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Journal, Day Four
This week, five poets dispatch from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Bread Loaf, which has been meeting annually for 81 years, divides its participants into different categories—scholar, fellow, waiter, staff, and participant. Each day of the blog will feature a poet from a different category.
Mary Gomez Parham, participant
To make my blog clearer to its readers, I’ll start by revealing a few things about myself that affect the aspects of the conference I’ve chosen to write about and the way I see them. I’m a 50-something-year-old woman and a first-timer at Bread Loaf. I live in Houston and am the daughter of Central American immigrants. For some 25 years, I was a professor of Latin American literature. I’ve been married for 35 years to the same man and am the mother of four children, the youngest of whom is 15. So here I am at that hallowed literary institution, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference—a bicultural woman of a certain age from Texas with a head and a hard drive full of poems.
I’ll never forget my arrival at Bread Loaf. As my van pulled up to the front door of the Bread Loaf Inn, what I saw was a place as green and lush as a Belizean jungle, though 30 degrees cooler. I was struck by how well the founders of Bread Loaf had chosen their site 81 years ago. As I walked up the front steps of the Inn, I turned and looked out over an immense pasture, as bucolic as any in the British Isles or in any of Garcilaso’s poems of Spain’s Golden Age. Yes, the founders had purposely and successfully chosen a chunk of real estate that would drive the likes of Dick Cheney to try his hand at a villanelle. From the front steps I walked across an old-fashioned wrap-around porch and then through a homey lobby. Had Eudora Welty or May Sarton sat in that very room? As I walked up the stairs to my room, I wondered if I had perhaps touched the newel post that Robert Frost had rested an elbow on to chat with Louis Untermeyer. Then, opening the door to my room, it occurred to me that it could be the very room that Anne Sexton or Toni Morrison had stayed in years ago.
I’m not sure that people raised in New England can appreciate the impact a place like this, so full of literary history and tradition, has on a person raised in the southwest, where a building is old if it was built in the ‘60s and poets’ birthplaces and homes and haunts are few and far between. Since the American poetic tradition has its roots in the northeast, sometimes we writers in the south and west feel a tad like the blind man trying to identify the elephant by feeling only its leg. I mean, I’d read about Frost’s birches, but I’d never seen a birch tree until I got to Vermont. And when he speaks of his “yellow wood,” a Texan thinks of knotty pine. So coming up here to the cradle of American poetry is an essential and enlightening experience for us poets out in the hinterlands.
As for the writers, the lecturers, the guests–all those who come up here to teach us, whether in a classroom or via a lecture–, they’re the best, to put it succinctly. But they’re not just the best and the most talented and the most famous of American writers today: they seem to have been chosen because they are fine teachers, too. They’re the kind of teachers who’ll put an arm around a student’s shoulder and say, “Come on, let’s discuss that line that’s bothering you so much” or, to a student wounded in a workshop, “Here’s a Kleenex. Now let me tell you what happened to me once in a workshop with Donald Justice.” They’re writer-teachers like Percival Everett, Helena Maria Viramontes, William Kittredge, and Linda Bierds, to name a few. Just imagine what it’s like to have one of your poems discussed by a brilliant poet like Toi Derricotte (my workshop leader) who also happens to be a gifted and caring teacher and who in her classes addresses all aspects of writing, not just craft. Yesterday, for instance, she gave us this invaluable advice: “Be gentle with yourself. It’s hard to be a writer.” That’s what we have up here on the Mountain, as the veteran Bread Loafers say—teachers like Toi.
I have to mention the agents and publishing wizards, too. There are a lot of them, and like the teachers, they really care about us students and our progress and go out of their way to help us. My meeting yesterday with literary consultant Amy Holman was one of the most useful experiences I’ve had here. She patiently laid out for me a personalized strategy for getting more poems published in good magazines and journals and stayed beyond our allotted meeting time to discuss writers’ colonies and residencies and such.
Another thing I’ve been impressed with is how smoothly this huge, complex, living organism that is Bread Loaf functions. Having experienced in the flesh the snafus that even small college departments can create, I’m amazed at how these people—Michael Collier, Jennifer Grotz, Noreen Cargill and all the others—can run so efficiently this 12-day meeting of some 280 students, faculty, guests and staff (all “creative types” known for having minds of their own and a propensity for speaking them both eagerly and eloquently). Do you want an extra pillow, a stamp, a copy of your latest magnum opus, a high-chair for your baby? You get it—and fast, too.
