Student writers feel strangely compelled to take UNR instructor Gailmarie Pahmeier’s poetry workshop again and again
Picture the poet, hunting and pecking into the wee morning hours, her face bathed in the eerie glow of a computer monitor. See her scrawling lines on a cocktail napkin at the bar or curled up with a spiral-bound notebook in her favorite chair at the library.
It’s a solitary existence, cobbling together what poet Audre Lorde calls the “farthest horizons of our hopes and fears … carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” But once a poet distills these thought and images, reading her work to and receiving feedback from a group of passionate poets can be both thrilling and nerve-wracking.
For students of a University of Nevada, Reno, poetry workshop led by Reno poet Gailmarie Pahmeier, this kind of community can be an addiction. Some students take Pahmeier’s poetry workshops as many as seven or eight semesters in a row.
It’s a place where a poet can not only let his hair down, he can even take off his pants.
Now don’t go getting the wrong idea. But one of the more colorful moments in Pahmeier’s workshop did include a student removing his trousers. Hey, he had a good reason. The students went outside to cavort on a nearby playground and have a group photo taken. Graduate student Jamie Iredell cavorted down a wet slide, leaving him with damp jeans when the group got back to the classroom.
“I asked the students if they minded if he took his pants off,” Pahmeier says. She grins, tilts her head and lowers her voice to a husky growl. “They said they didn’t mind. So we had this guy sitting there without any pants on.”
That’s the kind of community that forms every semester, Iredell says. And he ought to know. He’s enrolled in the workshop about seven times. He tells the story in short, rhythmic lines:
“I drank beer. I got my pants wet. And here’s your story: I took them off. I read poetry, recited poetry, critiqued poetry—all in my long johns. That’s the nature of the workshop. I might as well have been a 12-year-old watching G.I. Joe cartoons and eating Rice Krispies in the family room of my mother’s house.”
Iredell took his first class from Pahmeier as a college sophomore. Pahmeier, whose own published works include, The House on Breakaheart Road, encouraged his writing.
“It was the first time anyone ever told me I was ‘really’ good at something,” Iredell says. The next semester, he applied to get into an advanced class. He was accepted, and his career as a poet and writer of fiction and non-fiction began. Now a graduate student with a teaching fellowship, Iredell has published 16 poems, two essays and a short story in national and international publications.
“I decided to devote my life to the literary arts, because one person said I was good at it,” Iredell says.
More small books of poetry are being published in the United States now than ever before. And more poets, like Pahmeier, are reading works and teaching workshops.
About 10 years ago, rumbles of a poetic explosion were being heard. In an Atlantic Monthly essay called “Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia wrote that the United States had about 200 graduate creative-writing programs in the United States and more than 1,000 undergraduate ones.
“With an average of 10 poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20,000 accredited, professional poets over the next decade,” Gioia wrote in 1991. “From such statistics, an observer might easily conclude that we live in the golden age of American poetry.”
The problem, Gioia argued, was that many contemporary poets were constructing a world unto themselves. They created journals, poetry collections and anthologies. But the mass media ignored their work as though it hardly applied to the rest of the reading public. Newspapers and magazines were reviewing few, if any, collections of poetry. And without that kind of support from outside the poetry subculture, the kind of fame that Robert Frost or Sylvia Plath experienced would be hard to recreate.
“Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life,” Gioia wrote. “Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.”
Now, some say, the scene is changing. Maybe it’s the plethora of poetry posting online. Or the slam poetry movement. Or the popularity of cowboy poetry in the West.
In Nevada, Pahmeier says, more than half of the applicants for Literary Arts Fellowships awarded by the Nevada Arts Council are poets.
“Certainly, there’s no evidence that ‘poetry missed the cultural radar,'” she says. “Just the opposite is true.”
Poetry readings, even in rural Nevada, are usually well-attended, she says.
“Dave Lee and Paul Zarzyski read to standing-room-only crowds whenever they’re in town. I’ve read to standing-room-only crowds in Yerington, and last month I gave a reading in Winnemucca. Thirty-five people came out in eight-degree, snowy weather—and that’s in Winnemucca!”
It’s workshop night in the Frandsen Humanities building on the UNR campus.
