Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Days 6 & 7

I am home now. It's a regular Monday evening. Dinner is on the stove - chicken karahi, Jahan went to Montessori today and I went to work. The Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop is over, and I can't wait to go back. This was a healing sort of trip. Mountains and writing and cuddles with a cute baby at night. The last two days of the workshop were the busiest, which is why I was not able to update the blog while I was there.

On Thursday, I had my workshop with Don Mee Choi, whose book The Morning News is Exciting is what I am currently reading. Her poems are chilling in their matter-of-fact-ness. I wrote a poem called Dissonance for the workshop session that she led. It was a poem I had been struggling to write for a very long time encompassing the Peshawar suicide bombing attacks of 2013, but sending a broader message, a sort of reclamation of my identity, my country, my history, but I was afraid that the message would sound contrived. I was surprised at the feedback I received - heartfelt praise and encouragement. Workshop participants told me that this poem was important, this message was important and timely. Later, Don Mee Choi told me, "Keep writing! I like what you're doing." After the workshop, when I was talking to two new poet friends, I almost started to cry while telling them what this poem, this story meant to me, and I could see that they were genuinely interested and moved.

On Thursday night, Haryette Mullen gave a craft talk circling around her book Urban Tumbleweed - A Tanka Diary. She talked about her process, how she decided to start writing a tanka a day to get into the habit of writing, then decided to see if she could do it for a year, and eventually ended up writing for over a year and condensing to create the book. Later in the evening, the staff poets gave a reading, which was open to the general public. They read from their published and unpublished works. Of note, Matthew Zapruder's work evoked both laughter and reflection. It was a long and rewarding evening, but I still had to get a poem ready for the next day's workshop when I got to the lodge. 

For Friday, my workshop with C.D. Wright, I wrote a poem called Chronology of the Evil Eye, another idea I had been toying with for a while, all the tips and tricks and old wives' tales I grew up with. As usual, I got great feedback from the workshop participants and am ready to work on another draft of  the poem keeping their suggestions in mind. Later on Friday, Bob Hass gave his craft talk, which was based on the questions that poets submitted all week. Wonderful things were said in Bob Hass' signature style, many different tangents were explored, and we came back to the statement he made on the first day, "Out in the world, no one wants you to write poetry. They don't mind if you write poetry, but they don't want you to." This time he didn't have to tell us that the Community of Writers wants us to write poetry - we knew. In the evening, we went to the Hall House - the house of Barbara and Oakley Hall, the ones who started the Squaw Valley Community of Writers 44 years ago. SVCW is now managed by Brett Hall Jones, Mr. and Mrs. Hall's daughter along with her sisters, Tracy Hall and Sands Hall. The house was beautiful, and the view from the deck was spectacular. Curry was served from Mexican ceramic pots that were about 3 feet tall. The house was full of tables covered with cheerful tablecloths and candles. Real, not disposable plates were used. The food was divine! For dessert, cookies were passed around and there was also coffee. Bob made a speech after dinner thanking Barbara Hall and the SVCW staff. Then there was a long session of poetry recitation and singing. Poets recited Yeats and Dickinson and Issa and Plath and Tu Fu from memory. Joni Mitchell graced the occasion in the voice of Sands Hall and others sang along. I had a long conversation with Brett Hall Jones in the company of two fellow poets and learned a lot about the history of SVCW. When it was time to say goodbye, we walked outside and were dazzled by all the stars we could see in the sky. Expletives were uttered by one and all upon seeing the breathtaking night sky. I should have spent more time under the stars...

The next day, our last, workshop was held an hour earlier than usual. It was casual - no copies were passed around and we simply read our poems aloud to the group. I read a translation of my mother's poem, originally written in Urdu, titled Mai Har Soorat Maa Hoon translated very clumsily to Regardless, I am Mother. It was a short session and afterwards, we said our goodbyes.

