January 18, 2000
When I made the decision back in December to make 2000 the Year of Writing Seriously, the first thing I did was look for a workshop or festival event that might give some direction to my work. I know myself, and I know that I need some target to work toward, an assignment or a deadline. I consulted the Shaw Guides, an on-line listing of writers’ conferences in every genre and venue imaginable.
I’m a veteran of organized short term writing programs. My first was in 1989, a week at the Taft School in Connecticut at something called “Creative Writing for Teachers.” I wrote a poem about seeing Lynn on a sonogram that week, as well as a short story, the first imaginative writing I’d done since high school. In 1990 I went to the Island of Iona, a magical place off the coast of Scotland, for ten days of spiritual growth. Although it wasn’t designed as a writing event, I gathered a lot of material there that still contributes ideas and images.
Something itched at me in 1992, and I signed up for the one and only non-visual arts workshop ever sponsored by the Art Association of Harrisburg. A lanky half Irish, half Puerto Rican poet with lips like Mick Jagger’s met with me and five other women for ten Thursday nights that stretched from the last fierce snow to the sparkle of late spring. He encouraged me and helped me shape the material that eventually became a long piece for a graduate class in autobiogrpahy and memoir.
Since then I’ve been to some organized event or course at least once a year. In 1994 it was Dublin for two weeks of prose work. The conference could have been better, but oh, being in dear dirty Dublin was worth having my manuscript virtually ignored by the visiting tutor I was assigned who informed me that she hadn’t read it because she finds student work a bore. In 1995 I flew to the Pacific Northwest to sail the San Juan Channel Islands for five days with poet Tess Gallagher, who taught me ten ways of looking at a madrona tree.
I’ve done eight days at Skidmore College with the International Women’s Writing Guild where it seemed that a piece of writing had validity simply because it was written by a woman, and a week at Goucher College where being in the same room with Tobias Wolff was worth the cost of the conference, even if he hadn’t said anything.
I’ve been in groups where I was more talented than the leader and ones where I hoped no one would ask me to read anything because I was way out of my league. I’ve been the oldest in a group (older, even, than the instructor) as well as the youngest. I’ve been the one with the most experience and the most outside recognition. Last week I was the only one in my critique group who wasn’t the author of a poetry collection or novel published by a legitimate press and available through Amazon.com
When I checked the Shaw Guides I was initially attracted to the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway with Peter Murphy and Friends by two features. It would take place in only a few weeks, and it was within driving distance (Cape May, New Jersey, 195 miles, or 4 hours and 20 minutes, exactly as Mapquest promised). The cost was reasonable as well, with a modest surcharge for a single room rather than shared accommodations.
The brochure posted on the website, however, clinched my decision. Among the staff was a poet named J.C. Todd, who used to live in Harrisburg and with whom I had worked in the summer of 1995. Although the outline of the event seemed appropriate for my needs, it was her name that provided the real draw.
Cape May is an easy if lengthy drive from Harrisburg with just one tricky spot where I-76 slices through central Philadelphia. You have to choose your bridge (Walt Whitman or Ben Franklin) and then the approach lane in an area where there are about eight traffic streams, no pavement markings, and everybody else seems to know what they’re doing. After that it’s clear sailing, especially on a winter Friday, south south south into flatter and sandier land where, even though you can’t taste the salt yet, you know you’re at sea level.
I’d never been to the seashore in the winter. Cape May is a popular summer vacation spot, an old town with a lot of Victorian character. The blocks near the beach are studded with colorful gingerbread-trimmed guest houses. The oceanside drive itself was empty of cars, the traffic lights on blink. The “No Vacancy” signs indicate hotels that are not open, not ones that are full.
The Grand Hotel is an old facility. It is on the beach front, and my room did indeed have an ocean view, from a bay window with a writing table placed in exactly the same arc of the sun that I enjoy in my kitchen at home. I had a sofa and a kitchenette. The only discomfort was the heater, a wall unit that blasted out the driest air I’ve ever encountered and set the non-removable metal hangers in the clothes rack to dancing like wind chimes (I had to hang something on each one to muffle the sound.)
