At the Brook Farm Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts. I was there more than 10 years ago with about 20 classmates from NYU as part of our MFA program. Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell were our chaperones, and we spent a winter weekend talking about, you guessed it, poetry.
The inn is down the road from the Tanglewood Music Center, summer setting for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a variety of musical events. It was an isolated, picturesque spot--exactly what you would expect New England to be. From the photos, the rooms are basically the same as I remember, but the pool is new. Definitely new.
At the time, we came to know Brook Farm as the only inn in the U.S. devoted to poetry. And I guess it's still true (even the last four digits of the phone number spell "poet").
We were a mixture of first- and second- year students (I was a first year), typical grad students: young and cocky, working the local NYC poetry scene by giving readings and attending as many literary events as possible. None of us had money, and that was especially true in Manhattan. But we were bonded by our demanding writing schedules, uncertain futures, and our desperate need to please Galway and Sharon.
During our 2 1/2-day stay, I remember having to write two new poems. Knowing me, I probably started some pieces before I arrived because I hate being caught with my poetry pants down. Our days went like this: get up early, eat a communal breakfast, break out into groups for a morning writing session, eat lunch, attend an afternoon session, have free time to get our heads together, meet for dinner, freak out, come up with a first draft for the next day. Ahhh, we would sit in the inn's extensive poetry library 'round midnight with a glass of wine and all of our anxieties. Some common questions: Am I any good? How do I put together a thesis of 25 poems? Will I publish before I'm 30? How am I going to pay off $35K in student loans ... as a POET?
Some of my warmest and fuzziest memories are of Sharon. I remember how she and Galway were always together--they've been great friends for years. Sharon used to carry around a typewriter when she traveled. I don't know if she still does (I hope she's moved onto a laptop), but she'd strap it to her back and take it with her wherever she went. Both Sharon and Galway wrote poems to present along with us in our daily workshops. And for lunch one day, I have the distinct memory of her making a mayonnaise sandwich. Maybe there was cheese on it, but it always struck me as kind of odd.
The MFA program was a great learning experience--the weekend was just one little kernel from the whole delicious batch. We had the kind of access to our professors that most programs can't offer. And they were always available, yet careful to set boundaries. I remember after lunch when a fellow classmate called Sharon "our mom." Boy, Sharon was quick to correct--she was not our mom, Galway was not our dad, and this retreat was serious business.
I guess I'll leave you with this poem. The other weekend requirement, besides writing and reflecting, was to memorize and recite a poem to the group. I chose this one from Adrienne Rich, from her book in Brook Farm's library. Seems appropriate given the times.
What Kind of Times Are These
There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light--
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
~Adrienne Rich, from Dark Fields of the Republic
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