During yesterday’s presentation on music and improvisation, Gil Helmick and his band inspired the writers in the room to face their fears off the page. “I’ve actually watched my work change before my eyes while I’m performing,” he said. “Line breaks go. I’ll toss lines over my shoulder like they’re dead birds.”
Helmick’s presentation Poetry, Music, Improvisation, Synergies of the Subconscious is one of four faculty presentations I’m required to evaluate as a student.
I’m in my second semester of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, one of the nation’s leading low-residencies.
It’s a rigorous two-year graduate education in creative writing. Each semester kicks off with a ten-day residency at the historic Stone House. (Last residency, we stayed at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, ME. This time, we’re at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME.)
Helmick’s among the Stonecoast faculty members who, during the residency, lead workshop groups in creative nonfiction, fiction and popular fiction. Outside of the residency, faculty mentors give us one-on-one intensive instructions in our chosen genres. Last semester, I had the great Tim Seibles as my mentor, and was fortunate enough to get him again as a workshop leader for poetry.
As a Stonecoast student, I get to take electives in scriptwriting, translation, performance and cross-genre. We’re all required to do a third semester project and lead an hour-long presentation in our fourth semester. I’m excited about collaborating with a visual artist to do either a poetry comic book or a graphic novel in verse for my third semester project.
Yesterday was the fourth day of my residency that started with Tim and Patricia Smith scorching the Flash Faculty Readings that included Boman Desai, David Anthony Durham, Stonecoast Director Annie Finch, the Elizabeths (both Hand and Searle), the awesome and amazing Cait Johnson, and Michael Kimball.
During the residency, I’m also required to evaluate three graduating student presentations. My favorite so far is Karrie Waarala’s Creating the Common Languages Necessary to Make a Poetry Show a Success.
She presented on her Poetry Side Show, what she did as her third semester project. According to Waarala, it was an involved process that led to a successful multimedia project, where she incorporated video performances of poets/actors along with her stage presentation. This, she said, allowed her to keep the focus on her performance without having other actors with her on the stage.
“I feel funny calling this a one-woman show when other people were involved,” she said before wisely admitting, “You cannot do this alone.” She got help from a friend who built her a trick mirror. Others designed posters and websites to help her get the word out about her show.
The extent to which Waarala went to pull off her project was impressive. Her research included her reading, conducting interviews and traveling with a small ring circus. For her third semester project, she hired a sideshow barker, a fortune-teller, and a juggler who peddled a unicycle outside her show while tossing and catching flame batons.
But, perhaps, more risky than keeping several objects in the air simultaneously was Waarala quitting her job as a librarian to pursue her third semester project full-time. After hearing that, I thought of how my fiancée would kill me if I quit my job for a project.
Two nights prior, Kazim Ali brought the house down with his reading. Earlier that day, I learned about 10-minute plays in James Kelly’s and Elizabeth Searle’s faculty presentation, ‘Get Shorty’: One-Act Plays and Short Films as a ‘Way In’ to Scriptwriting.
The presentation involved everyone partnering up for a role-play exercise. One person played the scriptwriter pitching a story to the partner, who played the director. After five minutes, the roles reversed. Kelly and Searle kept us engaged by acting out a 10-minute play.
In that presentation, I learned a 10-minute play is 10 pages double-spaced. I learned about the Aristotelian unities, the rule of three characters (the third person disrupts the relationship between two people), and the mistakes beginning playwrights make.
“Beginning playwrights feel they have to explain a lot,” Kelly said. “They don’t trust their audience.”
Instead, he suggested using fewer stage directions. “Trust the director. This medium is collaborative,” Kelly said. “Your job is to step back from what you think is important.”
His message—“The fate of your work is tied to other people”—was echoed yesterday in Gil Helmick’s presentation on music and improvisation.
Helmick’s part of a multimedia performing arts crew known as The 86 Ensemble (formerly the Snowmonks), which blend spoken word, piano, and cello improvisations that’s attributed to what’s called “thoughtful, challenging and periodically disruptive juxtapositions of image, metaphor, meaning and sound.”
After The 86 Ensemble got down, the floor was open to students and faculty who either composed on the spot or brought something already written. Poet Anne Witty was brave enough to kick it off for all the poets, sci-fi and fiction writers who eventually worked up the courage to improvise our narratives.
We had church in that upstairs room of the Stone House.
Indigo Moor and Patricia Smith kept encouraging me to go up. When I told Indigo that I’d go if he went, the poet/playwright/fiction writer got up and performed the title poem from his debut collection of poems Taproot.
On my way to the mike, I thought of Helmick’s point on the important element of improvisation. “The key, in improvising with others, is to listen. It’s through listening that magic occurs,” he said. “It’s through listening the dueling happens.”
I listened and found my way into the duel with my poem “Hunger”. But the magic happened when folks, initially put off by getting up in front of their peers, cast their inhibitions aside to add their voices to the cipher.