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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: All Good Things. . .

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Our time together had come to a close and I was alone in the dorm where we stayed at Macalester College for the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference. It was strange, that quiet, after all that activity, after all that brilliant conversation, after the nightly readings and daily classes, the meals together three times a day, the walks around surrounding St. Paul, and the laughs and drinks around the common room way into the wee hours. It felt kind of spooky, surreal. Where’d everybody go? And this was not my school, my town, my home, and my plane would leave late–so there was a bizarre sense that I’d been abandoned here. On top of that, after a week of near perfect beautiful weather, it was raining. It was cloudy and dark and thunderous.

And yet, my heart and head were brimming, practically exploding with gratitude for this week of treasures and this incredible community, the likes of which I have experienced in no other place.

And after a lonely day in the dorm by myself, packing, napping, a little light reading of things I have written and some things written by my friends, I had the great pleasure and honor of an early Thai dinner with my dear friend and co-coordinator Terri Ford before she took me to the airport and sent me on my way.

I have started a practice, each time I attend a Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, of doing a series of blog entries under the heading, “Dispatches from Writer’s Camp.” In some years, I might do a whole string of them, almost every day of the week-long conference, but I notice a significant change when I am coordinating in some official capacity. This year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was coordinating in some official capacity. I wrote a dispatch two days before I arrived, during the conference I wrote zero dispatches, and here I am, back home in Portland, Oregon, writing the only official dispatch from the conference, several days after the fact. I was too busy to write, mostly, over the past week, and when I did have time to write, my focus was on generating new creative work.

I’m not sure how to capture the week. The task, in full blown prose paragraphs, seems daunting. I will try instead a number of bullet items that, I hope, will succinctly capture the highlights of the week.

  • Macalester is a beautiful campus surrounded conveniently by a commercial district, making it super easy to forage on foot for things we needed or to find interesting distractions if a break or some good exercise was in order.
  • In a novelty gift shop almost across the street from campus, I found a set of cocktail glasses–because it’s difficult to drink good whiskey out of a plastic cup.
  • One could walk, and many of us did, to the Mississippi River!
  • Terri Ford took me to Hell’s Kitchen for breakfast! OMG!
  • We volunteered to teach classes to each other and there were scads of great ones to choose from: the fiction of Joan Silber, the mystery and history of memoir, collaboration and cross-pollination in the arts, Jung’s shadow archetype, marketing strategies, persona poems, issues of misappropriation, the lyric essay, Elizabeth Bishop, a round-robin reading of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (in full!), diction enhancements, supportive strategies for getting started, a table reading of a play by one of our campers, and finally a film/memoir project enriched and deepened by the revelation of family secrets! Oh my!
  • This last class around Family Secrets had many of us diving into our own family histories–super relevant to moi, in particular, and to the writing project on which I am about to embark.
  • A group of us meditated every morning, opening and closing our silence with poems by Mary Oliver, William Stafford, May Sarton, and Margaret Wheatley.
  • We heard 42 absolutely stellar readings from our campers.
  • One of our esteemed Masters of Ceremony, Helen Fremont, threatened readers who went over the ten minute limit with super soaker squirt guns. Happily, these weapons were never employed or deployed.
  • We gave our readings in a church, the campus chapel–until the PA broke down–and then we moved into a space that felt more like a night club. Both venues, totally appropriate.
  • We held two writing contests, one of which was a 25 word lyric to be sung to the tune of. . . Much hilarity ensued.
  • People were workshopping all over the place in small groups, sharing their writing with each other, receiving generous and supportive feedback, learning about the enormous gifts of their fellow campers. I heard nothing but rave reviews from people in these groups. All of us, having experienced at one time or another the nightmare MFA workshop, have learned in our practice together how to jettison all of that baggage. No writers are ever harmed, damaged, or traumatized at an Alumni Conference workshop. That seems to be a given.
  • We held a noisy silent auction to raise money for Friends of Writers. Two of the most interesting auction donations: an impersonation of Ruth Bader Ginsberg on your voicemail message, and a performance of an opera aria–and lucky for us campers, the winning bidder requested that the aria be performed at the conclusion of our last night of readings. Can you say “transcendent”? I knew that you could.
  • And no alumni conference would be complete without a dance. So we danced.
  • We had 47 campers! Many of them had come to previous conferences, but a good number this year were attending a conference for the first time, and a number of those were brand new graduates of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Cause for celebration, indeed. But for me and others, we were sorely missing some of our buddies who have come before, but for some reason, couldn’t make it this year. And every year for the past three years we have grieved the loss of our beloved Carlen Arnett. We miss her so much, and yet, she is always present.
  • We all learned so much from each other. But on a personal note, I learned something about my own process, and perhaps, that deserves a paragraph.

