Points on poetry

Taking Donald Nitchie’s online poetry workshop.

Donald Nitchie taking in a class. — Courtesy Donald Nitchie

Poetry has always stumped me. I adore reading, and am an avid fan of fiction and nonfiction of all sorts. But poetry has remained elusive, despite my parents’ love of the art form. I even took a class in college, hoping to break the mystery. Not much luck.

But I decided to take the plunge now, when I learned that our own poet and teacher, Donald Nitchie, whose poetry collection “Driving Lessons” was published by Pudding House in 2008, offers a free workshop hosted by the West Tisbury library. It’s conveniently held on alternating Wednesdays, this time from Feb. 1 until March 29, at 4:30 pm via Zoom. I thought that perhaps the combination of reading poetry and getting a chance to try my hand at it might be a way in.

Speaking to Nitchie beforehand also helped assuage my concern. I began by telling him that I was either the best or worst person to be taking his class because, although I am a published author, editor, journalist, and student in other writing workshops, I hadn’t yet been able to grasp poetry. He replied, “Terrific!” When he described what we would be doing, I was definitely intrigued.

How it unfolds is this. First, we get a chance to read that week’s poems ahead of time, to mull them over. The first batch was a mixture of approaches to a type called self-inventory poems. Some I grasped, others I wasn’t so sure of. Joining the Zoom on Wednesday, we jumped in, with volunteers reading the pieces aloud and discussing them as a group. Hearing them read aloud and what others had to say about them made them more accessible.

Nitchie then gave us our writing assignment. We could approach the self-inventory poem however we wished, with the suggestion that we might borrow a single line or the entire approach of one of the poems. Somehow the phrase, “Wouldn’t It Be Marvelous” came to me, and I just went with it. My first line flowed out … “Wouldn’t it be marvelous if I were so much less complicated?” From there my verses ended up touring my psyche, each verse turning over a different aspect. After our 27 minutes of allotted silent time for writing was complete, we all unmuted, and those who wanted to read their piece. Again, hearing them read, especially this time in the voice of the author, helped make them reachable. Nitchie and others gave gentle and encouraging feedback. I even worked up the courage after a while to share mine, with the preamble that this was my maiden effort. Everyone was kind and supportive, and most important, I was pretty proud of having taken the chance to give voice to my own creation.

I spoke to Nitchie about how he got into teaching, and particularly his approach. He explained, “One of the things I did when I was first trying to write poetry was journaling. In the 1970s there was a lot of group journaling based on a therapeutic nature of writing. So I had experience with that early on. Then I fell in love with a book called ‘Wishes, Lies, and Dreams’ by Kenneth Koch, about teaching children poetry. It’s about poets going into schools in New York and giving them assignments. One of the things they learned was that it was better to teach the kids how to write than what to write. To give them a structure and give them examples. That’s where I come from.”

A further influence in this approach came about 10 years ago, when Nitchie went to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. “There was a guy giving a presentation who shared about teaching adults, where you go in and give poems as examples,” Nitchie said. “For instance, poems like letters, someone talking to the poet, where you talk to yourself. One of the examples is the self-inventory poem.”

Here on the Vineyard, Nitchie got a grant to teach poetry in the elementary schools, and has taught adult classes from time to time. I was curious about what he would like us to walk away with from his workshops. “That writing can be fun,” he said. “You can surprise yourself by having a simple assignment that you can, in just 20 to 25 minutes, engage in emotionally without much effort.” He added, “There is something about writing in a group, too, that’s just different.”

And it certainly is. Even after just a single workshop, I see that surrendering to the intuitive process and going where my instinct takes me without overthinking it the first time around is an approach that will work for me.

I wonder what might pour out of me in our workshop on Feb. 15.

If you are interested in joining the group, which meets at 4:30 pm every other Wednesday, email wt_mail@clamsnet.org to receive a Zoom link. This event is free and open to the public.