I recently returned from northeastern Wyoming, where I spent two weeks at the Ucross Foundation Residency Program. At Ucross, I was given my own room, as well as my own writing studio, and on weekdays lunch was delivered to my door: a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and two cookies, which I tried not to eat–and always did. Dinners were bountiful and delicious, prepared for us each weekday evening at six. Except for weekends, when we had to make our own meals (not difficult, considering the amount of leftovers in the fridge), the six other artists and I had nothing to do but, well, make art. This sounds absolutely magical, right? I mean, my studio was big-enough-for-cartwheels-big, and my desk view included a field, some deer, a herd of sheep, and insects that looked positively prehistoric. I had hours at my disposal to work on my new novel. Hours!
But that’s what I feared most about Ucross: all that free time. On the one hand, the place sounded magical, and on the other, terrifying. What if I didn’t want to write? What if I couldn’t? What if the lovely endless Wyoming day spat in my face and yelled, “You, a writer? Ha! Go waste time on Facebook at your local Starbucks, you fraud!” The last time I’d gone to an artists’ retreat, I suffered a wee-bit nervous breakdown. It was the summer between my first and second years at graduate school, and, really, the last thing I needed was time to write. I had time–too much of it! That residency felt less like a Writing Retreat and more like Writing Prison. I got work done, but I didn’t like doing it.
So it’s with great pleasure that I report the following: I didn’t have a nervous breakdown at Ucross! I was productive. I was inspired. And let me brag here for a moment, people: I could actually write for hours! The time didn’t scare me–or it did, some days, but only a little. If I couldn’t write past 2 pm, that was okay, because I could at least think about writing. At Ucross I learned that I am capable of focusing deeply for long periods of time. I love to write. I don’t think I would have said that before this trip.
During my residency, I thought a lot about the word retreat. People love to say that writers should get out in the world, have these incredible life experiences so that their fiction isn’t just navel-gazing; if a writer has had a previous career–as a bricklayer, say, or a surgeon–all the better, for it will inform his fiction. I’m not necessarily against this line of reasoning, but I also connect with that famous Eudora Welty quote: “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” Of course it does. And to write, don’t we need to excuse ourselves from the big exciting world and hole up in a room to mine the invisible? Fiction writing requires retreat. Stephanie Ognar, a visual artist I met at Ucross, was taking maps of Wyoming and sanding away everything but the bodies of water–the skinny, snaking rivers, the small splotches of lake. The results were beautiful and eerie, and her process reminded me of my own. All I do all day is sand away, to get at this streak of blue. And that takes time.
What’s interesting about retreating from your regular life is that you give credence to activities or rituals that, in the real world, you just don’t have time for. I remember sitting for over an hour on the porch outside my studio, watching the aforementioned field and deer. I was trying to inhabit the emotional landscape of a new character; in order to write a painful experience, I had to feel pain (and those two cookies I’d just eaten–well, let me just tell you: they made me feel the exact opposite of pain). Thinking about this now, it feels self-indulgent, cheesy even, but, you know what? It was necessary. I found a feeling I was looking for.
I also sang to sheep, played ping pong with my fellow residents, dipped into some Guy Debord, and read poetry out loud. On one particular slow writing day, I read Kiki Petrosino’s debut collection, Fort Red Border. In “Love Poem” she writes, “Say willow/with your thin throat humming,” and she ends one of my favorite poems, “Dread,” with the line: “So that’s the beginning.” I read these poems aloud because they were beautiful, and because I wanted to. So there. Reading them aloud brought me joy in that big studio where no one could hear me except maybe the dying wasps beating against the windows. Petrosino’s sentences, their rhythms, asked a lot of my own prose.
