GET TO KNOW TOM DALEY, BCAE POETRY INSTRUCTOR FOR OVER 10 YEARS!
BCAE: How did you get started writing poetry?
TOM: I began writing, without much of a disciplined approach, poems that reflected teenage angst. I dabbled, as teenagers tend to do, in writing poems positively plump with grand metaphors and abstractions, and not yet understanding, as Paul Valery is said to have quipped, “It is a hundred times easier to be profound than to be precise.”
In my first encounter with Sylvia Plath’s poetry in a creative writing class in college, I received a potent antidote to the abstractions and the grandiosity when I came upon a poem called “Point Shirley.” The poem is an account of Plath’s return to a seaside house her grandmother had lived in. The visit occurred years after her grandmother had died. The subject is sentimental (nostalgia for the old days—Plath even manages to talk about her grandmother’s “wheat loaves and apple cakes”), but the treatment is anything but sentimental. Stones on the beach are said to be “bickering under / The sea’s collapse.” Plath characterizes the sea as “sluttish,” the setting sun as “bloody red.” If Grandmother had a flower garden, a series of storms kept invading it. At one point, Plath tells us, a “Shark littered in the geranium bed.”
Having lost my own grandmother just around the time I discovered the poem, I was astonished at the way in which Plath could be simultaneously reverential and tough on the subject of her loss. The stones on the beach, which had been used in the construction of the house, become the central metaphor, and the poem ends in a blast embodying wistfulness and savagery.
Ever since then, I have sought to read and write poems that follow Robert Lowell’s definition: “A poem is an event, not the record of an event.”
BCAE: How long have you been teaching at the BCAE?
TOM: I started teaching in the summer of 2004. I had taken several workshops with Ottone Riccio, who led the BCAE poetry workshop for over thirty years, at the BCAE, and still recommend his book, The Intimate Art of Writing Poetry, to workshop participants, as one of the finest books on the subject. Riccio was a participant in the workshop itself when it was the place to be for aspiring poets in Boston. Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin workshopped their poems for the first time here, and both went on win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Riccio was followed by Jennifer Badot, who pulled me aside and said that I really should be leading the workshop, not taking it. She eventually turned the post over to me, and I have been here ever since.
BCAE: How have you built such a loyal following?
TOM: I try to maintain a workshop that is both collegial and challenging. I give in-depth exercises, using close readings of the works of a particular poet each term, as voluntary prompts. I try to cultivate respect among the participants, and insist that every critique of a poem start with what works and why. Rather than narrowly focusing on a description of the shortcomings of the poem, we try to explain what we would do differently if we were revising the poem.
I try to cultivate a deeper appreciation of a range of poetries by having participants read a poem they admire at the beginning of each meeting of the workshop. We learn a great deal from each other in this way—I am constantly being exposed to poems and poets that I had not encountered and find delightful and inspiring, as is the entire workshop.
Each week, I re-read the poems people have brought to the workshop, and select a poem by an established poet to bring to each participant the following week by way of response. The poem I choose resonates in some way with the workshop participant’s poem, either in theme, style, content, or sensibility. I spend quite a bit of time each week looking for poems that make this kind of match.
I also run an informal salon before the workshop begins, in which anyone interested in participating generates the beginning of a poem based on a prompt I give. From time to time, we discuss the tactics one must employ in publishing poetry as part of this salon, and issues such as writers block, lack of inspiration, and trouble with revising.
The act of writing poetry is a solitary, sometimes lonely act, and often the poems come from emotional distress the poet or her/his subjects have experienced. While I maintain a respectful stance, I also try to alleviate the gloom one can imagine might descend on a workshop full of such poems by leavening my pedagogy with a little humor. Someone posting online once quipped about my teaching—“Even if you don’t like his comments on your poem, you’ll find him entertaining.”
BCAE: What is your favorite thing about getting new students in the mix? If anyone is nervous, how do you help cure those nerves?
TOM: New students always bring a new perspective, a new appreciation of the work we do in the workshop. While a core of participants returns to the workshop each session, the new voices help to invigorate the sense of collegiality which is, hopefully, always a hallmark of the workshop. Their particular take on other poets’ work, their idiosyncratic sensibility, enriches the experience of working together to help each other write better poems.
Bringing one’s poems, which are often written in isolation and out of a place of vulnerability, to be evaluated can be a daunting task. I don’t underestimate how hard that can be, especially the first time. But I try to explain that everyone is an equal in the eyes of the workshop, that everyone will get the same amount of time, the same careful consideration. I try to be careful to commend the impulse, even when the realization is not producing many successful results yet, and to remind new participants that the best poets achieved excellence only after a long apprenticeship in the workshop of craft making.
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