I’ve been meeting with my poetry group, the Java Poets, for the last five years. It seems much longer since we all sat around the intimidating square conference room table at the New York State Writers Institute. The workshop leader, Cara Benson, was an energetic, knowledgeable, performance poet who was as comfortable with the classic two-volume Norton Anthology as with the avant-garde. I think it’s safe to say we all fell in love with poetry and with Cara.
When the class was ending, we asked her if we could pay her to stay with us but she had many other irons in the fire. She had her ‘guys’— the poetry workshops for prisoners, other classes, and her own work. Stay together anyway, she recommended. You don’t need me.
We were skeptical. Who was going to start off the critique? Which one of us would say, so what have we got here?
It was a shaky beginning. We all trusted one another more than we trusted ourselves. Comments were couched in maybe you could or have you thought of and mostly, ah what a beautiful line But confidence built. We learned well from her. How to read a poem. How to critique. How to get the most out of the discussion.
We meet the second Wednesday of every month. By now, we know each other’s work and style so well, I think we’re really helpful to one another. At least most of the time. As individuals, we have published poetry chapbooks and as a group, an anthology of all our work, Java Wednesdays.
Last night was special. We gathered at my house and enjoyed food and wine, and good conversation. Aside from the poetry, I learned about a museum in Vermont that has an exhibit of elaborate bird woodcarvings, a book about a botched operation that saved Hawaii from a nuclear bomb, eugenics, a new grandbaby, and movies. That was our first course.
I don’t know whether to call the poems the entrée or dessert. It often happens that coincidentally several poems have a similar theme. Last night we seemed to be thinking about civil rights and aging. The poems were good. The discussion surrounding them was better.
We met at my house because our group was temporarily homeless. The place we were meeting jacked up the minimum from $25 to $150 for the room. What poet can afford that?? We regrouped and decided to go back to our original meeting place, Professor Java’s. After all, we named our group after the cafe. When I called them to see if our day and time was still open, the girl on the phone said, “Great. The poets are coming back!”
You never know what can develop when you take a deep breath and walk into a room full of strangers.