Reports from workshops I have had with famous poets and not so famous poets
At the home of Mary Lou Taylor, I had the good fortune to attend a poetry workshop presented by Casey FitzSimons who is an expert on the writings of Robert Frost. She is into close reading of poetry, and I am considerably more intuitive in my thinking about poetry.
I find it most useful when someone gives me a new way of thinking about poetry and where it might come from. In her discussion, Casey used the metaphysical term hinterland, to describe those hidden recesses of the mind where I think much poetry comes from. I had never thought of calling that part of the intellect the backwoods and I found that the idea resonated with me in a very strong way. When I wrote to Casey to thank her for the workshop, she expanded on the hinterland idea by saying: "In German, "hinterland" means more than just the "back woods." It is specifically the watershed area that feeds a river from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away, including language, custom, and mindset. People who live along the river and use it for trade and transportation, feeding goods and ideas into the river's estuary and port, have a lot in common, supplying the port cities from the land behind it." I love to think about that way of indexing the vast chaos of my intellectual/emotional experiences. Ever since that work shop, I have been working on a suite of poems and bits of prose called forth by the recalling of things I have seen along the way.
I was going to find pictures for you, but, of course, I never found the time
I can never find the box marked photos
but it doesn't matter
I do not need photographs
The images that linger in the shallows of my mind
bring back the bite of chemicals
the red glow of the no light
in the dark room beneath the stairs
Images take shape like a print floating in the developing fluid
darks slowly merging into
company houses with no glass in their windows
Scorched leaves clinging to blighted horse chestnut trees in yards
Arbuts shriveling up between loose planks of porches
The obligatory rumpled calendar pages stir on the kitchen walls
The echoing of a door banging in the wind that
leads to the stake bed truck rusting in back yard
White grass of winter swept flat by the cold edge of a perpetual wind
that hacks away even the memory of spring's lush drive to lay claim
to the thin gravel of the storage yard
across the way
Wooden buildings bleached
gray by neglect
house great fly wheels
giant meshed cogs
wide linen belts still in place
These floors of massive machinery
standing ever ready to spin out some long forgotten product
now as it did then
Sunshine streams through the windows of those gray buildings
Images of weak winter sun seeping into the high
contrast of cobwebs remind me of
the camera I only used that one time
before I relinquished it to more eager hands
Photography is an expensive hobby
unless employed in producing school projects
Now the poem I really wanted to write is
about the wreckage of my dreams again and again
The poem I want to write is not about that
It is about designing my life again and again
It is about life without benefit of dreams
about creativity without light
Writing on the Isle of Mull
We decided in July of 2000 to go to a writing conference on the Isle of Mull. This was quite the difficult decision for us. The timing was a problem. For one thing we had been wondering around over the globe on Pacific Induction Jobs more than usual in that particular slot of time and that Simon and Garfunkle song about tending one's own garden kept playing in my head. For another, I had serious misgivings about the length of the conference. Two weeks is a long time--longer than I had ever allowed myself focusing on my writing.
Perhaps I'd seen an ad in Poets and Writers or maybe I'd heard about Naomi Shahib Nye doing the workshop in Mull from Wendy Carlisle, whose book Jacaranda Press was about to put out. Wendy is quite the admirer of Naomi's work, as am I. I had recently heard from Naomi that she was thinking about making no more commitments to do poetry workshops that required her traveling away from her home in San Antonio until her son got a little older. He had just turned fourteen which she believed was a really tough transition for a kid and she wanted to be there for him. I admired her for that.
I made the mistake of telling Bill about the conference. He decided to take me to the conference for my birthday. Although I could think of a zillion reasons that we shouldn't go to the conference, I let Bill talk me into inquiring about the rates... etc.
Half looking for alibis for not taking the risk of going to the conference, I called up the NightWriters who were putting on the conference.
What they told me about the conference was:
It was indeed a two week conference.
There was a slot available.
The only room with a private bath they had available had recently been occupied by Prince Phillip. When the woman in charge of making the arrangements told me about Price Phillip having luxuriated in the suite they proposed to rent to us, I am sure she thought that sleeping in a bed recently occupied by a Royal was a selling point. For me, it raised the question of--clothing. Not only do I not have the formal wear that hob-nobbing with Royalty requires. I don't intend to have such.
When I go to a writing conference, I need Bill to come along and serve as a grounding source for me, otherwise, I would go into overwhelm. We both are of an age where we are likely to get up at night, and would just rather not share a bathroom at the end of the hall with four other people. Once I found out about the rates, and Prince Phillip, I decided to forgo the conference. Bill, on the other hand, countered with some pretty convincing arguments. He felt that:
- I was always trying to convince him that we should go to Scotland
- He would just as soon not have to organize our way through a place where they drive on the wrong side of the road and talk English so oddly, they might as well be speaking Swahili.
- It was surely worth something to have someone else take care of travel details.
- If I want to work with Naomi Nye, I have to take what is available. She will not be soon giving another workshop.
- If you look at the price in terms of two weeks of lodging and food, the price was actually not all that much for Great Britain.
- The conference was organized by Phyllis Theroux who wrote a monthly article in House Beautiful. She would be leading a one week workshop on non fiction writing. And he thought it would be good for me to work on my essay writing. And more to the point my birthday came right in the middle of the conference and he couldn't think of a better present than that for me.
So, in the end Bill out talked me. And the writing conference in Mull with Naomi and Phyllis was the best birthday present I ever had.
Naomi has a talent for making one feel welcome and she understands the need to reassure people who are coming to work far away from home base. She sent us all a letter telling us how much she was looking forward to Scotland, and asking us to bring some of our favorite poems written by someone else and one poem of our own that we wanted to submit to the group for class discussion. She also asked us to hunt around the house and find some object that we had owned for a very long time to bring to share with the class.
I spent a lot of time, holding small things in my hand and thinking, is this the one? At one point I thought about taking my poor old bald teddy bear. I even went so far as to e-mail Naomi to see if she thought that would be too cliché. She said no, not at all, she would like to meet my bear. The bear it turns out was afraid of flying, and baggage loss. So I took the tatting shuttle that had been my father's mother's that Aunt Duck had given me. She figured I was the rightful heir to the shuttle since I am the only one in the family since her mother that could tat. I made a Xerox copy of the bear so Naomi could see she wasn't missing anything by not knowing my whiney bear.
We flew from San Jose to Boston. Boston to Heathrow. We had reserved a room for a couple of days at Holiday Inn out by the Heathrow to give ourselves a little time to get our land legs. That was a mistake because the plane got in around six in the morning and they couldn't have a room ready for us to use till ten. So we had to wait around in the lounge and drink coffee. We should have made reservations at Holiday Inn at Kings Cross/Bloomsbury if we'd gone there we could have amused ourselves by going over to the Victoria and Albert Museum and it would have put us nearer to King's Cross Station from whence the Flying Scot train departs for Glasgow. I suppose we could have taken the Underground to Kew Gardens...it's only about an hour away from Heathrow on the underground. Flying on the plane all night leaves you a little grungy and a little tired. So we waited around in the lounge for the room we'd reserved to get turned out for us. The Holiday Inn Heath Row is quite the toney spa-like place...we could have gone to those facilities and had a massage or something. But, we opted to hang out in the lounge.
They actually had our room ready in a little over an hour. But, we weren't out of the woods yet. It turned out that the key thing they gave us wouldn't work. At that time, almost everywhere they were beginning to use those cardboard things about the size of a credit card that are electrically encoded so that the combination is forever changing, and it often happened in the beginning that the gadgetry didn't work. The card they gave wouldn't turn the little light on the door apparatus green. Getting the key situation sorted out was a fairly English Drawing Room Comedy sort of event, but finally we did get into the room. Once in the room, we showered and napped a while. Then, being half on U.S. time and half on English, we went down for a meal--sort of a late lunch or early supper. We ate in the dining room...which was quite cuisiney. As I recall, I had the sole with a paw paw salsa. Not what you think of as English.
My mother used to tell a story about her grandfather and how, on his death-bed, he complained about not getting to eat one last paw paw fruit. Paw paw was something that didn't grow in Texas but grew in Arkansas where he had migrated from to Texas and apparently paw paw grew in England, also. The chopped up fruit with my fish looked and tasted a lot like papaya. Maybe it was papaya. After our supper we went out to walk in the gardens. Even though that particular hotel has the look of being on a large traffic island in the middle of the freeway system, it does have some spectacular banks of flowers on its grounds. A lot of those pink hollyhock looking things. A marrow of some sort. In our tour of the grounds we came upon a little road that appeared to lead off into a residential neighborhood, so we decided to go down that way so we could stretch our legs. When we decided to follow that road less traveled, we found ourselves in a nice little village of English row houses. And then in a while there was a lovely pub. Too bad we had just had cuisine...we could have had bangers and mash.
The next day we did take the tube to Kew Gardens. It was the kind of day you take the umbrella and use it for about five minutes sometime during the day. We had lunch in a Tea Room in the village of Kew Gardens. It was all ice cream chairs and pots of creeping charley dangling from the rafters. There were little toasties and various kinds of meat pies. Bill had the Shepherds pie, and I the Chicken Leek toastie.
Kew Gardens is not to be described. Near the entrance there was a sign warning that certain areas would be off limits due to filming by a major movie studio. There was much activity near the big glass house--one of my favorite areas. There is a huge formal garden there in front of that glass house where they show some surprising combinations of some of the newer plants available in the popular markets. That year they ran toward very deep blue salvia and huge striped French marigolds and kale, I think it was. We didn't get to see that area too well because of all the filming activity. Lots of lighting equipment...three cranes...many personnel, some with clip boards, and for some reason several fire trucks. An old English Cab, driven by someone who looked very theatrical...actually I thought I should have known his name.
There are a lot of lawns and wonderful big trees and, this time, African Statuary. We got lost in a bamboo grove and it began to rain. Eventually, we found our way back to the underground station, which is over-ground at that point. We stopped in a little health food shop in the village before we got to the tube station and bought some ripe English Cheddar, some Russian Bread and a bit of melon for our supper and breakfast. Then we took the Tube back to the airport.
Here is a disappointing thing...which just goes to show that you can't count on anything to last. One of the more delightful things about the Underground has always been that in certain stations the train driver is required to warn passengers to be careful when getting off the train because the train car and the platform do not align perfectly. They always used to say, "Mind the Gap. Mind the Gap." A phrase so dear to the ears of Anglophiles that you could buy T shirts so inscribed. Now the Train Drivers make a point of explaining in various convoluted ways that you should be careful when alighting the train studiously avoiding the old familiar "mind the gap." So, although Bill and I do still caution one another to mind the gap when traveling un-level grounds...the phrase has lost some of its integrity.
The next morning early we were back on the Piccadilly Line. At Kings Cross we took the Flying Scotsman to Glasgow. (To some extent, having read Harry Potter, we felt a bit like we were going to find ourselves unexpectedly flying through a buttress and winding up at gate 13 ½ and being thrust onto a mythical train going to a boys' school somewhere up in the highlands.) I like to ride on trains. One of these days I am going to San Diego on the train to see what the California trains are like. I wished we had had time to stop along the way to Glasgow--York definitely called to us. As did Edinburgh and almost all the other towns along the way. You do get to see a lot of scenery from a train--a treat when you are used to the nothing outside airplane windows,
Glasgow was a surprise. There seems to be a lot of Capital C Culture going on there. Next to our Holiday Inn Express there was a pub that displayed a sign proclaiming it to be host to the oldest Poetry Gathering in the town. We looked inside. It seemed pretty boozy in there so we didn't have supper with the poets but followed the advise of the nice young women at the check-in counter at the Holiday Inn and went to the Fire House Inn up at the top of the hill. Glasgow is a very old town and they have gone out of their way to make it attractive to tourists. Lots of people walking around looking cosmopolitan. The occasional set of Kiltsmen. The Fire House really had been a fire house. Today the white marble walls left over from the days when fire wagons were pulled by horses stabled out by the back alley have been enhanced with memorabilia--lots of brass, booths and tables with crisp white table cloths. Quite the proper restaurant. A little noisy, though. When we went there a lot of tables had been pulled together for what appeared to be a soccer team, or at least a color coordinated lot of soccer fans.