This was one of the most delightful experiences of my life. The poet in me found sustenance and reassurance. I didn't have to use qualifiers and justifications when I talked with my fellow poets about the importance of poetry, what it means to me, why I write. We could all joke about the difficulty of getting published, our writing process, our tastes in poetry. There is no way for me to describe the satisfaction I felt while I was there. The change was profound and meaningful enough that Usman asked me to sign up for the workshop again and promised to take me back to Squaw Valley soon. Jahan, too, flourished in the mountains. She loved going outside and running around in the Village, she loved playing in the lake. I can't wait to go back, but until then, more poems and more reading. Also, I am changing my "Introduction" to something other than "dried-up poet," because if there is one thing I have learned, it is that a dried-up poet, I am not.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop Day 5

Yesterday was Day 5 and the schedule was so full that I didn't have the chance to update the blog. I had workshop with Robert Hass. I read a prose poem titled Monsoons in Lahore. I got great feedback as usual from my fellow poets and from Bob Hass who asked me, "What is your relationship to the prose poem?" I answered, "I don't have one. I am just beginning to court it!" When I finished reading and looked up, Bob's face had a look that I interpreted to be one of delighted surprise, and his first comment was, "I love that this poem is exactly about what the title tells us." He recommended a book called Short that has prose poems, flash fiction, and mini essays. I will definitely pick it up. He also commented that my poem would fit very well into the category of a mini-essay and sounded like the beginning of a novel. In retrospect, I wonder if that was his way of telling me that it was not really a prose poem and more like prose...The workshop was conducted in a beautiful house in the Valley. There was a spiral staircase to my left going up to a loft, which reminded me of the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter books.  

After workshop, we headed to the Lake Tahoe Elementary School where we played "Poet" softball, each person could bat until they got a hit! I stayed in the bleachers to cheer while many poets played. After the game in which both teams won, we headed to Meeks Bay for a picnic. The lake was spectacular, a few poets gathered at my table, and we talked about the all important issues of love and how we met our significant others.

I was exhausted when I came home, and worked on a poem titled Dissonance, which was workshopped this morning with Don Mee Choi, but details of that later.

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Day 4

I had my workshop with C.D. Wright on the deck of one of the houses in the Valley. The house was beautiful. I found out one of the workshop's organizers had assisted her father in building it many years ago. The sun was maddeningly strong on my back so I didn't have anything to say for the first half of the workshop. A little reconfiguration of chairs allowed me to participate fully. I read Cooked Until Golden Brown.

In the afternoon, Don Mee Choi's craft talk moved me very deeply. She talked about her process of writing her new book, researching the Korean War, and read out some of her work that was chilling. During the talk, I wrote in my notebook, "Own your heritage," because sometimes I don't.

Today, I have workshop with Robert Hass - reading a prose poem today titled Monsoons in Lahore - and then we have the afternoon off to play Poet Softball, take a nature walk, and have a picnic at Meek's Bay.

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Day 3

I am going to let you in on a little secret: I am done with the poem for tomorrow! Yay! I found some quiet time this afternoon while Jahanara reportedly pranced around the village with her father and godmother. The poem is done, and once again, it was not what I was expecting.

This morning during workshop, I read the poem I wrote last night titled Jahanara, Age 2, Squaw Valley, June 2014. The workshop staff poet was Matthew Zapruder, whose style of leading the discussion was awesome. I was so amazed by a comment he made about my poem - I am going to paraphrase now, but he said, "This poet has a great understanding of language." I think my grin has never been wider. A lot of good and helpful things were said and I had the pleasure to hear 12 other poets read their work, including Matthew. An amazing thing happens when so many people are writing and forming a community over an extended period of time - there is inevitably a degree of resonance, for instance, one other poet and I used the word "salve" in our poems today.

In the afternoon, there was a craft talk by C.D. Wright. She took questions at the end and in response to one of them said, "Accessibility is not a high priority in poetry," a statement I have wrestled with all evening.

Tomorrow's poem is titled Cooked Until Golden Brown.

Just want to send off a quick thank you to my tribe - the people who have read my poems and given me input before each workshop - Afia, Sana, Hera, and of course, Rebecca.

I should mention that I have been exceptionally happy here - the kind of happiness that shows on my face when I am having an ordinary conversation with my sister via FaceTime. The kind of happiness that sends me into moments of extreme gratitude and reflection during which I remind myself how lucky I am. I feel full with this happiness. I am in the mountains with my family and in the company of poets. The weather is lovely, nippy at night and sunny during the day. I am here to write a poem every day. Doesn't it sound a little miraculous? This is the kind of happiness that makes me contract inward and pray, offer thanks.

