Literary Alchemy Writing Workshop

On October 27th, the English department and Jennifer Cognard-Black hosted a writing craft workshop titled “Literary Alchemy: Combining Poetry and Prose.”  About twenty-three participants were in attendance from 4:00-5:15 p.m. in the Blackistone Room, the lounge that overlooks the Campus Center and Route 5 from the newly finished Anne Arundel Hall.  The workshop was lead by two visiting published authors, essayist Maureen Staunton, and poet Melissa Goldthwaite.  The writers are acquaintances of Dr. Cognard-Black from her graduate study days, and they also took part in the Voices Reading “From Curlers to Chainsaws” later that day.  

The focus of the workshop was on the “lyric essay” form, which starts to break down the differences between creative nonfiction and the poem.  The Seneca Review describes the emerging genre as one that “forsakes narrative line” in order to give ”primacy to artfulness.”  As such, a lyric essay might be different from a memoir because it “moves by association” between ideas rather than being analytical or comprehensive, and often “takes shape mosaically” whereby it has greater meaning when one sees the work as a whole.  Staunton agrees that these essays are attractive for their ability to “connect the personal to a more abstract idea.”  Some examples Staunton handed out to participants were an excerpt from “The Pain Scale” by Eula Bliss and a piece titled “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle.  According to Goldthwaite, “Almost any topic can work for a lyric essay.”

Starting at about the halfway point of the event, Goldthwaite had participants attempt an exercise where each person would pick one “center word” to write down, then write as many “association words” branching off from it as quickly as possible, eventually branching off of those words, et cetera.  Goldthwaite notes that “you don’t need to be neat, this is an invention.”  One could for the first time notice how seemingly unrelated actions, concepts, or objects hold a personal, unique connection for oneself due to some past experience ranging from an inside joke to a family tragedy.  

Afterwards, participants were to pick some of those terms and free-write about them while making sure to incorporate typical poetic devices.  Many participants were willing to share these attempts at an impromptu lyrical essay.  Some examples included themes moving from mice to designing things and the foundations of what it means to be a student, or from dogs to the theory of evolution and population control of wolves for the sake of territorial expansion.  Staunton comments, “I love how one word can just spider out and take you so many directions.”  

The event had a good turnout; all the room’s chairs and then some extra were filled, and there were no awkward silences (the periods where participants were writing were silent, however).  The workshop itself was well-received, with most individuals lingering around afterward to enjoy refreshments or ask one-on-one questions to the visiting writers.  For those interested in English-department sponsored events, the next VOICES reading by Kim Roberts will be November 10th at 8:15 in DPC.  

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