University of Iowa

Familiarizing the Strange/Mystifying the Familiar: A Poetry Workshop

Weeklong June 16 to June 21 2019

Borrowing a phrase from Toni Morrison, in this workshop we’ll help each other imagine our way toward what seems distant, strange, remote to our experience. Also, we’ll work our poems toward a deeper imagining of things close at hand: people, places and things so familiar we may have become blinded to their beauty or sadness or depth. One thinks of Pablo Neruda’s odes on common objects which wind up exploding the mundane into the fabulous. Or of Wislawa Symborska’s meditation on a grain of sand (echoing William Blake’s elevations of the small into the celestial). Can poetry bring us closer to what we don’t understand, what seems distant, even alien to our experience? Conversely, how can poetry help us rediscover the inherent mystery in what’s close at hand? According to Toni Morrison, those two challenges are at the heart of the art of writing.


Using examples from Blake, Whitman, Symborska, Tracy K. Smith, and others, we’ll challenge ourselves to write new poems during the week, with special emphasis on these tasks—bridging the gap between what we know and what we don’t; and rediscovering the strangeness in what at times seems all too familiar (home, family, landscape). The underlying goal is to nudge each other toward poems that surprise, illuminate, and enrich our experience. The class will offer daily writing prompts, examples from well-known and newer poets, a group of attentive readers and listeners, and vast quantities of good will. Though we’ll look at examples of previous poems, the emphasis in this workshop will be to get us writing, and workshops will offer feedback to nudge those new drafts along. Each day we’ll respond to writing assignments and prompts, and the goal is for everyone to leave with new poems generated during the week. Think of this as an opportunity to write with a little help from your (new) friends.


In this workshop we will generate new writing through guided exercises and prompts; provide feedback on writing you bring from home or produce in our week.