January 30, 2012

VCCA (What Works, What Doesn't)

A variation of this appears at SheWrites, a professional Facebook for women writers with a mentoring tone. I am one of a dozen taking turns as the guest blog-editor while SW co-founder Kamy Wicoff takes well earned time off to work on her own book. So watch for guest posts I've lined up from Laura Susanne Yochelson, Bernadette Geyer, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Eugenia Kim, and Lisa Fay Coutley. 

As I've mentioned, this is my third time at Virginia Center for Creative Arts. There is a reason I keep coming back. The landscape fits me, and I get a lot of work done. Over time I've learned to pack the little items that make me more comfortable: postcards to warm up the studio's bare walls, a favorite pillow, an electric blanket, a sturdy printer, a few glasses from home that have a heft and size I like. 

In some ways I cling to "real life" more than others--I muddy my impractical heels in the gravel and soft lawns, I don't apologize for spending a few hours on email each day, I make trips to Charlottesville or Richmond to see friends and give readings. I do so because I've learned the hard way that I don't like having Real Life hit me like a ton of bricks on Day One post-colony. I'm secure in my sense of community. I'm pulling my weight. If we connect and share a dozen late-night talks in the studios, awesome. If we don't connect and I'm the muted breakfast wraith in snakeskin pajamas, sipping her coffee silently, that's okay too. 

Many Fellows are "colony hoppers," and we trade stories of where we've been. Occasionally you'll hear folks admit that the experience is not what they'd hoped, that they didn't get work done, that they wouldn't go back. And though hindsight is always 20/20, if you're considering applying to an art colony for the first time, it is important to realize that not all residencies are the same. If you're looking for a chance to workshop drafts, go to one of the places with a Master Artist in residence--Vermont Studio Center, or Atlantic Center for the Arts--and if you're not at one of those places, be prepared for the fact that asking a fellow Resident to read pages could be a fraught thing. If you're using up precious vacation days from work and will feel let down if there isn't an exotic view and a sense of adventure, pick a place with plenty of hiking options, such as Ucross in Wyoming, or an international residency held in a castle or resort town. 

The Millay Colony was my best experience in terms of eating, because only the dinners were communal and the cook was dealing with just six people, so she was happy and game to accommodate my allergies 100%. This has been my favorite chef and my best allergy experience yet at VCCA. But I face the same struggle I always do--giving myself permission to skip breakfast and lunch if they don't match my work schedule (knowing that if I skip a meal, the kitchen facilities available to then fix my own food is minimal), and knowing that skipping dinner without a day's previous notice is seriously frowned upon. It can be agonizing to tear myself away from the page at 6:05 PM some nights, yet you gotta do it.  

If you come to VCCA, you will be astonished by the care that has been put into developing the grounds for maximum places to hide away. An unexpected bench, a fishpond, so many sculptures that pop into view only as you dusk around a certain hedgerow. That said, bring a certain dormitory hardiness. Sound insulation is notoriously poor in the main house, carrying even the softest giggles in the Wavertree Library to the upper bank of bedrooms. The thermostat in one room controls an entire hall. You'll be at the mercy of a bathroom-mate, one with the power to leave his or her room with you (accidentally) locked out from shower access on occasion. I'm not reporting these things to complain; none of these factors have ever bothered me. But I've seen them be dealbreakers for others, and a bad fit for a Fellow is hard on everyone. 

Don't be afraid to be honest about your needs. If you need hi-speed internet to research your biography or upload sound files for an installation, that's perfectly legitimate. If you value new amenities, pick a fresh upstart like Ucross's sister residency, Jentel; don't go to Yaddo. Sure, that's some rich history and some famous residents, but that's also some old lace and moldy woodwork. If you can't appreciate it, no one wants to hear you moaning for five weeks straight. If you want a sense of family, choose a colony where everyone shares a one-month cycle. Otherwise you may find constant hellos and goodbyes emotionally draining. And if going to Vermont Studio Center on a two-week residency, and you tend toward insecurity in new groups, make sure it's not the second two weeks of the month. You'll arrive to find one-monthers grieving the loss of the first round of two-weekers. Nothing personal, but it can make anyone feel like a runner-up.

