Alan Shapiro offers this workshop annually at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Here’s how he describes his work shop on the FAWC website:
“Poets learn by imitating other poets. On day one, we will read four poets (yet to be determined), and then each day after students will bring to class a poem imitating one of the poets we study on the first day.”
This is a very short and succinct description of one of the most stimulating and generative poetry workshops I have ever attended. In last year’s workshop, the four poets were: Adrienne Rich, C.K. Williams, Rita Dove, and Robert Pinsky. We arrived with a packet of their poems in hand, and spent the first class discussing the style, form, content, music, imagery of their poems. Key to our discussion was our investigation of what made the poems successful; how and why did they work?
In subsequent classes each of the ten participants brought in a poem inspired by one or more of the works of the four poets. Sometimes the imitation was immediately obvious, sometimes it was difficult to find the model. In each case, the new poem grew out of and beyond imitation. Each participant’s poem was read twice; then comments by the class completed the discussion. Integral to this discussion was Alan Shapiro’s keen memory of poems he had read (there seem to be an unlimited list in his head), that models that were extremely useful examples of material engendered by a participant’s poem.
This was a wonderful workshop! We do indeed learn by drinking deeply of the work of other poets. None of us writes in a vacuum; we are all indebted to the writing of others. Imitation is never exact copying, nor is it “the sincerest form of flattery.” We study and absorb the work of other poets to expand our understanding of how poems work, to learn how to experiment in our own poems, to grow as poets.