I spent a couple hours this afternoon at Carrboro’s annual West End Poetry Festival. Today opened with a craft talk by Cathy Smith Bowers, poetry professor at Queens University of Charlotte and North Carolina’s sixth poet laureate (2010-2012). Her talk’s title, “Writing With the Net Up,” is a riff on Robert Frost’s quote, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” In her workshop she discussed why poets might return to fixed forms like the villanelle, sestina, ghazal, phantom and Danté’s form of choice, terza rima.
Smith Bowers said that for 20 years she wrote nothing but free verse poetry. But when she was faced with the responsibilities of being poet laureate, she was too busy to lose herself in writing. In fact, free verse stopped coming as easily. So she began experimenting with fixed forms. What she found was that fixed forms allowed her to work on poems piecemeal, a strategy that fit better in her life. Smith Bowers said that up until that point she viewed fixed forms as undesirable, controlling mediums. But when she started playing with them, she found them to be exactly the opposite. They actually presented a great opportunity for discoveries she may have missed otherwise.
Smith Bowers claims to be a narrative poet and blames it on being from the south. But she also admits that as her career develops, she finds herself writing commissioned pieces or poems for which she had no personal investment. At these times she always turns to fixed forms. She claims that they allow her to focus more on an abiding image rather than on a bigger theme with little to no resonance.
During her talk, Smith Bowers solicited crowd participation. She asked us to identify a “stand-out phrase” which she defined as a haunting line/phrase that we can’t shake (her own example was “more weight” from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). Then she told us to think about a tough moment in our lives and write an 8-10 syllable line about it, and then write another 8-10 syllable line that rhymed with it. After a few folks read their lines, Smith Bowers encouraged us dot reference these lines as starting points for some of the fixed forms. In doing so, she made their construction more accessible, and even more fun. As the crowd sat writing pieces and parts of fixed form poems, I thought of my teacher, Marvin Bell. He’s always saying something like, “learn the rules and then break them.” I like the prospect of giving fixed forms a shake. But I am more excited to tear them apart thereafter.
Two fantastic craft talks in two weeks. I feel lucky!