In a writers’ workshop, one’s classmates are much more important than they would be in a lecture class in, say, anthropology. Through peer critique they help a writer to identify ways to improve his or her writing. Like the faculty and staff, the students here are among the finest I’ve known. They are, however, also quite varied. In my workshop group of 12 students, there’s an African-American poet with an MFA and a book published; a young man working on a Ph.D. in Slavic literature; a poet who has been a journalist for 30 years; a 20-year-old who hasn’t chosen her major yet; and a stay-at-home mom who writes stunning poems about her mother’s last days. My classmates vary in their personal and writerly experiences, their styles and themes, and yet each one of them is well-read, perceptive, and able to make incisive comments on any poem we workshop and to write an exquisite line themselves. They are ideal workshop classmates, classmates who, as anyone who’s attended writing workshops knows, are not easy to find.
The diversity evident among the students at Bread Loaf relates not only to ethnicity, gender, or geographic origin but also to life experience. I sometimes go into the dining room early and randomly choose a person to sit next to at a table, just to see what happens, and every time I meet someone with a different life history. There’s the woman who’s an Episcopalian priest, lived for 20 years in Uruguay and works now in prisons in the U.S.; the elementary school teacher from Brooklyn who loves Mexican soap operas and is retraining herself to become a teacher of the deaf; the guy trying to get out of a dead-end job so he can write more; the woman of Columbian heritage who’s started her own publishing house in West Virginia; and the retired man from Miami who takes his sailboat out every day. I’ve also met a corporate lawyer who’s a prize-winning fiction writer and a writer from Sri Lanka who dispatches news to her home newspaper from her base in Maine. And I could go on.
The one element of diversity that has most surprised me, though, is that of age of the participants. There are lots of 20-somethings, of course, but I haven’t seen so much gray hair since the last time I was late getting my hair dyed. Many students here are older, that is, over 40 or 50, and some are even over 60. I see them bustling around the place, not in the least self-conscious about or limited by their age. They’re very much involved in life and in their writing and are smart, healthy, confident and happy. I know they must have their arthritic knees and memory lapses like I do, but they are here nonetheless, reading voraciously, writing beautifully on all the experiences of life that an older person has had, and speaking knowledgeably and excitedly on everything from mooring a boat in the Caribbean to the joys of grandparenthood to the resurgence of formal poetry. I’m not sure why I was surprised to find so many older writers here. This year’s winner of the prestigious Bakeless Poetry Prize, David Tucker, is 58, for heaven’s sake! And we baby boomers do constitute a very large demographic group (Each day for the next twenty years, 13,000 Americans will turn sixty!), we have a lot to say and two or three more decades in which to say it. We have important things to say both to each other and to the young, who’ve been born into an era possibly more terrifying than the ‘50s and the Vietnam era.
There’s one more sub-group of participants at the Bread Loaf Conference from whom I’ve learned a lot about writing, specifically about balancing writing with family and work responsibilities. There are times at home when I put my writing aside because I feel that I need to take my daughter to Walgreen’s to buy mascara (she’s got to have it TONIGHT, she says) or that I should get up and mop the kitchen floor, and I’ve felt my share of guilt at leaving home and family for nearly two weeks to come to Bread Loaf. But I’ve noticed how other women here handle this and that’s helped me. Yesterday evening, for instance, there were three women standing in line to use the phone in my dorm and as I passed them, one joked that it was “hubbie hour.” One woman here has three small children at home and another is sending her last child off to college in a week. And then there’s the woman I overheard on the phone the other night talking to one of her kids. She said, “Gee, Honey, I wish I were there to help you with it.” She seemed sincerely distressed that she wasn’t there to help—but she didn’t offer to go home! Women (and men, of course) who have the courage to dedicate themselves seriously to their writing, despite the demands of family (or day job) are an inspiration to me and to the rest of us Bread Loafers, especially to those of us who, unlike William Carlos Williams who scribbled poems on prescription slips between patients, need time and tranquility to write.
These are, then, some of the highlights of my first stay at Bread Loaf, although there’s plenty more I could mention if I had the space. Last night, for instance, I strolled over from my dorm to a reading by Carl Phillips. There, sitting on the porch outside the screen-doored Little Theatre, I listened to stunning poetry as the late-summer crickets chirped softly all around me in the cool evening air. And Monday evening there was Mark Doty’s poetry by moonlight and this afternoon one of my favorite poets, Linda Pastan, will read to us. Tonight? A concert with Francois Clemmons and George Matthew. It’s all in a day’s work up here on the Mountain.