Poetry in the Lan Su Chinese Garden

Last week I attended a poetry workshop, led by local Portland poet Sage Cohen. It was held in the Celestial Hall of Permeating Fragrance in the Lan Su Chinese Garden, located in downtown Portland. It had been 10 years since I last visited the garden, shortly after it first opened in 2000, in  a space that once held a parking lot.

My memories from my past visit are vague. I remember only strolling along the footpaths with other members of my extended family, who were gathered in town to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. The garden was a lovely backdrop for our conversations and reconnection.

Last week, the garden again served as a lovely backdrop, this time for the poetry workshop. There, gazing at views of the garden through windows open to the outdoors, Sage offered us an invitation to write poetry in community. The only requirement to writing poetry, she told us, was to pay attention. Interestingly, my yoga instructors all tell me the same. Pay attention. Be present. Tune into the moment.

Sage dispelled the myth that poets need to be suffering in order to write good poetry, by sharing with us a quote by singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen (no relation): “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”

Through a series of prompts, we then wrote our own poetry. After each prompt, two or three poets volunteered to share with the group what they had written. It never fails to amaze me how a roomful of writers, using the same prompt as a springboard, manage to create such a wealth of diverse writings (in this case, poetry). And how poetic all the writings sounded, even though they were first drafts, penned in approximately 7 minutes apiece.

It also always catches me by surprise at what I choose to write about—often things I rarely consciously think about—when I am in a writing workshop. This time was no exception. I wrote poems about the Sunday mornings of my childhood, the randomness of life (prompted by two friends going in for cancer treatment that week), the bonsai in the front of the room, and my Tai Chi class. All in an hour-and-a-half workshop.

Afterwards, I took the time to wander leisurely around the garden, fully immersing myself in the beauty of the place. It was a typical Portland June day—somewhat cool, somewhat cloudy— but with everything growing lushly, and flowering shrubs and plants in full bloom. I viewed the garden from various angles and penned some haiku, finding inspiration in the reflecting pond, mirroring the clouds and downtown towers in its lightly rippled surface, the pounding of the waterfall, the willow bending to water, and the tantalizing fragrance of some unknown plant wafting through the air.

mirrored pond-
holding the sky
in its depths


bamboo bends
but does not break


three friends of winter-
evergreen pine, resolute bamboo,
the dormant plum


scarlet peony-
blowzy blooms
a single dropped petal

A free poetry writing workshop with Sage Cohen is available to listen to online at The Inkwell, on blogtalkradio. Additionally, you catch an interview with Sage by Nyla Alisia, also at The Inkwell.