by Jessica Guzman
Tuesday Oct 14Friday Oct 17, 2014
Marianne Boruch and the Sturm workshop participants. Top row: Feagin Jones, Elizabeth Leo, Patric Nuttall, Caleb Milne. Middle row: Xin Tian Koh, Sadie Shorr-Parks, Sarah Munroe, Jessica Guzman. Bottom row: Morgan O’Grady, Marianne Boruch, Travis Mersing, Maryann Hudak, Barrett Lipkin.
On the first night of the Virginia Butts Sturm Workshop, Writer-in-Residence Marianne Boruch set the tone for the week by making a simple request: “Give me an image of something you saw today.” One student described a fallen ice cream cone. Another mentioned a pile of dead flies. Each image was of something broken or unusual, and Marianne pointed out the tension in such disjointed things. “The most important thing to me is: can I see it?” she said. She gifted each workshop participant a 3” X 4” composition book, an “image journal,” with the instructions to record at least five images we see every day. She asked us to recall our earliest memories and to think of those images as poetic beginnings.
We spent the next three days workshopping and writing down everything Marianne had to say. Among many definitions of poetry, Marianne talked about the three guidelines Wallace Stevens discusses in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”: 1. a poem must give pleasure, 2. something must change, and 3. it must be abstract, which Marianne described as “some opening, even a slight opening, to some larger thing.”
With these guidelines in mind, Marianne gave us generous insights into our work and the work of others, helping us articulate what a poem changes by nature of its existence, while still considering how to craft a more precise line. She warned us against editing too early in a draft, and she encouraged us to free ourselves during the early stages of composition. “We don’t keep open long enough with those early drafts,” she said. “Everyone has different voices at different times of the day. It’s not finding yourself, but losing yourself.”
While we spent the bulk of each session discussing our poems, Marianne also engaged us in multiple production and revision activities. One night, we read aloud over fifty definitions of the word “break,” choosing one as inspiration to write a poem. “Scissors are one machine I can understand,” she said on another night, as we cut and rearranged the stanzas of an Eavan Boland poem. Workshop participant Xin Tian Koh said, “Learning about Marianne’s relationship to poetry was refreshingI plan to steal some of her ideas for my classes.”
Marianne was extremely generous with her time. In addition to workshop sessions, she also met with all participants in small groups at the Hotel Morgan. During my group session, she asked us about our poet “crushes” and how we started writing poetry. We talked about the obsessive nature of writing and the fears of a looming audience. “Treat submitting as a hobby, like raising tropical fish,” she said. “But the real work is between you and your poems.” At the end of the meeting, she gave each of us a list of poets to read based on our individual workshop manuscripts. That evening, Marianne and her husband joined James Harms, chair of the English department, Mary Ann Samyn, director of creative writing, and the third-year poetry MFAs for dinner at Iron Horse Tavern.
Marianne also gave two readings during her time in Morgantown. On Thursday, October 16th, she read poems from The Book of Hours, Cadaver, Speak, and her newest untitled manuscript, to a crowd in the Robinson Reading Room of the downtown library. During the reading, Marianne talked about her experiences writing each collection. Of the title poem from Cadaver, Speak, she talked about taking an anatomy class at Purdue University. “My speaker is my favorite cadaver,” she said. “Everyone has [a favorite] in the cadaver lab, turns out.” The following morning, Marianne read prose from The Glimpse Traveler, a memoir recounting a nine-day trip she took in 1971.
Marianne believes that a poem can start with mystery and head toward clarity, or start with clarity and head toward mystery. “Poems really are made of sound and silence,” she said. Like a poem, this year’s Sturm workshop provided both through reflection, creativity, and care. Thank you to Marianne Boruch for her generosity during her time as Virginia Butts Sturm Writer-in-Residence, and thank you to the creative writing faculty at WVU for their support in making Sturm happen.
During workshop. From left: Sadie Shorr-Parks, Marianne Boruch, Maryann Hudak, Feagin Jones, and Morgan O’Grady.
Marianne Boruch reading in the Robinson Reading Room of the downtown library.
Marianne Boruch reading in 130 Colson Hall.
Poet and essayist Marianne Boruch is the author of seven collections of poetry, including, most recently, Cadaver, Speak (2014); The Book of Hours (2011); Grace, Fallen From (2008); and Poems: New & Selected (2004). Her honors include the Kingsley Tufts Prize, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, residencies from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, Pushcart Prizes, and a Fulbright/Visiting Professorship from the University of Edinburgh. She has served as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, and at Isle Royale, America’s most isolated national park. Boruch has taught at Tunghai University in Taiwan, and at the University of Maine at Farmington, going on, in 1987, to develop and direct the MFA program in creative writing at Purdue University where she continues to be on faculty. Since 1988, she has also taught semi-regularly in the low-residency graduate Program for Writers at Warren Wilson.