But, as I always knew it would, the fantasy ended. I am back home now. This essay is the most I’ve written since my dreamy days in Wyoming. I have no separate writing space here, and my $15 office chair is a crime against humanity. Yesterday, because they were doing construction on the stairwell outside my front door, I went to work at a coffee shop. A dude hit on me. The previous day, I tried a different coffee shop, but it was in Silver Lake and the hipsters were annoying and distracting and beautiful. (Nobody hit on me there, of course.) I am wondering how I will keep writing this new book. How did I ever write in the real world? This is the real challenge, I guess. It’s easy to write when that’s all that’s asked of you. Duh.
Eventually, I will get back into the swing of things. All I need is one good writing session from this tiny apartment, and all will be well in the world. And, I must admit, now that I’m back, I feel that familiar buzz of inspiration that only home brings me; Los Angeles provides just enough ugly to keep me sane. I’ve been thinking about how the true power of Ucross and other residencies is that it’s temporary. I valued my retreat from the real world because I knew it wouldn’t last, and I had to make the most of it. The shelter Ucross offered from the obligations of the everyday world, and the shock of time and space I felt on my first day, jumpstarted my creative brain. But only the most privileged writers could live like I did at Ucross–and I bet even Stephen King has to make his own lunch–and would they want to? The life of an artist is all about flinging yourself into the world, the muck and annoyance and pleasure of it, and then pulling yourself out, to make art. Back home, I am retreating from the world, and approaching it, again and again. It’s a kind of dance.
(But there’s this: Yesterday morning, when I was riding my bike, I thought I saw an antelope in someone’s driveway. I pedaled faster, my breath catching. Turned out, it was an elderly woman, kneeling. She wore a leopard-print dress. My mind shifted back to reality. Oh, Edan, I thought, you moron. We’re not in Wyoming anymore. I guess I’ve taken a little bit of Ucross with me.)
[Image credit: Edan Lepucki]
Kiki Petrosino’s first book of poetry, Fort Red Border, will be published by Sarabande Books this summer.A line of poetry by Kiki: “You can’t lie to a machine. You can travel anywhere, in the right machine.I would like to talk about trumpet cases. And toolbelts. And those large, leather folios for carrying architectural drawings. I would like to talk about safety goggles, driving gloves, tap shoes, bowling bags. I would like to talk about all the cool stuff that cool people carry when they are about to do cool things, like scale mountains or make lithographs or filet enough tuna to feed a hundred wedding guests. Equipment, I mean. Accoutrements.One of the most frustrating aspects of being a poet is: I don’t get any stuff to play with. The craft of poetry involves surprisingly few physical materials. Good paper, a pen. Yes, certainly, a computer. But everyone uses computers; unfolding your laptop at a cafe is not necessarily a poet’s gesture. The presence of such machinery in the public sphere denotes only the idea of work, the broadest sketch of occupation. Sometimes, when I am writing poetry, I find myself wishing for the fluorescent orange belt I once possessed in my youth, when I was a “safety” at the crosswalk, ushering the smallest kids past the hot front grills of cars and school buses. I want other people to notice me and know that I’m a poet. Frank O’Hara says: “if/I ever get to be a construction worker/I’d like to have a silver hat please.” Totally!A poet moves through the world and no one realizes who she is. The things she touches, she touches. There are no silver hats, and therefore no rules, to govern how she addresses herself to the world. Srikanth Reddy says: “The present is a word for only those words which I am now saying.” Sabrina Orah Mark says: “I did not fear them until I wanted to be afraid.” A poet moves fiercely through creation like the Biblical Adam, naming things as she goes along. Like the poet, Adam is naked except for his imagination, and in a 5th century ivory diptych, the toes of his left foot stretch beyond the frame, as if to say that Adam is already too big for the britches he’s not wearing, already halfway out of Paradise and into the wide world, where no distances may mitigate his naming. Just so, the poet’s power is located somewhere inside the immediacy of creative action. The poet sees. The poet speaks. It’s here, in this freedom, that surprises begin.I know a chef who cultivates a sheaf of delicate knives. I know a painter who loves his linseed oil. These people make virtuosic use of their tools, moving beyond the limitations of our concrete, workaday world to bring something entirely new into it. This strange alchemy makes