“Flour sack half-empty, and the cask is nearly dry.” That’s the first line of the first poem I’ve written since 10th-grade English class. I’ve titled it “Dawson City, 1899,” because, for some reason, I’ve lately been interested in the history of the Klondike gold rush. The rhythm appeals to me, but I’m not sure I have a whole poem in me.
Six of the seven other people attending the “You Be the Keats” poetry workshop at Wind Ridge Books of Vermont in Shelburne have also begun writing poems, most with more success than I’ve had. We sit around a large table in the Writers’ Barn, a cozy space made cozier by hot tea, homemade soup and the presence of a weeks-old puppy that alternately scampers and snoozes.
Leading the workshop is poet Daniel Lusk, 75, senior lecturer emeritus of English at the University of Vermont and one of the authors on Wind Ridge’s roster. The small local press has published Kin, Lusk’s most recent collection of poems. His wife, Angela Patten, is a Wind Ridge author, too. Her memoir High Tea at a Low Table: Stories from an Irish Childhood was also published this year (see facing page).
Throughout the five-hour workshop, Lusk offers prompts to generate ideas and praise to keep us writing. The theme is “Thanksgiving,” the idea being that the poems created here will be read aloud by their authors at their holiday dinners. But the subjects of these poems vary widely; mine is not the only one that has nothing to do with the holiday.
“Don’t worry about deep,” says Lusk. Rather, he says, it’s useful to remember that poetry isn’t only about “speaking from the heart” but about “speaking from the heart for other people, not just for yourself.”
Lusk grew up in a religious household (and was, for a time, a pastor), and the language of the King James Bible informs his own poetry. He’s a little surprised to learn that none of the attendees was raised in a particularly religious home. But that’s just as well, he says. “It just means that [the participants] have another orientation, and that’s what’s important to poets,” Lusk says later in an interview. “To call up the orientation you have, and to use whatever you’ve been given.”
Lin Stone, 61, is a Shelburne resident and Wind Ridge’s managing editor. She had an impulse to “give back” to the community, she recalls, but realized that it couldn’t take the form of publishing every single submitted manuscript. “So I began to think about the ways that I could be supportive,” she says.
Stone devised two strategies. The first was to add an imprint, Red Barn Books of Vermont, whose editorial services independent authors may hire for the purpose of creating their own books. The second was to hold a series of workshops for writers of all skill levels. Since last winter, Lusk, a longtime teacher, has led four different multiweek classes, as well as the one-day session that I’m in. He’s tentatively scheduled to lead another, in January, focused on breaking out of writer’s block.
That’s a workshop I could surely use, as my poem is going nowhere, even with Lusk’s encouragement and the supportive conversation in the Writers’ Barn. I come up with a few fragmentary ideas to describe the despair of isolated gold miners in the Yukon — snow-melt coffee, chilblains, pans full of pyrite — but nothing jells.
Lusk encourages us to “steal shamelessly” from texts that we like; he’s done it himself. As an example, he notes the time, years ago, when he admired another poet’s use of the word “pellucid” and borrowed it for one of his own works.
I consider this refreshing and helpful advice, but my attempts at pilfering lines from an Anthony Burgess novel and a Keith Richards song prove fruitless. Other participants, though, are having more success.
Anne Bakeman is a veteran of Lusk’s workshops, having taken one called “Delights and Shadows” several months back. A retired educator, she says, “I’m trying to be a poet,” then confidently corrects herself. “I am a poet!”
Though at first she was anxious about the “You Be the Keats” workshop, Bakeman is inspired to hear other participants’ stories. “We all incorporate other people’s stories into our own stories,” she says. “Even if we only know little teeny pieces, we use them, and it expands our perspective. That richness is what I really love about the workshops.” Bakeman has set herself the ambitious goal of completing a book of poetry by her birthday in June.
Another participant, Laura Wisniewski, is a more experienced poet, having written for most of her life and published a few poems in literary journals. Wisniewski, the founder and director of Beecher Hill Yoga in Hinesburg, is attending the workshop in part because, as she puts it, “I’m at a stage in my life where I suddenly feel like devoting more time to my writing.”
During the session, Lusk suggests we think of poetry as a service to others, and that notion strikes a chord with Wisniewski. “It’s a really nice idea to think of … the poem as something you’re doing for someone else,” she says. Both she and Bakeman eagerly respond in the affirmative when asked if they would attend another workshop.
Lusk offers encouragement when I read my poem’s lone line, kindly remarking that it reminds him of the works of populist poet Robert W. Service. Who, I later learn, was known as “the Bard of the Yukon.”
Service’s poems, many of which are available online, do have a plainness that appeals to me, but, frankly, I’m a bit discouraged. A better (and handsomer) poet has already written better poems about a subject I thought was fairly unusual. Apparently, the critical establishment largely dismissed the man’s work, but I’m still flattered by the comparison. Service was one of the most successful and widely published poets of the 20th century.
Well, shove it on over, long-deceased Robert W. Service. I’m now a published poet, too.
Flour-sack half-empty, and the cask is nearly dry
No beefsteak left
No coffee left
Whatever’s not snow is pyrite
Whatever’s not pyrite is ice
Three more cabins now greasy smoke and kindling
No bullets left