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Living Mindfully by Writing Poetry


by Suzanne Podhaizer

Let’s begin with a bad joke: “What do you call it when you sit on the couch, scratch your nose, doodle, check Facebook, and play a game of Solitaire?”

“Writing poetry.”

It’s one thing to force yourself to perform a tangible task, like washing dishes, gassing up the car, or making some spaghetti and meatballs, but can you actually muscle yourself into artistic endeavors like writing poetry? And if you do, what’s the likelihood that your effort will result in something meaningful, much less beautiful?

Lizzy Fox, an independent poetry teacher who is also a program assistant at Montpelier’s Vermont College of Fine Arts, believes that you can. Not only that, she’s developed tools to help her students—who range from children in school to adults committed to the practice of poetry—harness creative energy and pour it onto the page.

After earning an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in January of 2017, Fox wondered what to do next. She had a long history of teaching poetry to youngsters through after-school programs as well as in-class curricula, but she wanted to broaden her reach. Through work with a coach, Fox explains, “I got really clear on the value of poetry to me, and the value that I wanted to offer other people.”

What is that value? A deeper connection with something that frequently gets lost in the shuffle of mundane daily activities. In other words, spirituality. “[Poetry is] one access point for connecting with your spiritual or mindful life,” Fox says. “I asked myself, ‘What are the components of writing a good poem that are also components of living mindfully?’”

The result of that exploration is a 12-week-long, online course called Poetry as Spiritual Practice. On the web, Fox describes the series thus: “For experienced poets, it’s an opportunity to deepen your spiritual life while improving your writing. For spiritual seekers, it offers poetry as an extension and expression of soulfulness. For everyone, it is a way to lead a richer, more creative, more playful life with language.”

Poetry as Spiritual Practice is structured to impart a series of tenets that Fox refers to as “the five pillars of poetic practice.” They are: ritual and solitude, the body, play, intellect, and contribution. Students spend two weeks per pillar. In the first week, they learn about Fox’s concept and how it plays out in poems of her choosing. In the second, they share the work that they have generated and gently critique each other. 

The first session of the course, which began in March 2018, has eight participants, of which I am one. Each Tuesday, we call into a video chat between 7 and 8:30 pm to read poetry, share the results of homework assignments, and ask Fox and classmates for advice and support.

In these weekly sessions, Fox vacillates between being a supportive listener and a strict master. She insists that her students set aside specific time for writing, even if it means waking up before dawn. Why? “There are all kinds of things we come up with to keep ourselves from doing the things we care about, and that’s true across life. It’s scary to engage with the thing that’s important to us,” she suggests.

She also asks students to regularly read poems—both those by other poets and their own—aloud. Adding voice, Fox points out, deepens the experience of the poem and allows students to notice wordplay and rhythms they might miss when the words stay on the page. “When we read work aloud, we see how things land,” she says. “For me, that’s part of the life of the poem.”

When it’s time to write, she requests that her pupils’ pens never stop moving across the page. Why? “When we’re forced to write quickly, you don’t have time to listen to that little voice that says, ‘Oh, that sounds stupid,’” she explains. Writing quickly “gives you permission to just get something down. Part of the demystification is taking away the expectation that poets pen something whole cloth, and that it just comes out the way you want it [to be].”

Lizzy Fox’s recommendations for poets:

  • Set aside regular writing time, and stick to it. Make sure it’s achievable (for instance, 20 minutes three times per week, rather than an hour a day)
  • Read poetry, preferably aloud. Sign up for the Poem-a-Day newsletter from Poets.org. When you find a poem you like, read more of that poet’s work. Fox particularly recommends Naomi Shihab Nye, Tomás Q. Morín, Marie Howe and Ada Limón.
  • Try using forms to spur your own work. The pantoum is a good one for beginning writers. Or, simply begin with a line from somebody else’s work, and go from there (just make sure to credit the original author, if you share your poem).
  • Write lists of things you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel (or whichever senses you have access to). Challenge yourself to use two details from each list in a poem.
  • Go out and listen to poetry at slams, readings, and open mics. Get inspired.