The thing one has to give Scotland is they do have a way with vegetables... especially potatoes. No one could make a boiled potato into a treat like that. Must be something in the soil. The people there are very friendly, even though they do talk funny. On the way back to the motel we took a bit of a detour and got ourselves sort of lost. The poor lady we asked how to get back to the motel missed two buses trying to make sure we had our directions right. If she would have given our map back we could have muddled ourselves back quite easily. But her intentions were good.
Across the river Clyde from our Holiday Inn is a great new mosque. Beautiful. We walked over to see if they had public rooms--maybe a bit of information about their beliefs? But, no, they seem to be pretty private.
The next morning we took a cab to the airport to meet the other writers. I have a certain anxiety when faced with meeting writing groups at specified spots in unfamiliar airports half way around the world. Will I recognize them? What will we do if we've got the directions wrong? The date wrong?
Glasgow International was a medium small airport back in 2000. There weren't many people in the lobby of airport. High soaring ceilings, all chrome and glass made the space seem all the more empty. Our footsteps echoed against the terrazzo floors. I needn't have worried. We had no trouble spotting Naomi Sahib Nye. She is pretty easy to pick out in any crowd. She has long brown hair that she wears in a single braid over one shoulder which makes her look very much the proper poet she is. And, she was smiling and waving and calling out my name. On first blush the poets seemed to be an agreeable lot. (As it turned out they were a very nice group of people)
We were the last ones to arrive, so, together we went out to the parking lot to meet Angus Campbell, proprietor of the Mull tour bus company. The bus he had come in was far too large for the dozen or so of us. It takes several hours to get from the airport to the ferry at Oban. That part of Scotland is beautiful--very rugged country. On the way Angus Campbell regaled us with sketches of history and bits of geological information as we drove past several lochs--some salt water, some fresh water. At some little town half way to Oban we stopped for lunch in a tea room. I believe he said this was the ancestral home of the Campbells. We had maybe a half hour or forty-five minutes to get lunch and go meandering around in the village...very much the cobble stone tourist town. They manufactured wool tartans and you could buy your family tartan. Unfortunately the Kennedy Tartan is sort of a washed out blue plaid that didn't inspire me to purchase one.
At Oban you have to take the ferry to get across to the Isle of Mull. When we arrived it turned out we had an hour or so to putter around town before the ferry was scheduled to leave. When we were driving up to the ferry landing, I'd noticed a yarn shop. Since the thing that I had brought with me in response to Naomi's assignment to bring something we'd had a very long time was a tatting shuttle and since I'd promised Bebe Higgins I would teach her to tat when I got home, I thought maybe I should go there and see if I could buy her one...it seemed more likely they would have a shuttle in Oban than in San Jose. At the yarn shop we could find no tatting shuttle.
When I finally gave up looking through the displays and asked the shop-keeper if she had tatting shuttles, she pointed over to the racks we had just been searching through and said that if they had one we would find it there. When I told her we'd looked there and hadn't found one, she led us back to the rack in question to show us that there was one there and we would have found it had we only used our eyes. When she failed to find one, she gave us the classic response. "We used to carry them. But we don't anymore. There is no call for them, you know."
How many times have we heard that same line from the car rental people? They always tell us, we are in luck and they will up grade us to a larger car. When we press for the economy car we'd requested. They counter with the information that they don't have an economy car on hand; they stock very few compact cars because they have no call for them. That would imply that one should be available at all times, wouldn't you think? But they are always all rented out. So it was with tatting shuttles. Since they sold the last one they had in stock they have sold no more. We felt somehow chastened for having asked.
From Oban, various ferries go to an assortment of little towns strung out on the hodgepodge of islands off the head of Scotland. Oban is quite the holiday sort of place with lots of bright flower plantings, and baskets of bright flowers hanging from lamp- posts. Gift shops. The weather was bright and clear, the sky a deep blue and the water smooth. While we waited in line to get on the ferry, we watched a man catching a good number of good-sized fish using an array of poles from the dock. Somehow things in Scotland seem to be done in rather convoluted ways. Like; the bus we had come from the airport on had to go on the ferry across to Mull, and then because that bus was too large to navigate the narrow roads on Mull, once we had gotten to the Mull side, we had to retrieve our luggage from that bus and put it onto another, smaller, bus that had come over on the ferry with us from Oban. Angus Campbell who had brought us from the Airport drove the smaller bus on the narrower roads of the Isle of Mull and on to the castle. The bus that we had come from the airport on was driven back on the ferry by the driver who brought the smaller one over from Oban. I don't know this, but I like to believe that driver didn't live in Oban but rather had to park the bus over there and then turn right around and take the ferry back to the Mull side of the loch. Angus Campbell ever the attentive tour guide pointed out the sights to us on the way to the castle.
On Mull all the roads we saw have a lot of single track sections, i.e., they become one lane roads. The roads were all steep and winding. An odd system has been worked out for cars passing one another on these one track roads. Every so often there is a paved pull out on one side of the road where one car has to pull out and wait for the approaching driver to pass. A black and white striped post indicates in some way that was not clear to us, primarily, I suppose, because neither Bill nor I were driving, indicates which car has the right of way. Swinging along these narrow roads along the top of rugged hills in a bus far too large for the road is a rather impressively nerve-wracking experience. Very scenic with plenty of interesting black rock bluffs, overlooks of ocean, cows and sheep in pastures. It takes maybe twenty, thirty minutes to make the nine miles from the ferry to the castle. You can see the castle a good while before you actually get there, as the bus has to clamber up one big hill from which you can see the castle, and then it has to plunge right down the other side of the hill only to meander back up through woods that would have been the haven of highway men in days of yore.
From a distance, the castle, itself, appears to stand stark on a high barren hill. When you actually get there the bus picks it's way through a thicket of enormous rhododendrons just at the end of their blooming stage...a few lavender blooms still clinging on to let us know what a wonderful display we must have just missed. Banks of fuchsias...the classic re-curved red calyxed with the white petals sort...not unlike the one by the back of our house that gets in the way of the PG&E meter reader. And then the bus makes one last turn...and there the castle is right there looming just across the graveled drive.
The name of the castle is Glengorm. I was surprised to find a dot marking its location on our map of Scotland. As it turned out, it wasn't a real castle, since it was built in 1860. It was built by someone who made a lot of money in something...shipping, or wool in the boom times. One of the trade barons of the Victorian era. However, on the outside, it makes a good show of being a real castle with its towers and battlements and thick walls of massive granite blocks. On the inside it is actually made like our Victorian house in Sykesville to a very large extent. The thing that marks the castle as a latter day castle was the fact that the inside walls were of the sort made of studs and joists, something called balloon construction in a class on architecture I had one time, as opposed to the interior walls being stone. This open construction permitted the sweeping winding stairs to the upper floors
This building wasn't nearly as big as it looked from the outside. I think it was only about twice the size of our house in Sykesville. Bill argues that it is more like three times the size. Neither of us is sure about that. In any event the room we had reminded me a lot of our bedroom in Sykesville. A huge room with lots of windows and odd detours in the wall...resulting in far less useable space than you find in a tract house built in the post world war two days. So, Prince Phillip, who, incidentally, failed to leave any monogrammed socks under the bed, was probably roughing it for a Royal.
We were sort of nostalgic for the good old, or bad old, days of our time in Sykesville. Our room in Sykesville had a small tower off the bedroom that served as my writing room. The room in the castle also had a small turret room off the bedroom. At first I thought the small door behind the dresser that stood sort of cattycornered in the room was locked for some reason Later when we went outside and saw that there was indeed a curtained window in the turret off our bedroom, when we got back to our room, Bill pulled a little harder on the knob of the door and it opened. This turret room was not as useable as our turret room in Sykesville...it was smaller and had only one small window placed high on the wall. It did however have a high stool where you could sit and look out at the ocean...and there was a domed ceiling in that tiny room, so that you could, if you felt so moved, do your toning in there and it would echo back at you.
The castle was high on a hill overlooking the North Atlantic. We had a bank of big windows on one wall that looked out over the ocean, and the other side windows that framed the moors with their cows and sheep. A side window overlooked the walled garden where all fresh vegetables that are served at the meals are grown. The big bank of windows in the bathroom had a sweeping vista of the gardens, the moors and a bit of ocean.
There are sheep and cattle in every direction from the castle--not a lot of them, small herds. The cows are on the short side and have long curly hair and curving horns that look rather sharp so one is loath to go near them or down any paths they dominate. Here the landscape is not especially rugged. It looks quite a lot like the coast of California--down towards Santa Barbara. There are, around the castle, roads curving down through rhododendron and fuchsia hedges and ferns not unlike Sykesville's lilac hedges. On the landward side, beyond the rhododendron, there is a forest of conifers of some sort that appear to have been planted when the castle landscaping was done.
The proprietress of the castle was by a very nice woman who had moved to Scotland from Virginia. She was in the writing class...so we learned some about her life and times, which are, I guess, a part of the writing class and so that does not go beyond the walls of the writing room...But at supper she did tell us something about the history of the castle. I guess England doesn't have a more admirable history than the United States...or any other country for that matter. At the time this house was built, there were some rather brutal and interesting customs. Because of the clipper ship trade, there seemed to be a lot of money being made in a hurry by the opportunists who chose to invest in these rather violent ventures...and because of the introduction of the weaving mills, wool was one of the hot trade commodities in England. The barren reaches of Scotland's north islands had been an area of small villages...fishermen and sheep herders. When the folks with lots of new money came in, they decided, for reasons that escape me, that they could make more money on sheep if they didn't have these little scruffy villages on their land. England being a country of laws, there were in place ordinances that they could use to rid their newly acquired land of these unwanted ump-teenth generation squatters. The new lairds would show up at these little townlets with the high sheriff...The sheriff would read an eviction notice to the locals and then burn down their houses. There were the remains of one such town quite near the Castle. Janet Nelson, the proprietress, felt guilty about that.
On her land there were also Standing Stones. Megaliths. We were invited to go down and have a look at them. More about all that later.
Before I continue with the notes, I think it might be helpful to describe the layout of the castle. When you come into the castle, first you will find an entry-way where in wet weather you must hang your rain gear and settle your gum boots. Marble floor, paneled walls with hooks on the walls, big double doors, and probably one small leaded glass window...antique mahogany tables and umbrella stands...that sort of thing. Lucky for us, it didn't rain the whole time we were there...nor was it cold. Several of the people in the workshop were from Mull, the not raining was getting to be a problem for them. Almost every house on the island is a bed and breakfast, and most of the water that they use come from springs which dry up if it fails to rain. Two weeks without rain, in Scotland, is a drought. Janet asked us to conserve water...and some of the people in the class who ran bed and breakfasts had to close their accommodations because of lack of water. I think it rained right after we left. For them, I hope so.
On the left of the entry way is a double door that leads to the lounge, maybe it would be called. A room with an excessively high ceiling, a big fireplace banked by a seating area...a horseshoe of couches with lots of cushions and the like. This area was used for the evening entertainments. A big library table at the back of one of the couches which faced the fireplace set the conversation area apart from the rest of the room...made sort of a divider with its large bouquet of flowers, its messages to guests and its postcards and the like you can buy. A large curved stairway led up to the upstairs guest rooms on your right there. Straight ahead was the door to the library, at the end, to your right, and beyond the stairs was a paneled hall that led down to the offices, beyond the hall on a bit of wall there, was the door to the music room. This is a large room with big windows facing the ocean. This is the room where we had our classes. The weekend following our workshop there was to be an art show at the castle, so the whole time we were there pieces of art kept showing up, and someone kept rearranging the paintings and craftsman furniture that would be for sale there.
