“She Believed She Could”: A Squam Story

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Last week I led a six hour Found Poetry Workshop at the spring Squam Art Workshops retreat on serene Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire. My introduction to ‘Squam’ came a little over a year ago when founder and director Elizabeth Duvivier contacted me through my Etsy shop to ask if I’d consider giving a poetry reading at the June 2014 retreat. My first poetry collection Church of Needles was due out in May and I asked Elizabeth if the reading could double as my book launch.  In what I’ve come to understand as Elizabeth’s enthusiastic, make things happen modus operandi, she answered with a definitive ‘yes’ and pulled together a lovely reading at the camp’s 1930s style playhouse, attended by the most encouraging, kind group of women (of all ages) knitting away as I read. I’ve been spoiled by that generous audience and have wished many times since that I could enforce a ‘knitters only’ rule at my readings.

Let me say that in the insular, fairly academic poetry world, holding your book launch at an arts’ summer camp in the center of New Hampshire where every other rock has been adorned with a sweater knit to its own rocky specifications, is not just uncommon but will likely be dismissed out of hand as ‘not serious’. The poetry world is fairly serious. I myself come across as serious, but I nurture a decidedly stubborn, at times eccentric, “excuse-me-while-I-give-my-great-horned-owl-call” core, so I took a chance, shortly after my reading at last year’s retreat, and pitched a workshop idea to Elizabeth for the June 2015 retreat: The Found Poetry Project. I described a basic outline of the workshop because it was all in my head at that point. Elizabeth said ‘yes’ again and I proceeded to worry for about a year. Because if there’s anything less definable than holding your book launch at summer camp its leading a six hour workshop (all at once) culminating in decoupage.  A six hour workshop is like a three to six week series of workshops in the ‘real world’. In my own life, on a daily basis, I bridge the gap between my crafty and poetry selves. I approach them similarly, but poetry is my vocation, my calling, where art and craft are creative experimentation for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever mastered a hands-on art or craft. Once I reach the point of near-mastery I get bored and have to put it aside. In my years as a serial Etsy shop owner and craft dabbler I have taught myself to wet felt and needle felt, spin, sculpt dolls in paper clay, quilt, knit, paint, make baubles out of various vintage bits, etc. etc. All of this to say that the folks at Squam are just as much my tribe as my fellow poets. Still, I worried that my offering of a writing workshop competing with knitting, rug hooking, sewing mushrooms and seed pods, (all that scrumptious color!) just wouldn’t be enough to get students through the door. Who wants to go to summer camp and write? By the time retreat rolled around last week I was over prepared. Each of my students would get a binder containing essentials for the workshop, as well as ‘take-homes. I’ll give a quick rundown: source pages to ‘write’ erasure and Centos, small art prints (unique to each binder) for Ekphrasis, a Penguin books title postcard for another prompt, a packet of index cards for a question/answer prompt, many loose pages from vintage books for prompts and the aforementioned decoupage, example poems, sheet of poetic terms, a list of additional prompts for home. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was enough, wanted to do more, worried it was too much, that my small group of intrepid students would feel like they were in school. I needn’t have worried. Each of my students came with different reasons for taking the workshop. All were so open, enthusiastic and focused. Several expressed gratitude for the format of the workshop (timed prompts, lots of prompts, how I kept things moving) and the binder full of stuff. They were writers and students at heart! I was so impressed with the quality of writing these students produced. I had created about five solitary writing outposts inside and outside our classroom so they could get off by themselves to write and come back to the group between prompts. All chose to stay at our group table and mentioned appreciating the energy of writing with others.

I’ve led few workshops, not many, much shorter than The Found Poetry Project and was worried I’d have a hard time ‘leading’ for six hours, that I’d run out of things to say, would come across as too teachery, not teachery enough. My students told me after the fact that they worried about writing poetry, didn’t know what to expect, feared they couldn’t do it. Besides publishing a few books and giving readings, my professional life is small. I don’t teach college classes (the meat and bread of many creative writers), I don’t teach at writers’ conferences, I’m not a mover and shaker in the poetry world. I’ve homeschooled my boys, who are quickly aging out of homeschooling. In short, I’m a little insulated, a little sheltered. But sometimes, things you need for your own growth and challenges you’re ready to take just kind of sneak up as if to say “it’s time”. The minute the workshop began, I felt like a fish in water. Leading this group of women seemed the most natural thing in the world. I wanted them to have fun, to write, to leave with poems and the potential for more poems. The nurturer in me wanted to shepherd them through the workshop and deliver them on the other side, enriched. And I think it worked! The feedback was astounding: “this was truly a gift”, “this workshop has blown open the doors for me”.

Doors:) I have an oddball habit of spotting ‘doors’ between tree trunks, making a wish and walking through. I was a little jittery before the first session of the workshop (see everything above).  Because our class space was located in a building a distance from the hub of camp, and because they had to walk, students began arriving early. For about 15 minutes it was just me and one student. My fears were bubbling to the surface, that familiar fear I get before giving a reading where my mind goes blank and I know I’m likely to forget all the intelligent things I have to say.  I stepped out of the classroom and stood by the picnic table, and what appeared to be an out-of-service sandbox (weeds were reclaiming the space). I took a deep breath and tried to think calming thoughts, but thoughts, by their nature, aren’t calming. There were many, many tree trunks but none offered themselves up as entryways, so I had to imagine. I said to myself: “This is it, I’m prepared. I know what I’m doing. I’m walking through the door”. And I did.

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Mini magnetic poetry kits made by students

5 thoughts on ““She Believed She Could”: A Squam Story

  1. What lucky students to have been taught by you. I’m sure you needn’t have worried. I don’t know you personally but feel I do from reading you’re wonderful poetry and blog posts. You’re such a wise, sweet soul.

  2. Thanks so much Robin! I have met (in person and online) some very lovely people through creativity. I really hope you can make it to Squam next June, it would be great to meet you in person.

  3. Dear Sarah, I just want to thank you once again for your wonderful class! It was so rich, and your teaching so inspiring, it truly filled me up with new ways of touching my creativity. Lovely. It will be strong in my memories of Squam.

    • Thank you Kathy! I truly enjoyed teaching all of you. You all brought unique perspectives to the group and your writing. I think everyone benefited from that diversity. Thanks for really throwing your whole self in. Maybe we’ll cross paths at Squam again.

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