I've just returned from this year's West Chester Poetry Conference, my second time attending. Although I'm still exhausted from the four-day stretch of poetry workshops and panels and readings (and sleeping in dorms), it was a wonderful, unforgettable time. This year's workshop offerings included an opportunity to work with the amazing Mary Jo Salter—so, obviously, I jumped at the chance. I've loved Mary Jo since I discovered her 1999 collection A Kiss in Space at my favorite local indie bookstore (The Compleat Bookseller) back in my high school days. I read her poem "Hail in Honfleur" while loitering at the neatly-stocked shelves with the classical radio playing over the shop speakers. I will always remember this poem and how I was immediately charmed by Mary Jo's wit and wordplay, which struck me as perfectly, whimsically French. I wanted to live inside that poem.
Mary Jo Salter's workshop—"Line, Sentence, Stanza, Poem"—was a much needed refresher in how to make stronger, more meaningful line and stanza breaks in my poems. We talked about Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, that a 3-stanza poem should be a 3-part idea, that the parts should be ordered for emphasis from second most interesting to least interesting to most interesting. We discussed Denise Levertov's idea that stanzas are "distinct units of awareness." We discussed the concept of stanzas as terraces, stepping us up or down or sideways into something else. Mary Jo told us that we should break our lines and stanzas to indicate a poetic turn, that ending lines on weak words like "of" or "in" makes the breaks seem arbitrary, and the poem is weaker for it. Bringing these lessons back to my own writing will help me to be more conscious in my choices when creating the physical shape of a poem on the page and help the content to choose its most perfect form.