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The Studios of Key West continues its program of creative opportunities at Armory this summer with a three-day workshop called “Sensing the Poem” from June 11-13. Taught by Florida International University creative writing instructor Nick Vagnoni, the workshop is designed to help students explore and capture the sensory details make powerful, memorable poems.
TSKW recently interviewed Nick to find out a little more about his teaching style and what students can expect.
This workshop focuses on paying attention to the senses. Why take this approach to teaching a poetry workshop?
As I said in the catalog, our senses are an anchor. When we interact in the world, we’re engaged with sensory information. It’s not just some vacuum where all we have are our thoughts. So, when we write poetry about the world and our interactions with it, it only makes sense for us to make use of all of these details. That way, by coupling concrete details with thought and emotion, we create a more realistic experience on the page, even if what we seek to depict is dreamlike or fueled by internal thoughts and emotions.
You said that this workshop would be beneficial for writers of different skill levels. What would more experience writers have to gain from this?
Well, I think that the technique of using the senses can’t really be overemphasized, and it’s often a good thing to return to. Aside from that, we’ll be reading lots of different material, so it will be a good opportunity for those who like to read poetry (or want to read more) to learn about some poets they may not be familiar with. While I’ll probably be using some standards like Bishop and Williams, I’m also going to be including some more contemporary poets like Brian Turner, Catherine Bowman, and Spencer Reece.
Also, aside from the workshop being an opportunity to read new poetry, it’s also obviously an opportunity to write new poems. Regardless of skill level, I think a lot of writers (myself included) struggle to carve out the time to write. Whenever I teach, I tell my students that one of the most important things a writing class does is create a time and a place for you to write.
What can students expect from this workshop?
I think part of our process will be slowing down and trying to examine and untangle a lot of the details we take for granted on a daily basis. We operate in a sea of sensory information all the time, to the point where we might not notice a lot of it. My goal is to have writers rediscover things they might normally ignore and then try to recreate that experience of discovery on the page. Imagine, for example, if you were to describe the experience of eating a sandwich to someone who had never eaten one before, or who had never even heard of such a thing. What would you need to do to get that experience across? How would you describe it? What would you compare it to? This is a pretty mundane example, but I think a lot of good writing can come from trying to make our normal world new and strange.
Who are a few of your favorite poets?
That’s always hard, but I often come back to Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop. I also really like Li-Young Lee and Frank O’Hara. Most recently, I’ve gotten into the work of a guy named Zachary Schomburg, who writes this very functional type of surrealist poetry. We may be reading some of his work as well.
How would you describe your own poetry?
Also a tough question. I think it’s in line with the ideas of this workshop. For a long time, I think, as a poet, I clung to images. I felt safe there, just creating pictures on the page. But as I wrote more and read more, I realized that I could let my poems do a little more thinking as long as I grounded them somewhere, gave them a solid place to start from and return to. That’s what I try to do now. I’m not sure if I’ve really answered that question. I think I have.