BY STEPHANIE BARBÉ HAMMER
Jan. 21, 2015
Whidbey may be an island, but we draw some of the most brilliant writers in the US to our foggy shores.
Recently, I’ve spent time with not one but TWO Washington State Poets Laureate. (By the way, it’s not Poet Laureates, but rather Poets Laureate. Like Attorneys General. Explanation courtesy of current Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen.)
Two weeks ago at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA), Austen taught a poetry workshop to 27 people. Although we could barely fit around the table, the crowded conditions hardly mattered because Austen made that crowded table feel like the kitchen counter at her house. We hung out, read together and chewed on some complex poetic imagery. We thought about trees, mustard, cheese sandwiches, and floods in Florence, allowing those images to help us cook up our own poems. We walked out with heads full of word-recipes for future work.
That evening, several of us dined with Austen and former Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken. We sat at the Roaming Radish and talked about how to bring young people into the literature conversation. Flenniken’s eyes shone as she described the reactions of kids in the schools she visited. “How do these words make you feel?” she’d ask. And they’d tell her. We decided that poems can get at emotions in a way that no other word-work can.
I heard Flenniken again the following week at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) MFA program, which meets twice yearly at the Captain Whidbey Inn. In her class on listening, Flenniken asked us to make a poem using 10 words that she would assign to us. Each word needed to have its own line, and the whole thing had to make sense. But we got only one word at a time, so we didn’t know what was coming. That meant we had to really open up and hear the possibilities each word offered.
It’s amazing what comes out when you just listen.
NILA also presented novelist Nancy Rawles, who taught a class on revisiting that great book idea you had once and then abandoned. Should you revisit it? How do you decide? How long will it take you to re-investigate the project? Great questions to consider. Subsequently, Rawles paid a visit to Whidbey Air Radio to discuss her critically-acclaimed novel My Jim, explaining that her book tells the story Huckleberry Finn does not tell: what happens to Jim’s wife and family after he escapes.
Rawles’s novel gives us insight into the lives of the majority of African American captive workers who lived and died as slaves.
Later that week Tananarive Due appeared in our NILA classroom. Due is a civil rights memoirist and best-selling horror/suspense novelist. She gave us pointers and examples of how to craft powerful characters, how to create suspense and what resources to use when doing research for historical fiction. In the class on research, she showed us a photograph of an elegant African American woman wearing a beautiful shirtwaist dress being dragged off by two white policemen. “That’s my mother,” said Due.
In the subsequent talk she described how her family’s struggle for Civil Rights empowered her fictionalized narrative account of the remarkable Madame C.J. Walker, reputedly the first female African American millionaire. “Use your personal history to fire up your writing,” Due urged us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m fired up to read more by and about these incredible authors, and I’m proud of our island organizations for bringing these wonders to us.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer lives mostly in Coupeville with occasional treks into the wilds of Los Angeles. Her poetry collection “How Formal?” launched in May 2014 and her brand-spanking new novel “The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior” (about German Americans, secret Anabaptists, bunraku puppets, ghosts, and hope) comes out later this year. You can follow her on twitter at stephaniebarbeh and read her blog here: www.stephaniebarbehammer.net.
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