The point of all this detail is that you can't assume every colony will work as a haven--and that what causes it to be a "good" or "bad" experience for you, as an artist, will probably be rooted in something far quirkier than the prestige level. 

What I've realized I value most, especially in this time of constant travel, is being grounded. I don't need a castle. I need to get the work done, which for me requires nesting and routine. Part of what I love best about VCCA is exactly what others find most distracting; the sheer size of it, the flex and flow of Fellows on all different schedule (some come for as little as a weekend). I'm content to give a knowing nod to the other January regulars, create a handful of practical connections--here our proximity to my hometowns of DC and Virginia come in handy--plus one or two extraordinary friendships to take with me forward into the world. The rest I let go. 

Well, okay. I also value one awesome dance party. We got that covered this time around, thankfully on the night that the light sleeper was visiting family off grounds.  

I'll keep applying to other colonies. It's good to mix it up. I dream of a lunchbox with my name on it at MacDowell, I envy those who have been to Bellagio, I'm newly intrigued by stories of Caldera. But as I walked back from from the field where I'd sat all Sunday afternoon--wind whipping my hair, sun bright in my eyes, sipping from a tumbler of scotch to guard against the chill--and read the first 200 pages of Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang, I thought: Oh, VCCA. I already dream of returning to you. 

January 28, 2012

VCCA (Tidal)

My favorite artist left Virginia Center for Creative Arts today; the one who arrived right after I did, the one who quickly proved himself a fellow scotch drinker. On his way out, he stopped to feed the horses with an apple he'd taken from his first day's lunch buffet but had remained, untouched, on his studio windowsill. The owner of the horses that roam VCCA's grounds, a young Sweet Briar graduate named Virginia, was kind enough to come to my joint poetry reading with another Fellow. We were chatting afterwards and Virginia confessed that this horse's name on the paperwork is Pure Black Poison. She calls him Fella instead. 

A minute after the artist drove off, I looked again out my studio window and the latest arrival--a fiction writer from Boston--was introducing himself to the horses. Someone goes, someone comes. In four days I'll be the one going. There's a look people get in their eyes in the homestretch, a reticence at the dinner table. It can be misread as rudeness or at the least social exhaustion: I've made all the friends I need to make in my stay here. Really, we're just preparing ourselves for the jolt of returning home. A sign waits at the exit to Route 29 that warns: You are now entering The Real World.

January 24, 2012

VCCA (In Threes)

With a week to go, so far in my time at Virginia Center for Creative Arts I have...

-Put revisions on three essays to bed: one to appear in the Washington Post Magazine come February, one already up on Psychology Today's blog "The Fallible Mind," and one that I submitted to Ploughshares the day of their January 15 deadline. 

-Drafted three poems, and revised a sestina.

-Worked on three rounds of interview questions, including a live sit-down for a profile in Virginia Living and a Q & A up now at YRTEOP.com ("'poetry' turned around"). 

-Finished three books by friends--Amy Stolls (The Ninth Wife), Kevin Wilson (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth), and Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self). I recommend all of them, with my favorite stories being Wilson's "Grand Stand-In" and Evans'  "Robert E. Lee is Dead." The Ninth Wife is a perfect curl-up-in-front-of-the-fireplace read, a reminder that love is a good & sweet thing even when complicated.

-Wrote a prologue for...well, let's talk about that one at a later date.  

-Read aloud through the three collections I have by Sylvia Plath: The Colossus, Crossing the Water, Ariel. No one had an ear like Plath, no one, and your bones don't fully register the rhythm of "Mushrooms" and "Lady Lazarus" until you perform them. Anyone who saw me through my studio's windows--lights blazing at midnight, pacing in high heels as I read, bouncing as well to Erykah Badu--probably thought I was a madwoman. If you can't be a madwoman at an art colony, where can you be?

I report not to brag, but to assure anyone that has ever wondered that Yes, you really do get things done here. The wheels turn faster. No denying the fun: the dance party that spanned from 10 PM Blondie to 2 AM M.I.A.; the hilltop hike to hear wind whisper across a wheat field; the big bottles of red wine (at the moment I'm favoring a $9 Mondavi cabernet) you share with eight residents, then the midnight scotch you share with one. But what makes the fun fun is that it is a reward for doing the work. 

