Teaching Lessons

Becoming a Poet

Print

By Priscilla Long

August 29, 2016


 

 

As a teenager, I began writing poems in my journal, a wide-ruled Mead composition book. You knew it was a poem because it was titled “Poem.” And I kept on writing “poems,” some of them not so bad. While working as a printer in Boston in the 1970s and ’80s, I exchanged poems with a couple of friends but also kept my eye on Harold Bond’s poetry seminar at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I needed to clear enough time to properly do the assignments—rumor informed that Bond’s class was rigorous—so I waited to sign up. Finally, in the fall of 1983, I enrolled in my first poetry class. I took it for three quarters, a total of 30 weeks.

What happiness, to be required to do what you most want to do. Bond asked us to write a poem every week. “Write a poem expressing love, which does not use the word love.” “ Write a poem using no adjectives and no adverbs.” “Write a poem that pertains to a photograph or a painting (an ekphrastic poem).” First lesson learned: you can write a poem (or anything, really) on assignment.

Each poem had to have a title, no exceptions. Second lesson learned: titles have mojo. Put down the title first. If it’s a bad one, it will stick out its tongue every time you look at it and thereby inspire a better one. Today, I never start a piece (poem or prose) untitled; neither do the writers I teach. Occasionally a great title comes to mind first—then you must write the poem.

Bond required that the first line of the poem commence three spaces below the title. What does this have to do with poetry? Quite a lot, actually. One way to start writing a poem is to start writing something that looks like a poem.

We would meet every week to go over our latest work. But before we workshopped our poems, Bond presented a model from literature, which we studied and discussed. He then assigned us to write a new poem somehow infused with these qualities, due the following week. Third lesson learned: it’s the great works of art that are the great teachers. To this day, in my writing classes a core strategy is to study the technical moves of virtuoso literary works and to incorporate them into our own practice.

At the conclusion of each quarter, Bond required us to declaim our poems to an audience. We were terrified, but we did it. Thirty years later, I still do it.

We all wondered about Harold Bond. He was formal, perceptive, and kind. We knew he’d published a book or two. Did we know that he was the son of Armenian immigrants, that his mother survived Turkish Armenia during World War I by the happenstance of being elsewhere when her village was bombed, that his original name was Bondjoukjian? I don’t think so. Did we know what malady caused him to be physically challenged—something about the use of his hand and his gait? (In an early poem titled “The Game” he writes, “My affliction is your / hangup …”) We knew nothing about it. We only knew how encouraged we felt after each workshop, how happy we were to have found our métier, how eager we were to write the next poem. Bond died in 2000 at the age of 60. His legacy, though, lives on.

 

Harold Bond, 1939–2000. His three books of poems are The Northern Wall (1969), Dancing on Water (1970), and The Way It Happens to You (1979).


Priscilla Long is the author of Crossing Over: Poems. Her two new books, both published in 2016, are a collection of essays, Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? and Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.


Comments powered by Disqus