Concerning my own creative output, I have discerned a pattern, one that I realize now I have been repeating all through my writing life. I will have an idea that I believe is worth writing about but I won’t know how to go about it. For example, I have, over the course of my entire career, wanted to write a book about teaching. I wrote poems here and there, I wrote essays and blog entries, letters, and sometimes (often) would work teachers into my fiction. But none of these, while satisfying in their own right, were trending toward the book I wanted to write, a book that, instead of advocating a particular practice, strategy, or argument, would instead just accurately and engagingly capture the life of this vocation I have chosen. It has taken me 30 years to find finally a form or structure that will contain the idea. It has taken the shape of a collection of micro-essays or prose poems that I have titled, “Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List.” I doubt that I would have made this discovery without the gifts of the Alumni Conference. Finishing, or close to finishing that manuscript prior to arriving at camp, my challenge this year was to figure out how and what I can write toward a title that I have had swimming around my head for years now. And I think, as a result of some inspiration from the folks at Rinky Dink Press and continual inspiration from my fellow campers, I have finally found a form for the new project, a memoir written in short numbered bursts of no more than 50 or 60 words. Don’t ask me why, but this feels like a fit–and I have now discovered some momentum towards a rough rough draft.

Recently, one of those inspirational memes has been making the rounds, a list of three things you can do in order to fail at life. In a nutshell: blame, complain, and be continually ungrateful. I have decided, that in large part, my tribe of graduates of the Goddard/Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and in particular the miracle of this unique alumni community and my sense of profound belonging within it, has made it virtually impossible for me to fail at life.

Cheers. Until next year!

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The chapel panorama

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The chapel

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The clubhouse

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The Mississippi

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Hell’s Kitchen

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Countdown T-Minus a Day and Some Change

I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got plane snacks, I’ve got a new Moleskine notebook, I’ve got the new album by GLASYS, I’ve printed and practiced my reading, I’ve chosen some poems for morning meditation, I’ve packed my copies of Monster Talk, I got a tooth crowned, I got my hair cut, I got a copy of As You Like It, I’ve listened to the playlist for the dance, I’ve answered every email, sent off the schedule, troubleshot and revised the schedule, ordered beer and wine for the receptions, made myself a packing list, purchased a pair of shorts with lobsters on them and a couple of silly t-shirts, I have communicated back and forth with my co-colluder Terri Ford, the wonder of the planet, my poet friend and partner in crime, and have almost not forgotten anything important as I do all this stuff in preparation for joining my tribe of writers for the annual Warren Wilson Alumni MFA Conference. All I have to do now is a little laundry, some packing of suitcase and carry-on, eat my last meals in the house, do a couple of drumming gigs, and wait a single day longer. I fly out Sunday morning at six flipping a.m. to St. Paul, Minnesota toward my final destination: Macalester College, which I’m told, looks something like this.

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There are very few things I look forward to more in life than joining my Wally Tribe for Writer’s Camp. I go almost every year. I fly to Massachusetts or North Carolina or California, once I didn’t have to fly anywhere because it was held in my lovely city of Portland, and when I arrive at my destination I convene and commune with the most supportive and creative and inspiring group of people I have ever come to know, with very few exceptions. We talk, we teach, we learn, we workshop, we share our work, we have meals together three times a day, we laugh a lot, and we dance–one of the only places you will ever catch me dancing.  It is, has always been, without exception, one of the most joyful experiences of my life. So I am, to put it mildly, STOKED.

This year’s trip, though, has a note of bittersweetness. I will miss my family more so than usual–because right before I leave, the very day before, my wife and my son will have already been away for a week at a camp of their own, the Alan Keown Drum Line Camp. My family has been away for a week and the moment they return I will be leaving for another week. Well, you know what they say. Absence, and not being together on your 33rd wedding anniversary, makes the heart grow fondue. I mean fonder. I must say, and I’m not joking, that I do feel a kind of fondness blossoming. I am super jazzed about meeting up with my writing buddies, but I do miss my family. I think that’s a good thing.

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#342: May 8, Soul Work

It’s May 8.
I sleep in an extra hour.
I make myself a kick-ass scrambler.
I pick my brother up
at 9 and we drive toward
I-84. There’s a bunch
of teachers on an overpass
wearing red and hanging
their banners and I honk
at them. My brother and I
make our way to the Gorge
to visit the retreat center
I have chosen for some
fall Courage work.
Afterwards, we drive
to the Vista House, and
yes, by god, it’s a vista
all right. On the way
home we stop at Edgefield
for burgers, beer, bourbon.

This day is for the kids.
My t-shirt says that I stand
for students. And I do. No doubt
about it. But I’m also struck
by the notion, the conviction,
that teachers can’t take care
of students if no one
is taking care of teachers.
I’ve had to practice self-care;
additionally, I’ve tried self-medication,
but I find I have to balance the two,
which is hard. I try to err
on the side of care.

