When I moved to the Seattle area from Chicago, I was already a published writer with a few small prizes and a Pushcart nomination already under my belt. My focus had been on prose for the most part, though occasionally I would read poems in some of the magazines I was avidly consuming at that time--The Missouri Review, The Crab Orchard Review, Black Warrior Review, Rosebud, Press, ACM--and wonder whether I had what it took to be a poet.
It wasn't until we settled in on Bainbridge Island that I found an opportunity--albeit by accident--to explore poetry more actively. Local fiction groups were either closed or too far for me to attend logistically. However, there was a poetry workshop on the island hosted by the park district. Why not? Aside from learning some new forms and techniques, chances were good I'd find poets who also wrote other forms. And I needed a writing community in this new landscape so that I could nurture my writing life while mothering two children still in diapers. It would have been extremely easy to give up on the writing life had I not gone.
The poet John Willson led the workshop. I went my first night in April 1999, rather nervous about what I would encounter. Poets in other workshops I'd attended in the Chicago area could be some of the harshest critics. The "killing floor" is an apt description for the knock-down-drag-out approach to critique groups I'd experienced, especially where poets were involved.
Fortunately, John's workshop was far from that reality. I was pleased to witness individual poems being discussed without personal vendettas undercutting the feedback. Participants offered solutions to sections of verse that might not be working the way they were, rather than just declaring them inadequate. And each of the poets seemed quite free to stick to their hearts when it came to form and subject matter; judgmentalism seemed to be the last thing on anyone's mind in that workshop.
Further, John was not there to be the egotistical my-way-or-the-highway expert; he ran that shop generously, and humbly, as an equal. John, like other instructors and facilitators, would bring in work from poets for us to examine. His choices still resonate with me. It was in John's workshop that I discovered William Witherup and Robert Hass and Marvin Bell. And John's weekly tea-and-cookie ritual (with the teabags often boiled down again for something more closely approximating slightly flavored hot water) gave what could have been a savage group encounter the desired tone of civility, mutual respect and kindness (to my relief).
John's poems, when he did bring them in, were equally humble. Quiet, yet evocative. I still recall his poem, "All day taking up carpet," in which he reflects on the smoker who lived in the house he'd moved into. I can still envision the ghost of a man pacing a worn path into the rug. Other poems he wrote that still resonate with me include "We cross the singe line," which merges the realities of chemotherapy with the wasted aftermath of the Mt. Saint Helens' eruption in 1980; a poem about finding a dead sea lion on the beach (I cannot recall the title now); and "The son we had" (from his chapbook of the same title), where he tackles the undeniably tragic reality of his pregnant wife's battle with cancer.
His work was featured in Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry, and deservedly so. He is nothing if not a champion for precision of language and authenticity of voice, and I have greatly appreciated his non-egocentric approach. Poetry, by that definition, should originate with the poet but should really be much bigger than the poet. Maybe that's John's Buddhist teachings spreading their influence. I don't know. What I do know is that his poetry workshop has made me tenfold a better writer overall, and I can't say that about many of the teachers I've had over the years.