Had you remained standing at the library table in the entryway, lounge, whatever...at the far end to your left would have been the door to the dining room. It was a high ceilinged affair with two banks of big windows overlooking the ocean. On the near wall was a large table where the food was laid out, there we picked up our plates and served ourselves buffet style. If the food was particularly difficult to understand, the cook would serve it to us. The people who concocted the food spared no effort in making it wholesome and delicious and interesting. The kitchen staff was very friendly. The people who have sent e mail messages have mentioned that they are still hoping for the recipes of the sundry delicacies.
The way our days went was that we got up and had breakfast at 8:30. We had our seminar from nine thirty to twelve thirty. About half way though we had a break. What Bill did was work on his Induction Beating Book. At the break, I would always go in to the dining room and get coffee and bring it up to him...they usually had a scone of some sort or an oat cake or something so I would bring one of those, too. In the afternoon we were usually free to do whatever we chose. Bill and I would go for a walk after lunch, and then work on our writing some, or more likely take a nap. We did a lot of sleeping in Mull. I think this was because of the latitude. It is about as far north as Moscow. Therefore sunset was something like eleven o'clock...and when we woke in the morning, it was already broad daylight. Very disturbing to our internal clocks, all this daylight. I don't know how people who live in the lands of the midnight sun manage the long winter nights and the short summer ones.
I think we must have arrived on Saturday afternoon and we had Sunday to get acclimatized. Saturday afternoon after we had rested a little, we went out to scout around. We found a little path that led down a steep embankment through the rhododendrons. It was a little muddy and slippery underfoot. But it joined a more level path that went through some big gates and across some pasture land and promised to lead to the Atlantic Ocean...except as it turned out some of the charming Highland Cattle were between the Ocean and us. They were much larger than they looked from the bus, and their horns were larger and more wicked looking than we had imagined. We opted to let the cows have that path and turned around and went back to our room and had a nap.
At supper we learned that Phyllis, the organizer of the trip and the instructor of the prose section, had also gone scouting, and had also gone down that very steep muddy path. She fell and broke her wrist. That was not handy at all for her. Poor dear.
The next morning (Sunday) after breakfast, we decided to explore a different path. Just down the hill from the Castle is a walled garden where they grow all the food for the guests and enough more to sell to the locals who want organic foods. We went into the gardens to take pictures. They grow flowers and vegetables. Lots of tall blue poppies. Tomatoes in hoop houses. The way they grow the vegetables is an interesting version of hydroponics. They put the plants in plastic bags full of vermiculite and circulate enriched water. They produce wonderfully. Outside in the open beds, they have rows and rows of red and green lettuces of one sort or another, parsley, basil...everything. Around the edges are banks of perennial flower gardens.
In the garden we ran into Maggie, one of the writers. On first brush she seems quite the argumentative person. She is a biologist from Asheville, South Carolina. I remembered her as the person who was outspokenly perturbed when the bus made a wrong turn and wound up at one of the houses that went to the castle, rather than the castle itself, and the driver had to back the huge bus down a sort of winding, precipitous track to get back to where he could hurtle up the winding road to the castle. The night before, at supper, someone had asked me what was the name of that one flower in the arrangement on the table. It looked like wild carrot or some other relative of Queen Anne's lace to me, maybe beggars lice, when I told her what I thought, Maggie, who was on her other side and who happens to be a botanist told me why I was wrong about the plant and more than I could ever want to know about the organization of the flower nomenclature. So when we met in the garden, we spent a certain amount of time sparring about plants. Maggie is on the didactic side. But, ever so charming in a prickly sort of way.
Eventually, we left Maggie and went on through a gate and over the hills covered with yellow daisies and blue bells and red clover and wooly sheep and whatever else there is that grows there. I think that day we may have gone to the standing stones. Megaliths. Three of them. They did not seem authentic to me in some way...so I suspected that they were installed by the castle builder as a sort of charming hoax. It turned out that I was probably wrong about that. But, we will get to the authentication of the stones later. I sketched the stones...and thought about them some and then I wrote a draft of a poem which I used later as part of one of Naomi's exercises.
After we saw the stones we walked up over a hill or two. The grass was all full of flowers...made you think of Elsie the contented cow. We had some trouble finding a gate out of that pasture...when we did, we saw that we were quite near the big black rocks by the ocean. We would have gone down there, had we not encountered another band of cows. While they did indeed look contented...there was the fact that they did have those long horns...and there was the fact that it was a long way back to the castle by this time.
I believe that we must have walked three miles every afternoon when we were in Scotland. I believe this because at two and a half miles my feet begin to complain.
At this point I will return to my notes from my yellow tablet. I did not take as many notes as I might have, so I will have to use the notes as memory joggers...and hope I find some way to give you an idea of how the workshops went. That tablet starts out with "Here we are in Mull where we have been for a couple of days. Well, I guess you would call it a day and a half. It seems like we have been coming here forever." And then it continues, "Mull is the perfect pilgrimage." This note refers to a book I bought in Austin that purported to instruct you in getting some spiritual enlightenment from traveling. The guy who wrote that thought he had the keys to turning your travels into a journey of spiritual significance...which started out sounding fine. Who can't use some enlightenment? Unfortunately it turned out to be one of those one chapter book--the sort of book that the author had this wonderful idea and decided to write a book about it--and runs out of steam by the end of the first chapter and just keeps writing the same thing over and over. So, I put the book aside and promised myself that it would be OK to continue on my willy-nilly way. You could miss a lot along the way by fencing yourself in with inappropriate expectations.
Now for the notes on the creative non-fiction section.
Phyllis Theroux led the first week of the stay in Scotland. Her topic was writing creative non fiction. At that time there was a lot of call for creative non fiction, for which I have never found a real definition. Since I had been toying with the idea of writing a collection of stories about the things I had learned so far in my life, I harbored the notion that I could use Phyllis's workshop to find some way into that project...or at least to learn what creative non fiction might be.
For the first part of the class, Phyllis brought in the rest of the staff--Naomi, who was not part of the first week's seminar, but rather the leader of the next week which was the poetry session and Jennifer, who was in theory the one to attend to the organizational matters. The idea of having the others come in was that they were part of the group, and would profit by knowing a little about each of us. Phyllis had everyone introduce themselves and tell who they were and what had brought them to Mull.
Jennifer had as one of her duties the leading an early morning tai chi session. I had been planning to hop up at seven every morning and do that. Jennifer was a ball of static energy: she had that sort of wound too tight nervous energy that people who always need to grab center stage exhibit. I find that much static hard to deal with in the most protected of situations...I couldn't imagine being open enough to do tai chi exercises with someone as the leader who exudes energy that is incompatible with mine, so that was a good excuse for me to pass on tai chi. To be honest, for me, hopping up at seven in the morning is always a lot more promising in theory than in practice. Most mornings I saw the tai chi group out on the lawn going through their movements. It was often the case that they got started late, and therefore when we came down for breakfast, the breakfast was not yet being served because the cooking staff were waiting for the tai chi people to come in from their morning practice. Some mornings we went out and said good morning to the resident dog whose name was Fetch or something like that. Fetch had a much chewed on slobbery tennis ball that he would present to Bill ever time we stepped out the front door. For the dog, the object of this game was to see how many times he could get Bill to throw the ball for him to retrieve. If the ball went over the edge of the lawn and down the long slope to the path below. Fetch refused would give Bill a dirty look and refused to fetch a ball from the lower drive. If sometime we were walking along that drive and saw one of Fetch's balls, Bill would throw it up to him. He wouldn't bring it down to us, however he would be waiting by the door gnawing on his ball and waiting. When we got to the front door, there would be Fetch, wagging all over and ready to continue the game.
Again, to be honest, I sometimes think I have missed out on a lot in life because of feeling so protective of my energy fields. It may not be true that energy fields are something to worry about. But, I still avoid meditative activities with people I find to be too much in their ego.
Jennifer, who seemed to me to be sporting a rather fake Scottish Accent, said she was a historian. At a very young age she had married an older man, whom she subsequently divorced and supported herself by various means. At that time she seemed to live in Belize...or perhaps she had moved on from living in Belize with what sounded like a bunch of semi legal opportunists who engaged in exporting mezoAmerican artifacts from Belize to Italy. Something on that order. (As time went by it seemed like she had lived everywhere and done everything. And in her view she was quite good at everything.) What her job was with the writing program was was to handle the logistics. There were a lot of musical events in the evenings. If one wanted to go in to town to take in a musical they were to contact Jennifer. She was not all that good a logistician. She was inclined not to get the tickets for the various musical events for people who wanted to do that sort of thing and to not arrange to have enough cars to haul people to the events and to not make arrangements to pick people up in any clear way which resulted in a certain amount of milling around...and uncertainty. Bill and I are inclined to pass on sudden musicals...so we didn't take part in those events. But I heard that one night some people were waiting around Topamori for hours before she showed up to bring them home. She was also inclined to take the car and go on little ventures of her own leaving the rest of the people with no access to transportation. Which was no problem to Bill and me because we were into walking, napping and not getting involved in little disorganized spontaneity. As it turned out she was a championship Scrabble player, and she was a surprisingly good singer and guitar player.
When Naomi introduced herself she said that she had started writing as a way to slow time down. When she was a child she found that it was wonderful how you could write thoughts down and they would still be there when you come back to them. She feels connected to the people she sends her writings to even though she may have sent them to twenty or thirty different people. She was born in St. Louis. Her mother is an artist, her father a doctor. A Palestinian, at any rate.) She always felt she was an outsider in a positive way. Words are a way to be part of everything.
Phyllis said that she was lonely as a child. She believes that children are always lonely, therefore, they are hard wired to be writerss without knowing it. (I don't know that I agree with her about children being lonely, or about lonely being the chief characteristic of writers.) She promised we would find ourselves in Scotland. I found this amusing because it reminded me of the time Mary brought a friend home with her from College. His mother had gone to Hawaii to find herself. I thought...damn, why did I never think to look there for my lost soul?
Two of the women in the writing group were from Mull. Both were Bed and Breakfast operators. Very different people. Sally had worked for thirty years in the English equivalent of Juvenile hall before she retired. She was a very kind, sensible woman. The other woman had written a history of Mull. She was very proper, and very nice. And then there were a couple of women from England...one a pub owner, the other a German entrepreneur--a woman with Ginger hair who did Spirit Art. She had her own staff of gnomes that helped her with her art. (Some of them must have been graphic artists...because someone had made her paintings into cards and lithographs.) And she ran a Spiritual Growth center near Cambridge. I would have liked to go there some time. I had hoped that the next spring when we went to Bath to see things through Lou Lewandowski's eyes we would go to the spirtitual growth center, but somehow when spring came and we'd visited with Lou, we wound up spending a lot of time in Cambridge, and just never got around to contacting the ginger haired spiritualist.
Then there were the Americans, two women from Georgia, one a newspaper woman who was on the track of Scottish friends of her sainted Great Aunt, and the other a Society Dame who was spending some time in Great Britain photographing maze walks and the like...the voices around the table were all very different...so much so, you would almost think we were all speaking different languages. When the introductions were over, Phyllis began her first seminar lecture.
She said, "It seems we live backward. We discover our independence. There is a value to journal writing, even when you have nothing to say. A journal is a writer's best friend. In order to escape your internal Critical writer--write the first hour before your conscious mind gets a chance to take over. Mornings are the most fruitful time to field the energy.
Actually she suggests reading Emerson's Time and the Soul--Neidleman's the Day Book or someone high minded before you start your daily writing.
One thing she hoped we would learn was that you should gather your facts before you start your project.
