Out of Isolation
“Although the literal act of putting words on the page is a solitary activity, no writer is ever alone. There are always those mentors, those students, who engage in a communal effort of creation.”
(Prageeta Sharma, Patrick Rosal, Myung Mi Kim & Regie Cabico at the Kundiman workshop/retreat)
Thursday night I went to a reading at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, where I had the chance to hear Hugh Behm-Steinberg and D. A. Powell read from new work. I bumped into Catherine Brady and Richard Silberg and several other writers while I was there. A weekend of communal activity had begun.
Friday I went back across the bay to hear the fiction writer Thomas Glave read from his moving new collection of stories. The writer Stewart Shaw sat beside me for the event, and afterwards Thomas and I took the BART back to SF and, over wine and fried squid bits, talked writing and family and place and writing and work and writing and love and writing and apartments and writing and writing and writing.
Saturday a former student of mine and I went to the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalyis to hear the poet and analyst Alice Jones in discussion with Cole Swenson. Audience participation included questions and comments from poets Forest Hammer, Mari L'Esperance, and Brian Teare. After that reading, I ran back to my apartment and drafted a poem.
I spent the greater part of Sunday afternoon discussing The 2009 International Writers' Workshop in Ghana, West Africa with it’s director, the poet Shane Book.
Tonight I am having dinner with the poets Joseph Lease and Donna de la Perriere. Poems will certainly be mentioned, and there will be talk of po-bizz since Donna’s in the happy early stages of touring with her new book.
My life here in SF is chock full of poetic community. I know of 12 writers living within just 3 square blocks of my place. It’s always amazing to see what groups of poets living in close proximity can do. (I think of the Dark Room Collective, the coalition of Black writers living in Boston in the late 1980s and early 1990s which included such members as Major Jackson, Sharan Strange, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young.) But not too terribly long ago, I lived in a part of the country more like the rest of the country. By this I mean I lived in a part of the country that did not have enough writers in one neighborhood to support a hefty anthology.
When I lived in small town America I often had to look elsewhere for community. I traveled some summers to Cave Canem, the workshop/retreat founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady as a “Home for Black Poetry.” The name means “beware the dog,” and the icon resembles the mosaic on the doorway of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompei but for the fact, in the case of Cave Canem’s emblem, that the dog is free, it’s chain is broken. Through Cave Canem I have found mentors and students and readers and friends, a chain of community I hope does not break.
When I lived in Virginia I traveled sometimes to meetings of the Carolina African American Writers Collective. It’s founder, Lenard D. Moore, is dedicated to supporting what he calls the “important literary work” of the collective’s membership. CAAWC members including Carole Weatherford, Evie Shockley, Raina J. Leon, Mendi Lewis Obadike, and DeLana R.A. Dameron attempt to honor this goal.
I love it when writers build their own communities, their own networks and organizations, collectives, and coalitions. This institution building, though separate from the necessarily solitary act of writing, seems crucial to keeping writers’ spirits alive. Kundiman, the organization founded by Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi and “dedicated to the creation, cultivation and promotion of Asian American poetry,” just closed the application period for their summer 2009 workshop/retreat. Frank X Walker and his Affrilacian poets just finished an extended tour. There is the Lambda Literary Foundation, “the country's leading organization for LGBT writers and readers,” which in the recent past has held its own retreat. There is Con Tinta, “a coalition of cultural activists (Chicano/Latino poets and writers) who believe in affirming a positive and pro-active presence in American literature.” Each of these organizations provides, for a few poets or many, an audience that encourages growth.
Those of us who have written in a space where there seem to be no allies likely understand the need for such organizations. Even within spaces built to foster community, micro-communities often and necessarily emerge. Cave Canem was formed after an experience at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, the Black Took Collective was formed by Cave Canem Fellows. At the Sewanee Writers’ Conference years ago, I found my allies. Jane Satterfield, V. Penelope Pelizon, and Shara McCallum have remained trusted readers, supporters, and friends. We push each other to take risks, we encourage each other after failures, and we applaud each other’s success.
I agree with the writer Robert Lax (or perhaps it was Thomas Lux, my handwriting is unclear) who said, “I think you really need to be alone during a good part of the day…. I think that the isolation itself brings things to the surface that otherwise just remain hidden. And that you get to know yourself as a writer by being alone quite a bit.” I write in a walk-in closet with the closet door closed and my bedroom door closed and the window curtains closed and sometime, even, with earplugs in. I write in isolation whenever, and as completely as, possible. Still, when I leave the closed cloister where I write my poems, it’s helpful to know I have a community of readers and mentors who will challenge and support me, who will point me toward new questions and help prompt new poems.
It’s great if that community can sometimes be composed of living, breathing contemporaries. It’s good to note, as the poet Lola Haskins is fond of reminding me, that those we aspire for community with ought to also include the timeless poets, those who lived and died long before our day. What a lucky community to be a part of! With the writers of all time around you, isolation need never be something to fear. Larry Levis speaks to this eloquently in his poem “Sleeping Lioness”:
“…Everyone else in the world is in bed with someone.
If they sleep, they sleep with a lock of the other’s hair
In their lips, but the world is one short,
An odd number, and so God has given me a book of poems….”
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...