the way it looks on the page.”
  • “Free verse isn’t free; it costs a lot. Form is the most freeing thing possible. ”
  • “The deep story comes through when you tell it indirect.”
  • “You don’t capture anything—that sunset, moonrise you’re beholding—on paper; you capture a text.”
  • “We read to see a lively mind at work, so let the wild stuff in.”
  • “Give the reader a job, and make it emotional, never menial.”

Re-birth of a Poet

I’ve written and published poetry since the eighties; however, in recent years I’d mostly given it up in favor of writing novels. But when, months ago, AWW asked me to offer a one-day two-hour poetry workshop to beginners, I began steeping myself in exercises, first by reading Robin Behn and Chase Twichell’s excellent, meaty The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets who Teach in order to help me design a prompt to keep students working all week on a project.

Since my exercise needed to be road-tested, I must’ve written twenty “fast poems” to cannibalize for their best lines. At the workshop, McClanahan called poems generating more poems “seed poems,” a much gentler metaphor than mine!

Then, three days before the workshop began, the director called: would I fill in for University of Cincinnati poet John Drury, whose father had passed away, and facilitate the afternoon poetry seminar? I thought about it for five seconds—then agreed. How could I say no to the workshop which had rejuvenated my sad, sagging teaching career; where I’d found my agent/publisher; where I’d made enduring literary and personal friendships. Little did I suspect this teaching gig would lead to one of the best studenting gigs I’ve ever had.

I found myself addicted to Rebecca’s class. Busy as I was, keeping up with reading my students’ poetry—up to twenty pages each evening to be ready to critique the next day in class—and attending readings, pitch sessions and meetings, I never missed a day. It was just too much fun—and I was learning way too much.

And I was far from the only one. Attendance, always high the first day, did not decline as the week went on (it might’ve increased)—and that happened despite that participants at AWW inevitably flag from the intensity of all there is to do. A fellow fiction writer I lunched with one day e-mailed to say how high McClanahan’s course had made him and to ask which poetry course he should take at Sinclair Community College, where I teach.

I suspect there’s a lot more poetry being written in the Miami Valley than there was prior to July 13!

Back to the Mask

To don your own mask, regardless of the genre you write in—or whether you’re even a writer— check out her exercise “Your Multiple Selves” from her book Write Your Heart Out on her website at

Next: To Workshop or not . . .

The only thing I came close to disagreeing with McClanahan on was her comment that writers avoid workshops that “fix” poems. I’d like to address that—and solicit your comments—in coming days. Write on! 🙂

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