This is the seventh year that Peter Murphy, who teaches high school English in Ventnor, New Jersey, has organized the event. What began as a gathering of twenty or so poets from New Jersey’s lively network of educator writers has grown to include 150 participants and 25 tutors. There are offerings in beginning poetry, advanced poetry, novel, short story, memoir, pottery, and song writing.
I especially liked the test one could take to determine what level of poetry to register for: take a recent poem and underline all the abstract nouns. Draw a box around all the concrete nouns. Count them. If you have more abstract than concrete nouns, or if you don’t know the difference, you belong in the beginners’ group.
I chose advanced poetry writing. At events like this one often brings work in progress or completed pieces that have been submitted beforehand for critique. This workshop required new material created on the spot. There was a brief morning session in which we read a set of poems chosen around a theme, received a writing prompt, and then retired to work up a first draft of a poem. In the afternoon we gathered in small groups facilitated by one of the tutors.
I had spent the week before assembling all the scraps of writing I’ve accumulated over these last ten years. I have a dozen or so poems which I considered to be in their final form (well, not anymore!) as well as two folders stuffed with fragments, images, and phrases (one I am especially drawn to is “the gestures of trees”) that I think have possibilities.
I have never worked this hard at a workshop. Saturday morning I developed a piece that already existed as an idea and six or seven details that was presented to the small group in the early afternoon. I also took a piece begun in April that had two stanzas to a one-on-one session with J.C. Todd in the late afternoon. By 6:00 I was exhausted. I slept for two hours, got a bagel and hot chocolate from a Dunkin’ Donuts up Route 9, read a little, and was asleep by 10:00.
Sunday morning was cold but not windy. The beach was very dry, so despite my leg cast I was able to walk along the water’s edge and pick up interesting rocks and shells, a sport which Loren Cruden in The Spirit of Place cautions is a manifestation of a terrible egotism. (I asked the objects’ permission, as she suggests.) I wrote a poem from a grocery list I found in the bottom of a cart about fifteen years ago, and took that to workshop.
Saturday’s work took much less out of me both physically and emotionally. I went to dinner at a little seafood shack beside the marina with a woman who was in my group. Afterward we gathered for the “Shameless Bazaar,” where I bought my dinner companion’s novel and two copies (one for a birthday gift) of a book of poems drawn on the author’s experiences as a high school teacher. The open reading that followed featured seventy poems in less than two hours. I presented a poem about a song a young man said he wrote for me, although I suspected, even then, he told every girl that. When I give it at a reading I get to the line “I sometimes hum that lovely, lilting melody,” and then I hum it, and then I say, “Does Connie, does Donna, does Jane?” and everybody smiles.
Monday’s writing and critique session was most swift — prompt, draft, presentation in about ninety minutes. It was the least satisfactory work I did, but as with any other piece of writing, if I let it sit for a week or a month or a year, it might still yield something of value.
By noon those who were left gathered over box lunches for a tribute to Martin Luther King. (A number of the New Jersey teachers had been unable to secure the day off since their school had lost the holiday to a “hurricane day” last fall.) We saw a film clip of interviews with the people who had been with Dr. King the day he died, and then Clyde Deloris Herring, a New York teacher and poet, sang the sweetest and most moving a capella rendition of Amazing Grace that I have ever heard.
The drive back from something like this is always anti-climactic. The object is just to get home. Warnings for gale force winds had been posted for the coastal areas, and it was too cold inland to stop at the two interesting cemeteries I’d seen on the way down. I was home by six, so tired that I completely forgot until about 9:30 that I was supposed to be at a Christian Education committee meeting.
Today I felt as if I’d just returned from Europe. I went back to bed after Lynn left for school, did little but unpack, took another nap, and contributed little at tonight’s Building Committee meeting (not entirely because I had none of the input I probably should have gathered at last night’s Christian Ed conclave).
My fatigue, I think, is not purely physical. Although I’m not as energetic as I was thirty years ago, when I could begin a drive back from Philadelphia about midnight and still be bright-eyed for school at seven, a four-hour drive shouldn’t lay me out like this.
Rather, I think, the weekend did what it was supposed to do. The work of bringing long-held emotions to the surface, laying them out in a poem, and letting go of the autobiography in order to craft a piece with some possibilities for transcendence is draining. There is no gain without pain, even in the work of the mind.
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