Her instructions were simple. They were:
- Think about your life as though it were a children's story.
- Start out with, "Once upon a time there was a little girl..."
- Spend a half hour on this exercise.
But I wrote:
Once upon a time there was a little girl whose parents were forever going to their fishing camp, because that was what they liked to do. They would even go on Sundays--which was something of a problem to the little girl whose mother taught Sunday School and whose father was a deacon in the Baptist Church--but go they would.
It was not so much that she feared that they would all go to Hell--it was more that Sundays were the days that her friends got together in the afternoon at someone's house and played Monopoly, and had home made ice cream. They would talk about what they were going to do the next week and admire the purchase of anyone who had bought a new set of paper dolls--remember those cardboard movie stars with glorious paper gowns held on over their swim suits with paper tabs.
But her parents loved to go up to the Lake Lot.
They liked to do different things when they got there.--Her father, whom she called Charlie, because he did not want to be Daddy or Dad or Papa like other people's fathers. He wanted to be Charlie--perhaps because he had never been given a name of his own when he was a baby and had to make up his name, when he was five or six, perhaps he was punishing his parents when he named himself after his nair-do-well uncle, Uncle Jess, and Charlie Air, the town drunk. Calling your father by his first name always had to be explained, and there was a good chance that no one ever believed he was her real father--perhaps they thought that she had borrowed him from somewhere.
There was always this problem with her parents: they were perfectly all right human beings. When all the other girls complained about how mean their parents were, she never had anything to say. And even if she managed to think up something to complain about about her parents, her friends would laugh and tell her she didn't know how good she had it. For Charlie was Charlie and Mama had a smile that flashed with the gold filling on her front tooth. And everyone knew them because they were the only parents who allowed young people to organize the young people parties at their house.
Charlie liked to build boats. Big ones, little ones, fast ones that won races and slow ones that logged along, lumbered and wallowed in the wake of fish tailing speed boats on Lake Travis.
At the lake, while Charlie was out playing with his boats, Mama would put on her big straw hat and the white cotton jacket she wore so her arms wouldn't get sunburned and she would go down the trail along the lake bank admiring the bright pink Texas Stars and phlox and the lavender verbena and she would go along until she found the right rock to sit on. She would bait her hook and let it settle into the water and wait for the fish to bite. Her favorite were the big old carp that hid in the rocks along the edge of the lake. When one bit it would bend her cane pole double and she would scream. Carp always had to be thrown back. No one ate carp.
Sometimes the little girl would go out in the boat on the lake with Charlie and her brother Jack. Jack and Charlie liked to go way down to the end of Bee Cave and find a deep bluff where bass could be seen swimming in the top branches of the trees that the cedar choppers who had been paid to clear out had left the ones in the draws standing because the water would cover them up when the dam filled the lake and no one would know the difference.
Phyllis was inclined to roam around the room and give instructions as we wrote. She said things like: This is just a warm up exercise--a good reason to hear it read out loud is so we can hear how we sound in this lovely room.
Story telling is twisting the rope, first you wind it up tight, then let it unwind slowly.
Once we had done our drafts we all had to read our work to the group. This was pretty nice. These people were good writers and got an amazing amount done. After we had read our pieces, we took a coffee break and a writing break and edited the raw material we had free written.
This is my first rewrite:
Once upon a time there was a little girl whose mother quoted poetry as she did the household chores. Although her mother quoted Wordsworth, Kipling, Emerson and Thoreau the one the little girl remembered most of all was a little song her mother recited:
I wish I was a little rock,
A-sittin' on the hill,
A-doin' nothin' all day long
Except just sittin' still.
I wouldn't eat, I wouldn't sleep,
I wouldn't even wash.
I'd sit and sit a thousand years
And rest myself, by gosh.
The little girl understood the Wordsworth, the Kipling, the Emerson and the Thoreau, but never the Riddle about the rock. So, she went away to school and studied Art History, plain history and economics. Psychology, Sociology and anything else that ended in OLOGY. And she traveled from one place to another, Europe and China and even New Jersey, always carrying with her her books in a heavy green carpet bag. Always looking for the answer.
And then one day she found a rock on a hill.
She felt the wind lift her gray hair.
Watched the grass and buttercups dance in the wind,
the blue bells nod.
She opened her books
ripped out the pages one by one
watched them fly South away from the ocean
The next day Phyllis handed out a batch of Sun Magazines she had brought with her. She suggested that we read them with an eye attuned to submitting an article to them. She suggested this as a good place to send articles. I found them pretty negative. This could be because the first one I read explained that they thought negative stuff was good stuff that needed to be read. And I am looking for light. I may miss something when I go to workshops by letting my biases prevent me from going whole hog and just doing the exercises as they are given to me. I think Phyllis's intent was to demonstrate how one would go about writing for a specific magazine one wanted to have something in. I might have learned how to do that had I been willing to throw myself into going through the motions of identifying what a magazine wanted to publish and how to tailor my essay to fit their needs. It is probably true that if you want to get something published, you have to think about what people that are publishing are interested in. Which raises the question: If, as I say, I really am not that interested in publication, then why have I spent all that time in writing conferences? I would like to believe that the answer is that I have been working on honing my writing skills so that I can learn to nail the words on the page that whirl in my mind.
Here are the notes I made from Phyllis's second day
An essay is a short trip where you take an elephant across the river in a row boat. A big Idea in a short time
Start with an idea you want to get across to someone. If you aren't interested in the idea, then who will be?
Eg: why does a watched pot never boil--because you get bored.
You can never poke holes through boredom.
She suggested that when you have the idea for an essay, you write the topic across the top of the page, then write down ideas that pop into your mind. Words, phrases, ideas. Do your best to keep it all on one page.
Assuming you have centered on some aspect of waiting that has an electric current that you can follow.
You have to decide whether you are going from the specific to the general or vise versa.
First paragraph has to be a powerful hook that the reader cannot escape.
First four paragraphs set up the whole essay.
Once you have set it up, forget the above. You want to have a net over the reader. The audience wants to be captured or else they wouldn't be looking through the magazine.
Think about the actual direction you are going to go.
Phyllis suggested we write about Waiting.
She had us spend the next ten minutes thinking quietly on the subject.
She said, "Find some time to develop the theme. Write down the random words that come to you, and then pull them together into an essay. According to her it is important to put all the first thoughts that pop into your head on a subject on one page, so then when you start framing it out you will be able to cover as many as seem appropriate, and not lose some important slant that would be suggested by a word or phrase.
I am afraid that I didn't do this exercise with a whole heart, although I do like the idea of having a page full of random thoughts to pull together when one is about to write something. Someone once told me the true mark of a writer, is that a writer is some one that makes four drafts of the note to the teacher that says my child was home from school yesterday because she had a sore throat. I wasn't willing to get excited about waiting. I felt a strong resistance to the notion--waiting is by definition boring...so how can I be interested in telling someone about something that is fundamentally boring? Although some of the other members of the class were off and running...seeming to take the affront of waiting more to heart than I seem to.
Here are my rough notes:
Waiting is a learned skill...
not something that comes natural to daughters anymore than to sons. I know as well as my brother what I want done, how and when.
There are many ways to wait.
Put on a serene expression and do something portable/interruptible.
Doodling is fine.
Doodles never need finishing.
Writing lists of all the things that need doing--were you not committed to waiting.
Or, trying to catch that bit of overheard conversation.
Meditation is out--not interruptible enough.
I am almost disappointed when the fed ex man comes on time. The trick is...
I used to point out to the girls --- But, I don't teach waiting anymore. == so we won't go into that
Now impatience is the thing...
Sandy, almost wound up in the army The recruiter kept calling and she would not answer his calls. He said, "But...She is perfect for the army. She is so good at waiting."
These days I advise my daughters to fidget, drum their fingers and progress rapidly to pacing and finger snapping
Long term waiting, which breaks down into two main varieties--voluntary and involuntary--require an entirely different approach than short term waiting.
Playing Solitaire. Holding your breath Walking around the table, the room, the block
All my life I have been waiting outside hospital rooms, in parked cars and motels in exotic places like Allentown, Pennsylvania. The trick is to go somewhere else in your mind
Do something portable
Waiting for delayed flights, for airline personnel to announce flights, for flights to end.
Waiting for airplanes to materialize with the other half of my life. Airlines from Mexico landed in corn fields for an engine refit or in Idaho lost to the computers.
Bill and Jack get places early so there is waiting for doors to open. Class rooms, Doctor's Offices.
Waiting for daughters to come home
Watching car lights and fire flies
Stuck to wet grass flashing SOS. There are no fireflies in California
Waiting to hear from lost ones, strayed ones, broken ones.
Waiting for my turn and when it comes, if it ever comes. I only know waiting.
On the margin of my tablet, I wrote, I want to write about the Ladies in Korea.
After we'd read our notes out to the others, we took a coffee break and went off on our own to our favorite nook and pulled the words into an essay. My favorite place was upstairs in Prince Phillip's room. So I took coffee and rolls up there to share with Bill, and after a brief conversation I fleshed out my notes a little.
Waiting is a learned skill--not something that comes natural to daughters anymore than to sons. I know as well as my brother what I want done, how and when. Like him, I know how to snap my fingers. But I don't. As a girl, I was only taught waiting.
I am so good at waiting that I am almost disappointed when the Fed-ex man comes on time. The trick to proper waiting is to put on a serene expression and do something portable/interruptible. Doodling is fine. I find a certain satisfaction in repetitive patterns. I once read an article on doodling interpretation--weaving patterns indicate boredom So I see doodling as a form of protest. But, doodling in general is good--doodles never need finishing.
You can kill a lot of time writing lists of all the things that you could be doing were you not committed to waiting.
I entertain myself by jotting down odd bits of overheard conversation. If there is no conversation to over hear, I reconstruct odd phrases I half remember from the odd restaurant. I once heard a man at the next table say "...and he sold his wife and everything."
I used to point out to my girls that meditation was not a useful waiting tool because it is not interruptible enough.
I don't do that anymore.
I no longer teach waiting.
Ever since Sandy, my number three daughter, almost wound up in the army, I have come to believe that impatience is the thing. When she wouldn't return his calls, the Army Recruiter asked me why wasn't she returning his calls, I told him it was because she had lost interest in joining the army because she had been promised that she could sign on for nursing training, and all they had openings for were file clerk jobs. He said, "But she is perfect for the army. She is so good at waiting."
These days I advise my daughters to fidget, drum their fingers and progress rapidly to pacing and finger snapping, and never take a job that requires waiting skills.
At Mull, there was a projected trip to the island of Iona, where there is a Cathedral that was very key in the spread of Catholicism from Ireland to Scotland. The trip was an on again, off again thing, promising a day of disorder, I thought. On our schedules, it was slated to happen on the first Wednesday but Angus Campbell called to say we would not be able to get to Iona on that day because that was the day of the great fishing regatta and the Loc would be crowded with all the boats taking part in that event. He suggested that the local Tobamory Highland Games would be an interesting substitute for the trip to Iona.
Almost everyone agreed, so the morning writing session was canceled and the kitchen staff put together picnic lunches all around. Bill and I passed on the Games...on the theory that since we have never gone to the Highland Games when they show up in Campbell, California, in walking distance of our home, it must not be our cup of tea. Anything with crowds is never Bill's choice. There was so much to explore the area around the Castle we relished the thought of a free day. And I for one was looking forward to a quiet day of book reading. The book I was working on had a neat synchronistic aspect to it. When we were in Austin just before we set out for Scotland, Bill had picked up the book--Doctor Dogbody's Leg, by James Norman Hall. It was about sailing ships. One of the places the good Doctor Dogbody lost his leg was on a ship that was part of the Spanish Armada that had been blown into the Tobamory Bay. (Coincidentally on the way back to London we spent another night in Glasgow, and since we were pretty much out of books by then we stopped in a Borders Books there and bought a book called Nathaniel's Nutmeg, which turned out to be about the skullduggery involved in the great wealth of the 1860's which seemed to me a neat connection to the origins of the Castle on Mull.)
