Phyllis Hoge Thompson and The Practice of Deep Listening

Letters from Jian Hui  by Phyllis Hoge Thompson

Letters from Jian Hui by Phyllis Hoge Thompson

The poet, Phyllis Hoge Thompson, died recently, after a long life filled with raising four children while pursuing her doctorate, teaching at the University of Hawai’i, writing volumes of poems, plus a memoir.  She relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico upon retirement “to experience the four seasons, among other things.”  She lived a year in China, teaching English.  She regularly went to Yaddo to work on manuscripts that subsequently got published. In 1995, she was awarded the Hawai’i Award for Literature by then Governor Benjamin J. Cayetano.

Words were her métier.

Phyllis also loved art, and supported many artists, like myself, by not only buying their work, but also by valuing what we, as artists, bring to the world.

Putting Up Art

As I hang up a painting, once again I know Why I need art. There are things words cannot say, Thoughts that the eyes can see.  My paintings show Ideas invisible any other way… 

Today, McCauley’s French window: the rose-fallen light Echoes a lost aubade, a way of being I lift the picture, position the wire just right, And drift off into the life I live by seeing.

—from Hello House, p.54

Hello House  by Phyllis Hoge illustrated by Maxine Hong Kingston

Hello House by Phyllis Hoge illustrated by Maxine Hong Kingston

Sunset Over Albuquerque  3” x 2” ©1996 Elizabeth J. Buckley

Sunset Over Albuquerque 3” x 2” ©1996 Elizabeth J. Buckley

Her home was a modest two-bedroom, with hardwood floors that were covered with worn oriental carpets.  Family furniture—mostly wood—crowded the rooms, and shelves filled with books lined most available walls.   Above and around them art:  paintings, two small tapestries, photographs, ikat weaving, sculptures, drawings, art quilts, turned wooden bowls, and cobalt blue glass balls of varying sizes. More books in a pile on the floor by her reading chair, as well as stacked on the living room coffee table and on the end table by her bed.  

Window and Grass  ©2000 Elizabeth J. Buckley Mixed media: Handwoven tapestry with couching

Window and Grass ©2000 Elizabeth J. Buckley Mixed media: Handwoven tapestry with couching

In 1987, shortly after I moved to Albuquerque, Phyllis initiated the Friendly Writers Groups, critique groups of four people that met once every week for two hours, to listen and respond to 4 or 5 pages of prose, either fiction or non-fiction, that each brought for review.  We took turns reading our work aloud and responding to each other’s.  The format was simple.  One person would read aloud what s/he brought, while the other three would listen.  When that person finished reading, the other three then would write down overall first impressions.  The same person would read aloud the same writing a second time, and the other three would listen as well as make further notes.  After the second reading, one-by-one, each of the three listeners would give feedback, such as:

“My overall first impressions were….”

“The place that really grabbed my attention was…. “

“I wanted to know more about …..”

“You shifted tense around the beginning of the second page.”

“You repeated the word… four times in three consecutive sentences.”

The Painted Clock  by Phyllis Hoge Thompson

The Painted Clock by Phyllis Hoge Thompson

“I found myself fading out after …. and then returning when… “

“I am confused about where this is going.  Do you intend this to be…?”  Or do you mean..?

“I noticed the use of passive voice, which made the scene feel less immediate for me.  I would like to experience the action more directly.”

“I really liked the ending sentence, and I wondering how it would work at the very beginning as your opening line.”

Invariably the responses helped me to re-think passages, trim out excessive words, say more about specific areas, as well as to know what really worked well.  It felt like a gift, even when I needed to set aside a draft and start fresh again.

Over the months, we read articles for publication, chapters of books, and excerpts from our journals.  We listened carefully and deeply. We responded with honesty and tenderness. We grew to love each other.

I carry the spirit of the Friendly Writers Group into my teaching. I listen carefully to my students, to both the asked and unarticulated questions.  I encourage group feedback on designs, and make suggestions of options to think about.

I also bring deep listening into my own creative process, in the initial designing stage as well as when weaving on the tapestry in-progress on the loom.  Often I work in silence, allowing it to enter and expand through me into images flowing from the pencil in my hand onto the paper, as I sketch layers of shapes and textures, as I observe and study what is before me.  Early each morning before weaving, I will sit in silence and wait.  Invariably, ideas emerge about use of color mix choices in yarn bundles, and technical decisions for what needs to happen next at the loom.

 On occasion, Phyllis and I would talk about how the living silence, that we often experience during unprogrammed silent Quaker Meeting for Worship, also informs our creative process and ultimately our work.  She wrote the following:

“When I write, when I think a poem is ready to come, I sit still for hours waiting for it to gather slowly and speak to me.  After the waiting in silence comes the writing, which I love.  I love figuring out which words sound truest and best.  I love how they fit into a line or a sentence or a phrase.  I love their weight.  I love all they assemble of thought or feeling, what they remind me of apart from what I have chosen to say.  I love how they are spelled and where they came from. I love working out in lines their music, which is for me very securely based on the old fashioned metrics I learned before I grew up.  I love fitting everything together, and I love finding out what the poem says when at last it feels right.  Whatever my poems mean in particular, they begin and end as celebration of the world entrusted to me by my life.  Poetry—my own and that of others—helps me to understand how things are for me and to live more peaceably with what I have.  It is my common prayer.”

Phyllis Hoge Thompson November 15, 1926 – August 26, 2018

The Ghosts of Who We Were  by Phyllis Hoge Thompson

The Ghosts of Who We Were by Phyllis Hoge Thompson

Books by Phyllis Hoge Thompson:

Artichoke and Other Poems

The Creation Frame

The Serpent of the White Rose

What the Land Gave

The Ghosts of Who We Were

A Field of Poetry

Letters From Jian Hui and Other Poems

The Painted Clock:  A Memoir of a New Mexico Ghost Town Bride

Anthologies including Phyllis Hoge Thompson:

Only Morning in Her Shoes:  Poems About Old Women

Edited by Leatrice Lifshitz

The Spirit That Wants Me:  A New Mexico Anthology

            Edited by Dianne Duff, Jill Kiefer, Michelle Miller