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Poetry Problem Solving 101 with Bruce Weigl

The September 21 OPA event featuring Bruce Weigl was another great afternoon of poetry and writing. Weigl, who has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, treated the audience to a terrific reading from two of his most recent books, followed by a writing exercise that stressed the importance of using the imagination—especially when writing about the familiar.

The poet’s working-class background is prominent in his work, though Weigl referred to it as a blessing and a curse. But he strongly believes in poetry reaching the wider public through organizations such as OPA. He drew the analogy to Europe and other parts of the world where writing organizations are prominent and often revered.

One of the interesting things Weigl mentioned during the afternoon was that his latest book, The Abundance of Nothing (Triquarterly Books, 2012), took eight years to write. After Declension in the Village of Chung Luong (Ausable Press, 2006), Weigl felt he had said everything he had to say as a poet. But he kept writing poems and the manuscript went through, in his words, “a hundred iterations.” In fact, he mentioned that just before sending the manuscript off to the publisher, he gave it one more read and cut another eleven poems because he had just the slightest doubt about them. The hard work paid off, as Abundance was nominated for the Pulitzer.

Weigl’s approach is like that of a mathematician. “I like to sit down and try to solve the problem of a poem,” he said. For example, he asks why might a poem be meaningful to a reader or what is the appropriate form for the poem. The Abundance of Nothing features many unrhymed sonnets and other forms because Weigl “needed the form to hold the immensity of the subject of the book.”

He also stressed the challenges of putting together a manuscript. As Weigl noted, last lines are key as they should somehow link to the next poem. First and last poems are also critical to a book. The first poem, according to Weigl, should be like a map for the rest of the book, “almost like a thesis.” The last poem should also be thoroughly considered and the poet should ask: Where do I want to leave my reader?

Finally, Weigl addressed a question about distinguishing between good writing and “crap.” He noted that he doesn’t see such things as successes and failures. “The crap is what you don’t write,” he said. In his view, the sheer act of writing about something indicates that it is important to you in some way. The trick—the problem—is elementary: figuring out how it is also important to the reader.
by Chuck Salmons
OPA Vice President

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