Student poet Teresa Poulson passes warm chocolate chip cookies around the classroom on the second floor of the building. First, there’s a series of announcements—a renowned poet reading on campus, the English Club raffle and a chance to apply for a $1,200 scholarship. Then Pahmeier, garbed as usual in cowboy boots, denim jacket, Western skirt and plenty of silver jewelry and beads, guides the workshop.
Here’s how it works. The students have a pile of poems they’ve spent time reading—and writing remarks on—outside of class. During the class, poets take turns reading their contributions to the pile. Then each reader sits in silence while the others commend and critique. After everyone’s finished talking about the poem, the poet gets a chance to respond.
The process can get emotional. Student writers in any workshop can get mad and defensive. Some cry. Some become physically or verbally threatening. In one of Pahmeier’s workshops, a student once became so obnoxious—directing mean criticism to others and promoting only his own work—that the others decided to take action. Before the next class, several guys obtained baseball caps decorated Big Mouth Billy Bass-style. Wearing these fish-head hats, students sat in class surrounding the egomaniac. Without saying a word. The critic, daunted by guys in trout, became amenable for the rest of the semester, Pahmeier says.
“Frankly, we had had it,” she explains. “He was just a nasty person. He didn’t want to help anybody become a better writer.”
This semester, like most, students keep their critiques friendly.
The first poet to read is Aaron Powell, an undergraduate philosophy major who says he’s become totally immersed in poetry.
“A few months ago, I was wondering if I could actually speak, do all my conversing in poetry,” Powell says. “This is the best class I’ve taken in college, the most fun.”
Powell reads his poem starting with the title, “In Need.” The poem depicts a child getting out of bed too late to catch cartoons, making his way through a house by stepping over the sleeping bodies of adults who partied late the night before. One stanza of the poem goes like this:
Passed out on the floor.
Is that a belt round her arm?
All I need is ice cream.
At the bottom of the page on which the poem is printed, Powell included a disclaimer explaining that this is a “perspective poem” that is not about his own childhood.
Powell finishes reading. Since part of becoming a poet is learning to read your work for an audience, Pahmeier begins the critique with a quick comment on the reading itself. “Nice reading,” she often says. “A little fast, though. You need to slow down.” Or, “A little more volume, please,” or “You read the line breaks differently than they appear on the page.”
Then the students dig into the piece.
“The last stanza seems to have one too many lines,” says one student of Powell’s poem. “And the belt-wrapped-around-her-arm image seems too obvious. But I like the innocence of the piece.”
Pahmeier explains to the student that a line variation in the last stanza of a poem is often used as a structural device.
Student-poet Melody Gough chimes in with a few thoughts on the poem’s disclaimer.
“I don’t like the poet to have to clarify the work,” she says. “No excuses. It ruined the poem for me.”
Another student steps in to agree with Gough and then offer his own comments.
“I liked that last line, but I wouldn’t go to that title,” he says. “What about using ‘ice cream’ in the title?”
The same last line did nothing for a female student.
“I didn’t sign the contract on those last lines,” she says. “It literally tiptoes off the page.”
As the critique continues, Powell the poet studies the students discussing his work, makes a few notes and raises an occasional eyebrow. Finally, Pahmeier pulls it all together.
“I really enjoy Aaron’s play with rhyme,” she says. “And his ability to think beyond the self and learn to speak through a persona.”
Powell finally gets his chance to talk. The title? “I just threw it on the page. I was hoping you guys might come up with a suggestion.”
The disclaimer? “I put it on there after I showed this to my mom and she was like, ‘Whoa!'”
This reminds Pahmeier of a story about reading her own work.
“After my first reading, my dad went around telling people, ‘That never happened and that never happened,'” she says. “Like everything was about him.”
American poetry is constantly being reinvented and reinvigorated, says Matthew Rohrer, events director for the Academy of American Poets. For April, National Poetry Month, poetry lovers are invited to vote for their favorite American poet, to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp at the academy’s Web site, www.poetry.org.
“So far, Langston Hughes is in the lead,” Rohrer says of some 5,000 votes already in. “Sylvia Plath’s following close.”
