Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sleeping with Lowell Nesbitt

I’ve just returned from my January poetry road trip. I grew up in a family with a penchant for traditions. It seemed if we did anything two years running, on, say, Christmas Eve, it became an annual practice for us and I’ve continued to roll the same way as an adult. So, even though there are excellent festivals and conferences for writers during the other eleven months, trips in January to study with poets has been my tradition for four years now. This year my imperturbable 2005 Buick LeSabre and I drove to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, for the Blue Flower Arts Winter Writers Conference at The Atlantic Center for the Arts. (Lots of capital letters needed for that sentence, eh?)
Marjorie's writing table

On the way, (sort of) I stayed at a B&B in Micanopy for two nights. I’d been off B&B’s for awhile. I suppose I became weary of gimcracks. This one, Herlong Mansion, is on the National Registry of Historic Places and is, more importantly, only a few minutes away from Cross Creek State Park, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ farm. (I’m not going to be bothered by capital letters from here on. They can appear, or not, as they will.) I had a chilly morning at the farm, saw the small table on which the author wrote The Yearling, her nonfiction books, and her astounding short stories, (try “Jacob’s Ladder”) saw the tiny guest room and the single bed that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maxwell Perkins, Robert Frost, Gregory Peck and lord knows who else slept on, picked tangerines, with the park ranger’s permission, (frost was on its way) soaked up as much of Marjorie’s aura as I could, and in the afternoon meandered through a few antique shops in the tiny, no stoplight town of Micanopy, the oldest inland town in Florida. At the Mansion I had the Carriage House and there was a huge jacuzzi tub smack dab in the same room as the bed! There was a separate bathroom, too, but man, I got a charge out of taking my bath “out in the open” like that. I forgave the B&B its furbelows because Caroline West, the owner, was so delightful. And she liked my poetry.
Cross Creek: Camillias and kitchen garden

The Atlantic Center for the Arts is stunning. The exteriors of the buildings are rustic and smooth themselves into the setting of palmetto, pine, and exquisite quiet without a single jarring note, but within them are state of the art facilities for musicians, visual artists, dancers, writers, and artists-who-work-with-electronics (how does one say that more efficiently, one wonders?) Each participant has a room of her/his own, with a bath, lots of places to put things away, a long desk, enough plugs, good WiFi, and big windows that open and that look onto the green, green, green expanse of the Center’s park. Nice. I was in the Lowell Nesbitt (he was an early Artist-in-Residence) room all week. His photograph hung opposite my bed and he watched me, with approval I thought, as I wrote, drank tea, and slept.

Everyone eats together. Everyone. I was shy on the first night and then I forgot about it. Richard Blanco, my workshop leader, and I had most of our meals together. There were always others at our table, of course, but we shared his attention amiably. The poets met in the library every morning for five days and we worked hard and we laughed a lot, too. I can see myself becoming a Richard Blanco groupie. You know, following him around from reading to reading, conference to conference. Maybe he would take me on as a Tia Nonnie, and I could learn to cook him arroz con pollo ( or something) at a moment’s notice or staple his teacher’s packets together for him. I could become a whiz with printers, even irritating, impossible to get along with, slow as mud printers. I’d do those things for him, because he was so generous to me and to the other fine, funny, interesting poets in my workshop.
Talking while eating

Working in the Library
Me and Richard Blanco!

In the intelligently designed, intimate,“black box” theater, Mark Doty, (Memoir workshop) Pam Houston, (Fiction) and Richard (I can call him Richard, now) gave readings in the evening. Jeffrey Shotts, the edtior from Greywolf Press gave a talk here called “The Art of Rejection,” and despite the title of his talk he was engaging and supportive both in the theater and later when he and I had a private consultation.The audience for these readings and Jeffrey’s talk was small each night, mostly the thirty or so participants, but each of them behaved as if they were sharing their writing and thoughts at Lincoln Center. Awesome, giving, devoted professionals gave us their best and I’ll never forget it.
Open Mic Night

So. I had a good time. I even got to spend a couple of evenings with my brother, Robert, who flew down from Philly, and Cormac, a friend I’ve had since I was three and who lives in New Smyrna Beach with his wife, Lovely Nancy. My Buick and I got a bit lost on the way home to Panama City Beach, but we’re used to doing that and were not upset, and when we did get home, three cats and a little dog who live inside the house and the six backyard cats were as happy to see me as I was to see them. My brother/housemate Drago got home from work a couple of hours later bearing Chinese take-out. I enjoy my road trips, but I am so grateful that I also enjoy getting home as much as I do. This has not always been the case with me and it is not the case for too many people. With poetry, pets, a trusty Buick, loving brothers, cousins, and friends, I know I have it good. I’m a lucky duck swimming around on a small pond that suits me and I’m amazed at how well things are working out for me. “Appreciate” has become one of my favorite verbs.

"Big Bend" (near Appalachacola)