March 24, 2017

From the Hermitage Artist Retreat

I am on my penultimate day of five weeks at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Manasota Key. The house that is the heart of the Hermitage space is over a century old; if you stand in the right spot you can see the Gulf out of one window, and the bay out of  another. I've overlapped with a drummer, a novelist, a composer, a photographer, a clarinetist, two playwrights, and a visual artist who is working on a memoir. 

Residencies are a chance to flex your wingspan. No one is pressuring you to get dressed, eat, or sleep at a certain hour. You might go a week without driving a car. The point isn't to take a break from working; the point is to privilege work you care about, that might live beyond you as art. If you're like me, you sit down with a piece of paper and literally reinvent what a day can look like.

I came down to Florida to work on my next nonfiction book. I came down here with an idea. But it was the long beach walks that gave me a title, solidified the outline, and fueled the drafting of opening chapters. The funny thing about an "idea" for nonfiction is that it's like an egg; perfect in concept. But you have to expose the inherent fragilities in your idea in order to overcome them. Here, the egg has been cracked. The real work begins.

Because I'm in the midst of writing nonfiction, I've been feasting on nonfiction. These are the books I read or re-read while I was here...

  • On Looking: Essays, by Lia Purport
  • Tell Me If You're Lying: Essays, by Sarah Sweeney
  • Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro
  • All Grown Up: A Novel, by Jami Attenberg
  • Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, by Elizabeth Winder
  • I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman
  • Self-Portrait with Dogwood, by Christopher Merrill
  • This is Running for Your Life: Essays, by Michelle Orange
  • Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System, by Sonya Huber
  • Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, by Sarah Manguso
  • The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, by Richard Blanco
  • Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere But Here, by Angela Palm

In particular, I've been thinking a lot about the variegated ways one can construct longform creative nonfiction. Several of these books very delicately tread the line between essays and memoir. One factor is the brevity or lyricism of the chapters at hand; another is the decision to recycle key narrative moments or factual contexts from one essay to the next.

In addition to book-work, I served as the Annette Dignam Writer in Residence to the State Colleges of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF). I took over seven classes taught by four different professors, and I gave a reading. My final event was spending an hour with the "Swampscribes" (the creative writing club), talking about persona poetry. 

On one hand, using exercises and readings I've used before is key to making this a privilege rather than a burden. On the other hand, I like being spurred to create new lessons, and I came up with one on public speaking that I will use going forward. We talked about eye contact, projection, and defining your "batter's box"; we looked at how to annotate a text for emphasis, interpretation, and dramatic pause. 

Though this wasn't a literature course, I wanted to bring poetry to the table. So I de-lineated and made anonymous poems by William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton, in order to give us "raw texts" for discussion (revealing, only at the end, their actual forms and authors), During a partnering exercise, I got to circulate and listen to the music of four students--four corners of the classroom--each simultaneously delivering Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

SCF has graduated 47,000 students in the sixty+ years it has been open. They have four campuses and the Venice campus is cozy and bright, with a nature preserve at the edge. Each day I took ten minutes to walk the perimeter, listening to birds and looking for alligators. They were to be found--and one time, a little too close to my toes for comfort. 

Back at home, there has been snow falling on bewildered cherry blossoms. Here, we had a tornado on a Monday night, which took out power to the lower half of the island; many afternoons get windy. But my sun-loving heart has been lightened by being here. I've taken over two hundred photos. I'll share a few with you here. 

The first night, you do a lot of standing around and gawking
View from my writing desk at the Hermitage House
Dolphins accompanied us on our bayside boat ride
Collaborative art: Amanda Marchand's Lumen Project
Resident Andy Biskin on clarinet 
An hour's worth of hunting for shark teeth
Trespassing pelican outside the Whitney House
An unusually moody sunset
Expedition to the Ringling Circus Museum
A detail of the "Howard Bros Circus" model...
...modeled on the Ringling Bros Circus...
...which Howard C. Tibbals spent his life completing
Into the "Pathless Woods"
Ghost of the girl who just ran through

Another girl running through
Central silence, and then out again
Courtyard of the Ringing Museum of Art
Michelangelo's David: Sarasota edition
Scotch with two rocks, please
Field trip to the Selby Botanic Gardens
I need more bromeliads in my life
Marc Chagall-inspired stained glass throughout

Orchids, orchids everywhere
Thursday afternoon in March
Thursday afternoon in March--just ten minutes later

Time to go home. But I'll be dreaming about this place for months to come.

DC folks, see you soon! I'll be hosting a National Poetry Month celebration at the Arts Club of Washington on Tuesday, April 4--with two featured readers, Claudia Cortese and Francisco Aragon, plus an open mic. Angela Maria Spring will be on hand to talk about Duende District, a new bookstore initiative that will emphasize multicultural literary community.  7 PM start time, doors opening at 6:30 PM for the open mic sign-ups; free and open to the public. Full details are on the Facebook event page