About mid morning we picked our picnic lunch up from the kitchen and set out on our exploration. We found a gate we hadn't been through and a trail that meandered up a ragged hill and eventually to a marvelous moss covered bridge that led to a grove of some sort of ancient timber trees that had long ago been planted in neat rows for some reason. (Later that evening we learned that the bridge had been restored by a group of appreciative boy scouts who had been allowed the use of the site for a campground. From the condition of the timbers they had installed across the rock foundation left from some ancient time, I would guess those boy scouts must have had gray hair by the time we used their bridge.) Beyond that we came into a pasture where we found a rock wall and an impenetrable thicket at the base of a red cliff. When we worked our way around the thicket there was another path that led past an abandoned stone house--probably a shepherd's house because of its a rock enclosure. (When the trip to Iona finally materialized we learned that the rock enclosure was a sheep dip. When shearing time came, they rounded up the sheep and ran them through a dip in the rock enclosure. Back in those days work was done by hand rather than with power tools that needed access to electricity.) After poking through the sheppard's abandoned house we continued along over a hill and past some ancient trees that would have given Friar Tuck and Robin Hood good cover from which to waylay a passing overlord. O.K, I know, this wasn't Robin Hood country, but it sure looked like it to me. The trail went along a boggy creek and then out into a pasture.
We wound up eating our sandwiches on the sunny side of a rock fence high on a bank over looking the ocean far below. On that day there was enough wind for there to be a few white caps on the ocean, so we welcomed the shelter.
After lunch Bill took his camera in hand and went off taking pictures of big horned sheep who stood off up slope and stared at us with their yellow eyes and belligerent looking long haired cows, I started jotting down observations that I hoped would turn into a poem. All very bucolic. An explosive roar shattered the quiet. Something evil, black and triangular zoomed low overhead. Before I could get my wits together a second snarling black triangle roared up from the landward side of the rock wall. So close and so loud. So low I would swear I could count the rivets on the skin of the plane. At supper we heard that there are public outcries about the number of RAF fighter planes making practice runs over the moors all the time. Very Low. Very Loud. The locals didn't like them. The sheep are disturbed by them. And, so was I.
Here is the transcription of my notes on meadow walking on mull:
She had to find another way home
The trail stopped in a patch of nettles
Forty yards short of a stone wall
A riparian swamp.
A high red bluff
If you want to know the truth
She was not afraid of the complaining bridge
Of its mismatched logs of larch or some other unfamiliar wood
nor did she fear its crisscrossing nondescript branches
all matted with moss,
thick and untrustworthy under foot
She was not even concerned
About visible depth of the ravine it spanned.
It was the possibility of enchantment she feared.
the hint of trolls;
the inference of gnomes.
It was of the curl of fern giving way to the ringing of the bells of
The fear it would hold her there
forever in that green halo.
They would break your heart
these Victorian landscapes
So like the painting we bought from the junk store
For the frame
The unsigned painting
the words "For Lurlean with love, Mama."
penciled on the back.
Today, at last
There are white caps
On the verge of the North Atlantic
The kite flying winds from her Texas childhood.
swirl up the North Sea
Gulls skirl on a rising current
in a free glide
until black triangles of science fiction aircraft
shatter the crystal dome of sky
and explode into an uncertain future.
The music room was beginning to bristle with local art and craft merchandise. Phyllis led us in a class in on editing and humility.
Exercise: Our assignment was to edit a paragraph Phyllis handed out. The object being to get rid of half a line of the paragraph. I do not have a copy of that.
Next Phyllis had us think about Humility.
We were supposed to write down notes about what humility meant to us. "What we are doing is creating light," she said. I had no clear definition of humility and I had no internet connection so had to dig through my own mental resources and think about the meanings of humility. (When I was working on this version of the transcription of these notes, I looked up humility on Wikipedia and found humility has a lot of amazing religious connotations that are totally unfamiliar to me. I could spend a lot of time running down references and never get around to writing anything if I were to do this exercise now. I may get around to that later, unless I forget. )
I wrote in my notes; Humility is a long stretch for me--is it feet shuffling and, "Yes, Sir, Bossing?" It is not so much listening while others talk as it is not saying what I want to say. And, yes, hanging on to that thought with such tenacity that you cannot hear the other's words.
I think I have a poor definition of humility. For me, it has a dog in the manger quality to it.
I think that listening well is as outward as talking--more, I suppose. Listening well is understanding opposite ideas with enough confidence in your own thoughts that you do not fear that your own ideas will be lost to you and that you will accept other ideas blindly--without considering them in relation to your own.
As far as I can tell, I didn't do anything with that exercise. I think I just wrote down the stuff that Phyllis said as she roamed around the room while we wrote. I am reminded that at that phase in my life I was very much absorbed with the notion of careful listening. At this point in my life I don't see the connection between humility and careful listening. But such is the way of writing workshops. You never know what will connect with what in the associational nodes of your mind. I am sure that is a function of some shifting relationship between the things you are experiencing at the moment and things you have experienced in the past.
Here is what I wrote when I should have been doing the exercise:
Phyllis said that Noami told her that the way she assembled the information for a short story was to develop each piece separately and then when the material is all developed to reassemble them like a jigsaw puzzle. (I assume that unlike a jig saw puzzle you are allowed to whittle away at the pieces until they fit together in a form satisfying to you rather than being compelled to reconstruct them in a predestined way as you do in jig saw puzzle solving.) I have in this case, however, veered away from with what I took to be Phyllis's assignment, --which is to gather up an assortment of undeveloped ideas--seed thoughts--you might call them and then form them into a structure or outline which will have enough interconnections to hold togather the finished fabric of the story. What I have done is become absorbed with the notion from Tuesdday's writing and meandered into wanting to write about the Senior women I met in Korea.
My daughter the mathematician once had a math professor who would demand of his students--"Why are you telling me this?"
Now back to the waiting essay.
Long term waiting breaks down into two main varieties--voluntary and involuntary--each of which require entirely different approaches than short term waiting. For the purpose of this essay, we shall skip right over the involuntary long-term waiting--such as medical and parental waiting. These forms of waiting require a sort of mental free fall so individual as to be beyond comprehension. If you are inept at zoning out; tumbled crystals, strings of beads or playing cards might come in handy.
Successful voluntary long-term waiting, being a deliberate act requires that fairly definite parameters be in place before you undertake the project at all. An example of voluntary waiting is the kind of waiting I did on trips I used to take with Bill when he was Pacific Induction, where in I stayed in or near the hotel in some exotic place while he got someone's induction heating working. The assignment here, should you chose to take it, is to stand ready for some hours, days, weeks or years down the pike to merge smoothly back into the flow of ordinary life. Contrary to popular belief, the proper orientation is not martyrdom, but self-interest.
Be generous when you think about what you will be most likely to enjoy doing with this anticipated span of uncommitted time. Make proper arrangements. Be aware that as in all lesson plans, you never know what will take hold. It is wise to keep in mind at least two fall back positions.
If this waiting is to be done away from home make sure you bring along enough toys to keep your mind busy. A turning lathe or a kiln is probably out of the question but an entire suitcase full of books, papers, pencils, paints and knitting yarn is not beyond reason.
Always be open to that which you could not have expected. No telling what a few circumambulations of new territory may provide!!
Since it takes several strolls down an unfamiliar road to begin to make sense out of it, if I am waiting for Bill to come back to the hotel from his work and I want to explore, I make it a point to carry a business card from my hotel so that if I get lost I can present the card to a cab driver and he will deliver me back to my hotel. I always walk in a straight line the first several times I go out. That way, when I am ready to come back to my hotel, I simply retrace my steps. In a strange land at first everything is a vast jumble. On subsequent trips out I will begin to notice interesting, half-seen side roads and alleys. On the third trip out, I may pick one road and explore it. That trip will lead to another.
Once in Onyang, Korea, after I had made some sense out of the district around the hotel--after I had satisfied myself that the place is laid out in an orderly grid in spite of the fact that, even on the main boulevard with its bakeries and shoe shops and optometrists every sign is in unfamiliar characters, there is a discernable order to the side roads that lead into a rabbit warren of street venders with their vegetables and pans of live fish spread on cloths on the pavement--carts with plastic shoes and cell phones and pick up trucks with the tail gate down and C.D.'s interspersed with dried fish on display, I began to notice that I was not invisible.
Having reached a certain maturity in the United States, I had come to believe in the gray cloak of invisibility--that is to say that if you have gray hair more than likely no one can see you, therefore, it doesn't matter what you do. You are free to travel about the world observing without the worry of someone observing you.
It was in Onyang, Korea that I first learned of the Association of Crones. In Korea, and indeed almost everywhere in the world, there is this affinity between older women. As I walked through the markets in Onyang, I began to notice them--the gray haired women walking in pairs through the markets--one pair in particular kept materializing in parks, in markets and along the open roads. And then came the spark of recognition in the eyes...the almost imperceptible nod. Enough to fill my heart.
On my last day in Onyang, I went to the Onyang Folk Museum and sure enough I encountered that pair of women strolling in the garden. They were openly happy to see me. I was happy to see them. We exchanged nods and smiles.
Later, after I had walked through the showrooms in the museum and resisted touching the white on white silk birch trees embroidered on white silk banners displayed there. I went back out to stroll through the azalea gardens. Again, I met the women I had seen earlier. They were delighted to meet me again. I was sad to have to tell them, in English, "I speak no Korean."
I think they told me in Korean that they spoke no English, but that need not be a problem. First one of the women tried sign language. Her small hands extended, the small finger and pointing finger extended upward, two middle fingers held down by the thumb--a symbol I knew only as one adopted by latter day students at the University of Texas where the symbol means, "Hook ‘em Horns." A way of urging their football team on to victory. I doubted that this hand symbol meant the same to the women in Korea. I apologized again for my rude ignorance of their language.
They smiled and said the Korean equivalent, "No problem," or so I supposed. Then, one of the ladies smiled broadly and indicated that she had an idea. She bent down and picked up a twig from the ground. She put her hand on her own shoulder and wrote the number 67 in the sand at our feet. Then she put her hand on her friend's shoulder and rounding her eyes in pride and respect, she bent down and wrote, "82" in the sand.
She handed me the twig. I put my hand on my shoulder and wrote "62" in the sand. We were all happy. We had established our relative seniority and I was the bottom of the pecking order. They pointed to a nearby noodle shop and with words and gestures invited me to lunch, I think. I declined, indicating my watch, and pointing back toward my hotel and hoping that they would believe that I had to meet someone at the hotel rather than guessing the truth: While they were eager to build on this communication we'd established and eager for us to learn more about each other, I had reached my limits and needed to go home and assimilate this gift they had given me.
Back in the music room in Glengorm, after we'd written we read or essays to each other. I made no notes on the comments about the reading of these essays, because, mostly we just read them, and since they were all of the "going to the well of half forgotten pain" variety, most of the essays were of a personal nature, and most of the comments were of the there there you poor thing, and ain't it the truth variety. When I transcribed this story, it seemed to me that the first part was just warm up. I should have skipped the waiting part and cut straight to the place where I talk about walking around Onyang.
I do think you might find some use for this piece of information:
Haar means fog in Scotland. It is a light sea mist that comes off the sea and moves like a curtain. (We learned this from the Scotch Historian.)
In Scotland, they have entirely different things to talk about than we do...perhaps it is because they speak an entirely different language.
