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Journal, Day Two
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.
Sasha West, head of the social staff
Robin humbly fails to mention in yesterday’s entry the function of the hustle and the feather boas. The social & administrative staff had challenged the wait staff to a dance off—and the waiters, with only an hour to spare, organized a group dance. The independent board of judges is still out on the verdict (to be announced in the Crumb—our daily newsletter), but when we social staffers turned the barn lights back on, the floor was littered with multicolored feathers, which we had to sweep up. Let me just say, it didn’t make me think of Emily Dickinson.
This seems a mundane way to start after Robin’s lyrical entry yesterday, which mentions many of my favorite parts of the conference & this place—but maybe that’s the point. I’ve often thought Bread Loaf seems like one of those hypothetical scenarios you invent with a friend on a long car ride: What would happen if you brought 250+ writers together on a mountain, fed them, gave them clean towels, put them in rustic dorms, and took away their cell phones? Like most car games, the scenario would probably get more detailed: obviously someone would need to arrange the trademark Adirondack chairs in meadows and under trees; mist rising from the same meadows at intervals would be nice; and returning participants would tell you one of two things: this is a good year to see a moose, and the food has definitely improved since last summer. What if all these writers came eager with the work they had most prized for a year, and what if readings ran all day? What if the senior writers distilled their best new ideas into hour long talks & craft classes—and everyone else’s distilled curiosities and writerly struggles infused talk over cups of coffee and between those infamous green Adirondack chairs? What if you filled the whole day with the written word & meals & conversations on an impossibly green & beautiful campus? What would emerge?
The answer is, you would get a community of people who spend 10 days with each other entirely awake in language (a reference to what someone told me Ellen Bryant Voigt said we must always be—whether writing, reading, or speaking). To be honest, I’m sort of amazed this all works as a system. History teaches us about the fragility and danger of a utopia—but then, here we are. You can’t institute happiness or curiosity or growth. But you can create ideal situations for transcendence to occur at the individual level. I think part of why this all feels so powerful is that the conference is a distillation of so many things: choices fall away. Dinner is either the meat or the veggie option. When you ask people what they are, you usually mean poetry, fiction, or nonfiction first—and what they do in the rest of their lives later. In other words, we arrive and are stripped bare of many things about the way we move through our lives—except for our abiding love of language/writing. Hmmm. That sounds a bit overarching or even religious—which is not quite what I mean—but the thing is, you live here fully as a writer inside your life. There are days in which one has to retreat—constant awareness is exhausting!—but the experience as a whole works. In sitting down to write today, I can’t help but compare it to the thrill of that perfect last line.
Does it sound like the literary Big Rock Candy Mountain yet?
My experience here has changed over the three years I’ve attended. My first year, as a waiter, I was struck by how communities rename things. Consider: the jacktray, cambro, bouncer, wine key, mixer, & leaker. At home, they would have been (in order): tray, thing to get coffee out of, pitcher, wine opener, juice, & plastic box. I got home and wanted to rename everything in my house. I was struck by the structure of the readings—how writers get up and announce their names and did right in to their pieces. Something about not having the experience of the actual reading mediated by bios (which one can always get elsewhere) makes the whole thing seem like one extended conversation—between all of us, regardless of age (and here I mean both chronological age & what I think of as the age in writing). These last two years, as social staff, I felt the experience move more deeply into me. Again, some of the detritus of finding rooms & navigating a schedule became easier. I was happy to see familiar faces, and happier still when strange ones became familiar by the end. I knew how much I loved watching readings through the screen door while sitting under the stars. I already knew I’d find a whole small town of people in love with the world.
This year, I came hungry for questions. I’m starting to think of my work in terms of a manuscript, and I’m looking for how people pursue revision and create larger structures. One of my first conversations here was with a fiction writer—Kevin MacIlvoy, whose work I deeply admire. He was talking about the way putting a collection of stories together stretches the limits of intuition. When I was asking him his process for collections, he said he went to the book and kept asking “What do you wish to be? How patient can I be with what you wish to be? & Where are my original intentions for you getting in the way?” Carl Phillips, my workshop leader, suggests the following four (paraphrased) questions, poem by poem (warning, these are for revision, not composition. In other words, use at home sparingly!): What is the intention of the poem? How do the formal choices serve this intention? What work does each word do? & What is the relevance to the reader? There are more guttural ways of phrasing the last. Yesterday, he helped me think through a longer poem in sections that grew out of a desire to recapture Pound’s form in The Cantos, but to introduce a larger sense of a human presence—and correct some of Pound’s flagrant myopias. It’s grown into a big, baggy mess of something that I deeply care about, but I can’t see my way through to a revision. He suggested I start my asking each section who the speaker was. A simple thing, but somehow, exactly the right place to start. In my other life, I’m nearing the end of a PhD program in Houston. I thought I was done with workshop (emotionally), but this experience has reminded me that the workshop only extinguishes its use if it just offers answers to individual poems. In its best possible form, these conversations with other writers help us to a set of tools for inquiry into our own processes, a set of questions we can use again and again, and they sustain our lasting engagement with the craft of it all.
Today, our crew will set up a book signing on the Larch lawn in front of the bookstore. I’m glad the sun has broken. Event though it’s possible to get copies of lectures & readings, I’m sure I’ll be up at the little theater for a good part of the day. I’ve realized I have the same thrill listening to the living voice that other people get from watching live sports; the taped version doesn’t quite do it. So I’ll steal up to the sound booth or behind the theater and listen in the dark. Around me, other writers listening as hard as I am. To steal from Stevens, there’s a thrill in the being there together which is enough.