In just a few weeks, I’m hopping in the car and heading west again. I seem to creep a little further each time. Missouri, Kansas, and now Fort Collins, Colorado, where I will finally break the mid-west barrier, into the Mountain time zone. I’m going there for a three-month residency at a place called ART342, where I will be living among three visual artists and a composer, and trying to break the mid-manuscript barrier of this second book. I have a healthy start, but I’m still feeling patch-worky about it and like I need a better vantage point from which to survey where exactly I am. To the mountains I go! (Or the foothills, anyway…)
I must say that the writing residencies I’ve done in the past have ranked right up there with the trip to Georgia I wrote about in my last post, as far as rich, life-expanding experiences go. In fact, there is one very large similarity they share. With both I found that I was somehow traveling quickly and deeply to the center of my life, and in both cases this effect was due to a magical combination of setting, occasion, and company – the company being very key. At MacDowell, where I spent two months, and at VCCA, where I spent only ten days, I found that part of the reason I was able to enter my work in a deeper, stiller way than I was used to was the sense of connection I formed while there.
The beginning-of-residency jitters (when you feel a bit like a new kid in the seventh grade) tend to pass fairly quickly for me, and the conversations I have with other writers and artists at breakfast, before the day of solitary work, and at dinner after it, always end up being highlights of my stay. Just as in Georgia, I found myself enmeshed in intimate, deep-woodsy talks with people I’d just met. What began as idle chit-chat as we filled our coffee cups and plates and settled at a table, gained amazing velocity over the next hour, sometimes two hours, and on many occasions I felt like we were not simply talking about our lives, but were actually coming to new insights through the absorbing ‘work’ of conversation. I say ‘work’ not because it felt grueling or difficult, but because, in some sense, these conversations were an extension of the other work we were doing privately in our studios. Our minds were so fully off their bums, in full seeking-mode, that our conversations were also consistently, restlessly on their way somewhere that mattered to us, searching out shades of connection. The connection-making in the work fed the human connections we were making, and vice versa.
I think solitude is emphasized so much when we talk about the character of a writer’s life, that we can forget how thoroughly connection is at the heart of what we do. I’m sitting at a coffee shop as I write this, and keep meeting the irresistible gaze of a little tufty-haired, big-eyed infant, who is at the age of having just found her smile. And the way she and I are both drawn to look at each other and smile, again and again, reminds me of how basic a desire this is – to connect to another in this simple and open way. Poetry has to find other ways of making this connection, since it is composed in solitude. The poets I most love to read are those whose human presence seems to reach through the medium in a palpable way, so that I have the sense of being in the focused company of another human being (not just a page) when I'm reading it. More than any other poetic feat, this is the one I appreciate most.
Some of the poets I think manage to achieve this with (seemingly) remarkable intuition are: Whitman (of course; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” might be the prototypical poem of this sort), Larry Levis, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons, Laura Kasischke, Rachel Wetzsteon, Rilke, Brenda Hillman (especially in Fortress, Bright Existence, Death Tractates…), Coleridge (in the conversation poems) – and I could certainly go on. It’s not so much that these poets are exceedingly personal in their poems (though some of them are), but that something about the syntax and breath and movement of their poems feels fully present to me, so that the texture and pacing of the language (including its sonic, rhetorical, and syntactical dimensions, as well as its lineation) seems carried by and participating in the idiosyncratic rhythm of the poet’s thoughts, as they are represented by the poem. It’s as though the writer’s enacting of language stands in for the tonal fluctuations of an actual voice, the moody malleability of facial expressions, the bodily leaning-in of connection or settling back of withdrawal.
As Robert Pinsky has very discerningly written in The Sounds of Poetry,
The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds, in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing. … Moreover, there is a special intimacy to poetry because, in this idea of the art, the medium is not an expert’s body, as when one goes to the ballet: in poetry, the medium is the audience’s body. … The reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words. This makes the art physical, intimate, vocal, and individual. (8)
Even though we read or sometimes hear poetry read, the way we experience it when we enter it most fully is with our whole body. Ammons’ essay “A Poem is a Walk” emphasizes this physicality too. The walk “has a motion characteristic of the walker” and “the motion occurs only in the body of the walker or in the body of the words. It can’t be extracted and contemplated. It is non-reproducible and non-logical. It can’t be translated into another body. There is only one way to know and that is to enter into it.” To enter into it. To first feel invited along, then tempted to go, and finally to choose to follow by entering and experiencing the poem's particular gait.
The third writing residency I have done was a bit unlike the others in its circumstances. And I’d like to consider the value and quality of the difference, as well as how it relates to poetry. But perhaps rather than tax your willingness to follow, I’ll save that for my next post! Thank you for accompanying me as far as you have this week…