So much about what happened
today I find totally inspiring,
all my colleagues out there in their
red shirts holding their signs,
thousands of them. But it’s also
exceedingly sad. It’s like if firefighters
had a massive demonstration to call
public attention to the dangers of fire.
People don’t understand in the way
they understand that fire can kill you
that ignorance and stupidity and poor
mental, physical, and emotional health
are just as deadly–even though it’s staring them
down every single day in the person of the
president of the United States.
Democracy is at stake and we are
well on the way to losing ours,
and losing our souls into the bargain.

Souls need tending,
They whisper their sweet nothings
into our ears, and if we can’t listen to that,
we are doomed. Soul, Jarmer, what are you
talking about? Parker J. Palmer tells us
that it doesn’t matter what we call it
as long as we call it something, as all the
great traditions have: the great mystery,
the spark of the divine, big self, true self,
inner light, inner teacher,
“the being in human being,”
the wild animal in us all, resourceful,
resilient, strong, yet shy–and in need
of the greatest respect and care.
You do that for teachers by making
the conditions of their work
as humane as you possibly can make them,
and give them not lists of standards
and administrative hoops of fire
to jump through and an impossible
student load, but the appropriate
space and time and creative freedom
to cultivate the minds, the bodies, and the
souls of their students, together.

I checked out the setting today for
some October soul work in the Columbia Gorge,
I spent time with my brother,
I took a nap, I had pizza with my family,
and I wrote this poem.
This is the best I can do.

 

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#344: I Drove Over the Mountain to Get Here

I drove over the mountain to get here. I drove over Mount Hood. I drove over the mountain into the desert. Eventually, I ended up close to three other mountains, the ones we call The Sisters. I drove over the mountain to get here. This is the place where I will try to help people look inwardly. This is the place where I will observe the silence. I drove over the mountain to practice listening, next to these other mountains. I drove over the mountain to a town called Wonder, or Solitude. I drove over the mountain to create community with complete strangers. I drove over the mountain to this place. Look up: the sign says, You Are Here.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: A Few Goodbyes, Reading with a Friend, Writing Some More, Going Home


I’m sitting in the airport in a beat up arm chair looking out over the tarmac through these gigantic windows. I’ve got three hours to kill because the ride from Mt. Holyoke dropped me off early. It’s an ugly, long flight clear across the country, from Hartford, Connecticut to Chicago and then home to Portland. I will get home tonight at 11, but it will feel to me like 1 in the morning. If I can keep from sleeping on planes, I’ll sleep well tonight after a little reunion with my family. As much fun as I’ve had, I miss them very much, my wife and boy. Dogs too. I can’t wait to see the place. It should be freshly painted when I get home, a project going on all through my absence.

I’m struck by how the Writer’s Camp has a way to linger on until the very last minutes. I slept in this morning so, missing breakfast, I was able to say goodbye to only a few of my writer buddies–my departure felt less like a closing and a little bit more like an opening. A little breakfast and coffee with Dave and Dawn, and then a road trip.

David gave me a ride to the airport from the college, and while he drove, for about 40 minutes, I read out loud to him from a novel that I’ve been jonesing to read for several years now, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. So we had ourselves a little experience. I suspected I would dig this novel, as it came with some super duper high recommendations from other writers I love, but I had no real idea what it would be like to read or what it would be about. It turned out to be about the most perfect book for a road-read one could possibly hope for. On every page there seemed to be some key thing that we wanted or needed to stop and discuss. And because the novel, at least in the first section, is broken up into these little vignettes, it lended itself perfectly to interruptions for driving conversations. From the opening epigraph from Evelyn Waugh, to the first chapter title (we couldn’t decide whether the single word title was a noun or a verb, decided it could be both, and then after reading for awhile decided it was indeed both, and that both interpretations worked equally well); each little piece we read, short, punchy, puzzling, enigmatic, surprising and funny, distinguished from the other vignettes by a double space between paragraphs, intrigued us, brought us together trying to puzzle it out, made us hunger for more, made me sorry David wasn’t driving me all the way to Oregon.

Reading out loud to another person, especially a friend, is a heavenly experience. I mean, I think David liked it, at least he said he did, but I loved it. Because the book was awesome, yes, but also because there’s something of constant discovery or surprise in it, and a phenomenal intimacy is forged as these funny shapes on paper turn into words spoken and sentences uttered and those utterances become a shared experience, a common or mutual understanding, constructed in partnership. What’s cooler than that?

