Last weekend, as I procrastinated writing my term papers and reading a daunting pile of PDFs, I attended an online poetry workshop hosted by the Yolk Literary Journal. With thirty participants in attendance, I experienced a delightful three hours of all things Montreal poetry, organized by one of the most cutting-edge publications in the city’s literary community.
The workshop itself was sectioned off into two parts, in which I “travelled” from workshop to workshop with a cohort of other Montreal-based aspiring poets. Throughout the workshop, I received an eye-opening education on Montreal’s poetry scene, as well as some epic opportunities to share and receive feedback on some creative writing of my own.
The meeting began with a “Playshop,” organized by a poet named Endre Farkas. Farkas was born in Hungary as a child of Holocaust survivors, but he later moved to Montreal to begin a illustrious career in poetry. With a Powerpoint, he provided us participants with a crash course lesson on the history of his Vehicule Poets. This was a loose organization of Montreal-based poets in the 1970s, Endre included, whose writing challenged the boundaries and conventions of traditional poetry. Poet Artie Gold often wrote about French painter Marcel Duchamp, and Tom Konves would often perform Ezra Pound’s imagist poetry in a crowded metro.
The exercise illuminated how poems are not only shaped by their content and imagery, but also, well, by their shape!
Prior to the workshop, all of the participants were asked to complete several lines of “homework,” which felt specific to the student experience. For Endre, participants were asked to write a series of five to ten lines, each beginning with the phrase, “I Remember.” Then, during the workshop, participants were invited to share their screens and read their “I Remember” poems out loud for everyone in the workshop to hear.
The attendants’ “I Remember” poems ranged from lush descriptions of idyllic, sunny days in Square St-Louis to ominous memories of winding through Algonquin Park in total darkness. Once we had each gone through our poems, Endre asked us to repeat them, this time without the “I remember” prompt launching each phrase. We discussed afterwards why an authors’ specific emotions and experiences can be the ingredient that makes a poem feel truly inimitable. In many of our favourite poems, there is likely a similar “I remember” prompt that got omitted in later rounds of edits.
Later in Endre’s workshop, we were provided a poem to break up into multiple lines, then we were encouraged to share and justify why we chose to place line breaks in certain sections. Some participants chose to break up their poems into lines of short, two-or-three syllable phrases. Others were more focused on making their works appear symmetrical. At the end of the exercise, Endre showed us how the actual poet broke up the poem, which was in the form of a sonnet. The exercise illuminated how poems are not only shaped by their content and imagery, but also, well, by their shape!
Finally, Endre and his wife encouraged the workshop guests to rapidly write down a series of nouns, entirely based on whatever word first came to our minds when a category was announced. Listed prompts included our favourite colours, animals, jobs, and a word “whose sound we enjoyed.” Then, participants were asked to grab a nearby shoe. (You read correctly, a shoe.) Endre and his wife encouraged everyone to take all the words jotted down and write a short poem about the shoe using only these words. The results ranged from the wacky and weird to the surprisingly heartfelt. Altogether, Endre’s exercises were a refreshing change of pace from what one would normally expect on a Saturday morning at 10am!
The lesson we learnt was simple: a writer’s style is very much shaped, whether directly or implicitly, by what we read and consume.
Carmine’s workshop, on the other hand, took a very different beat. Rather than workshopping poems that us participants created ourselves, Carmine encouraged us to bring in published poems that we sought out and selected on our own time preceding the meeting.
I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of poems other participants brought up during Carmine’s portion of the workshop. One participant selected “Conkerbells” by Mary Dalton, a poem recounting a Newfoundland poet’s description of icicles during a day in St. Johns through frequent use of provincial idioms and slang. Another participant shared an E.E. Cummings poem, which they selected specifically for his iconic “typographic hijinx.”
After every participant shared with the cohort their chosen poem, Carmine asked us how the selected poet influenced our individual styles as writers. The lesson we learnt was simple: a writer’s style is very much shaped, whether directly or implicitly, by what we read and consume.
Finally, the workshop ended with an “Open Mic,” in which Endre and Carmine opened the floor for all participants to share their own poetry. I was amazed to see the other workshop attendees gleefully react and encourage each other’s work. Normally, the prospect of sharing personal writing in front of large crowds of people can be terrifying. Yet, the Zoom interface actually made sharing one’s creative work feel easy and intimate. Speaking directly into a computer screen, while lacking some of the electric energy of an in-person experience, actually took a lot of the pressure off what could be a vulnerable, frightening experience.
These seemingly inconspicuous details actually reveal great truths about a poet’s values and their unique way of looking at the world.
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once said that poets are the unknown legislators of the world. I think my foray into Montreal’s poetry scene last weekend proved that idiom to be correct. First and foremost, Endre and Carmine taught me that poetry is an inherently political medium. Every little choice a writer makes, from what imagery to foreground when bringing up a beloved childhood memory, to their word choice, to even where to insert a line break, reflects an aspect of the poet’s innermost beliefs. These seemingly inconspicuous details actually reveal great truths about a poet’s values and their unique way of looking at the world. Nothing a poet writes is by accident.
Yolk’s Vehicule Poetry Workshop offered a delightful, enriching study break and a refreshing change of atmosphere from my usual weekend routine. Rather than sleeping in or whipping out my cue cards earlier in the day, I started my morning off with a head-first plunge into Montreal’s vibrant creative community. After this pandemic is past us, I hope to one day attend an Open Mic workshop with Endre or Carmine in some dusty Mile End café in person. For now, it’s sipping coffee and reciting Leonard Cohen as I make the most of a virtual poetry brunch with Yolk.
Yolk is currently accepting submissions from now up until January 1st for Issue 1.2. Consider making a submission of poetry, prose, or art, perusing previous issues, or buying a gorgeous tote bag from its shop.