Archive for the ‘creative writing’ Category

Vermont Studio, Part II: some pictures

May 10, 2011

Awhile back, I wrote a long blog post about my experience at Vermont Studio Center. Thought I’d give a little photo tour of the center and some other odds and ends.

Here’s the heart of the center, the Red Mill. All of the offices are here, a lounge, the dining hall. It stays open 24 hours and you can always get coffee here, and while the dining hall closes down you can always at least get some cereal if you’ve been working at three in the morning:

Here is the Maverick Writing Studios. This wasn’t here when I came to the Center a decade ago (hard to believe how long it’s been). Back then you had a desk in your room and kind of lived all in one room for weeks. The Maverick was opened about 4 years ago and is the only building that was actually built by the Center. All other buildings were already standing in the town (VSC has basically bought much of Johnson, Vermont and converted it to its own ends). There are 16 writing studios here, each with a view of the Gihon River (yes, it does flow out of Eden, VT for all of you up on your old testament) and they are generally filled with a waiting list:


Here is the Gihon River during spring thaw:


Hmmm, what else have I got? Oh yeah, a little fuzzy, but here’s a shot of Stephen Dunn meeting with the writers, giving a talk on the “turn” in poetry. Good stuff:


Here’s Pogo, the VSC mascot, waiting patiently for someone to throw a tidbit out the kitchen window after lunch:


Campfires are a necessity. Here I learn that Peeps (it was Easter time afterall) will not only roast like marshmallows over the fire, they turn really pretty psychedelic colors when they do:


Here’s my good friend Tim/Spleen getting ready to interview me at WMRW in Warren, VT:


Here’s the board at Threepenny in Montpelier, also disappointingly blurry (it’s the lighting folks, not the beer). It also doesn’t do justice to the bottle list they have on hand:


And finally here is a scene that still makes me homesick for Vermont. How I love those mountain streams and rivers, those endless swimming holes and beautiful waterfalls and cascades. I didn’t get out in the woods nearly as much as I would have in different circumstances (as in, other than mud season) but it still felt great to get out and see the landscape again.


I have much more, but I’ll call it a night for now. Maybe more later, maybe not. Who knows.

Vermont Studio: Thoughts on Arts Colonies

April 26, 2011

Rainy Tuesday afternoon in Iowa,  a begrudging winter still trying to hang on. Kind of melancholy and I sit here trying to write, but thinking more about the last two weeks at Vermont Studio Center and trying to wrap my ahead around what they meant.

It’s difficult to explain to others why a residency is so useful for a writer. A painter or sculptor, OK, because they need space which can be hard to come by. But a writer? I have everything I need with a computer or a pad of paper and pen. And I’ve been on sabbatical, so I’ve had time as well: why the great need to get away? Isn’t it just a vacation? I can’t really argue with that. And I certainly don’t want to argue it’s anything other than a real luxury. Two weeks with everything basically taken care of, with plenty of good food and nothing but time to write. But it is a very useful luxury.

The challenge I think is trying to make art in our normal lives. Now be assured that I don’t generally talk about Capital-A art; I use the term art in a pretty inclusive way, from the very mainstream to the avant-garde. I like popular culture; I like Weeds, 30-Rock, and mainstream movies. But I don’t want that to be the only thing available. But those arts that aren’t mainstream will always struggle for an audience (but this isn’t a statement of their overall value). And those artists struggling for an audience will always struggle to juggle livelihoods and to fit their art into those lives. Some manage to do this quite successfully; some, like me, struggle endlessly. So you may say, “it’s just a matter of priorities” or “it’s all psychological,” and of course that’s true. But it’s also a bit like telling an addict that he has a problem: true, but what’s important is finding the tools to actually deal with the problem. Without that, what good does such knowledge do? I know it’s a psychological problem (and I’m far from alone judging from the many conversations I’ve had with many writers and artists) but the question is what tools can I use to combat it.

I’ve been productive on sabbatical, but my old habits have remained. Time to work will not alone shake you out of habits. And there is the benefit of the residency: my old habits of avoidance or procrastination or self-inflicted angst or whatever are almost impossible to sustain. There is a studio without much in it: some books, my computer, my notebooks, a lamp, a chair overlooking the river. There’s the endless April gray, snow and rain, and cold and wind (and frankly this is just right–I don’t know if I’d get any work done coming here in the summer; I’m sure I’d spend all of my time down at the swimming hole). There’s a communal fridge where I keep some beer. And there is the quiet, punctuated by the faint sounds of someone else tapping away or perhaps pacing the hallway outside your door  (reminders that others are working as hard or harder than you–keep at it!). In a building across the alley, I have a bedroom–not a particularly comfortable one, so I don’t really feel like being there–and then there is the Red Mill with a lounge and a dining hall. It’s a comfortable place to sit and have some coffee, but there will always be someone there who will inevitably ask, “How’s the work going?” reminding you of what you’re there to do. And if you do want to hang out, well then they’ll want to talk about the work, what they’re doing, what you’re doing, what everyone’s doing. There are three meals a day, so even if I wanted to think about what I should be fixing for dinner, I wouldn’t be able to (ah, food, a great avoidance technique of mine). At dinner, we all gather and share our day’s successes and struggles, and afterward we share our work, have some drinks, then go back to work for as long as we feel like. In other words, you’re always in contact with people who care immensely about your success, about the larger creative work in general. Everyone. That’s a rare thing. You may have your network, and you may talk about the work once in awhile, but it’s so constant here that you begin to think about your work differently. Everything else starts to fall away and your old habits die away and the work feels fresh, exciting in the way it’s hard to sustain in the “real” world. In two weeks I made headway on 4 projects, any one of which would normally have taken me twice that time; I spent about 60 hours alone just transcribing the Batwa stories I’ve been working on; this alone would have taken me forever, but I also managed to write an introductory essay to those stories. The real challenge is, once you get into a habit of writing until 3 or 4 in the morning, snapping back out of it.

