Notes on the OPA Fall 2014 Weekend Retreat at Malabar, SEPT 13-14, 2014

SOME IDEAS from a Poetry Workshop on Place

By Diane Kendig

When possible, I like to plan workshops that fit the moment, so while I have various presentations in sound, meaning, structure, received forms and types, I like to create challenges that fit the particular moment or the place I am presenting. So years ago, when the National Poetry Society asked me to lead a workshop at their national convention, and fresh from the long, difficult death of my sister, I created a workshop on how form helps us to hold our grief, the way, Adrienne Rich first noted, a potholder enables us to hold hot stuff. For the Malabar workshop, I wanted to use the idea and fact of place, an idea that was so central to Bromfield's writing-- Malabar India, where he once lived and set a novel in that became a movie; Paris where he first farmed; New York, where he had studied at Columbia; and too and most of all, Malabar Farm,

I began thinking about the workshop by looking for types of poems about place and found four types, close at hand in my own book and then among favorite poems. While not an exhaustive nor determinative list of categories, it seemed to me that poems used the place in at least four ways.

First, as significant description, as in Daniel Thompson's "Hiroshima Day in Cleveland 1995," or my "Ganaoque."

Second, the place name itself is significant in the poem, or the point of the poem, as in Adrienne Rich's "Calle Vision," or my "Ohio Rag" or "Moving into Minimum."

Third, the place in the poem is the setting, as in Seamus Heaney's series, "Clearances," on the death of his mother, and particularly the seventh of these quatorzains, where he places such an emphasis on the place without describing it except in stunning metaphor. In this category, I placed Sylvia Plath's "Suicide Off Egg Rock" and my poem "Mandela Appears in Montreal."

And the fourth included poems that juxtapose places. Here I suggested James Wright's "To a Cicada" (Italy and Ohio) and my "Unearthing a Path" (Findlay and Oberlin--both Ohio).

Looking now at my categories, they seem to overlap, especially the first and the third, but I think that difference that I was going for is (in the first) poems that contained a lot of description of the place and (in the third) poems that did not, that instead of description were setting for a scene. The notion isn't so fuzzy as my choice of examples, which I will be revising. And the types weren't so important as getting lots of ideas into my participants' heads.

The first day, I asked the poets to focus on ONE place, using ONE of the first three techniques. The second day, I asked them to use the fourth type, by juxtaposing their first draft place with a second or by creating a new poem that juxtaposed two places.

I also worked up a multi-level lesson on nesting rhyme, which I have been peddling for years although no one ever seemed much interested in picking up on. Based on an exercise by Susan Mitchell in Twitchell and Behn's The Practice of Poetry, I have both explored and expanded her suggestion to write 10 poems in the form. Cati Porter, that marvelous editor (poet, mother, organizer extraordinaire) published my explanation and two of them poems in her online journal Poemeleon.

In addition, before ever beginning, I brainstormed a list of phrases about places, and I looked up lots of quotes on place. Here's my list. Please add your own in Comments.


“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity…. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

“Whether we like it or not, we all come from someplace. And at some point in our lives, we have to make peace with that place.”
Jeffrey Stepakoff, The Orchard

“Even places you know well can take on a touch of the unknown when you arrive there from a different direction.”
Kate Milford, Shadowhunters and Downworlders: A Mortal Instruments Reader

“You can't love a city if you have no memories buried there.”
Marina Tavares Dias

“One does not love a place the less because one has suffered in it.”
Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader

One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering.
--Jane Austen (1775-1817)

“Mesta su ljudi.”  (“The places are people.”Croatian or Portuguese)
Bernardo Carvalho, Mongólia

“Words transmit the human essence of things… and we need only to hear the word to imagine the kind of place which was given this name.”

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen 1845
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
            --Shakespeare, Midsummers night Dream V: 1

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.
            --Abraham Lincoln, Farewell address, Springfield, IL

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places, yea, I have a goodly heritage.
--Psalms 16:6

“You‘ll not find another place, you’ll not find another sea.
This city is going to follow you.”

In some cases, the name itself carries layers of history and imagery more apt than any miage the writer could add….Names themselves resonate with the history of the place.
            --Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir

***And two quotes which are the epigraphs of my book, The Places We Find Ourselves:

And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep….
                                    --Seamus Heaney, from #7 of “Clearances” in The Haw Lantern

The place of the poem is the place of our homelessness, the place of our groundlessness.”
                                    --Heather McHugh, in Broken English: Poetry and Partiality

In short

About place
Going places (and then, its opposite, going nowhere)
Oh the places you’ll go
In place
Know the place
Know your place
Move up (down) a place
No place for…
Place at the table
Place in history
Place in line
Place it/ Can’t place it
Place settings
Placed (located)
Placed (first, second….last)
Place name
Places, everyone
The places we find ourselves
This is (must be) the place