Last week I was fortunate enough to spend four days at the Highlights Foundation in northeastern Pennsylvania to study the craft of poetry with celebrated poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich. To say that this was an incredible experience is an understatement. To be immersed in poetry for four days, and to learn from a master poet, as well as from my fellow students, was an incredible gift. I kept pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Rebecca is the author of many poetry collections, including In the Spin of Things (WordSong, 2010), and, with Jane Yolen, Grumbles in the Forest (WordSong, 2013). Her poems have appeared in many anthologies, including The Poetry Friday Anthology (2012), Falling Down the Page (Roaring Brook Press, 2009), and My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Rebecca’s graciousness and warmth put us all at ease, and she shared dozens of poems, both her own and by other children’s poets, as she taught us about the craft of poetry.
Stressing the importance of looking at objects in a new way, Rebecca sent us outside to collect anything that struck our fancy. She encouraged us to look at our object from different angles, with a magnifying glass, to think about its color and texture, in order to find those “precise details” that help make poetry powerful.
We learned about the power of revision when Rebecca Davis, a senior editor at Boyds Mills Press and WordSong, joined us on Saturday afternoon. She and Rebecca took turns reading drafts and revised versions of poems from an upcoming collection. Some of the revisions were subtle; some were significant, but all of the revisions improved the poems. Ms. Davis reiterated the message Rebecca had been stressing throughout our time at Highlights: “Work at your craft.” Nothing can replace the time you put in to drafting and revising, then revising again to “make your work as tight as possible.”
Another highlight of this Poetry Retreat was a Skype visit with poet Janet Wong, who co-edits the Poetry Friday Anthologies with Sylvia Vardell. Janet talked about her path to becoming a poet, as well as steps we could take to improve our chances of being published. Janet also emphasized the importance of writing daily. She encouraged us to “write a poem a day; it’s a sit up for your brain.”
It was easy to be inspired at the Highlights Foundation in the seclusion of the Pennsylvania countryside, but it was also impossible not to bring that inspiration home with me. One of the last pieces of advice Rebecca gave us on Sunday morning was to “let your imagination feed you.” Thank you, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Janet Wong, Rebecca Davis, Kent Brown, and everyone at the Highlights Foundation for feeding my imagination and my soul!
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