Thursday night we went to Tobamory to have a pub meal. Doing anything as a group there at Glengorm was very much the herding geese variety of activity. First of all there was the problem of there not being enough cars, so it was required that some of the drivers...the dear women from Mull had to drive back and forth twice in each direction in order to get us all to the pub in town. It is only seven miles, but the roads are narrow and torturous. The idea was that we were to go in small buddy units thereby dividing up the group...it being believed by the women from Mull that none of the pubs could accommodate a dozen or so people at one time. To complicate things more, some of the people, but not all of us had opted to go to a musical event that was suddenly learned would be happening after supper at what used to be a church but now is a community center. To further complicate things, the e mail system at the castle was not compatible with the e mail system of the US computers. Some people get a little edgy when they can't hook up to their e mail. So, some people were going with Jennifer in search of an e mail server in town.
As it turned out, everyone wound up milling around and winding up all in one pub. Which was a mistake, because the local people were right...they couldn't handle the heavy traffic. The first four things you ordered from the menu turned out to be unavailable...so it was fish and chips, or fish and chips. Or the vegetarian curry.
After the meal, things got complicated. There was a rumor that the candy shop where it was supposed the e mail could be accessed but that was closed before we ate was reputed to be about to open up shop for the computer folks. I can't remember if it turned out they didn't, of that they did, and the hook up wouldn't hook up or if it did. Meanwhile at the Musical, it turned out that Jennifer had believed that she had reserved tickets for all who wanted to go...but the ticket people had only half enough. The people who went to pick up the tickets, not knowing how the transportation would be handled, went to find that out how that was going to work...by the time they got back to the ticket counter, of course those tickets were sold...but the transportation had already been reorganized...and therefore there was much milling about...but for some reason a lot less complaining than you would expect. It is hard to figure out how there could be that much confusion in a place as small as Tobamory. I think it is three blocks long...along the bay there...maybe four, and two blocks maybe three, up the hill away from the bay. It is a very pretty little harbor that looks as though it hasn't changed much since the Ship from the Spanish Armada ran aground there.
Exercise: Go out and sit in the back and just look. Take fifteen minutes and try to sketch what you are looking at. Take some drawing notes...non-verbal...not your verbal notes.
I went out in the back of the castle and drew a picture of the ocean and the livestock and the moors. It was all sunny and pretty.
When we'd finished with out sketch and come back into the music room, Phyllis said: I want you to do a couple of descriptive paragraphs for someone who has not seen the highlands.
Here is what I wrote:
It is not what I expected--the ocean here at the Hebrides. Not wild and moody lashed by the winds against stark stones again and again.
Each day is the same. The soft breath up from the ocean comes carrying no scent other than the grass cut down by a weed eater and the ripeness from distant grazing sheep.
We had not expected the high terrace to be hedged in red fuchsias and ferns; rhododendrons still clinging to souvenirs of their lavender springtime.
And the angry hum of bees, wide bodied like the carpenter bees that gnaw the studs of our battery shed back home...like bumble bees striped with yellow.
Phyllis: the point of this exercise is to postpone the beginning of writing. To connect with the non-verbal aspects of the landscape.
Redo what you have just done, except this time sketch something from your early memory. Draw that and then write it.
I drew a picture of the clump of trees in front of my grandmother's house in Valley Springs.
In Valley Springs where Grandmother Alexander lived, there were big old live oaks between her little white clapboard house and the bend in the road. This was where everyone parked their cars when we all came to visit her. Compared to the scrub oaks you usually find in Llano County this clump of trees were giants. Their exposed roots gnarled around like something from a Grimm's Fairy Story hugging the limestone slabs that formed the banks of a little pond. If it didn't make you dizzy you could lean way over and see where the water came up from the earth through the dark of the roots.
When my brother and sister, both older than me, and the big cousins took cane poles and followed the Field Creek over toward old Flat Rock to catch sun perch, I would stay behind and keep company with the women in the kitchen. If I were in luck they would think up little jobs for me to do. Someone would put me to laying out the plates for dinner, positioning the knives and forks just so, and filling the spooner with fresh spoons. If they gave me jobs, I could listen to the stories they liked to tell as they cooked together. If I were out of luck, some aunt or grown up cousin would remember I was there and take me out to the oak grove by the road and show me how I could snap the cap from the acorns and set a play-like table. Then, with a reminder not to fall in the creek and get drowned...off she would go, back to the others and leave me alone by the creek.
I would try to see if I could get the cups back on the acorns or watch the doodlebug houses to see if an unwary ant would stray too near the cone and slide slowly into the soft dust of the ant lion's lair. When I got bored with that I'd curl up in the back seat of our car and wait for someone to come and take me home.
Phyllis's first published word was a Book of Eulogies. When Adlai Stevenson died she was fascinated by the beautiful eulogy his son read at his funeral. This led her to writing a letter to his son. Eventually her interest in eulogies lead her to Library Of Congress where she learned that nobody had ever done a collection of eulogies. Working on that book gave her a context for her life. (I didn't understand what she meant here. I supposed that she could have meant that she recommended writing the Eulogy because you could thereby sum up your existence--your purpose--and live up to it, but that didn't seem right to me. I was just about sure that is not at all what she meant there. So, when I first got home from the retreat, I wrote and ask her.)
Here is what she told me it meant when I got home and e mailed her and asked her.
Re: Request for help on transciption of notes.
Fri, 11 Aug 2000 10:03:57 EDT
What I meant on a context for my life was this - that I understood where I was in the continuum. By knowing and appreciating who had gone before me, I understood how my own road had been prepared by others whose influence lives on in my perceptions, ideas and experiences. Also, on a less intellectual note, I fell in love after a fashion with different people who were born too late for me to know in person: Theodore Parker, Katherine Mansfield, John Peter Altgeld, Clarence Darrow, Voltaire, Helen Keller, Mark Twain. They inspire me to be a better person and I think of them as people who are waiting for me to join them. Finally, having to put a set of dates after a person's name (birth - death), enabled me to make connections between sets. Helen Keller and Bobby Kennedy died within days of each other, Mark Twain was still alive when my father was born - things like that. I found ways to connect lives that I hadn't had before.
Does that help?
Phyllis announced that we would be Leaving at 7:30 to go to a very small theater that would be presenting a two person spoof on local history. Before I get to the Friday writing symposium notes, I want to mention that the theater was indeed very small, it had in an earlier incarnation been something like a bakery, or some other service facility. A nice little building made of stone a long time ago. The play was indeed very funny, and extremely well timed. Two people switching into half costumes, presenting hundreds of years of history in such a short time!
Notes from Friday's lesson:
Phyllis handed round a magazine that would accepted essays by women, It was called "Skirts" and I suppose could be reached at: Harden Skirt mag.com this was in 2000 when I still maintained an innocence of things e mail so I probably got the e mail address wrong.
I have no idea what the following notes mean, but for what they are worth:
I drove into the night.
My heart waited
I followed the "Emergency sign"
Sometimes we strive to not be hurtful and therefore do not go to the extreme of pain.
We do not delve into the contradictions of personalities.
Things from Childhood that were particularly beautiful
Ashland Virginia, "Worlds best Fried Chicken."
That time of night when things change to night
Another way to look at your writing is like looking at it as a stage setting. Everything the reader needs to know neatly laid out.
Saturday we went on the long promised trip to Iona, a neighboring island. Morning fog cloaked the island as the ferry pulled up to the dock, what we could see of it was low and flat. We were given instructions as to when to meet the ferry for the trip back to Mull and we were told of the many historical ruins that it would be interesting to see. Bill and I took the center road that led into the island. As the fog cleared, we began to see all the wild flowers flourishing over the ruins of the fallen cathedrals and nunneries and the like. Many of the buildings were still in use as religious institutions, and as we aren't really churchy people we chose not to pay money to go into see the people taking part in their services...to us they seemed entitled to privacy. Every thing on Iona seemed to us to have a heavy price to come in and look...and since we have no particular knowledge of the importance of the spread of Catholicism from Ireland to Scotland, we chose to just roam around among the ruins of we knew not what and admire the wild flowers. It is possible we missed out on a lot of awe inspiring things by being so grudging about paying to go in and see what their Celtic Crosses and the other art work they did in the olden days on that particular island.
Sunday Morning. July 23, 2000 Scotland
There was a German woman who had Ginger hair. She had companions that are little people who did her "Spirit Art." I was really quite drawn to this woman, although I had little conversation with her. Except on that Sunday Morning when we ran into each other in the vegetable garden and talked a while about vegetables. She ran a center near Cambridge where you could go and get in touch with your muse, and the like. Someday, I hoped to go there, if I could only remember to keep in contact with her.
The rest of the people in the Seminar seem to be mostly from D.C. or else are Southern Bells from Georgia. Everyone seems to be nice enough. After we parted company with the Ginger Haired woman, we went down to consider the standing stones. There was a group of later day Druid people there doing their thing. There were a noticeable number of people in the British Isles gotten up in their Druid get ups at that time of the year, and in that part of the country. So we left the stones to them and followed the trail on along by the sea,
24 July 2000. Scotland, Naomi Sahib Nye
Naomi had gone to the trouble to make each of us a folder with a pretty picture on the cover. Inside the folder were some of her favorite poems that she had brought to discuss with us. She asked that we keep the pages in order, since they weren't numbered, and we would be referring to them during the week. (Which of course, I got totally muddled up and spent a lot of time sorting through the pile. A couple of the people in the group were so organized that they had written numbers on their copies so they could keep them in the order that they had been handed to us. Their saying, that would be page 5, did nothing for me.) I am not sure that I can weave my notes together. I think I will just put down the phrases from my notebook and let you make of them what you will. This actually seems to me more of the way a workshop is. Each person in the workshop probably attends a totally different workshop than each of the other participants.
Here are the notes I made:
Naomi opened by saying that we would make a sort of organic shift from essay section of the workshop to the poetry workshop. It is perfectly OK to write about the same thing every day for the span of time we are here as a matter of fact it is all right to write about the same things your whole live.
She also made a pitch for always writing to any poet whose poem you should happen to read that really means something to you. You should write them care of their publisher and tell them, wow...that was a wonderful poem. This reinforces the notion of poetry being a community...a dialogue between people who are trying to find the best way through the world's ideas. She said her first teacher made a big thing of the responsibility of a poet to be in conversation with the other poets and with the people who care enough about poetry to publish other people's poems. The publishers are your friends. Sending them a poem is a way of maintaining connections with them. This was probably not the tough advise for her that it would have been for some of us, because, even as a child she sent poems out to publishers, some of which got published and some of which did not...But she thought of her exchange of poems with editors as a dialogue. A conversation.
In poems you can get away with not having a plot.
That year Pinski was the U.S. poet Laureate. She said she was very happy with Pinski's Favorite Poem Project. She thinks of poetry being a dialogue between all participants, and therefore believes that it is useful to read a lot of poetry and think about what resonates with you, and try to figure out how the writer managed that.
Naomi studied with Bill Stafford, so you will notice that there are constant references to what he said about poetry.
Bill Stafford said he liked to have the poets turn something over in their minds, to look at things and think about what connects things.
Many times Stafford wrote just a series of questions. You can do this. Don't worry about whether it stands as a poem 6 months from now.
She recommended that we write down "Starting here___" what do you want____" and fill in the blanks. (I don't see any evidence that I did that. I am now thinking about doing that now.) This exercise was inspired by her thoughts about a poem that Stafford wrote just days before his death.
Copy of a Stafford Poem Naomi brought:
You Reading This, Be Ready
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shinning floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spend
Reading or hearing this, keep for life
What can anyone give you greater than now.
Starting here, right in this room, when you turn around.
-- William Stafford
Stafford saw poetry as a gathering of meaning from everything he saw. He tried to listen to things and to people. He believed that everything had something different to offer to each person. The thing of careful listening is not anticipating of meaning. Very often knowing too much background will stand between you and the meaning the event has to offer: Opening new knowledges.
"To be young and confused can be charming. To be old and confused is a catastrophe" A quote from Al-Tayyab Saleh, Arab writer from the Sudan who lives in Egypt.
