issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > rehak
Confidence & Joyby Melanie Rehak
I've moved more times than I care to count since I left college—and Dan Hoffman's graduate poetry workshop—in the spring of 1993. Up and down the east coast, back and forth across an ocean or two, and into and out of numerous apartments in numerous cities. Through all of these places, I've carried a certain list that Dan handed me one afternoon in his office, roughly twenty years ago.
He had nominated me for a poetry prize that required a train ride up into New England and then a reading as part of the competition. I was twenty-one years old and I had never read anything I'd written, much less a poem, in front of more than a few people (in fact, my biggest crowd to date had been the class assembled around the wooden table for Dan's workshop). I don't recall that we ever discussed this problem, which loomed large and terrifying in my mind, in the weeks following my nomination. And yet somehow—of course—he knew all about it. Thus began a regimen of daily readings in his office. I stood in the corner of the room with a sheaf of poems, knock-kneed and uncertain, and read them, in my best undergraduate monotone, trying not to stare down at the page the entire time. He watched with proud, appraising eyes and then delivered a critique afterwards. The idea was to get me used to holding my own in any circumstances (I now know that reading to one person, especially if that person is not Dan Hoffman, can be far more intimidating than reading to a large audience; for one thing, with a large audience you usually get a podium, which is always useful for hiding those knees).
At the end of my last dress rehearsal, as I was leaving the room to pack my bag for the trip, he slipped me an 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper. At its head was typed: "PROSAIC THINGS TO REMEMBER WHILE READING MY POEMS." I'll reproduce the entire list for you at the end of this essay, but let me say here that the advice it offers is, like Dan himself, wise, generous, humble, and profoundly humane. So much so that at some point, I framed the paper and have hung it in an easily accessible place ever since (it's currently over a panel of light switches in my hallway, where I have occasion to read it at least a few times every day). It's a list I feel everyone, poet or not, should read at least once in his or her life because it says so much about how to live. It's a list I want my children to know well, because the things it prescribes have as much to do with being a gracious, engaged citizen of the world as they do with giving a reading. It has, like nothing else, the power to bring me back not only to those wonderful days in Dan's office, which literally changed the course of my life, but to myself.
PROSAIC THINGS TO REMEMBER WHILE READING MY POEMS
1. Take deep breaths
2. Raise my eyes - look at the people now & then
3. Pause where there's a comma or a period in the poem
4. Speak slowly
5. and with EXPRESSION
6. not forgetting to speak slowly
7. Think of an introductory sentence or two for most of them
8. Don't act embarrassed or as though the poems are only throwaway gestures
9. but on the other hand don't overdramatise.
10. Doing all these things unconsciously, without having to think about any of them, will bring you CONFIDENCE & JOY.