Strangers share pleasures of verse Pulitzer Prize winner holds poetry workshop

March 31, 1998|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Charlotte Beam, Blair Ewing, John Biggs and Sarah Simmons had never met before they were drawn inside from a warm, sunny day to a room at Howard Community College by a shared passion for poetry.

Beam, an 80-year-old Ellicott City widow; Ewing, publisher of an arts magazine; Biggs, a Baltimore psychotherapist; and Simmons, an Ellicott City homemaker recovering from a cerebral hemorrhage, were among a group of 49 people who attended a poetry workshop conducted by Philip Levine.

"They're such a mixed group, and that was fun," said Levine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, after the two-hour seminar on Sunday afternoon.

"And they had a very high level of competence."

The group ranged in age from high school seniors to Beam's eight decades. Some were members of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, which sponsored the workshop. Others were drawn by the reputation of Levine, 70, who won the Pulitzer in 1995 and National Book Award in 1991 along with numerous other honors.

Many were strangers to one another, but all share the joy of expressing themselves in verse.

"Poetry is an intimate conversation with yourself," said Beam, who still cherishes the memory of the first poem she wrote.

She was a second-grader at PS 86 in Baltimore, and her teacher instructed the class to write a Christmas poem. Beam wrote about a Christmas tree.

"It was the first time I had been heralded by an English teacher. I thought she was going to hoist me on her shoulders," Beam said, smiling at the memory.

She continued writing poetry until high school when unkind criticism from editors of the school paper discouraged her. Beam did not write another line of poetry until the night in 1946 when she gave birth to twin daughters.

"It was such a threshold of feelings -- I just had to write," said Beam, who attended Sunday's workshop with one of those twins, Pam Blose of Ellicott City.

The workshop was Blose's gift to Beam, who is having cataract surgery this week.

"She thought it would take my mind off the surgery -- and it did," said Beam. "My mind is just full of poetry and not with apprehension."

Beam particularly likes Levine's way of critiquing without being cruel -- something many workshop participants noticed.

As part of the $20 workshop fee, attendees got to submit a poem for a personal critique from Levine. He chose 10 as examples for the workshop. "I chose the poems that I thought typified the virtues and the vices of all the poems I read," Levine said.

Among them were verses written by Ewing and Simmons. "He was pretty tough on me, but that's OK," said Ewing, 38, of Clarksville. "That's what it's all about."

Levine said Ewing's poem, called "For the Time Being," needs more focus.

Ewing attends few poetry workshops, preferring to hone his art in private. But he made an exception to meet Levine. "This is one of the great, legendary masters of our craft," Ewing said.

Unlike Ewing, Biggs does attend poetry workshops frequently. He thought Sunday's session with Levine was great.

Biggs particularly liked Levine's admission that his greatest strength was learning early in life to forgive himself for writing bad poetry. "That little bit of humility was really good," said Biggs.

Simmons, who still struggles with eye problems resulting from a 1994 aneurysm, said Levine is a great inspiration to her.

She has been a fan of his for more than 20 years, and arrived at the workshop toting books of his poetry so old that the pages had turned yellow.

Levine said Simmons' poem, titled "Nazire," was very good and called the last half "pure poetry."

Now Simmons, following Levine's advice, has to trim the poem's beginning. "It's terribly hard to give up anything," she said. "I will probably throw out something, but I'll be sad to do it."

Levine -- who did a reading later in the evening -- ended the workshop promptly at 4 p.m., then spent another half-hour talking with participants and signing copies of his books, including Simmons' yellowed volumes.

He said he took a large reduction in his normal fee to do the workshop. "I like the idea of a community-based program rather than one that is university-based," Levine said.

"The people are so passionate about literature, and they're not making any money doing this. Poetry has been very good to me. I have an obligation to pay it back."

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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