Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Back in the saddle

Yesterday was so full that my cup runneth over.

The morning lecture was given by Pam Houston, a talk called "What Has Irony Done for Us Lately?" She prefaced by saying it was a work-in-progress; it felt pretty finished to me. It was broken up into sections and one in particular really hit home. In it, she told the story about the last days of her Irish wolfhound, Fenton. The tenderness. The very real relationship between human and dog. The small actions we take in the face of death. Like the generosity of the butcher who, after stacking high quality steaks on the scale and listening to Pam's reason behind the purchase, took one off and said, his steak is on me. This moment had me in tears. I could not stop thinking about my first dog, Hannah, who died in 2012. How I spent her last night on my living room rug, her head in my lap, both of us watching tv. How I knew that she knew, that we both knew the end was very near. How hard it was to be in that room at the vet's office, watching her go, but needing to be there, to comfort her, to not let her die alone. How her breath slowed and eventually stopped. How I was a mess afterwards for days. How my oldest, at six, didn't recognize tears from my eyes, asking, what's that water coming from your eyes? How my second child understood so deeply that she, a then four-year-old, was almost as heartbroken as I was. This is what writing does. This is what storytelling does. It connects us. The lecture was moving. The audience, again, was left in silence, processing, digesting.

Then off to workshop. Which was terrific. A good group of folks who really give a shit about poetry. I know: this is a "duh" statement, but it's more a commentary on how long I've been away from a writing community. I was so excited to be in conversation with people who understood the significance of a comma and its placement, to be in a poem or not. For you non-writers, this is dorky. For you poets, you know exactly what I'm talking about. For the first session, we stumbled a bit in how we responded to each other's work, still trying to feel each other out, but I thought we did great, offering feedback that was useful to the poet when framed through questions and descriptions rather than judgment and opinions ("I liked..."). What was really great for me was that my brain was actually working! It was stretching and expanding on preliminary basic thoughts about a poem -- I mean really stretching. I can envision my brain twisting around, reaching for deeper layers in a poem and searching words to express what I notice. This is something I've missed. Teaching undergrads for so long, my critical eye has gone soft. This is like me doing basic level yoga for so long after not having done a level 3 class and just easing right back up there. The joints are a little stiff, but I can feel them loosening up, I can feel my body poised to take on Bird of Paradise. Not just yet, but soon. Warm ups are important; we want to avoid injury. I'm really looking forward to our next session later this morning.

After lunch, I took a short hike along some ski trails (translation: it was all uphill!), but felt good to be in the quiet of the mountain (well, mostly quiet. There was a distant mower buzzing away), the small calming rush of the stream. Then, I had a small group meeting with Patrick Thomas, managing editor at Milkweed, which was great. Lots of good information about how, generally, small presses might work and specifically, how Milkweed works and what they look for. Doesn't hurt that he's young and good looking (hahaha! Did I say that out loud?). He did say, towards the end of our session, to give love to the editors... to which one person said: "I like your shirt." And everyone laughed. In all seriousness, though, he meant that editors like to know that you have done your homework, that you've researched the press to see if your work fits with their vision, based on their book lists, for example. The fact that he said this told me that way too many people don't do their homework because, perhaps, they just want to get published any way, any how and as a result, mass submit. Not the best approach. It's like looking for a job: you're not going to just apply to every single job out there. And even if you narrow down to your field of expertise, don't you want to work in a place that suits you? Of course! Same idea. But for some reason, this kind of common sense doesn't translate in the writing world. Generally, any kind of common business sense doesn't cross over. See what I mean by writers being a weird species?

There's a wide variety of folks here. Sure, they're all writers, but where they come from is an interesting mix. During happy hour yesterday (yes, there is an actual hour in the schedule in which we socialize before dinner. And yes, there are beverages available for purchase during said hour.), I talked to a man named Stephen for a while. He's in his early seventies (he looks much younger than that! I'd guess his early sixties) and he's a retired astronomer & professor. He's currently a photographer who is now pursing writing, working on a collaborative project with his granddaughter. Incredible! And while he lives in Arizona, he grew up in the Bronx. We argued over who was the epicenter of sarcasm: Jersey or the Bronx (Pan Houston made mention of Jersey sarcasm in her talk). We decided it depended on which decade you were talking about. He was talking 1950s Bronx. I was talking late 20th century/early 21st century Jersey. Hah! That was a fun conversation.

The meals have been interesting, sitting and talking with both writers and translators (the Bread Loaf Translators conference is also happening here). What I've loved so far is being able to talk to others about language and the choices we make, whether translator or writer. To talk about these things to people who get it, who share my passion for language. This is why coming here is good for me. I don't get the chance to have these kinds of conversations back home.

And now to begin Day 3, which promises to be sunny and a bit warmer! Hooray!

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