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Journal, Day Five

By Bread Loaf Writers' Conference

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.


Sarah Harwell, waiter

It’s Friday, 6 a.m., one more day and the conference ends and I got four hours of sleep last night so I apologize in advance for everything that comes next. In fine literary mode, the weather is a physical manifestation of the end of the conference—it’s so cold now we can see our breath and hung over, shivering writers are pushing each other out of the way to get to the chairs in front of the fire. There is nothing meaner than a cold writer. Fall is here. Get out of Dodge. Time to leave our Poetry Summer Camp, which for waiters at least, is more like Poetry Boot Camp (between the sleep deprivation, physical labor and constant parties, I have turned to jelly. Will tell you anything, do anything sexual or not, just give me a full eight hours of sleep . . . ) and return to our piddling, striving lives where writing is fit between washing the dishes and working our six jobs.

The social staff has a motto for the conference, “No scandal, but hoping . . . ” Well, I’m here to tell you that Bread Loaf is not the scandalous place it once was. No predatory professors looking to bed young female writers (well, ok, that did happen to one person, but young female writers are not the pushovers they once were), and parties, aside from wild, flailing, nerdy, writerly dancing, were remarkable only for their sexual restraint.

Not to say that it was completely scandal free. Spoken by a waiter who has a relationship waiting for him back at home, “Here at Bed Loaf, I’m just trying to keep my dick in my pants.” So far he’s done a fine job. Others have been less successful. One benefit of being a waiter is that you see people as they eat, which means their mouths are open and they can’t lie as well. Even fiction writers. So I see who they sit next to, who their eyes linger over, I see when they’re in a terrible mood, when they’re love struck. I count 15 affairs, several with married people, three smitten poets (oh like that’s news), 21 ready and randy fiction writers, 300 people who are lonely and feel insecure about their writing, and one soon to be defrocked priest (only kidding Michael).

My only gossip, real gossip, is that my workshop leaders Linda Gregerson (smartest woman in the universe) and Richard Siken (who won that stupid, ageist poetry prize—the Yale Younger) have birthed a love child. Me. I want my poetry to have the intelligence and finely wrought lines of Linda, and the passion and myth of Richard. The workshop has been intense, sort of like a Vulcan mind meld. The idea of it ending is painful, and reminds me of the time I was abandoned by my parents and sent to live in an orphanage. I asked Richard if I could come live in his apartment, but he said no. His apartment is too small. Then he looked scared. Maybe I’ll have better luck with Linda.

There are a myriad of opportunities to embarrass yourself here, besides writing a blog. Like the time I sat next to a very famous poet, whom I admired, but had never seen. She very politely said she liked my reading (all the waiters give three minute readings), and I very politely asked if she wrote poetry or fiction and which workshop leader did she have? Sigh.

My roommate (one of three Southeastern Asian women who are on the staff or waitering) was approached by an editor of an important journal who told her how much she enjoyed her reading and asked if she could send her a sample of her work. My roommate, who is a poet, was very excited and wrote her e-mail address down. Only later did she realize that the journal only accepted stories. No poetry. The editor had gotten her mixed up with one of the other two Southeastern Asian women who write fiction. You know how all those American-born foreigners look alike.

Another waiter got an e-mail from an editor who was interested in seeing his non-fiction book. He was so excited he immediately forwarded this to the love of his life and in a mixture of baby French and English (pookie, sweetie-ums, hootchie-cootchie whatever) expressed his great joy and did his victory dance. Too bad he hit the reply button instead of forward.

