A week ago I was driving home from St. Helena and the community of writers that is the Napa Valley Writers Conference. I was sorry to leave and eager to return home to my family. The drive went quickly with another poet I was dropping at the Oakland Airport. We talked poetry, about our different workshops and then swapped war stories. When we said goodbye at the airport curb he told me he was glad another veteran had been there because he hadn’t been sure how he’d be received. I understood, I hadn’t been sure how I’d be received either, lesbian, feminist, conservatively liberal, retired military war veteran that I am.
Attending this conference was raising the stakes for my identity as a writer and poet. While I have the validation of a Master of Fine Arts degree (in nonfiction), I have not done much work in poetry for oh, several decades. Since February I’ve been on a quest to grow as a poet. Two incidents inspired this choice. Participating with the poetry track of workshops at the San Francisco Writers Conference where I learned from Andy Jones and Brad Henderson of the University of California, Davis, University Writing Program, and Joan Gelfand from the SF Bay Area; poets who are always at the conference and who produced an amazing collection of poetry workshops and events. This year, there was someone new to the conference, Camille T. Dungy. I had an amazing conversation with Camille after one session which led to enjoying lunch together and more conversation. I was inspired to dive deeper into the craft. (In specific, I challenged her on the seemingly ‘inaccessibility’ of contemporary poetry for anyone outside of academia.) Soon after, I was at AWP and catching up with Eloise Healy, I mentioned I was thinking of another MFA, in poetry. Eloise recommended before investing in (going into debt with) another MFA, try some poetry workshops at conferences. I took her advice, which led me to Napa. Where surprise, the scheduled workshop leader for the group I was assigned was unable to attend. Camille T. Dungy was the replacement. Now that’s karma.
Camille gave her students nuggets of craft that I hungrily took and laid in as part of my foundation when crafting or revising work. One of the first was this quote from Elizabeth Bishop, “A metaphor needs to touch in at least three places and two must be in the real world.” This had immediate and profound impact as I created new work and revised previous work. Suddenly, I discovered where detail was vital and in doing so, my words became expansive and immersive where before they had merely been reporting. In the very first craft talk which happened to be delivered by Camille, I gained one of the most important and influential nuggets of the week – Create a pattern, reward the pattern, disrupt the pattern, return to the pattern or as Camille voiced this – Expectation – Reward, Expectation – Reward, Expectation – Expectation – Surprise! Expectation – Reward. This has become the keystone that most affected my development last week and now as I continue to write poetry. This formula can be applied to form, meter, sound, imagery – so many layers.
A true gift of the week was hearing poets and fiction writers read from their work. The poets read first every evening, the fiction writers second. This schedule supportive for the poets, some who
skipped the second reading to scamper back to their rooms and complete the new poem creation that was done daily. (Those slacker fiction writers who concentrated on revision while we poets created a new poem each day;) The poetry readings were vast with depth and emotion and the magic of words come alive. The two that have had the most lasting affect were Linda Gregerson and Camille Dungy. Both delivered their poems with authentic presence, drama, and life. Camille’s poem of the watch over her grandmother as she died and the passing of her namesake over the bed brings tears to my eyes even now as I remember the imagery brought to bear with Camille’s voice in my memory. Linda’s recounting of a young girl’s self harm was dazzling in its courage bringing to bay what is so often hidden by those that cut and denied by those that know of the cutting. The readings were more than just listening to masters display their craft – each reading was itself a master class in bringing words on the page to life in that moment the writer engages audience in physical time and place. We
write in isolation, yet we read and share the product of our inspiration in community.
One of the unexpected chunks of learning I’ve returned home with include alternate workshop methods. Unexpected. I didn’t anticipate learning about how to conduct workshop. I thought I’d adapt to whatever workshop method was used likely based in that prevalent method where the writer is a silent fly on the way (admittedly, a method I despise as disrespectful and often abusive). In Camille’s group, we experienced three distinct workshop techniques, each one respectful of the writing and the writer, each one providing feedback for reinforcement as well as revision. A strong thread throughout the week was internalizing what our peers provided to enhance our own self revision process. Taking the surface value – what a peer says to help improve a piece of writing, then internalizing for a second level of effect to self apply that bit of analysis (not the result but the means) which deepens self capability to look at and determine why and where some aspect of the work needs revision or change. I didn’t expect this drilling into and workshop leader deconstruction of what different aspects of the process of “workshop” provides so that I could internalize the practice. This was certainly not part and parcel of my two years of MFA workshop. Here, I was learning how to write better poems. I was learning how to critique with additional tools. And, I was learning how to not only be a peer in a workshop but tools for when I too, eventually become a workshop leader.