Naomi quoted Robert Bly as adding to that, "That being the case, I am a living catastrophe." (He later denied that she had heard him say that, but she said she wouldn't be surprised if he did.) Bly did say we have to write at least one bad poem every day. Naomi repeated;"Don't worry about what you write this week."
Naomi read a poem about art and swirling and twirling being the function of the pen. When we are writing a poem this swirling and turning is what brings us to meaning. Trust that the words will bring us to the light.
(I found the following in my notes. I don't know if this is the poem she read, or something I wrote myself...but for what it's worth:
the long term effect of a pen loosing
drifts of yellow
butterflies spiraling up through the sunshine
dark caves backlit by glow worms
and hope. )
Carol Ann Duffy The Other Country. (you can find some of her poetry at: http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/carol-ann-duffy )
Rhyming in poetry: Don't even think about it. If it happens it was meant to happen. If it does not it wasn't.
Weathering by Alistair Reid. (You can hear him read his poems at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=11917)
Haggie Ann Rogers. (This is a note in the margin--some Scotch poet?)
Some people think you have to "get" everything about a poem for it to be resonant for you. But, you don't.
The real secret to reading a poem is to think of it as a vessel of time. Naomi likes to know where she is. Some people like a sense of place--some place that is significant to them, say, an urban area. Some want a sense of center, an interior place.
Naomi has always felt a good poem pulls you in.
Saying how busy we are never gave us more time to get all the things done. Poems are short.
Norman MacCaig Collected Poems (you can see some of his poems at: http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/norman-maccaig )
She said, sometimes I think it is useful to look at the form of a poem.
Some people think of poetry as being spilling. Naomi thinks of it more as being spilling/sifting/shaping/spacing.
Think of the space around a poem as being an asset. You might try doing the long lines if you normally write long thin poems, or vise versa.
Line breaks are often a way of setting a word off
Example of organic line breaks: "Last night the moon smiled back at me" (This is a line from one of the poems that she gave us to read.)
Spend 30 minutes free write and then go back and select interesting lines. Think of yourself as two poets.
1) The one who spills on the page.
2) Then after a while, become the more editorial poet--the one that goes back and selects what stands.
Take a person from your own life: write a description
The year 2000. Think about the way it looks on the page. Metaphors, how it seems to you.
Or other (always feel free to write something else.)
Bill and I went out for a walk and I wrote these lines:
I think the sheep here are
I think they snag
on briers and stinging nettles
leave tag ends along the way
leave little white flags
and huge clumps of wool
some the size of entire sheep tails
Except for my belief in Anthrax
I would go wool gathering
spin my entire collection
weave it into a resilient blanket.
Between here and the hay barn
I saw two lengths of grey wool
twisted into string
I see her walking
Drop spindle in hand
I see the yarn grow one yard, two yards,
I see her drop the yarn there and began again
and get no further.
I have jotted here,"The green man of the hedge row." This refers to something that Ruth (resident of Mull) mentioned in her poem. I have avoided making notes about people's poems. Mostly because the style of the workshop was that we read from handwritten material and so we had no copies to look at, and for the most part the response was more of the visceral response to the poems...the sort of group activity that gives the writer the advantage of hearing how it sounds when others hear the material read out loud. I am beginning to feel that that is the most valuable thing a group can offer...that sense of being heard. Ruth explained that the Green man of the hedge row is a familiar figure to people of her point of origin...somewhere in the west of England, I believe. I loved that phrase, so I wrote it down. I am surprised how often that phrase echoes in my conversation, even before I heard her say it. You would think never...I would estimate it comes up four times a week. But, the Green Man in my conversation is the one that lurks off the back road leading from Ellicot City to Elk Ridge. Perhaps my ancestors came from her part of England and that is why I have been haunted by Ruth's phrase before I heard her speak it.
It was very wonderful hearing all the different rhythms of the voices of the people hieing from various corners of the English speaking world.
Mary Richards--potter and a poet said, "It takes long to learn that nothing is wasted."
Read "Money" from your folder do you see it as Prose, Poetry or Prose Poetry?
Read Maxine Schernof (You can read some of her poetry at:
http://web.archive.org/web/20050906001229/www.poetry.org/issues/spring01/text/cnotes/mc.html) and Jenkins (page 9 Middle of packet)
Herman Hesse's book Wandering
Bly said that our inner feelings cannot become clear to us until we see them reflected in the world around us. Usually we return to the landscape in which we were born.
Go out into the landscape and begin writing with the aspects that you see there…let it carry you inside or elsewhere.
Every road leads us wonderers back home.
July, 25, Scotland
Naomi started out the second meeting by telling about the other time she had met Susan, the socialite from Georgia, she had shared the platform in Rome, Georgia with Coleman Barth, (famous for his contemporary translations of Rumi.) At that time Barth told the people at the dinner that Bly had once said to him "Why don't you let these birds out of their cages." This was what led him to do his famous translations. He started out his project with the Rumi translations from a publishing house out of his home in Athens, Georgia.
At the supper in honor of the poets, Barth asked Naomi why she carried that heavy brief case with her…it was so unwieldy. She said she worried about it getting stolen. He laughed at her, saying his work was safely locked in the trunk of his car. As it turned out, when they left the restaurant, they found that his car had been stolen. Gone were his manuscript, his journals and his ticket to Istanbul. The whole party spent some hours driving up and down the dark roads, hoping to find that the thief had tossed out his brief case somewhere along the way. He was understandably distressed. Until at some point in the evening he said:
"How long does one stay robbed after being robbed?
I think I have gotten over it."
She told this story to make the point that while poetry should not shy away from the painful…at some point one needs to turn to the light…come to some acceptance of that which is to be learned from a painful situations.
Language can be so beneficial to you in dark times as well as light times.
Richard Jones poem in the packet is about Keys. I couldn't find the poem keys, but if you would like to see some of his poetry please go to; http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/156/3#!/20602451/1
Janet found it ironic that work on the topic of keys there in that place. There is no key to the castle. On mull you don't have keys. Houses and cars are never locked on Mull.
So many different purposes poetry serves in our lives: comfort, connection to others and to self. It is important to read poems to keep those connections alive.
We talk about poetry a little.
Edward Hirsh How to read a Poem (and fall in love with poetry.) Hirsch has a passion for poetry. Whitman passage: Out of the cradle gently rocking. (That poem was a hot item in the year 2000. I went to several poetry dos that year and I think it was discussed at each one of them. I never have gotten around to sitting with it and reading it carefully alone. I probably am missing something by not having done that.) If you would like to see a poem of Hirsh's please go to http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/fall-37/
Maggie who wrote in a fine surrealistic hand took offense when someone commented on one of her lines being highly poetic. She told the story about the time she went to a workshop where she had shared accommodations with a poet named Jane who was a "poet." Someone had written a poetic line that went: "Oh, Mawkish Aspects" And so this Jane person spent much time mulling that poem. Finally, she announced triumphantly, "I'm now at the seventh level of interpretation." Ergo, Maggie claimed to have as her goal to write no poetic lines. If that was her goal, she didn't succeed at it…because she had a very quirky way of organizing her ideas. Strong ideas, surprising presentation. All very poetic.
Next we talked about dialogue in poems.
One of the elements in poetry Naomi finds interesting is the merging of the spoken word into poetry. Aesop gave us the responsibility to tie it up in a little moral pronouncement. Josephine (I did not get the last name.) said her most liberating advise received was , "the poems I like are the ones with ragged edges."
Write down a list of floating lines you have in your head from recent times. Scan Journal entries of different things find a line that stands out. Then write a short sketch based on that line.
Because you use dialogue does not mean you have to hold the "true" version of the theme.
When Stafford was asked what he thought of as a most effective exercise, he said, "Think of something you said, now write what you wish you had said."
The assignment is to write down scraps of recalled conversations—phrases. At first I think I have none, except perhaps in conversation with the proprietress of the string store at Oban, the ferry landing.
When we asked the proprietress of the string store
For a tatting shuttle she waved a hand
toward the back of the store
" you should find one back there."
We returned empty handed
"I guess we sold them all.
We have no call for tatting shuttles
So we don't stock them."
The same story we get from Avis
When try to refuse their upgrade to a larger car
They say: Sorry we don't have any small cars.
No one wants them
So we keep very few on hand.
And they go very quickly.
I think it was Ruth who spoke of the green man of the hedge rows and put truth to the phrase: "Every road wonders back home" I find myself at the frozen food bin unable to pick up the French cut beans because Jolly Green Giant reminds me of the Yeti that wandered the back roads of Howard County, Maryland, looking for red Triumphs like mine to shove into flooded streams.
"I am at the seventh level of interpretation"
"How long does one stay robbed
After being robbed?
I think I have gotten over it."
Every road wonders back home
To the green man of the hedge row.
I once heard William Stafford say, "You can only teach a horse what it is about to learn. The trick in horse training is to recognize that thing."
Naomi suggested we carry on with the idea of infusing dialogue into poetry. Working on silence—something not talked about. Old early memories that persists.
Tomorrow we begin class at nine. We must leave here early for Staffa. Staffa is an island in the Outer Hebrides noted for its interesting geological formations and caves. Mendelssohn was inspired to write his Hervrides Overture on a trip to this island.
Bring warm clothes, hats and warm things It will be cold on the ferry.. eat at 12:15 Leave by 1:00
July 26, 2000
Naomi said from time to time, she adopts a word as a sort of talisman. Last year the word "befriend" became key to her. This summer her key word was "Potter"
Sometimes it is good to write down a word and make the connections from that one word to the word it connects to and to the word that word connects to…and so on.
Naomi commented on the art that was multiplying on the walls of our writing space as the time grew shorter for the opening of the art sale that would be happening at the castle the week after we went home. She suggested we spend ten minutes looking at a piece of art. Have a conversation with that art. Since we had a break at this time and I took Bill a cup of coffee and did my writing in our room. I had a conversation with the elegant toilet in our bathroom.
Why is it that I always expect the fixtures in bathrooms half way across the world from home to be American Standard?
Why are they never?
Why does the toilet in Prince Phillip's room has "Armatige Shanks' writ elegant in laurel green centered on the lid of the toilet?
What is the meaning of "Armatige Shanks?"
The name of the manufacture??
Or some sort of English joshing?
The toilet gave me no answer so I went downstairs and had a chat with the most picture on the wall I found most interesting. It was an odd watercolor about 12x18—a wide rectangle…shades of brown. The painting was made up of three sections. A large square in the middle…a drawing of harbor at Tobamory Harbor…flanked by a pair of small verticle rectangles on either side. There were numbers in the center drawing and then little out takes that showed what you would see, had you stood at the right place and looked exactly the same direction the artist looked as he painted. The directions for viewing this picture were written stern on the canvas.
Conversation with a Sea-Scape On a Music Room Wall
You could have been the product
Of my daughters in their batik phase
The subtle swing and crashes of your shifts across the hues of brown.
Why do you whisper of reason to fear for your safety?
Why do you shout directions?
"East looking West."
"North looking South"
"West looking North.?"
Is your audience of choice a table of bridge players?
Still no answer from the non-living.
Naomi said when to write is always a topic of interest among people who write. Some people think that a daily writing session is important. They believe that with a consistent writing schedule, the writing stimulates a certain strength in your mind.
David Ignataw thought that ideas lined up outside the door. If you weren't writing in a regular schedule, how would they know when to line up at the door?
I look into a dragon fly's eye
Pool of mirrors _________________These are probably quotes
It's how it remembers things- from some of the poems she
Naomi says every day she goes for a walk and brings home some odd thing and puts it on a table. And then she thinks about the object. (I imagined her having little shrine like thing somewhere in her Victorian house there in San Antonio's historic district.)
Try looking into something you haven't looked into before. Perhaps looking into the problem poem you brought with you?
