Saturday, July 08, 2006

Sunday Scribblings: There is poetry here ...


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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17 comments:

alyndabear said...

That place looks so marvellous and quaint, and now I'm just picturing it filled with college students!

-Aly

paris parfait said...

What a great experience at a young age - and meeting Sharon Olds! Fabulous! As for the mayonnaise sandwich, that's a Southern thing, as long as you add pepper. Only we used Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise - and I wouldn't want one now! :)Lovely poem. Thanks for sharing your hotel story.

GoGo said...

Hey, this was a good poem. The two tree image was nice. My favorite line was "near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows."

Sounds like the whole experience of the hotel was wonderful for you. A good place to write your poem and share.

January said...

Thanks Tara! Sharon is quirky--really nothing like the person you get to know through her poems.

But as far as the mayonnaise sandwich, I had never heard of it, and I'm from Virginia! Even my relatives from Georgia never ate them. But I do like Miracle Whip! So unhealthy but so good!

January said...

I should claify that the poem is by Adrienne Rich, not me. Sorry, I've made the change in the post.

chiefbiscuit said...

...'because I hate being caught with my poetry pants down.' Love that! I enjoyed reading about your memories of a special time. Great inspiration too - love the Rich poem. Amazingly articulate ... like a conversation but undoubtedly, unmistakably a poem. How does she do that? Ahh back to the drawing board!! :)

Kamsin said...

It all sounds like a wonderful experience! I have to say the mayonnaise sandwiches don't sound so great!

Jessie said...

A winter weekend spent with Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, and a bunch of serious writers in a beautiful inn--geez, does it get much better??

I loved reading about your experience, not only about the inn, but with your MFA program. Sounds like you got a LOT of writing done! :)

Jennifer said...

Wow, what a cool inn - devoted to poetry. I like that.

VLAW said...

Gaah! How come no-one ever tells me about places like this? It looks idyllic, lucky you for the memory.

mikim said...

Oh, what a beautiful memory for you to have! A truly lovely poem!

bb said...

I'm with Chief Biscuit, how I laughed at *Knowing me, I probably started some pieces before I arrived because I hate being caught with my poetry pants down*. Such a a startlingly accurate analogy!

Great post, great to get to know more of your poetry past :-)

ESB said...

wow, what an amazing experience that must have been...i love both poets and have heard them read, but studying with them is a whole new ballgame....sharon olds taught at my college when i was there, but i took a workshop with someone else, while my friend took hers...sharon took the students on an overnight camping trip, which i heard about vicariously....as for GK, an old friend of mine's mother had an affair with him years ago, which for some reason i always think of when his poetry comes up...

ecm said...

Wow! What an amazing memory to spend the weekend with Sharon Olds. Thanks for sharing such a great moment in time. I really enjoyed the Adrienne Rich poem as well.

January said...

eeekat: I've heard rumors about Galway but never substantiated, until now. Just another reminded that these poets are human and flawed. Thanks for sharing.

twitches said...

You're very lucky to have had such experiences. Thanks for sharing! And that inn sounds wonderful; I'll have to check it out.

Cate said...

I saved this post until I had time to actually sit and enjoy it (so, here I am with my coffee, just loving your words!).

Fabulous, valuable experience you describe. I laughed at: "I hate being caught with my poetry pants down." I can't imagine that ever happening to YOU! And I can't imagine hauling a typewriter around (though there's something really romantic sounding about that!)--wonder if she ever did convert to a laptop.

Great post. Glad I saved it!

P.S. My dad eats mustard sandwiches--a carryover from our "poor" days.

P.P.S. Your children are gorgeous!

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