Wonderful Writing Workshop

Susan Davis workshopping poems

Susan Davis workshopping poems

James McMichael and Susan Davis (my father and step-mother) visited us in Cambridge this September and put on a workshop on September 7th to help students develop their poetry writing and reading skills.

Students from Cambridge High School and Fruitland High School, along with their English teacher Kelly Dayley, attended the workshop. Attendees were introduced to the concept of using different “lenses” through which to look at poems, and then were led by Ms. Davis and Mr. McMichael through a spirited discussion of student poems using this technique.

A student speaks through a lens while Ms. Daley looks on.

A student speaks through a lens while Ms. Daley looks on.

Ms. Davis did the lion’s share of the workshopping work, writing student comments on the board, facilitating discussion, and posing hard questions to the eager participants.

Ms. Dayley’s students, none of whom had attended a writing workshop before, were excited by what they learned. She described her students’ responses to the workshop:

[It] opened for them the idea that they could gather together and talk about their work. All the way home they talked about how hard it was not to talk when their work was being discussed but how beneficial it was to be forced to listen. They also talked about writers groups they might form on their own, who they might ask to join them, how they might organize them, etc. I also got some ideas for how I could incorporate writers’ workshops into my classroom.

On Monday, September 9, Mr. McMichael and Ms. Davis prevailed in each of my six classes, giving mini-versions of Saturday’s workshop to all Cambridge Jr. and Sr. High School students, reading and facilitating discussion on Davis’s “Bachman’s Pond” and McMichael’s “The Small Pretty Woman.”

Ms. Davis followed her yeoman’s (yeowoman’s?) performance on Monday by writing an assignment for all students to write a narrative poem based on the one they workshopped in class. As a result, I now have in my possession more than 50 wonderful, unique narrative prose poems from students at Cambridge Jr./Sr. High School. Can you say “anthology”?

It’s hard to know how much students appreciated what they were exposed to during the McMichael/Davis visit. Poetry can be a tough sell, especially to busy adolescents. But the encounter with these vibrant university artists and teachers has set a standard for thoughtful discussion in each of my classes that we are building on each day. And the good results are palpable.

9th-graders set the record for the relationship lens on "Bachman's Pond"

9th-graders set the record for the relationship lens on “Bachman’s Pond”

The Players

James McMichael’s most recent book of poems is Capacity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in Poetry. McMichael’s other books include The World at Large: New and Selected Poems (1996); Each in a Place Apart (1994); Four Good Things (1980); and The Lover’s Familiar (1978). McMichael was the 2007 recipient of the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. His other honors include a Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Foundation Writer’s Award, the Arthur O. Rense Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America. He recently retired after 48 years as Professor of English at UC Irvine.

Susan Davis is the Academic Coordinator of the Creative Writing Emphasis at UC Irvine. Previously a highs school English and Drama instructor in Alaska, she now works  exclusively with college undergraduates taking creative writing courses. She is the winner of the Drury and the  Rebecca Lard Awards for poetry.  She has  published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Pequod, Poetry Quarterly and the Cincinnati Review.  Her poem “Farm Days”, installed on transit-station  windscreens in collaboration with Texan artist Viola Delgado, was unveiled in  November of 2010.  Her book of poems I Was Building Up To Something was  released in November of 2011.

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