Thomas Lux says that when you have a poem that doesn't yet find its form, Look at it and squint your eyes and capture what shines.
That afternoon we went to Staffa. That was one of the more amazing experiences of my life. We went in a small boat, a ferry actually. It carried probably 50 people maybe a few more, surely not the 100 Bill said. It lumbered along for almost an hour. I can't imagine what it must be like when there is any weather at all to deal with. The day we went was perfect—sunny and no wind. The island looks pretty much like your basic inverted bowl shaped island. Perhaps it is the shape of the Yurok sky, that inverted bowl that whomps up and down and makes the waves on the California coast…only this one wasn't all that big. Maybe about the size of a couple city blocks squared? Something on that order. Not big enough to generate a surf to excite a beach bum.
We were told we would see the puffin and Fingal's Cave. It was a good thing Naomi advised us to bring warm things because the ferry ride was cold.
The ferry driver circled a part of the island so we could see the cave whilst he played Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture on his loud speaker. Mendelssohn wrote that piece when he was only 2l. http://www.lukasspieker.com/blog/2621/outer-hebrides-2/ I want that piece of music, if I can ever remember to look for it. The cave was amazing to see from the ocean. The island looks like it was constructed from a large bundle of gray octagonal rods. When we got off the boat, there were no informational signs and there was no one to tell us where to go. The boat, as I said held a bunch of people…probably more like Bill's hundred than my fifty and we disembarked on a sort of wet concrete ramp…and since there were so many people and such a narrow disemarking place, it was a lot like an assembly line sort or thing…or like one of those circus cars from which amazing numbers of clowns disgorge.
There was a choice…we could either go up the steep stairs, almost a ladder to see the puffin or around the narrow ledge to see the cave. For some reason up looked like where we were supposed to go. It was a steep climb that left me gasping for breath. When we got our wind, some expert told us that the puffins were at the other end of the island…which looked a good long walk…the island was probably bigger than I told you it was. Although the puffins seemed interesting, I really wanted to see the basalt cave. I was afraid if we went clear over to where the guy said the puffins were, we would miss the basalt cave. So back down the ladder we went, and round the corner and along the ledge. Well it wasn't quite narrow enough to be called a ledge. The basalt columns are probably eighteen inches across, and make very adequate stepping stones. It was handy that we had made the detour up to puffin land before we came down to the cave because the major body of the tourists who chose the cave must have given it the quick look and moved on back to the ladder up to Puffin land. We almost had the place to ourselves. When you round the next corner into the cave…below there is blue green water and the columns soar like a cathedral. You can almost hear bits of Mendelssohn's Overture in the sound of the waves in the cave. Amazing.
If you would like to know more about the Staffa and see pictures of Basalt columns inside Fingal's Cave go to http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g186580-d541997-Reviews-Isle_of_Staffa-The_Hebrides_Scotland.html
When we'd watched the North Sea lapping at the basalt columns long enough we went back to the landing and found that we still had time to scramble back the ladder like stairs and visit the puffin. I am glad that worked out. Puffin are amazing looking creatures. Like so many birds they are so sharply defined you would believe they were computer designed.
Mendelssohn wasn't the only celebrate to visit Staffa. Queen Vitoria, and Prince Albert and their Royal Barge went there as did others including Darwin and Keats.
Not Aladdin magian
Ever such a work began,
Not the wizard of the Dee,
Ever such a dream could see;
Not St John, in Patmos Isle,
In the passion of his toil,
When he saw the churches seven,
Golden Aisl'd, built up in heaven,
Gazed at such a rugged wonder.
On visiting Staffa
Mendelson wrote his Hebrides Overture
And I am left with only words
My pilot's precise roller ball pen
Refuses to capture the gun Metal
Hexosity of the basalt pillars
Hexagons of various lengths
Not unlike my cran d' Arch drawing pencils
But the color deeper
More varied gray.
On visiting Staffa
Darwin spent unrecorded time contemplating
The crystalline structure of the basalt columns
Resorted to mathematics
In the end
got it wrong.
Naomi: Find First lines from Australian Poets
Warm up exercise for the pen I couldn't find any notes on the Australian Poets, and don't remember what that was about, but while I was googling them I came across and interesting site http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/images/uploads/pdfs/Toolkit%20for%20Teachers.pdf
If you read on down through the austrailian poet's tool kit, you will come across a section called warm up exercises that has a lot of suggestions that look like fun.
Glance over the lines in Bert Meyers poem and find one that resonates
In transcribing this, I tried to find some poems by Bert Meyers, but there are so many things in Google about Bert Meyers that I couldn't find a selection of poems by him. The closest thing I could find for you was: http://galatearesurrection6.blogspot.com/2007/05/in-dybbuks-raincoat-by-bert-meyers.html
If you are as unfamiliar with his work as I was you might want to read the above article.
I selected, "I fell into my father's head fast and screaming" (As nearly as I can tell, I never did anything with that line. Perhaps because I think I understand Charlie's mind, only too well. Differently, more than likely than Jack, certainly differently from Alice…but it works for me. So why mess with it?) On this 2013 revision of the Mull report, I have been going to Google and checking out poetry to see what is missing from this report. I don't fine a poem with the line " I fell into my father's head," but I do find some of Bert Meyer's work, and it is amazing. Certainly worth thinking about.
Alternate exercise involves a finding an odd line in a file in your Computer—select some file and use reject lines to construct a totally alternative universe. Let them go somewhere else entirely. (When I was editing this, one last time, I thought about doing something of this sort with the section about the Green Giant.)
Sometimes the thing you write never gels.
Poets often suggest that we take most care with looking at the first two lines of a poem.
We talked some about mysticism. The word is based on "Mysterious" we were all asked to say what our definition for mysterious was. Mine was, "a resonant unanswerable question-ness, the quality of defying definition." (Cathy who was quite proud of and always flaunting her prowess with finding definitions in her computer on the spot said that Mysterious came from French word meaning secret. Greek secret rites.)
Bert Meyers: Interesting juxtaposition of nouns and verbs. This particular poem we were reading was set off in sections. Poems that have parts, Naomi said, "Sometimes the mere existence of the numbers forces the reader to make connections that they might not otherwise make."
Assignment: Take something that has recurred in your poetry—try approaching it from different angles in different sections as Bert Meyers does.
On Visiting Staffa Mendelssohn Wrote His Hebrides Overture And I Am Left With Only Words
The boat named, "Not the ferry to Ulna"
Slides through celery jello
Sidles up to a wet ramp that promises only
Green muscles and iron stairs
And I am thankful for
The lack of wind
The absence of breaking waves.
Darwin spent uncounted time
Contemplating dynamic systems
the crystalline structure of Hexagonal
reducing them to mathematics
In the end, he was wrong
My precise Roller ball pen
refuses to capture the gun metal gray
the hexocity of basalt columns
These Hexagons of various lengths
are so like my carn d' Arch drawing pencils in shape
but the colors deeper
more varied gray
sing Mendelson's song
I cling to the black snake that serves is the handrail
And am thankful for the haze of clouds
That mutes the pure
cerulean of sky reflecting from the water so far below
Lessening the danger of my yielding to the call to leap
Here are some sundry comments that were made by one person or another about the poems we read to one another.
One of the hardest things is not putting ourselves in between the poem and the reader.
A large component of red granite is potassium
Magic is broken that is not believed
From cottage meair Then "No." has a nelotion I couldn't read this…I think that it has to do with the idea of looking up the derivation of words. Maybe the word for cottage is meair…I am not sure at all about this odd comment, but I will leave it to show confusion at its purest.
Mist is the face of the dear
Publishing: Naomi: At one time she made a chart once a month sent something out every day for a week. This causes you to pull things together. I don't worry about it any other time. I get a sense of what they published before I think of sending it. A submission always send a SASE. Out of the country international postage return.
Here is another version of the segmented poem. I was playing around with the fact that Mary Sib taught us to make an origami box, into which we were supposed to put our wishes…thereby investing in their manifesting. I thought this a pretty wonderful idea. If you want to know how to do that, ask me. I will see if I can tell you the particulars.
You fold and fold and fold
Until the paste board
Stands up to the task
Take a Pilot Precise
Roller Ball extra fine
Write the future
On slips of paper
Put the paper in the box
The box in your pocket
Put a smile on your face and go out the door
All join hands and circle twice
To the left
Twice to the right.
Wink at the moon every night
And poof Viola, it's all light.
Think of something you have eaten in the last two weeks—include in it your found object.
Write directions how to get someplace you want to go.
If you should want to go to the resting forest,
first you would have to give up all illusions
then you would have to endure a week of pseudo gout in a hotel room
Not of your choosing
In a land not even of your language family
Preferably with the Mayor's re election campaign
going full blast under your window
Then on a quiet Saturday morning finally manage to put your shoe on
Put your foot on the floor.
Hobble across the unfamiliar quiet of the Onyang Square.
Find just the right taxi driver
Who speaks no English
Show him the strange words the hotel clerk has drawn on a hotel card
Show him the map, a second time
See sudden joy leap from his dark eyes.
His smooth fore head
His bright teeth
He will take you on his pilgrimage
He will take you to the Resting Forest
Most nights at the castle there was some little entertainment planned. That's how I was surprised by Jennifer's singing and guitar playing ability. One night they had a talent show, at which Maggie demonstrated her other art. Back home in South Carolina, she organizes "tableaus" She gets people to sit in the park by a busy freeway and be human representations of famous painting…I assume not Picnic in the Park. We didn't know this at the time. She and Jennifer were announced to be going to do a presentation. What they did was to just set up a Scrabble board, in silence, and to sit there and do the Scrabble game, not indicating in anyway that there was anyone else in the room. It gets to be kind of hysterical, somehow, a whole room full of people watching intent Scrabble players ignoring them.
Some of my favorite amusements, were Naomi Nye playing the guitar and singing for us and Mary Sib showing the slides that she made of her research about Maze Walking and her presentations back home in Atlanta—sort of druid things, solstice egg balancing act…where a group of women balance eggs on the court house steps, and the truly amazing performance she did at the bottom and top of the Empire State building as the butterfly lady. My most favorite event was the stuffy old guy from the Tobomary Museum who gave us a presentation on the history and geology of Mull—this was on the last Friday, and explained much I had been wondering about. In his talk he explained that the stones of the castle were not Druid in origin…they were older than that. And when the Christians came in they set about obliterating the old religions, and found taking down the stones too much work, so they didn't finish the job of obliteration. Therefore at this castle, it seems that only one of the stones was toppled. Some research guys came and found that when that one was put back in place at a later date, it was put in the wrong alignment. Instead of being in a triangle., originally the stones had been set up in a straight line.
It is the case that at a certain point once ever fifteen and a half years, or something like that, on a certain night of the year, because of Mull being so far north, the moon doesn't set. What it does is come down toward the horizon to a certain point…and then as the earth continues to turn, the moon starts ascending. It zigs down toward the horizon and then zags back up. When the stones were aligned, which is evident by the placement of the foundation stones that were used…and another foundation further along the line was found, that when the early astronomers set it up, they were celebrating this Heavenly Occurrence. Something about this bit of information made the hair on my head raise.
On the last night, at supper, I realized that I had not found a good definition for Creative Non-fiction…which I had planned to learn in the first week. So, since I found myself setting across from Phyllis, I asked her. When she started to tell me about it Cathy, the woman of the computer full of definitions butted in and gave me a long, definition of an essay…which we all more or less have been told since grammar school, but she assumed I hadn't learned…so Phyllis wondered off and attended to details of the evening's entertainment, whilst I tried to figure out how to maintain a non judgmental stance toward the woman who seemed always to maintain a attitude toward me. I took it to mean that she had some notion that my mind had gone long since. Ah. Well. I was irked that she who was always hogging faculty time had stepped in and deprived me of the chance of learning what Phyllis's definition of creative non fiction might be.
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