A sadness of being here this long is that I've had to say a round of goodbyes to people I really came to know. Once you've been serenaded by Jamie Cat Callan on her concertina, she has your heart forever. But we'll see each other again. 

Tonight I'll read after dinner with Stephen Tapscott, poet and translator, awesome dancer (ass-slap-worthy, I tell you), expert builder of fires, and late-afternoon lunch buddy. At a colony you are in a constant cycle of introducing yourself and talking about your work without actually sharing your work. Time to pull back the curtain. 

On Thursday I'll venture out to Charlotesville, to speak at WriterHouse on "How to Get Your Memoir Out in the World." I'll give a 10-minute reading from Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, followed by a moderated conversation with Sandy Hausman, the Charlottesville bureau chief and editor for Virginia Public Radio. We'll have a frank discussion about developing a proposal and shepherding a book through the gauntlet of agents, editors, and publicists, drawing on my own experiences with DKTBG. WriterHouse is behind the Preston Avenue Bodo's Bagels; the event starts at 7 PM and is free and open to the public. Join us if you can~

January 17, 2012

VCCA (Rhythms)

Wake at 7 AM because of footsteps overhead. Refuse to wake. Wake at 8:32 AM, realize that unless I'm of bed by 8:40 AM, I will miss breakfast. Haul out of bed and into slippers. Slap contacts in. 

If there is fresh oatmeal, go for it it; otherwise the usual breakfast of almonds and a banana, orange juice (ducking back to the fellow's fridge for a pour of my personal stash); either way, two cups of coffee. If they happen to take the coffee back at 8:57 AM without fixing a fresh pot, there will always be someone who dashes in with an empty thermos. There will be a mournful sigh as they settle for leftover decaf. 

Snuggle back under the electric blanket I remembered to bring from last time (thank goodness). Do a round of Facebook, Twitter, email, so the world knows I have not vanished entirely. Work out, and pray no passerby complains about overhearing my Cee Lo Green from under the door. Wander to the studios at 1:30 PM for an intentionally late lunch, because I can't handle the hum & scrum of the conversation. 

Each day I aim to do one practical thing (a query, a manuscript critique, an interview) and one creative thing. I flirt around with the practical, break for tea at 3 PM--a way to bring heat into my studio. The practical thing gets done before the 6 PM dinner hour.  

Dinner: Meet the new fellow arrival, ponder the allergy dangers of the latest house salad dressing (roasted red pepper vinaigrette? yes...cilantro & lime? hmm), navigate the politics of sharing one small bottle of wine among a table of six. 

We talk what we did today, what we'll do tomorrow. Weather. We talk the taxonomy of pears. We talk about crazy grand-aunts we didn't know about until we researched the memoir. We talk New York. We talk Iowa. We echo distant blips of news from the outside world. We talk what we're talking a break from, what we're running toward.

Find another night owl and walk back to the studios. Pour a scotch. Get to real work. Last night, I wrote a poem for an ongoing sequence and--as I push-pinned it to the wall--it formalized a space for another as-yet-unwritten poem. Rhythm sustains rhythm. Working hands you the work you need to do. Is it exotic? No. It's home. 

January 11, 2012

Greetings from Mt. San Angelo

Hiya. So I'm on my second full day at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and while I'll be laying low on the internet in order to work for the rest of the month, I did want to check in.  It's wonderful to be back; it feels like home. 

Outside snapshots will have to wait for a sunnier day, but step inside my studio. I'm in W6, which has been home to many other writers I admire--Richard McCann, Melissa Stein, Leslie Pietrzyk, Eduardo C. Corral, and Meg Kearney (before we go, we sign our names and dates of residency on a paddle by the door). The VCCA staff calls this the "sunken living room" studio--it has a unusual faux foyer--and because I face the main road, I get to see everyone come and go. 

Because the furnishings tend to be a bit ratty and the decor spartan, it's a priority to make it feel like home. This time around my inspiration table holds books of art by Anselm Kiefer, Kara Walker, and Hiroshi Sugimoto; a big beautiful portfolio of photographs called Mississippi: State of Blues; and the graphic novel Cuba: My Revolution, by Inverna Lockpez and my friend Dean Haspiel. The erasure on the windowsill was handmade for me by the poet Hailey Leithauser. I bought that cut-glass decanter at a rusted-out yard sale in Johnstown when I went to my very first art colony, Vermont Studio Center. There is a hunk of coral beside it I picked up when staying in Miami with the LegalArt crew. And the wall is festooned with Penguin book cover postcards (the novelist Dylan Landis gave me a whole box of them for my birthday) and an amazing concert poster designed and screened by DC artist Anthony Dihle. 