The setting at the St. Helena campus of Napa Valley College was peaceful and enveloping. The surrounding countryside breathtaking. Tuition includes breakfast and lunch created by the resident culinary academy and each meal a treat. Breakfast was amazing with fresh from the nest hard boiled eggs and oatmeal I wish I could cook like that at home. Lunch was a global culinary voyage and while not always what my palate was accustomed to, always worth the journey. I was grateful for the community housing scholarship, placing me in the home of one of the program supporters in the community. Returning each night to my room overlooking the pass between two hills with the vineyard vines blanketing the slopes was rejuvenating. The conference staff running the behind the scenes created a seamless experience. (Shout out to Nan, Iris, and Patrick, and the others whose names I missed.)
Each day was chock full of opportunity – workshop, poetry and fiction craft talk, a panel discussion (first book, self publishing were two) break for dinner than the nightly reading. Starting at 9 in the morning and ending at almost 9 at night, somewhere in between the poets would produce a new poem for the next morning’s workshop. Midway through the week, I was invited to join a small group of poets gathering to write offsite – this was a huge departure from normality for me. First, it meant giving up my bit of access to the onsite computer lab where I could work and print, which I couldn’t do back at my room (the one disadvantage to community housing – no printing). Second, it would require I be social, more social than workshop participation called for, which as an introvert can be challenging. (Yes, I am so an introvert.) Third, well, I don’t really like working in small groups like that, I’m basically a hermit. I went anyway. And that was my second best decision about the conference I made (the initial being decision to attend in the first place). That little gathering of poets from three different workshops resulted in newly crafted friendships I would not have otherwise formed. On the last evening we stayed long after everyone else left the grounds and had our own little round robin reading (and yes, we all still had work to produce for the final day). We had found our cohort, as one poet exclaimed. And we left the conference with plans to meet up again, serendipity having brought together four poets who all lived close enough to each other to form a new writing group, we now call The Poet’s Cohort.
A highlight of the week was the participant reading on Thursday afternoon. Each reader had two minutes and the timers were brutal calling time. It was a reflection of mutual respect and community cohesion that when the time was called, any reader that was still reading cooperatively stopped. No time enforcement procedures required. There were about 47 poets who read and half that many fiction writers. I truly enjoyed hearing all the different excepts of fiction, a few had me on the edge of my seat – no mean task with only 2 minutes, or about a page worth to read. There was some amazing poetry, some read from published books other from work created in the week. Very few instructors attended, and that was a letdown. Most of the participants were there it seemed, and that was fun.
My week in Napa was a grand investment and indulgence. Indulgence as it meant my full time, works outside the house, wife had to concurrently wrangle our two small children (ages 1 and 4) and we had the financial burden of a week of childcare for the littlest while she was at work. Investment truly as my understanding and application of the craft of poetry is already returning dividends. Since returning home, I’ve submitted to four different markets with six poems and a chapbook out for consideration. I decided to apply for a poetry fellowship next year and the idea of another MFA, this one in poetry, is at the moment off the radar. Eloise was on to something, recommending conference workshops and the opportunity they bring. I’m reading the craft books recommended and written by the workshop leaders, already applying new tools as I craft, create and revise, revise, revise.
I worked hard that conference week. I created four new poems and received useful feedback for revision on a fifth. I was among peers and role models and felt part of the greater community we together formed. In this week since the conference, I felt adrift those first few days, bereft even from the now lost companionship and daily immersion in a small island of words and wordsmiths. I am inspired though, to continue the hard work and looking forward to a return to that bucolic valley and community of writers. Two quotes I’ll close with – you decide where they will take you.
“Interesting writing engages the world around us.” Camille T. Dungy.