Orchard Keeper writing residency

In April I was privileged to spend a week in eastern Tennessee, not far from the historic Cumberland Gap. The poet Denton Loving has launched an unusual writing residency based in a small house he owns on a country lane. (That lane is literally just one lane wide—I hadn’t been on a road that narrow since my childhood in Colombia!)

road

It’s a magical part of the country.

The unusual nature of this residency is the solitude. Denton is available to answer questions & solve problems—he’s a wonderful host—but there’s no wifi, so communication with the outside world is iffy (WhatsApp worked quite well for me, though) and there are no other writers or artists to chat or share meals or work with. The quietness is wonderful for getting work done! I revised my current poetry manuscript, wrote two poems, revised one picture book manuscript, started revising another and discovered that it’s really TWO stories, made thumbnail sketches for a wordless picture book, journaled a lot, read a novel. Then there was the drive home, nearly nine hours of thinking, when my picture book ideas exploded and became a series of eight or nine books!

interior

The little house has a delightfully retro feel.

About meals: I wanted to minimize effort, so I brought ingredients to make a big pot of veggie/bean soup. I also brought granola, fruit, tortillas, cheese, & soy milk.

I was out and about for a while each day. The house is on an enticing wooded hill, and spring was much further along in Tennessee than in Illinois—everything was green, fresh, blooming.

Long walks were part of my agenda for the residency. The hill woods are actually crisscrossed with fencing, so a few days in, after I had accomplished all the writing listed above, I drove off to Cumberland National Historical Park. Having gotten a quick orientation from a nice young woman at the visitor center, I drove up to Pinnacle Point, from which you can see parts of three states: Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky.

Pinnacle Point

Then I drove down to a trailhead to go to the Gap itself. That involved a pleasant, leisurely hike of about an hour roundtrip.

Gap

If you’re a writer & your heart yearns toward mountains, as mine does, you might want to apply for this residency! You can do so here. Tell Denton I sent you!

You of all people

Like most writers, I hate rejections–those polite “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” emails. Another one of them came yesterday. I have cultivated a thick skin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care.

Then there are the prizes, which always seem to be won by someone else–usually somebody younger, which is objectively not surprising since I’m in my sixties. They have an edge of genius I lack. I’m mediocre.

Or sometimes: They have a spouse or partner whose income & presence allow them much more time to write & revise & learn than I have, being single.

There are also “self-rejection” moments when my struggle to make a poem find its path seems to be failing. Should I just give this up? Maybe I’ve reached the limits of my capacity.

Most of the time I manage to keep my eyes on the actual prize: making this poem or story better, trying a new subject or style, uncovering & strengthening the inherent rhythm of a piece.

But sometimes I really need encouragement from someone else. From June 2011 until her death in November 2015, Helen Degen Cohen was a poetry mentor to me, though we didn’t name the relationship in those terms.

Helen

Helen was brilliant & restless & insomniac & loving. She was a cofounder of the splendid RHINO Poetry annual, & she did win a number of distinguished prizes, residencies, & grants. She invited another poet, Susanna Lang, & me to form a critique group with her.

And one day, when I was beset by those doubts about the value of my work, Helen responded, “You of all people should not worry about that.”

Really? Of all people?

That in itself was a prize. Helen knew my work, understood what I was trying to do, & found it important.

So rejections come, but I keep writing. Our stories & poems & art can be part of something bigger than fame & recognition. And I want to be one of those “you of all people” encouragers who notice others’ work, affirm it, name what’s important in it. We really do need each other.


  • Thus far there’s one posthumous collection of Helen’s work, My Life on Film, and more are in the works. We’re going to have a big launch party for My Life on Film Sunday September 23, 3-5 p.m., at Facets Cinematheque–put it on your calendar if you’re in the Chicago area!

Helen cosmos flowersHelen adored gardening. This is one of her own photos.

To my loneliness

My spiritual director asked what colors I would use to paint you.

Indigo, brightening in places to cobalt. The deep poignant blue of a summer sky at twilight, what I used to call Maxfield Parrish blue.

Variegated with rich greens for life and fruitfulness. And pricked with reds and oranges, sharp but beautiful cuts.

Mostly I live in solitude, not loneliness. But the painful moments of aloneness come, and they no longer frighten me. You have become a kind of friend.

You are a hollow place inside me, and I meet God in that very emptiness. You are sorrow and loss, you are longing, hunger.

Without you, what art would I make, and who would I be?

home & no home

My friend Jason Brown puts out an occasional gathering of writing & art, Home::Keep. The second installment, RE::DIS//MIS, was launched December 16. I am so grateful to be honored with a folio page for some of my Colombia poems & photos! Jason’s theme is home–our experience of it, our lack of it, our longing for it. Because about 7 million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence, the loss of home comes up again & again in my writing.

Folio :: Excavation // R Goring

054.JPG

Just one of the photos in the folio: my friend gazes at a galleon, replica of those on which her ancestors were forced to make the Middle Passage.

Incongruity

It was the weekend of Claire’s twelfth birthday, December 6. She had asked to take a few friends to an entertainment center. I was glad the girls were old enough not to need close supervision; I could give them money for tokens and let them take off to play electronic and carnival-style games while I sat in a booth and read. When they ran out of tokens they’d return and we’d order pizza.

Good books are worlds in which I happily become lost. I was on one of the final chapters of a book by Annie Dillard. I opened it up: the words took me surging, soaring, whitewater rafting.

I read the last page slowly and closed the book. My pulse was slightly elevated, breathing quickened. The air around me was warm, as if the booth had become a center of light in the large room.

I started to become aware of my surroundings. The booth was on the periphery of an open area full of tables. The noise was dense: children’s cries, adult conversations, music, distant beeps and clacks from the game area down the hall. Across the way from me was a performing combo: four or five life-sized electric bears, dressed for the holiday season, playing instruments and belting out Christmas carols.

“Deck the Halls” came to a close. The spotlight narrowed to focus on the tall bear sitting at the keyboard. In a rumbling bass voice and with a fixed, earnest grin he began performing a solo, “O Holy Night.”

Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine . . .

Bobbing over the keyboard, the bear sang, looking across the room with large, shiny eyes. The pompon on the tip of his Santa hat was firmly glued to his cheek.

I began scanning fellow guests. People were streaming into the room as if it held their heart’s desire. Parents escorted children to tables, talked to the wait staff, slid squares of steaming pizza onto plates. They neither fell on their knees nor laughed and pointed. No one even looked at the bears.