Practicing poetry in conversation with others

An interview with poetry teacher Laura Wetherington

Laura Wetherington was lucky. She found her love of poetry early thanks to some great teachers. At ten, she wrote her first rhymes; at fourteen, a class on meter hooked her. She’s been writing poetry ever since.

Laura thinks of herself as a “poet-teacher”, which involves a commitment “to the lifelong study and practice of poetry in conversation with others.” She started teaching with the Collective in 2020 when the Netherlands was entering a new lockdown due to the pandemic. Laura says of that time, “I felt overwhelmed by the global grief, the uncertainty, and the responsibility to keep my toddler safe. Teaching with IWC kept me tethered to community through wildly enriching conversations about poems. It was a balm.”

After spending six years in the Netherlands, she had to head home to Reno, Nevada, where she currently lives with her husband and son.

You can find links to Laura’s books and some of her poems and essays that are freely available online on her website. She teaches Level III Poetry.

 

What makes IWC unique?

I love the International Writers’ Collective’s focus on techniques. Much of my formal poetry training was either in literary criticism or in reading-as-inspiration. IWC’s way of breaking down technique in an example poem—looking at the craft choices the writer made and having a deep discussion about what that allows the author to do in a given situation—gives students really practical skills they can immediately apply to their writing. 

 

How has teaching affected your writing?

In the last few Level 3 Poetry classes, we’ve used the book Into English, which provides notes next to three different translations of the same poem alongside the original. No matter how much time I spend preparing for class, my students bring observations, associations, and questions that break open the poem for me in a new way. Talking with other people about creativity and writing can be so nourishing. That impulse to have the poem, the world, broken open to see it anew is what brings me both to teaching and writing. 

Many people talk about writing as a solitary activity—something that happens at a quiet desk in a quiet house. But for me, writing and reading are collective activities. Talking about writing stimulates my writing, so teaching and writing feel like they’re a part of the same practice. I’ve been inspired to write two collaborative manuscripts—one with a fellow teacher and one with a former student. 

 

Do you have a routine when it comes to writing?

Since my kid came along in 2018, all previous routines went out the window. Then the pandemic upended routine again. A chapbook I wrote around that time, one that will come out later this year with a U.K. press, evolved from writing when and where I could: I scrawled incoherent lines at the playground, made chicken scratch while pushing the stroller; I’d devote as much time and energy as I could to writing after he’d gone to bed. The Buddhist teacher Tara Brach has this mantra for how she stuck with meditating when she became a mother: Every day no matter what, show up. She didn’t have to spend a lot of time on it or follow any formal pattern–she just had to enter that mental space. While I don’t write (or meditate) every day, this concept has brought me closer to a daily practice.

 

What does your writing process look like?

In my earlier writing, I composed long-hand in paragraph form and then collaged bits of those sentences into a poem, revising with attention to associative logic and musicality. This work was inspired by the sounds of phrases, particularly overheard and misheard everyday language. Lately, I’ve been working on poems that center around historical figures, so I’m doing a lot of research and composing each line of the poem as a line on the page and then adding the next line. I’m writing continual notes based on reading historical books or theories of race and gender, for example, and journaling around the puzzles of the poem’s ideas and trying to figure out how to render narrative and argument and make it musical and weird and, eventually, a poem.

I have several projects going at once, each with its own organization. One is a sonnet series, which is heavily researched, needs graph paper (to be able to see the syllables) and the computer (for research and note-taking). When I’m writing in syllabics, a lot of my time is spent trying to fit single syllables in the little boxes on graph paper, then erasing half the line and beginning again. That writing routine feels like knitting: constantly unraveling this sweater of a sonnet and beginning again. 

 

Any future plans you would like to share?

I hope that I can always change my methods and approaches and write a deeply experimental and varied body of work. I think experimenting is one of the fastest paths toward mastery of a form, which is why I like the International Writers Collective’s approach so much. The focus on writing exercises really excites me. 

22 March 2024

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