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John Willson: 'living long' with poetry workshop

Fellow poets gather to celebrate 12 years of critique and camaraderie.

John Willson has helped send other peoples’ poems winging out into the world for a dozen years.

Now, the flock converges on Island Center April 25 to honor the longtime island poet with a reading by poets who’ve attended Willson’s workshops – a celebration that also wraps national Poetry Month.

“He inspires people not just to write their own work but also to see each others’ work, and have the courage to comment,” poet Sue Hylen said. “And that’s what brings people back over and over, and makes the poetry workshop a very special venue.”

Willson figures that he’s hosted between 100 and 200 poets over the 12 years of the workshop. The precise number is hard to fix, he says, because many of the participants dropped in for a class or two.

Willson joined poet Nancy Rekow’s poetry workshop on Bainbridge soon after moving to the island in 1984, introduced by fellow versifier John Davis.

It was Davis who suggested that Willson might start his own workshop and Hylen – another Rekow regular, and coordinator of cultural programming for the Bainbridge Island Park District – who provided the framework.

The venue was, and still is, Camp Yeomalt, once known as Camp Hopkins.

Methodology hasn’t changed much over the years. “The first thing we do is get the water boiling for the tea and get the cookies on the plates,” he said.

Copies of participants’ work are handed out, then read aloud and commented upon, while the writer listens in silence.

“The idea is that you can’t climb into an envelope and explain a poem when you send it to an editor,” Willson said.

Willson’s own role is to keep the conversation going and to set a positive tone – a careful contrast to both the politically charged atmosphere that pervades some academic workshops, and the too-comfortable ambiance that may overtake gatherings of poets who are also friends.

“What I’ve always tried to foster is a supportive and constructive atmosphere,” he said, “so that the poet would have a balance of input between the ‘brass tacks’ comments – diction, line breaks, stanza break and word choice, the mechanics of it – and the overall gut feeling that a poem conveys.”

Willson believes in slow revision, in “living long with a poem,” so revision is an important part of the workshop.

Participants may turn up with new versions of poems they introduced months or years before.

He points to longtime workshop member Marian McDonald, an island poet who died earlier this year, as an example of a “tireless reviser.”

“She was in the workshop for five years, longer than anyone else,” he said, “and she would revise her poems over and over again and bring them in on successive weeks. You felt the participatory nature of poetry writing in that revision process.”

While the workshop usually has a consistent core of four or five people, there are drop-ins who come and go. The shifting chemistry of the group keeps the workshop dynamic, Willson says, an enterprise that feeds his own work.

While Willson acknowledges his own preference for poems that evoke visual images and speak to human quandaries, those biases are set aside when he approaches workshop poems.

“I have to think that something’s going right,” he said, “because there’s just an incredible diversity of variety and voices coming out of the workshop. Distinctive voices.”

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A reading by poets from the Bainbridge Island Park District Poetry Workshop honors long-time workshop leader and award-winning poet John Willson, 2-4 p.m. April 25 at Island Center Hall. Free.

Information: 842-2306 or www.biparks.org.

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