The exquisite hush I require, being a sensitive artist

“So how’s it going at your writer’s resort?” my son keeps asking, and you should definitely hear pre-teen sarcasm in those italics. I packed skepticism in my suitcase, actually, nested in there with books I didn’t use and tea I would brew in enormous quantities. What’s so special about writing over there instead of at home? I wondered, even though others kept assuring me that residencies are magically productive times. Today I’m participating in an Ecopoetry Anthology reading at 2 pm in Givens Bookstore in Lynchburg, Virginia, and head home after the reception—so here’s a fellowship report.

Pros:

  • I can see how making an occasion during which you have no excuse NOT to get it done can be a really useful thing. I was here to revise and compile work I’d been doing in snatches for years and I did, in fact, arrive at a good draft of a poetry manuscript called Radioland. The idea was a two-week poetry-only extravaganza arranged to begin the moment winter term ended, because I wasn’t scheduled to teach in W&L’s May term, and because I have a lot of critical writing to pull together later in the summer. I could have found a book in this messy pile of drafts by laboring in my regular office but I’m not sure I would have, at least not so efficiently. It’s easy for me to back-burner poetry but the guilty sense of privilege this fellowship inspired made the work feel urgent.
  • The company was pretty great. I absolutely loved visiting other artists’ studios, hearing them read, listening to their music. Just the most recent example: a concert last night by Jeff Harms, accompanied by James Berman on the violin, was fantastic. There are some people here I’d like to keep track of for the long haul.
  • The mountains here aren’t prettier than the mountains in Lexington, really, but here I’m closer to the quiet places. It’s been restorative to take long walks through ridges of oak and dogwood and not meet a soul (except for those naked women photographing each other in a sunny meadow, and that was interesting in its own way).
  • A related point: I have a noisy head and here things slowed down enough for me to listen to it. Following paths in an unfamiliar wood is a lot like following the language that scurries around in my mental underbrush, or launches from some inner branch, or wells up in the wetlands. I composed a lot of new poems and I have no idea if they’ll weather. They do feel strange in a good way, though.

Cons:

  • Like I said, I could do this at home with a LOT less inconvenience to kith and kin. Unlike many people, I have a supportive spouse, good space, a job that allows summer writing-time and rewards me for publishing. I’ve had spells when it was tough going, but mostly I’m capable of setting myself deadlines and sticking to them, putting other tasks on hold if I have to. A VCCA regular was telling me the other night that she has all her breakthroughs here, and it’s possible I’ll recognize later that the new work has some special quality I hadn’t yet attained. The verdict’s out, though. Maybe it’s a genre thing—maybe residencies are less vital for poets. You can draft new prose for 10 hours a day, maybe, but poems don’t work that way, and I don’t need a big well-ventilated studio or a borrowed baby grand.
  • I had a friend once who said that everyone should have to do their own scut work. At the time I protested vehemently. I don’t know any middle-class U.S. residents who don’t farm out some chores by eating meals at restaurants, hiring someone to do their taxes or re-shingle the roof, handing clothes over to the dry-cleaner, whatever. I mean, where would that ideological maxim take me? I don’t want to thresh my own wheat and spin my own cotton. Still, I get it. Chopping an occasional zucchini is good for an egghead. I think it’s probably better, in the end, for artists to clean toilets, wipe up cat vomit, live with other people to whom they have profound obligations. A break’s okay, but three meals a day with no effort probably isn’t good for anyone’s poetry over the long haul.

I guess what I feel is, introvert though I am (I spent lots of time reading in my studio while other fellows stayed up late talking), the connections here will probably have a bigger effect on me than the silences. And I’m feeling cheerful at the prospect of slapping up last-minute peanut butter sandwiches because my sarcastic twelve-year-old forgot to pack his lunch again. It’s good to be reminded that lots of people, quite rightly, don’t take my craft and erudition all that seriously.

5 thoughts on “The exquisite hush I require, being a sensitive artist

  1. I am interested in what you say about being able to draft new prose for 10 hours a day, but that poems work differently. I am doing a creative PhD in poetry, and am struggling with the difference. I could draft poems each day (maybe not for 10 hours!), but they would be mediocre and would probably end up needing a lot more work to make them into something good than if I wrote sporadically/organically. But — the big but — I have a two year old son so don’t have the luxury of writing whenever I want. I’ve been thinking about trying to create my own version of a writer’s retreat for a few days, but I am not sure if it would actually help or just drive me mad. It was interesting to read your experiences. Thanks for the post!

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    • Thanks, Sarah. For whatever it’s worth, I think you deserve a few days to follow your thoughts and see what happens. The fractured time of caring for a toddler is hard! Good to have a goal at the outset, though–maybe to take a few months worth of sporadic jottings and see what you can do with them? Revising requires a really different energy than drafting.

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  2. I smiled over the “I have a noisy head” comment. Interesting that, far from needing to quiet it down, you needed to have the time/space in which to listen to it. I also like the idea that poets need to cut their own vegetables once in a while, etc. (though I’d pass on cat vomit, myself). This sounds so great for you, and I’m amazed and not at all surprised that you were so productive. Welcome home!

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