The other aspect really is to be in this constant contact with people doing such exciting work, and not just writers who I sometimes spend too much time with anyway. There’s the sculptor doing a combination of 3-dimensional and musical homage to the Gihon River (which runs through the studio grounds); there’s the painter doing translucent paintings on both sides of sheets of mylar as a way of investigating space; there’s the chinese sculptor working with long plastic threads as a kind of fiber optic, swirling lines of reflective plastic making a different sculpture every time the light shifts; there is the painter/photographer/multi-media artist with her series of work, “Devices to Save Everyone from Everything”; and on and on. It’s a kind of collective intelligence that starts to take hold in a setting like this–it’s no longer just you and the work, it’s the WORK pouring through the collective mind, taking on its many manifestations. OK, that might sound a bit over-the-top, but it’s how it feels, and what that feeling does to your work is invaluable.

I come back with a huge body of writing I’ve accomplished, but more importantly I come back with a fresh sense of process, a fresh relationship to my writing. Now, I can’t imagine staying at a place like that–the intensity really is a bit much to sustain. Most residents stay for a month, but I only stayed for two weeks–I certainly wondered how a month-long stay would have played out, but I can’t imagine more than that (there are a handful who do 2 or 3 month stays). But as good as this all feels and how energized it makes me about my work, there’s a kind of melancholy that accompanies coming back to the day-to-day world. As one painter sarcastically said, “Oh, yes, I know I’ll go back to my job where everyone will be so creative and energized and have such witty, wonderful things to say about art in the world,” and we all knew what she meant. I went to the Studio Center ten years ago and remember coming back with some of the same feelings: I had a serious case of insomnia because I was so jazzed about possibilities and my mind wouldn’t stop. I started working on plans to start an arts colony somewhere in the midwest, plans that never really materialized, but it was still an exciting moment. I find myself again wondering about how to maintain some kind of community with the same intensity and commitment.

Many would say, well you work in a college, surely that’s got the same kind of community. And certainly there’s a supportive community at the college, but it’s far different. We’re so wrapped up in politics and teaching and grading and committees and the day-to-day work that we don’t engage on the same level. And what work is supported is far more likely to be academic in nature rather than creative (I don’t like to make such a distinct binary between these two ideas, but there is a strong divide and these terms are the best I can use to describe the division–my “academic” side feels far more nurtured in this setting than my creative).  This is not to say anything about the quality of work being done here–writers, visual artists, musicians, students and faculty alike, are all quite wonderful. But most of us rarely find the time to just sit and talk about process, for instance. And the dynamics of interchange are quite different here. Here I am the “authority.” At the studio center, I certainly was feeling older, shifting to some role as elder of the tribe, but I was also just another artist. People maybe wanted advice from me on how to get jobs or how to get published and those more mundane but essential realities (to which in this climate I really have no advice anyway) but in terms of the work, we were all just equals, we were collaborators.

I suppose one lesson for me, then, is to figure out how to bring more of this dynamic to my teaching; how do I collaborate more with my students, knowing all the while that I still am inherently the authority. But more importantly I find myself wanting to find another community. I know that Iowa is filled with wonderful writers and artists, but it takes a kind of social commitment and energy that I don’t always have to find them and interact with them (this whole post on the importance of community for one’s art is strange for such an introvert as myself–another benefit of such an insular community as the Studio Center is that it forces me into a kind of creative extroversion). So perhaps I’m where I was ten years ago after all. Maybe I really should start an Iowa arts co-operative. We could buy some farm land with buildings we could turn into studio space, we could do community arts projects, we could hang out and talk, we could grow a communal garden, and of course we could do our work. That’s my dream for this rainy Tuesday. Who’s with me?

