Surrealist Tools and Cozy Covens
During the first weekend in May, I participated in two poetry workshops.
The first one, The Surrealists’ Tool Kit, was hosted by Kelli Agodon and Susan Rich. These lovely Seattle-based women are poets, teachers and co-editors of Two Sylvia’s Press.
I was drawn to this workshop because I love to play in the mystic, work from dreams.
I wanted to learn strategies for tapping into the creative potential of my unconscious.
And I did!
To structure the course, Kelli and Susan offered prompts and background information on Surrealism. They provided vocabulary lists, information on journals that published surrealist writing and a link to their favorite reference book, A Book of Surrealist Games.
I will only describe a few highlights from what I learned in The Surrealist’s Tool Kit, just enough to tempt you to take this class or any class where Kelli or Susan can be your guides.
Kelli began with a series of 10 questions. She said, “Respond without worrying if you are making sense. If you find the poem flowing, go with it. Come back to questions as you need to or do them all one at a time.”
Some of my favorites from this series were:
Shhhhh. Listen. You are in the bathroom and the reflection in the mirror tells you a secret, what does it say?
You bring an item from the bathroom out into the garden. What is it?
Who combs your hair with tulip petals or bee balm?
For additional homework, Kelli offered more questions to play with:
How many bumblebees are needed to sew up the hole in the ozone layer?
Where does the music come in, when the storm is making too much noise?
If these feel intriguing, good! Take a workshop with Kelli. Trust me, by the time you reach question #10, a poem is already writing itself.
If you need further encouragement, here’s the intro to her guided meditation:
Breathe slowly and gently now.
As you breathe, I want you to imagine yourself in a beautiful meadow. This field is created of love and inspiration. It is completely safe and all your favorite poets have been here before, they are the flowers that will grow around you.
Take a look around at your meadow, what surprising things are growing around you? Give your meadow a name.
Yes, exhale. Relax in a poet’s meadow.
I loved Kelli’s teaching style, and Susan’s approach was beautiful too.
She began by conducting an ekphrastic exercise. Sharing images from feminist Surrealist visual artists: Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, and my favorite, Remedios Varo, Susan invited us to focus on a painting and use words from the vocabulary list to write our way into a poem.
Three of my words were ‘fabric,’ ‘fickle’ and ‘bluebottle fly.’ I chose Remedios Varo’s “Winding Paths,” and I wrote what I hope will be a stanza in a future poem. I don’t know yet what my poem is about, but I can’t stop thinking about that painting. I know wherever I’m going with this, it will not be easy, but it will be cathartic. I wrote:
I live in a small perfect
room. The yellow dust
fabric of me is changing, pulled
by wings, bluebottle flies.
I want to say: Connect me to anything
moving–a fan blade, bike wheel, wing–but
do not hook me to the mouth of a fickle man.
I do not want what
some women want– to
dig my heels in. No
what. I want
After this exercise, Susan showed us a playful method of finding the surreal. We reviewed five news articles, each one nuttier than the last. Then, she asked us to pick one and respond.
I connected to a story set in Poland, where a woman called for help ‘dealing with what she thought was an iguana.’ It turned out to be a croissant. I laughed out loud, and then I started writing:
It was a mistake to begin with rosettes.
The hot iron, hot oil, sticky
hope for a smooth release, but
never the right shape, not dainty
enough to satisfy everyone in her family.
The thing about a good prompt is it will take you to unexpected places. The thing about writing poetry is it will speak a truth, it will reveal, so you must be courageous. Kelli and Susan excel as teachers, because they guide well, push gently and laugh as they teach.
So that was my exciting Saturday. I then spent Sunday participating in an equally fabulous workshop called A Spring Cozy Writing Retreat. This one was hosted by poet, and dare I say, fellow witch kindred, Sarah Ann Winn.
Once more, I’m only going to sprinkle a bit of secret sauce here. It’s more important to me that I cheerlead for Sarah, for her teaching abilities and her work.