Rohrer is also one of the poetry editors for Fence, a journal of contemporary work. One trend he’s noticed in the past decade has been what he calls “a breaking down of the extremes” with regard to poetic genre and style.
“In the past, there’s been a distinct difference between the avant-garde experimental writing and the traditional lyrical work,” Rohrer says. “Now there’s a proliferation of poets using both—experimental techniques along with traditional themes like beauty—and putting them together in ways you’d have never seen 10 or 15 years ago.”
Rohrer says that America has experienced a visible rise in poetic interests. “Poetry” was one of the top 10 things searched for at Lycos.com in 1999. At Poetry.org, thousands of readings and events are submitted from around the nation and listed by region.
“Poetry has traditionally been a solitary and lonely thing,” Rohrer says. “Communities are small and separated by geography and culture. The Internet makes poetry very accessible in terms of bringing communities together.”
Pahmeier didn’t plan on becoming a well-known Nevada poet and instructor. She came to Reno as an unemployed writer in 1984, with husband Larry Henry, who had been hired as a political writer at the Reno Gazette-Journal. The two packed up a U-Haul and moved here from Tulsa, Okla., on what they thought was the “the three-year plan.” Henry ended up helping start Reno’s first alternative newspaper, the Nevada Weekly, which became the Reno News & Review.
In the beginning, the couple, now legally separated, intended to go back to the South. Pahmeier is a native of Missouri. She received her master’s of fine arts from the University of Arkansas, during the reign of a poetry-friendly governor. Gov. Bill Clinton hosted backyard barbecues for student poets and started a program that paid $100 per day for young poets to travel to rural schools and lead workshops with kids.
“That was a lot of money for me,” Pahmeier purrs.
Pahmeier worked part-time at Truckee Meadows Community College and part-time for the Sierra Arts Foundation, where she made many enduring friendships and also began to establish herself—as an artist and as a “kook,” she says.
“When they saw me coming, they’d hide,” she says, laughing. “I guess I was pushy.”
Later, she landed a position as lecturer at UNR. She wouldn’t be on the tenure track, but it was a steppingstone, she thought. After she started to teach in her field, she decided Reno might be a good place to hang her blue jean jacket—and park her many pairs of cowboy boots.
After all, Reno’s atmosphere is laid-back. Students here already understand that it’s not a good idea to call Pahmeier before noon. Her small home, not far from campus, is filled with sculptures, paintings and books by local artists and writers, as well as an adopted pit bull and three cats. Her home office, a converted walk-in closet with an iMac, is adorned with a Breakaheart Road book cover, her first toddler-sized denim jacket and a complimentary letter from former UNR President Joe Crowley.
A sense of place is evident in much of her work. In the poem, “When You Love Someone for a Long Time,” a centerpiece of her Breakaheart collection, the female speaker takes a road trip across Nevada with her man.
He loves Nevada, loves leaving their Midwest
home for the spare embrace of desert, open
light, loves the way the land here allows
a man to feel as if he has potential.
Pahmeier’s latest project involves a stack of letters sent to her by her uncle and godfather, Brownlowe Lawson, when she was two years old. Lawson had developed a serious lung disease and moved to Phoenix for the dry climate. For the last year of his life, he wrote Pahmeier a letter every day.
She’s experimenting, adding “music” to the language and crafting present-day responses to the pathos of Lawson’s own words. It’s filled with the grit of the working class, and that’s what Pahmeier likes. It’s not hard to imagine her as a young grad student serving drinks to construction workers at an Arkansas bar, counting on tips to help pay for school.
“It was 75 cents for a longneck,” Pahmeier tells students. “I thought, ‘I’m going to make no money.’ But the men paid with a buck and let me keep the change. I put the quarters in a jar. By the end of the shift, the jar was full.”
She grins like a pleased feline at the memory and tucks a strand of long, dark hair into a mass of wavy curls.
“I can totally picture her as a take-no-shit bartender,” grad student Gough muses. Gough, 39, is taking the workshop for the fifth time. She’s published eight poems—"all in those little journals that no one ever sees"—and is putting together a chapbook with Pahmeier’s help.
The workshop meets one night a week for three hours. So you’d think it’d be exhausting to try to spend nearly three hours engaged in literary thought after a full day of work or other classes, says English grad student Heather Werner. Not so. Pahmeier’s class energizes her work, Werner says. She says she’s always walked away from the class wanting to go home and write.
