These past ten days were inspiring. I shared space with some of the most gifted people, talking about the cloud language of poetry and how to make our lines sing. The experts made the craft of writing magical enough to transform the Stonecoast MFA summer residency into a Hogwarts for aspiring word witches and wizards.
The spells and charms of both the workshops and presentations kept out anything that would otherwise kill our creative spirits. We lived in that enchanted space for ten days, losing ourselves in the sloping lawns and flower beds of the Stone House. In the backyard, there was a field of high grass that, for me, was the Forbidden Forest. Unlike the other writers, I wasn’t going to brave it for a better look at the coast line.
That short-lived magic became clear to me and the other four writers yesterday morning. It was quiet during our 4 a.m. airport shuttle ride. If our thinking was in sync with one another’s, then no doubt the quietness was our way of coming to terms with what waited for each of us back home.
One blogger would say that our actions that morning were symptoms of the “Post-Vacation Funk.” But, more accurately, it’s the “Post-Residency Funk.” Here’s what me and the other writers have to look forward to. “When you first arrive home—a weary traveler surrounded by the familiar sights, scents and sounds of your ‘stuff’—you can’t help but experience Dorothy’s ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ feeling and sleeping in our own bed,” the blogger writes.
During the residency, we stayed in the dorms at Bowdoin College. We had twin-size beds, and the mattresses were thin. I’m convinced the pillows came from the same material used to make dodge balls. The only nice things about the room were the space and the fact I didn’t have to share it with anyone else.
In spite of those discomforts, they didn’t kill the magic. The blogger foreshadows my entire week. “The next day comes…it’s a flurry of activity,” she writes. “You’re answering emails, returning calls…you are recounting details…your head is not likely still in the clouds.”
To get over that funk, here’s a list of residency highlights that didn’t make it into my earlier posts:
- Karrie Waarala’s performance of Long Gone: A Poetry Side Show. I’ve wanted to see this one-woman show since I attended Karrie’s presentation Creating the Common Languages Necessary to Make a Poetry Show a Success, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Through a series of poems and monologues, Long Gone tells the story of Tess, a tattooed woman in the circus sideshow.This show was Karrie’s third semester project, which stemmed from her work on a poetry collection from the point of view of people in and around the sideshow for the past two years. “Tess is one of the two main characters in that collection,” Karrie told MarkMaynard.com, a political and art blog. “The whole thing is sort of a glimpse at the sideshow behind the sideshow… how people like Tess end up there, and the toll a life like that takes.” Karrie added, “She’s not exactly the well-adjusted type.”Last Thursday, Stonecoast faculty and students waited anxiously outside the sliding doors a carnival barker guarded. The character was Karrie’s friend, who was dapper in a white dress shirt, brown vest and slacks, with a matching kangol. He paced back and forth outside the room. When it was time, he went into barker style: Step right up! Ladies and gentlemen! Come see the tattooed woman (Karrie), sword swallower and fire-eater. Come on inside to see the poetry side-show!
Scott Wolven’s presentation War Is Waiting For You: How To Make War Come Alive In Your Fiction. War lives and breathes, according to Scott. It also moves around. The prize-winning crime short story author noted how fictional war works its way into many stories, causing problems. “War is a concept that comes from reality,” Scott advised his students and fellow faculty who filled a room to standing only. “War is a difficult thing to fictionalize.”
Some problems with narrative descriptions of destruction and action are choppy and detract from the story. The instructor explained that techniques used in contemporary journalism can fix these craft problems. “You will never get back far enough to get away from war,” Scott said. “When you write this…give me, as a reader, some background.” The instructor advised writers to research and to extrapolate events from reality into their narratives.
“That’s what fiction’s about,” he said. “Create me a believable lie.” One book Scott focused on was Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, which was a nonfictional account of war. Considering Bowden’s use of multiple view points to chronicle a single event, the instructor noted that importance of selecting the right point of view. “If I’m going to write about war, am I going to get the maximum impact from writing from this point of view?” That’s the question Scott said every writer should consider: “I want to see what’s catching you out of the corner of your eye.” Another note of advice was to avoid being advantageous to the story. “A lot of times we aim toward epiphany in fiction…Stop giving your characters so much knowledge,” Scott said. “Do you have tactics in your fiction where things don’t work?” An example of accomplishing this is writing a war story, where someone forgot to put the right oil in the Humvee. Scott said, “You’ve got to make stupid crap happen.”
Hanging with Patricia Smith and the gang. After her performance at Space Gallery in downtown Portland, Maine, Patricia and the crew (me, Quenton Baker, Roger Bonair-Agard, Adeeba Rana, Erica Vega, Emma Bouthillette, Melody Fuller, and Patricia’s granddaughter Mikaila Smith) headed across the street to Nosh Kitchen Bar for bacon-dusted fries and spicy quesadillas. Patricia smiled when her steak sandwich floated to the table. We laughed hard as Roger broke down his foot fetish, and at Patricia rolling her eyes while Melody schooled Mikaila on how to snag fine brothas.
- Community Discussion: Writing and Spirit. This wide-ranging, open discussion about the intersection between writing and spirituality. Here’s some quotes from that discussion:
“As writers, we have to look beyond the cynicism in the world and find that spiritual place.” –Annie Finch
“If you’re in popular fiction and can open people up to myths, why not take those myths to a wonderful place.” –Annie Finch
“Spiritually is a way of being. It’s more of a verb than it is a noun.” –Tim Seibles
“It [spiritually] is a way of approaching life; it’s a certain kind of attentiveness.” –Tim Seibles
“DNA is the spiral of stories.” –Joy Harjo
“The poetry is a journey…It’s basically a mystical path.” –Joy Harjo
“I feel like my work is part of a small movement, an antidote for what’s wrong in the world.” –Cait Johnson
“I love the idea of digging down to the roots to see how we’re all connected.” –Cait Johnson“
I get obsessed with what is God? Who is He? Am I talking to what’s outside myself or in me?” –Kazim Ali
- Party for Graduating Students. DJing from her laptop, Patricia measured the temperature of the dance floor. If it got too hot, she cooled it off with alternative rock. If the dance floor was too cold, she funked it up with James Brown’s “Sex Machine” (requested by Joy Harjo). Roger and I had to show the Stonecoast family how to dance to Soca. The highlight of the night, though, was watching Joy get down to the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize”.
- Tim Seibles’s manuscript Fast Animal. Even back here in DC, it seems surreal to be holding the manuscript for Fast Animal, which will we be published early next year. I started reading it on the shuttle that took us back and forth between Bowdoin College and the Stonehouse. Reading those poems, I chuckled and smiled bright enough for the other writers to wonder what was up. They’ll have to wait and find out when the book drops.