To begin, Sarah taught us about Cottage Core. When she first said this term, some of the poets, including myself, experienced creative hearing. One woman in our group wrote in the chat: Cottage Porn? And I wrote: Cottage Whore? Sarah laughed and we were off to a good start.
If you’re not familiar with Cottage Core, you can look it up for a full understanding. I define it as a practice of aesthetic hunting where you go on-line, find dreamy images of country life and post them on your social media. Now, the problem with Cottage Core is that it is too perfect, too pretty, and pretty damn classist with a classist history. Sarah cited an example of a member of British royalty referring to the people who worked her castle garden, her lawns as ‘simple.’
As a response to Cottage Core, other social media-ites came up with Goblin Core, Dragon Core and my favorite, Raven Core. You can look these up for details. I summarize them as centering around the idea that rural life, like anything else, has its ugly side, its imperfections. Obviously, we need to be aware of balance. And we need to be careful with nostalgia, which Sarah said was once considered an illness.
Whoa. This hit me on many levels.
I was raised (from ages 5 through 16) in the rural Midwest. I had hundreds of acres to roam, so I knew a quiet beauty, the scents of trees, dirt, wild grasses and flowers, a wilderness. I also knew the smells of manure, plane exhaust and whatever chemicals those crop dusters were spraying…
Rachel Carson, Rise, Rise, Rise! No apologies. We needed a spell here.
During this challenging year, I have practiced my own romanticizing, my own privileged drift into nostalgia. I have surfed Zillow, Redfin and Land Watch trying to go back, to find anything that feels like home. Of course, I haven’t found it. I am using a 2-dimensional method. I can see images, but I can’t smell or hear or touch anything. It’s not real.
Sarah presented all of these concepts to get us thinking about our poetry, how we should always put the reality in, create a tension, smash the imperfect against the perfect. To write from here, we began listing things we threw away this past year, and we focused on objects from other years. Sarah encouraged us to be specific, as microscopic as possible. Once the lists were complete in the chat, we had to pick one and write.
As a side note, Sarah invited us write to music, and she chose two of my favorites, ambient composer, Olafur Arnalds, and indy folk band, Hem. For Hem, she even chose my favorite track called “Half Acre.” Yup. Sarah Winn. Kindred Witch.
I can’t share what I wrote for the ‘full size mannequin with bugs in it,’ because this piece is too sad. It’s necessary, and I’ll be working on it, but it’s still too raw for publishing.
I can share what I wrote about a toy from Tampa:
The red and black metal train engine peeked out from the loose dirt, Florida, dry season, dirt next to the sidewalk. I picked it up like it was mine. My hair was messy that day, like it was most days back then– unwashed, still smelling like smoke, an uneven part into two, fuzzy pony tails, static strands looking like wires, like I was crazy, trying to talk to aliens. Your hair was curly loose and beautiful, like it always was, your dark lipstick only a little faded from our night out dancing. Both of us were hung over as we ambled back from breakfast at the greasy diner, one of the last meals I remember with you before I left Florida for Chicago.
You said, Leave that alone. That’s some kid’s toy.
I said, Not my fault he threw it away.
You said, Or maybe he just forgot it.
I heard, He might come back. You might come back.
I held the little train in my palm for a minute. It was solid and warm. I could almost hear a kid’s voice singing the sound of a train, and I considered tossing it back. But I didn’t. I blew the dust off and put that toy in my pocket.
Sarah Winn’s Spring Cozy Writing Retreat generated a ton of material for me–poetry, prose, song lyrics. Her teaching style was friendly, spun with magic. When the workshop was complete, participants hung out to share their Tarot decks. I felt like I was in a cozy coven. Sarah told me I’d find community in this group and she was right.
Sarah is a kick ass teacher and poet whom I hope to meet in person someday. To take a class with her or to discover where you can read/buy her work, visit her here.
My spring has been inspiring thanks to Kelli, Susan and Sarah. I hope it’s been a good season for all of you, and as usual, thank you so much for reading!