The Creative Writer in the Schools

October 30, 2010

Yes, yes, I know we’ve been there, and it’s humorous because it’s pretty accurate of beginning writers. But this whole series also seems kind of mean to me. I mean I think most writers exhibit at least some of these characteristics when they’re young and starting out. And, more importantly, if this is how a writer feels about teaching (oh, the burden of having to grade intro composition papers!) then I have to wonder why do it. Teaching is not necessarily the best place for a writer to be anyway, so why not just find another profession? (frankly, I was a much more productive writer when I was a cook, but I shifted professions because I valued the chance to work with young writers).  Yet, year after year, MFA programs churn out an overload of writers who will never find a job in academia (yes, most writers say they get that MFA to improve their writing, but the reality is we then expect a teaching job–even publishing is far too often seen as a step towards that job) and the result is an insular community that supports such cynicism–“yes, we know how overburdened the poet is, how no one appreciates the work we do, etc.” Yes, I speak from the “inside”–I have a very nice tenure-track job. But the issue in this video seems to be that it’s about the visitor, perhaps the teacher that hasn’t landed the TT job yet. But I’ve had this conversation far too many times, seen it on search committees too many times–a cynical and superior view of students that is really just the result of being overworked as an adjunct or visitor and would somehow disappear if only the teacher could land that TT job.  Hmmm, really?

Haiti Benefit Poetry Reading

March 17, 2010

I’m looking forward to tonight’s poetry reading/Haiti benefit. Music, raffles, and two fabulous poets. Should be a great time, so come join us if you can.

The English Department presents:

An evening of Poetry to benefit Haiti
Featuring: Patrick Rosal & Kiki Petrosino

Poetry, Music, Raffles!

Wednesday, March 17
7:00, Hedges Lounge

Cornell College

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, which won the Members’ Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and My American Kundiman, which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry as well as the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award

Kiki Petrosino is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first collection of poems, Red Fort Border, was published by  Sarabande Books in 2009. Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets, Forklift Ohio, POOL, Unpleasant Event Schedule, and elsewhere. She is programming director at the International Writers Program and the University of Iowa.

Global Voices 4

August 10, 2009

I’m happy to say that the details for this year’s “Global Voices” event at Cornell have been worked out. This is an annual reading/discussion with writers from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.  Each year we bring two writers to campus to visit with classes and give a reading and panel discussion in the evening. These have been hugely successful and engaging events and I’m really looking forward to this year’s. We have the following two writers who will be visiting:

Maxine CaseMaxine CASE is a senior writer for the non-profit Cape Town Partnership.  She contributes to a number newspapers and magazines, including Real Simple, Reader’s Digest and O Magazine.  Her short story “Homing Pigeons” was included in African Compass:  New Writing from Southern Africa 2005. In 2007, her debut novel All We Have Left Unsaid won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in Africa, and, jointly, the Herman Charles Bosman Award.

Miloš DJURDJEVIĆ(poet, essayist, translator; Croatia) has published three volumes of poetry, with the fourthDurdevic forthcoming in 2010.  His work has been included in anthologies of contemporary Croatian poetry, and translated into English, Hungarian and German. The editor of the Croatian domain at Poetry International Web, a recipient of fellowships at the Ledig House in New York and the Civitiella Ranieri Center in Italy, Djurdjević is also the translator of a wide range of contemporary American poetry and prose.

They will be reading at 7:30 PM on Sept. 15 in the Hedges Conference room of the Commons on the Cornell Campus, 600 1st St. W, Mount Vernon, IA 52413. I hope to see you there!

On Academic “Rigor” and Creative Writing

March 3, 2008

So, here’s my problem: I’m working on a syllabus for my upcoming introduction to creative writing course and I’m trying to respond to comments made in my recent pre-tenure review about academic rigor.  I’m apparently not seen as “tough” enough.  Now, I have nothing against academic rigor. My problem, though, is that I’m convinced that this term has started to become synonymous with learning, and that seems dangerous to me.  Rigor is perhaps one way to achieve a learning environment, but I’m in no way ready to concede that it’s the only one.  I’m plenty tough in many courses (in fact, I’m ashamed to admit the times I believe I’ve made students cry due to workload), but creative writing doesn’t work that way.  I ask students to put themselves in a vulnerable position as writers, to open doors that are not easy to open and can be quite scary once they’re open.  Fact is, if they’re worried about the grade they’ll get for that process, then the doors never even open.  Academic rigor in this context is counter to the experience I want them to have, the process I want them to learn.  Besides, can’t some incredibly important learning actually happen in the midst of putzing around?   If we replace learning with rigor, we cut ourselves off from important pedagogical experiences.  So, I guess what I’m supposed to do now is add extra reading to the syllabus–just because.  Or, maybe, god forbid, more quizzes or exams to make sure they’re learning–but what, I ask, am I attempting to evaluate if the testing process actually runs counter to what I want them to learn?  I think that to read and write well actually demands that we read less.  If the student is motivated to do what I ask of them, it’s actually an incredibly challenging course; if the student isn’t motivated, it’s true they could probably slide by.  But do I add to the workload to make sure the less motivated student works hard enough or do I make the environment productive for the student who is actually going to really work through the reading and questions and writing that I pose to him or her?  I will always vote for the latter.  More reading or more writing does not make better reading or writing, does it? The debate reminds me of the silly “Gordon Rule” in Florida, by which writing was evaluated on a word count, 6,000 a semester to be exact–you know, as long as they write enough words they’ll learn to write.  Hmmm, garbage in, garbage out.   In any course, the question should always be how much does a student learn, not necessarily how hard does the student work.