Romancing the Word
As a beginner in poetry writing, I crave reading all the material that might facilitate a look into the poetry making process of other poets, or teach me any new trick that can put me in that particular state of mind in which it becomes imperative to set words on paper and move them around, adding, cutting, and sculpting until they forget their state of wordness and turn into a message-like elixir conferring recognition at the first—tasteful or horrid—sip. (Yes, I do know that there is no such word as wordness, and no, I’m not going to tell you the story about the creative license: you already know it.)
Unfortunately, I always have less time than I have material to read. During the academic year I have self-made rules. The books on the craft of writing, those books that can take over my life, like the worst addiction, must stay on the shelf. But this time, I was on a mission. I had to deliver a book review on a poetry writing book for my poetry writing blog. This shattered my good rule about books on shelves. No, not shattered. Exploded into bits. Crushed into grains of sand. Ground to powder. For the last three weeks or even more, I’ve been reading about eight books at the same time. My curious nature refuses to wait for the end of one book and sneakily, opens another one, just to find out a tad earlier what’s in there. This is how, most of the time, I end up reading dozens of books at once. I delight in the way they get to stay with me longer before they give their last advice, before they head back to their library shelf.
The problem with this kind of reading is that it takes ten times as long to finish a single book. When I had to make the decision of finishing one of them for a book review, I decided to go with one that I always put down reticently. It could be said that it picked itself for my book review. Its title, just like its general atmosphere, suits perfectly my actual state of mind. It stands out as a lit neon sign on an empty sand beach after dark:
Poemcrazy—Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge
Although the first hardcover edition was published in 1996 by Clarkson Potter Publishers, Poemcrazy—Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge has been recently republished by Three Rivers Press, a branch of the esteemed Random House Publishing. In a genre like the art and craft of poetry, where new material lands every day on the already oversaturated market, this fact alone says a lot about the quality of the book.
“Poemcrazy published by Random House, was a Writer’s Digest book club selection, a Quality Paperback book club selection, and, even though it has been published as a book for adults, it “crossed-over”, and was added on the New York Library List of Outstanding Books for Teens. Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge is the author of two other books: Bathing with Ants – a book of poems, and one more poetry crafting book, Foolsgold: Making Something from Nothing (and freeing your creative process).
She lives in California where she teaches workshops in rural libraries with funded support from Poets and Writers organization and the California Center for the Book.
Wooldridge’s Poemcrazy is practically a poetry workshop in a book form. It is structured like a series of inspirational stories and anecdotes, most of them personal, each one followed by an area of practice. There are prompts and exercises to satisfy and inspire a large range of people. Each exercise turns out to be a foolproof way of arriving to a first draft poem. She engages her readers with her enthusiasm and joyfulness. The style of her stories is warm, unpretentious and, often, downright poetic. I will quote a part in which she remembers a tiny mishap at one of the workshops she was teaching: “Someone spilled water from Wendy’s vase of flowering quince on the rug” she says “and it looked like a dog had peed in front of the podium, shedding pink petals at the same time” (Wooldridge 49). It stopped me in my reading, made me think and smile. I found the contrast in the two images quite frisky and, yes, poetical. There was no podium involved in their workshop. She created the idea of a podium and of the dog peeing while shedding pink petals as a poetical alternative justification for the spilt water. Beautiful, different, shocking or perhaps confusing? Yes, all of the above and even more. Nonchalant. Playful. Frolicsome.
She makes word-lists and looks around for anything in her path to trigger a poem then, at random, she adds found objects or list-words she calls “tickets”. Many times, the creating labor becomes child’s play and sometimes mayhem, but, hey, you’ll have a poem to show for at the end of the madness.
Her readers learn about poems and poetry from her sprinkling of high quality stanzas or quotations from poets, artists, or other famous people like Emily Dickenson, Georgia O’Keefe, and Confucius. She approaches most poetical devices, like metaphors, similes, repetitions, and hyperboles in a poetic but unpretentious manner, easy to follow by all levels of comprehending.
Unchaining the poetry making desire with the use of her methods, she liberates the creating power from within a person. Her innumerable ways of getting inspired to write poems include (but are not limited to) painting, music, places, movement, and people. She demonstrates how one can write as a persona, as a trickster or a troublemaker and even as his own shadow, which, in her vision, is always an exact opposite of the shadow’s owner. The picture on the cover represents her own shadow, who” wanted to be on that cover, dressed in black, leaping” (Wooldridge 87). From among the testimonials the publisher chose for the back cover on Wooldridge’s workshop teachings I chose to quote Amy Tullius, who, in Poetry and the Piano Workshop said: "Susan doesn’t teach poetry so much as unlock it. Her teaching itself is poetry."
Alison Luterman says: “Susan Wooldridge's poems arrive breathless with the wonder and power of language, drenched in the magic of the natural world, and touched with mysticism. With one foot grounded in humor and the other in awe, she takes on topics ranging from driving a car full of vegetables to the eros of geese, but her true subject is always the mysterious intersection of the human and what lies beyond our power to describe.” Indeed, Wooldridge is a poet, but above all, she is a teacher of poets, a poet-maker, a poet-inspirer.
The only thing that could have been improved is the book’s structure that, after a while, feels a little repetitive and monotone. Also, because poetry is more than a very good first draft, I would have liked to see the book go deeper into the editing process, a very important stage of the writing process.
A few reviews also find fault in the areas of “silliness” of the book but I think that, silliness or no silliness, Poemcrazy delivers what the author sets out to do in the first place which makes the book a valuable multi-trigger of anyone’s inner poet. Not all poems should be written in a serious manner. We need playfulness and—sure, why not— even silliness in our lives. But then even when you write a poem having fun at it, nothing can stop the poet from adding a little or, indeed, all the depth he or she is capable of.
It was a pleasure to read the book. I have learned from it about freedom. Poetry can be freeing. Poetry can allow for play. Poetry can be written in meditation as well as in mindless playfulness. Poetry that flies off the mind like flocks of geese in the calm of the evening.
I ordered both her other books, Bathing with Ants and Foolsgold. I am planning on a few free poetry workshops for children but I will never be caught without at least one of Wooldridge’s books in my bag, for the worst cases of poet’s block.
Who would be interested in such a book? People like me, looking for just another way to fool the mind into creating something new, that first draft - dreadful to set down on paper - because it is so dull and unpoetical. The play takes away the fear of writing bad and allows for a laugh or two instead. Patiently allows for the real work to come later. On the jeweler’s cutting table, reeking of dread and perspiration. Because this means that, like the uncut diamond, the first draft is already there, waiting to be worked on, to be prepared to shine in full light.
This book is for the poetry instructors out there, opening the road to new budding poets, leading them into a new and exciting adventure in the creative land. Also, I feel that this book is for the ones to whom poetry is not a goal. For those who are after the transformational power of poetry and after the healing of the soul through poetic words.
I am in awe of her undeniable skills to get a person to draw upon such a multitude of common and uncommon experiences with a childish enthusiasm toward the process and result, in a “look ma! no hands!” kind of rush.