sonatas rise from plinths of wood and ivory; transforms a plaster wall into the face of the Virgin; makes marzipan appear where once were sugarwater, almond meal, and little else.For the poet, this transformation happens in the darkness of the braincase. There, we each shelter a secret trove of language; there we swing our special hammers of rock crystal and solitude. Virtuosity, for the poet, comes from locating that sweet lexical vein in the rock, where our true words live. I mean our real language, the words that belong to us and to no one else. There’s a point, in every poem I write, when I begin speaking my own language for the first time. It’s when I feel the poem’s heart beating out its bigness, or its littleness. It’s when I feel a bunch of sharp little stars gathering in my own chest.Who can deny that poems come from other, inner worlds? When Alice Notley says: “No one can sing the blues like no one. Believing in paradise which is red like fire,” she is giving us the gospel from her own planet. She is speaking a language that comes directly from her bloodstream. There are no silver hats, and so no way to predict how a poet may come into her full truth. There are no silver hats, and so any one of us may come to poetry with new songs in our mouths. Charles Simic says: “It was the age of busy widow’s walks. The dead languages of love were still in use, but also much silence, much soundless screaming at the top of the lungs.” Unlike other tradesmen, the poet is at her best when she doesn’t quite know what she’s making, whether her song will be silent or screaming. A master goldsmith takes the recipe for “wedding ring” into his own body, so that he can fashion one the right way, each time. But the poet has mastered her craft when each poem travels to radically different places, when the sand at Margate is just as golden, as illuminated, as the sand at the bottom of the Frito’s bag.Are you a poet? If you are, you don’t need to carry anything more than your secret song-engine. If you’re one of us, we’ll know you by the top of your lungs.More National Poetry Month at The Millions
I like poets. At Iowa, they wore the best jewelry, they hosted read-aloud Shakespeare parties (alas, I never attended); some of them went shooting (I mean with real guns); many drank too much, fell in and out of love easily, danced well and terribly, talked John Donne. One poet I know kills turkeys for money. Another has impeccable finances and a mythic mother. In my worst days, I think fiction writers are merely diluted poets – heavily, and erroneously, diluted. Why do we need all these words, when a poet, with fewer, can say it better – or best?I’ve heard many bookish people proclaim that poetry scares or bores them, and I can’t understand it. Poetry is so pleasurable, so moving. Before going out, I love to say to Patrick, “Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table.” When I am annoyed, I consider “Purple Bathing Suit” by Louise Glück, with its final lines: “…I think/ you are a small irritating purple thing/and I would like to see you walk off the face of the earth/because you are all that’s wrong with my life/and I need you and I claim you.” A single word, said three times, can bring me to tears: “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.” (Oh, Robert Hass, you slay me!) I find that when I need to revitalize my own work, and recall what words can and will do, I turn to poetry. One of my favorite novels, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, is written in verse.And yet, I don’t read poetry regularly, and I rarely seek out new collections. Why not? Why has poetry retreated to school lessons and a thing for other poets to enjoy? It doesn’t seem right.So this:April is National Poetry Month, which means… I’m not sure. At The Millions, it means getting to know some very fine contemporary poets who have keen insight on all matters related to poetry. Over the course of the month, both emerging and established poets will share their thoughts. We will listen, and maybe take poetry with us, come May.This post will be the index for the series, and as we add our guest poets’ contributions to the site, we’ll link to them from this post. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new poetry posts appearing at the top regularly throughout the month, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Zach Savich author of Full Catastrophe LivingNathaniel Bellows author of On This Day and Why Speak?Terese Svoboda author of Weapons GradeMolly McDonald author of “Your Beautiful Grunt”Kiki Petrosino author of Fort Red BorderJamey Hecht is the author of Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapruder FilmDorothea Lasky author of AWE and the forthcoming Black LifeKazim Ali author of five booksRebecca Keith poetKwame Dawes is the author of fourteen books of poetry, including Hope’s Hospice, and many books of fiction, non-fiction and drama.