Also, I made daal chawal in our studio tonight. It was yummy. 

I think I will finally get a good night's rest. Until tomorrow.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Day 2

This is going to be a short one because today was a very full and very fulfilling day.

Jahan and Rebecca
I had my first workshop with Haryette Mullen in the morning. I read a poem titled A Poem for my Sister on the Eve of her Wedding, which was written just hours before. I got great feedback, met some really awesome poets, and in general had a very rewarding session. Afterwards, we went to the pool, where I lounged around lazily under an umbrella while Rebecca attempted to give Jahan a swimming lesson. Later in the afternoon, I attended a craft talk given by Matthew Zapruder during which he talked about overcoming the blank page. One of the things he said that I was a little surprised by was that poems should have variations in lines. If each line sounds the same, then the poem becomes boring. I am not sure if I have paid attention to this important detail in my poetry before - in fact, I am certain that I haven't. I rely very heavily on evocative imagery and string visual depictions, so often a poem has very similar lines. I have my workshop with him tomorrow, so I am nervous about writing my poem for tonight. How will I change it around? 

After the craft talk, all the poets had dinner on the deck of Olympic House. I had the pleasure of Ms. Mullen's company again and connected with two other workshop participants, as well as with Mr. Zapruder briefly towards the end of the meal. From dinner, I rushed to another dinner - my family had gone to a pizza place and I met them there and was rewarded with lots of kisses and hugs from Jahan.

It's almost 10PM now, and we are all exhausted. I got almost no sleep last night, so tonight's poem is going to be a difficult assignment.

View from the Squaw Valley Village
I thought it was apt to have a moment of reflection towards the end of the day and reaffirm that all the poems written at Squaw will be honoring the memory of Mrs. Khan, my English teacher who is no longer with us - and the world is a darker place without her.

Now, the big question is, what will I write tonight?

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Day 1

My gratitude for being here is repetitive. It reminds me of feverish prayers, the quick telling of beads, the round weighty stones slipping through my fingers as I recited a particular name of Allah as an offering of thanks or as a request to make my wishes come true. Ya Raheemo, The Merciful. Ya Lateefo, The Gentle. Alhumdulillah, thanks and praise be to God, I would say a hundred times, the prayer beads jangling. I would close my eyes and give myself completely to the prayer, to the act of worship. I have been impelled to voice my happiness in a similar way here. I am thankful for being here, I have said and thought so many times.

It's a beautiful place to write. All around us are mountains. I am in the company of people who are here to practice their art. Robert Hass, the director of the program said in his introductory speech today, "We want you to write poetry. Others don't mind that you write poetry, but they don't want you to write poetry. We want you to write poetry." That's heartening. And intimidating. He also said during the same speech, "You are here because someone really loved your work. For every one person that got in, four or five people were turned away." That's a wonderful thing to hear when you are expected to write a poem and read it in front of complete strangers for workshop in a little over twelve hours. 

I find myself thinking over and over that I am grateful for having my daughter and my husband near me. I am grateful for having my best friend with me. I am grateful that friends and family are texting and emailing and getting excited for me. "How is it?" "You'll rock it!" "Just write! You can do it!" I am grateful for the opportunity to walk in the village with my daughter, who ran around excitedly, was an amazing little traveler, and is now humming a song as she dozes off to sleep. I couldn't have come here without them. I couldn't have written a word without them because this is my writing process. This is how I write, finding time around Jahan's requests for attention. 

I am grateful that I will not only generate work here, but also have an audience - that is an important part of the creative process - to get input, to improve, that is the real goal, always. I met some really interesting people today. There is a sense of bonding within this group of sixty odd people - we are all here for the same reason. And it's a good reason. It's a damn good reason. 

And with that, I must go and write a poem - in less than 12 hours, I will be reading it to an audience. I am afraid of that, but it was mollifying to know that others feel the same way. We are all in the same proverbial boat. Fortitude, my friends, I found myself thinking as I was leaving the reception dinner tonight. 

OK, writing time. I will try to update this space as often as possible mainly because this enriching experience should be shared with others. 

Good night!