Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day One
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.
Robin Ekiss, Headwaiter
The Problem of Deer on an Island
What does wearing a feather boa and doing the hustle have to do with being a poet?
I was thinking about this last night at the dance. Less than a week ago, I’d arrived on the mountain after being flagged in the Oakland airport and taken aside to have my bag searched. The TSA screener had a perplexed look on his face. He was holding one of my necklaces in his hand, but for all he knew, it could have been a bomb: a battered pocket watch on a gold chain with its face deconstructed into tiny metal hands and rivets, its untethered clock parts jumbled loosely inside. He made me shake it to prove it wasn’t dangerous. I’m embarrassed to admit, I was somewhat sarcastic and unhelpful (genuinely dangerous these days); when he asked what it was, I offered only, “it’s art.” He packed it back into the bag, and confiscated my lip balm instead.
With a six-hour red-eye from California, a three-hour layover in New York, another leg to Burlington, and an hour’s van ride to the Bread Loaf campus, I had a lot of time to think about notions of security, and what it means to poets. In many ways, we’re more comfortable with insecurity, how it makes us question ourselves and the world around us. We depend on it for our work. But we’re still human (for the most part, though some might tell you otherwise), and need a degree of security in our imaginative lives, too, to be productive: to feel validated, supported, inspired.
That’s what Bread Loaf does for me. At Bread Loaf, the line between your “real life” with its attendant responsibilities, securities, and insecurities, and your “creative life”— its meditations and revelations— blurs in the best possible way. (The dilemma reminds me of what Bishop wrote about “the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly unreal.” Which is real, and which un, I’ll leave to you.) Here on the mountain, everything is designed to feed that vital conversation about literature and the experience of writing. Even the dance. Even the feather boas (especially the feather boas) that appeared at just the right time to do the hustle.
If you really want to know what it’s like at Bread Loaf, ask a waiter. As work-study scholars at the conference, waiters participate in events and workshops like other attendees, as well as wait tables in the dining room up to 10 hours a day, in exchange for a full scholarship. Outside of writing a poem, it’s the most blissful, focused, creative exhaustion I know.
I’ve been on the waitstaff at Bread Loaf for the past four years, and I’ve learned a few important things:
Writers don’t like coffee, they need coffee. This is not a cliché.
A good salad bar can counteract the effects of a bad workshop.
As a poet, it’s important to have a marketable skill (like waiting tables, for instance).
A writers’ community is NOT an oxymoron (in other words, You are not alone).
As waiters, we’re an unlikely crew: MFAs and PhDs, mothers and fathers, professional waiters and rank amateurs, 20-year olds and 30-slash-40 somethings, the waiter who’s an ER doctor, the waiter who’s a Jesuit priest. More importantly, the doctor who’s a writer, the priest who’s a poet . . . all of us, our many lives waiting side-by-side with us here on the mountain.
Our diners are patient and forgiving, as is the kitchen staff, whose one hazing ritual is to call the waiter who gets to ring the meal bell the “ding-a-ling.” Oddly enough, everyone wants to be the “ding-a-ling.” In line at the salad bar last night, one waiter told me all this camaraderie was ruining his “carefully constructed martyr complex.”
So this is what happens when you bring together 285 poets and writers, a little theater with screened-in French doors, a cavernous barn with a stone fireplace and bat-worthy rafters, two lean but rangy red foxes loitering at the back of said barn looking for scraps, countless slat-backed Adirondack chairs artfully mismatched on lawns, one clay tennis court, a stone wall level with the tree line, the shadowy outline of a flat-spined mountain, a picnic on the lawn (hopefully not rained out today; fingers crossed . . .), a tour of Robert Frost’s surprisingly diminutive cabin (a box of Whitman’s candies shelved in his kitchen), a perilous hay ride pulled by a tractor, and a phone booth in a field surrounded by fennel and flowers.
When we aren’t enjoying an embarrassment of writerly riches, listening to readings or lectures, attending craft classes or panels, drinking, not sleeping, donning the proverbial apron, or trying to fight off BLARS (Bread Loaf Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the result of too much drinking and too little sleep), we’re in workshop.
In mine, Mark Doty tells us that the deer on Fire Island aren’t afraid of cars or people, that they got there by swimming from the mainland. The problem of deer on an island seems especially relevant to the experience of poets at a writing conference. I didn’t know deer could swim, and can’t stop thinking about it.
The deer follow me around the dining room at lunch. I’m pouring coffee and thinking about deer in the ocean, deer emerging from the tide at the shoreline, dripping with salt, how hard it must be to keep their noses above the waterline, whether a hoof functions at all like a paddle. Someone asks for a glass of ice or a hard-boiled egg, a high-chair or to-go cup, some soy milk for her tea. Peripherally, the deer stand at intervals around the dining room when I make my circuit: letting the chef know the headcount, conferring with Charlie, my co-headwaiter, about when we should take down the salad bar. Dessert sparks an ontological debate: If “raspberry tiramisu” isn’t made with espresso, ladyfingers, or chocolate, is it really tiramisu? Outside, the rain is falling in sheets, but in here the dining room is warm and whitely noisy.
About security and those deer: they stand by until the last diner has left the room, until the tables have been cleared for the next meal, the aprons strung on their hooks in the hall, before asserting themselves. More than anyone, they understand the work at hand and the work to come.