And yes, if you look close you can spy horses through my window. They spend all day nuzzling each other. Except when they're kicking at each other.

A critical advantage of coming to an art colony within driving distance is that I can pack all kinds of stuff--including a printer. Having a printer comes in handy...

...when you're push-pinning your entire poetry manuscript (or what exists of it so far) to the wall. It's the best way to explore different sequences, recognize patterns--not just thematic ones but style of last line, shapes on the page--and understand the book as a whole. Plus I like the way the pages flutter when a breeze comes into the room.

Today's late lunch was turkey & mushroom fricasse (leftovers from last night's dinner) ladled over chopped greens. I'm lucky: the chef right now is an integrative nutritionist who cooks with olive oil 99% of the time. People ask what accommodations I request at colonies, and the answer is "the bare minimum." The key for me is clear, reliable information on how something is prepared. If I can eat it, I do; if not, I get a cup of tea and eat back in my room from the supplies I brought. No grumping. No demands. In a crowd of people I'm just getting to know, I don't want every meal to kick off with an explanation of my allergies. I'm here to talk poems. And write a few as well. 

January 05, 2012

On Travel

In case you're wondering: yep, that's me. A photo my sister snapped while on the crest of the sunrise on a very high mountain in Hawaii. I'd foolishly predicted the temperature for my family based on sea level and Oh oh oh, we were freezing at 5 AM.

I've been in the grip of a spate of fellowship applications as of late--to New Hampshire, to Stonington, to Tokyo and Riga--which raises the question of "Um, why?" I am not fleeing a 9-to-5 job, or motherhood. I seem to have stumbled into this vagabond life.

That was never what I intended for this decade. I thought I'd do what most folks (and certainly, my high school girlfriends) do: get married, invest in significant pieces of furniture and fine place settings, have a kid or two. But things happened, and I had to upturn the apple cart and run hollering into a different kind of life.

2012 is going to be a lot like 2011. 2011 put 30,000 miles on my car, so I say that with a certain amount of trepidation. But I am learning how to take it all in: when to push, when to stop, when to crash for 18 minutes in the McDonald's parking lot. When to pay for the fancy sushi and when to skimp on canned sardines in the hotel room. 

During November's Miami trip, I marched a friend through a fancy-ass hotel lobby at midnight (en route to a sublimely ridiculous South Beach poolside lounge) and he said "You seem very comfortable in this world." Nah. I have no natural affinity for skinny jeans and Laboutins, anymore than I'd make a natural Brooklyner. It's not about being comfortable in the world; it's about being mildly uneasy, but proceeding regardless. Always. You arrive. You orient. You risk embarrassment. You plunge.

Growing up, my father's Army commands always took him away from us. Sometimes it was far--Panama, Bosnia, Kuwait--but more often it was within driving distance. When I mention I was a military kid people always assume I was a peripatetic "brat," but the truth is we stayed in proximity to the Pentagon via homes in Virginia, while my dad journeyed on his own. He went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina; to the Civil Affairs command in Pensacola; to Fort Snelling in Minnesota. He went. We stayed. I thought surely that in becoming a poet, I was following a career path very unlike his. So it's funny that I find myself following the same merciless paths of I-95, I-81, I-40.

I travel because I'm strong enough to travel, which is part of proving to myself that I can step into this time of life alone. I travel because I'm crafty and I guess where to find the free microwave access. I travel because though I don't speak many languages, I'm polite and a quick study. I travel because I can stop and appreciate a view. I travel because I'm thirsty (not just for scotch, though that helps). I travel because I'm unsure of myself on some fronts. I travel because I'm damn cocky on other fronts.

When I next check in, it will be from Virginia Center for Creative Arts. A writer's job is to venture. Doesn't have to be measured in geography--I respect inner delving. But for me, for now, I gotta move. 2012: See where I land. Follow along, if you've got time.