CavanKerry Press Authors in the Community: Paola Corso Interview with Baron Wormser
Since its inception, CavanKerry Press has been committed to community. It’s outreach programs include Giftbooks, Waiting Room Reader, Bookshare, New Jersey Poetry Out Loud, and The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. And in return for CavanKerry Press authors getting their books published, they offer free talks and workshops to under-served readers in their communities and free books to those who can’t afford them. They are also committed to sharing information with fellow writers to build a supportive and nurturing literary environment.
In a new series of interviews on community outreach, CavanKerry Press author Paola Corso will speak with other press authors about these projects and how they turn words into acts of community.
In this interview, Paola speaks with Baron Wormser, author and co-author of 14 books, most recently, the poetry collection, Unidentified Sighing Objects with CavanKerry Press. He teaches in the Fairfield University MFA Program and at his home in Montpelier, Vermont. One of his offerings is a generative poetry workshop he calls, “Open the Doors.”
Paola Corso: The title of your workshop, “Open the Doors,” sounds like a workshop for creating new possibilities. Tell me about the kinds of doors that participants have walked through.
Baron Wormser: Participants write new work on the spot. I use poems as prompts to get them engaged. We talk about the poem for a while and then they leap from the poem into their own imagination. I have found that a poem-prompt offers enough structure to lessen anxiety—what do I write about and how?–while avoiding being prescriptive. The discussion beforehand also helps participants to situate themselves in the realm of the actual—the poem in front of them—and the possible—the poem they may write. There is no predicting, of course, what will come out. What’s especially interesting is that often poems arise that speak to very intense, personal situations that the participant has either not written about or tried to write about but not succeeded. Writing to a prompt often opens the door to material that previously has been suppressed or repressed.
Paola Corso: How about an example of a poem-prompt?
Baron Wormser: I’ve used a poem such as Bruce Weigl’s “The Life before Fear” many times. The poem is a very deft, direct narrative about a childhood moment that begins with the word “when.” The prompt is to begin a poem with that word and then write about some childhood moment. I encourage people to use some of Weigl’s devices such as ending the poem with a simile. Another poem I’ve used many times is Jane Gentry’s “Exercise in the Cemetery.” The poem is three sentences-long. The first sentence sets the scene; the second sentence asks a question; the third sentence focuses on images within the scene. The prompt is to write a poem using that three-sentence structure and situate the poem in a definite place.
Paola Corso: Have you found that making a leap in one’s writing can help inspire breakthroughs in other aspects of life? Or vice versa?
Baron Wormser: I tend to think that breakthroughs within me enable leaps in writing. Those breakthroughs remain murky, which probably means they are accretions over time rather than breakthroughs. I’ve written a lot more prose over the past ten or so years and continue to do so. I can’t say exactly why but I do have a feeling that I have changed, so that I have needed prose in ways I didn’t when I was younger.
Paola Corso: You once said that poetry is a keystone of literacy. More so than other forms of writing?
Baron Wormser: Poetry is the art of language. The more attention we pay to each word, the more genuinely literate we have a chance of becoming. Poetry focuses us in unique ways. Poetry came first, too, in the realm of expressive language because of the sheer urgency of poetry. That urgency is different from the work of prose.
Paola Corso: How does poetry reach reluctant and learning disabled students in a way that prose can’t?
Baron Wormser: Poetry doesn’t care about what you know so much as what you feel. There’s enormous power in being allowed to access one’s feelings without any stigma placed on that access. Also many so-called “reluctant” learners think associatively rather in a strict, linear fashion. Poetry matches up with their heads better than prose. Then there’s the habit of metaphor that poetry indulges that is often second-nature to “reluctant” students who share that habit.
Paola Corso: What’s been one of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had teaching poetry as literacy in the community?
Baron Wormser: I’ve worked a fair amount with young children and that’s tremendously positive because they are so eager to seize the tools of poetry and do something with those tools. As to the community-at-large, I’ve done many workshops based on a theme where people show up and write. That’s rewarding because the poems weren’t there and then suddenly they are—the magic of creation.
Paola Corso: You were Maine’s Poet Laureate from 2000-06. That’s quite an honor of service. Tell us ways poets can make a contribution in their community.
Baron Wormser: Offering opportunities for people to write poems and talk about poems is one way. Working in schools and other sites is another, anywhere that people can receive poetry that might not otherwise come to them.
Paola Corso: Has your writing and writing life changed with the new White House administration?
Baron Wormser: I’ve been writing poems for decades that reflect the wages of political circumstances. I’ll continue to write them.
Paola Corso: With talk of dismantling the NEA, NEH and the arts in general, what practical advice can you offer artists in these times?
Baron Wormser: The practical advice is don’t quit your day job. We all know that very few of us are going to make a living from our writing. Also we know that jobs in academia are scarce. It’s important to have a day job that helps to keep body and soul together yet doesn’t eat up too much of an artist times.
Paola Corso: What part does poetry play in our spiritual lives?
Baron Wormser: Poetry is spirit talk. This gets scanted in academia because poetry has to conform to the dictates of what is purveyed as academic knowledge but for thousands of years poetry has been engaged with the invisible, the ineffable, the inexpressible, the intuitive, the magical, the enchanted, the unknowable, all of which is the spiritual. Accordingly, poetry can enliven our spirits, soothe our spirits, and enlighten our spirits, among other things.
Paola Corso: Our political lives?
Baron Wormser: Poetry can illustrate the consequential nature of politics, how it pervades our lives, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. Since poetry can come at politics from angles other than partisanship, poetry can show us the diverse nature of political life.
Paola Corso: I’d like to end with a poem of yours. Maybe you can say a few words first about how it might relate to our discussion.
Baron Wormser: This poem is one of my best known. It came to me very quickly, which is unusual. It speaks to the miracle of anything existing in the first place, what I call “the thrill of being.” A fair amount of social material, including the political, is woven in with that thrill.
A Quiet Life
What a person desires in life
is a properly boiled egg.
This isn’t as easy as it seems.
There must be gas and a stove,
the gas requires pipelines, mastodon drills,
banks that dispense the lozenge of capital.
There must be a pot, the product of mines
and furnaces and factories,
of dim early mornings and night owl shifts,
of women with kerchiefs and men with
Then water, the stuff of clouds and skies
and God knows what causes it to happen.
There seems always too much or too little
of it and more pipelines, meters, pumping
stations, towers, tanks.
And salt—a miracle of the first order,
the ace in any argument for God.
Only God could have imagined from
nothingness the pang of salt.
Political peace too. It should be quiet
when one eats an egg. No political hoodlums
knocking down doors, no lieutenants who are
ticked off at their scheming girlfriends and
take it out on you , no dictators
posing as tribunes.
It should be quiet, so quiet you can hear
the chicken, a creature usually mocked as a type
of fool, a cluck chained to the chore of her body.
Listen, she is there, pecking at a bit of grain
that came from nowhere.