I spend my days juggling the responsibilities of waitering (going to all the parties, rubbing our victory at the dance in the social staff’s collective face, oh yes, and scraping food off plates) with the insanely packed schedule that Michael Collier has created (more gossip: Michael Collier has either cloned himself or is on speed—he has been to every event, every reading, every meal and as of two minutes ago, he was still standing and speaking in complete sentences—what’s up with that?). I have listened to what seems like a million readings. By the time I get home I’ll spontaneously give readings to my daughter and my cat at the appropriate hours of 4:15 and 8 and 9:30. I will expect copious amounts of applause. I like the poetry readings better than the fiction readings, because if your mind drifts during a poetry reading (not to say that that has happened to me, but I have noticed other people looking glazed over) you don’t have to wait out the rest of the reading trying to figure out if Sally shot Freddy or if they were making noisy, violent love, or if they were actually just a figment of Ahman’s strange imaginings of the decadent American culture.

My favorite part, aside from the workshops and waiting on hungry people with a myriad of dietary restrictions, and occasionally large senses of entitlement, has been the craft classes. I will share some good lines from them, just to make you feel bad about what you’ve been missing:

From Linda Gregorson’s “Poetic Yield”

“We enter a poem to be changed”
“To write a poem we don’t have to understand it beforehand.”

From Richard Siken’s class on how to move forward without a narrative:
“Because I like to leap, I must learn to land.”
“There must be rags to wipe up the blood.”

From Jason Schneiderman’s class on the line:
“The line is both a presence and an absence.”
“The three functions of a line break, 1) to create a small break, a breath 2) to create suspense and 3) surprise/retainer of meaning/reviser.

As well he had a great line about the publishing panels:
“It’s like going to a panel where Brad Pitt gives advice about dating, but everyone in the audience just wants to date Brad Pitt.”

From Linda Pastan’s reading:
“Revision is the purest form of love.”

From Michael Collier’s class on Hart Crane’s two poems “Eternity” and “The Hurricane”
“Learn to create a tension between the form and what’s inside the form.”

(I thought about reprinting the entire poem, “The Hurricane” and showing how Bread Loaf replicates the hurricane’s “ground-rhythm” but then I thought better of it. Just know that being here is a lot like being torn apart by weather you can’t control).

From C. Dale Young’s class:
“Sometime doubt makes a poem more convincing.”
“It took Brigit Pegeen Kelly two and a half years to write ‘Song.’”

From Thomas Sayers Ellis’s craft class:
“There’s a brain in our toes.”

I didn’t go to that class but someone told me that line and I like it.

Just regular people have had good lines too. That’s the greatest thing about Bread Loaf—the conversations you have with people who love writing and books and words. Isaac (who once he found out that he was going to make an appearance in the blog would like the world to know that he is available and rich, and likes to date older women) is from Iran although he lives in Houston now (this is an improvement?). He told me that in the ‘90s Iran’s movie censor was blind, which seemed to both of us a great metaphor for a lot of things. Because Iran has such strict guidelines for what you can put in a movie (no sex, no touching, etc.), directors and writers have had to go beyond the traditional ways of showing desire. He talked about this scene in an Iranian movie where an older man fell in love with his servant. The way he showed his desire for her was an extremely delicate scene where he straightened her slippers. Restriction can be good for art. Look at Zbigniew Herbert, sonnets, Russian poets. It made me wonder what we (we being part of the cult of the individual and freedom of expression) write against. I personally want to write against the toilet paper aisle in an American supermarket.

I’m really tired now. I just want to say one more thing. The previous blogger talked about mothering and writing. There have been children here at Bread Loaf, some of the fellows have them, and the teachers. I have one myself, but she had to stay at home, and right now is missing her mom. It’s hard juggling children and writing, especially for women. Last night, Mary (who read an extremely funny story that someone should publish), Ru (who is the sexiest dancer on staff, and also writes a compelling story that someone should publish) and I were complaining bitterly about this (ok, I was complaining—they were looking politely bored). To shut me up, we decided to start a writer’s retreat like Yaddo or MacDowell that welcomes children. The kids will go to creative arts camp while the mothers will write. We’ll hire a cook. And someone to clean. So if you’re looking to give money to a worthy cause, Google my name. Find my e-mail. Help children of writerly mothers not have to go to therapy later.

This blog entry is dedicated to all of my fellow waiters who write as well as they bus.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 by Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.