“She makes you feel like you want to work,” Werner says. “I don’t know how she does it. The stories she tells, the way she critiques, the humor she has all add up to an enormous energy.”
An introductory poetry class taught by Pahmeier spans the basics of the craft. Students learn scansion—the analysis of verse to show its meter—and they’re required to write traditionally structured sonnets, villanelles and sestinas.
“I don’t think anyone can call himself a true student of the craft without knowing tradition, its beauty and its limitations,” Pahmeier says. In the advanced workshop, she encourages experimentation with form while “acknowledging and applauding” the occasional sonnet.
The integrity of a poem is governed by how the work lives on the page, she says. “That’s why I spend so much time in workshop talking about such things as line breaks, enjambment, rhythm, music. I wholeheartedly believe that without rhythm—the sine qua non of poetry—one has produced only ‘cut-up prose.'”
Speaking of cut-up prose reminds Pahmeier of her own introduction to poetry, back when she was a undergraduate English student studying fiction writing. To graduate, all students had to take an English class in a genre outside the focus of their major. Pahmeier, whose sole interest at the time was in writing fiction, thought she’d breeze through a poetry class.
When it came time to turn in her first poem, she had a great idea. She pulled out her manual typewriter and set the margins at 10 and 40. Then she typed in a scene from a short story she’d written.
“Every time the bell rang, I hit the return,” she says. She turned in the short prose scene with the random line breaks imposed by the margins of the typewriter. Her class and instructor weren’t impressed. “They were on to me in a minute. They said: ‘You’re not taking us seriously. You’re not taking yourself seriously.’ Oops, busted. I have never been so shamed.”
Once she began taking the craft seriously, her writing life shifted irreversibly.
“I was so fascinated by what you could do. And the language of poetry—villanelle, sestina. I was seduced.”
Veterans of Pahmeier’s poetry workshops have gone on to pursue advanced degrees in writing at universities across the nation. Former student Zack Thomas is in the final stages of getting a MFA at Pahmeier’s alma mater, the University of Arkansas.
“She’s certainly well-remembered around here,” Thomas says in a recent e-mail message composed while he was studying for his oral exams. “The impression I get is that she was something of a femme fatale.”
One of Thomas’ most recent honors was a $9,000 fellowship from the Truman Capote Literary Trust. The language and lyricism he uses in his fiction, he says, is something gleaned from spending so much time writing poetry at UNR.
Thomas calls Pahmeier “the first real writer I ever knew.”
“I knew there was such a thing as a ‘writer,’ but I had never thought I would actually stand on the back porch of a crumbling academic building and smoke a cigarette and talk about the weather with one.”
And Thomas isn’t just referring to Pahmeier, but also those nationally known literary figures that Pahmeier and friends like Virginia City’s Shaun Griffin help finagle into speaking at the university.
"[They] had the knack and clout necessary to bring other ‘real writers’ to lowly UNR,” he says. “The summer I was there … Carolyn Kizer and Hayden Carruth [came to UNR], and not only their readings but also the indisputable evidence that they were living, breathing people like me …. did a lot to send me down this road.”
He also recalls not taking the poetic craft seriously at first.
“The first poem I turned in had been frantically written half an hour before class, and Gailmarie understandably refused to accept it,” he says. “After seeing me—dirty and booted and baseball-capped from work amongst a collection of more overtly artsy types—turn in a crappy, hand-written afterthought, it must have taken a fair amount of sensitivity and open-mindedness to notice later in the semester that I was actually working hard and, on occasion, writing good lines and having good ideas.”
The workshop’s sense of community is unmatched, says former UNR student Amber Glynn, who’s pursuing an MFA at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Even after two years in Alaska, she says she hasn’t established many of the deep friendships that she recalls from her own seven semesters of poetry workshops led by Pahmeier.
“She’s the best,” Glynn says. “She helped me get my poetry training wheels on and helped me take them off when it was time.”
UNR senior Alicia Utter credits the workshop with taking her writing to a new level.
“It’s nice to get feedback on your poetry," Utter says, "instead of just reading it to your pets."