So in the car with David I was giving a reading, taking a class, and here, at the airport, with a three hour window of waiting by a big window, I’m writing. I’m still camping. Oozing with gratitude and missing the tribe already. I’m reading, writing, napping, having a meal clear across the continent, getting on a plane again and again, going home.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Resurrection of the Contest in Order to Exacerbate Feelings of Rejection, a Dongle Dilemma, When a Poem is Not a Poem, One Bad Dream, and More Blessedness.

 

This campus has a Hogwarts thing going on, don’t you think? I feel like I’m at Hogwarts.

Things started out kind of rowdy here at Mt. Holyoke. The microphone was wonky. There’s nothing worse than a wonky microphone. Better no microphone than a wonky one. One of our attendees was trapped in his room by tables of books. But he’s got the only refrigerator in the entire building in his room for some reason, so people keep going in there to refrigerate things or to steal ice cubes. Last night, July 3rd, a massive fireworks display lit up the sky and we had to yell at each other over the thunder.

We’ve been mixing it up. At reading number 2, the glorious, lovely and talented MC Thornburg resurrected the daily writing contest for silly prizes, despite controversies surrounding the last time this was done, concluding that the only way writers might thicken their skin against rejection would be to experience more rejection.  That’s not true. MC T actually suggested a kinder, gentler writing contest, one in which the winner would be randomly drawn from a hat, ultimately making sure that, like they do in California, every kid gets a trophy. No one was buying that. We require, as a group, more rejection, more suffering.

I had a question about dongles and many people misunderstood. Having arrived on campus with a computer that requires a unique kind of plumbing, I was just hoping to be able to make an appropriate and functional connection between the one thing and another thing in order to project some images on the screen during my class. People laughed and one of our Annies (we have three of them) thought I was being vulgar. She googled the word “dongle” and was satisfied. She still thinks it’s a dirty word, though, dictionary be damned.

The question has come up: just what exactly is a poem? It’s a relevant question for me, as I am writing poems now and have a manuscript on the cooker. Sheepish about my own poetry prowess, I think of my poems as extremely short prose pieces that I have broken into lines. But I call them poems. Because I can. Is a poem a poem because the person writing it says it’s a poem? Is it a poem when an audience that’s listening can’t “hear” the line breaks? Is it a poem if it’s not about pain and suffering and death and love? Is it a poem if it has no “music” in it? Is there a difference between a prose poem and a piece of flash fiction? If so, what is it? If it’s narrative, but it’s not a narrative poem, and it’s not an narrative essay, and it’s broken into lines, is it a poem? My friend Dave says that he spent his entire MFA program experience at Warren Wilson trying to define the poem. And when he graduated and they gave him a big stick he realized that the answer was not really all that interesting or important. The question is interesting, I think, but I’m with Dave: the answer is not. Rilke said: Learn to love the questions themselves.

I have lots of questions about the dream I had this morning, which was really more like a nightmare. I dreamt I was being anesthetized for a surgery just as my sleeping self was trying to wake up. I was afraid I would be awake during whatever it was they were about to do to me. Then my sleeping body woke and I was shivering. It was icky. Then I went to morning meditation. All better.

The short stay conference attendees arrive today. Some of them arrived yesterday. That’s exciting, partly because their presence adds to this sometimes overwhelming abundance, one of the hallmarks or gifts of Writer’s Camp. I’ve said this before, but I always walk around at these things feeling this incredible lightness, a palpable fish of gratitude just swimming around in my system–all the time. It could be the caffeine–but I don’t think so; it never wears off. And I’m just giddy when new friends arrive. When the short stay people show up, things get noisier, more rambunctious–and judging from the rowdy quality of our first three nights of consistently exquisite readings from alumni, it’s gonna get crazy ’round here. Crazy in the best, most blessed, sermon-on-the-Mount-Holyoke kind of way.

Dear Wally friends: if you are not here, know that you are missed.

 

 

 

 

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#269: A Letter of Gratitude to My Wife and Son (another prose poem)


Dear family,

I am about to begin my journey home. Almost everything is put away and the trailer is hitched up (I never did unhitch); all I have to do now is climb in and start up the engine. It was a good trip. Even though I was with my brother and his friends, I spent a lot of time by myself. I read some and I wrote some and I listened to music and I walked and I rode my bike. I took in the good Willamette Valley air under cover of giant oaks, just like ours, but older and over miles and miles. Last night it was so clear; the stars were lovely and David and I kept the fire going until 10 or so. I slept well and ate well and it was easy to be good. I have some Easter surprises for both of you that I hope you will like.

Just before I leave I am thinking about how grateful I am for both of you, and how thankful I am that you both were willing to (maybe even happy to) have me out of the house, let me do my thing, allow me this space to travel both outward and inward. I love you both. I am enriched beyond words having the two of you in my life, challenging me and growing me toward this hidden wholeness.

Yours,

Michael

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