After six glorious weeks in Asheville, we spent six days back in Little Rock, which was just enough time to see friends, figure out how to pack the suitcase equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife (three months of touring from the citified streets of New York to the dunes of Provincetown to the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico will require many costume changes), and celebrate a new age of marriage equality–both in our kitchen and somewhat more publicly on The Oxford American‘s website. Then it was back on the road, this time headed to Sewanee, TN, to serve on the faculty of the Sewanee Young Writers Conference.
Located on the Cumberland Plateau, just south of Nashville, Sewanee has an interesting history. In the 1800s, school was in session during the summer, where the school’s higher elevation and accompanying cooler temperatures offered the monied set’s aspiring heirs a respite from malaria, yellow fever, and cholera. Fortunately for me in 2015, its woods, many of them lush old-growth forests, are ringed by a twenty-mile perimeter trail, which I’ve been exploring section-by-section; though the near-daily rain means I’ve been running less on trails than through shallow riverbeds, flanked by flotillas of alien-appearing mushrooms–red behemoths like beached crabs, buttermilk flattops like a cache of silver dollar pancakes, and miniature clusters of pumpkin-orange fungal bouquets.
Nick and I each have a workshop of ten high schoolers and we’ve been trying out parallel teaching–giving them roughly the same readings, writing exercises, and assignments, and comparing notes to see where we can both learn from and bolster the others’ approach.
The underlying theme of our workshops is awareness. We began with Nickole’s wonderful exercise of using ostranenie, the defamiliarization of overly familiar objects, as a way into to truly experiencing the world we most often take for granted; in concrete terms, our students spent a couple of hours looking at, listening to, smelling, tasting, and feeling an apple (for details, check out her guest post on Write All the Words).
What I’ve found I love most about working with this age group is that they’re up to try pretty much anything. Realizing their abilities to recognize and describe the visual far outstripped their other senses, I took them to a meditation labyrinth and had them take turns leading each other through it with their eyes closed, noting how differently they experience the world when sight doesn’t first impose its primacy.
They also happily explored the University Farm, first researching either chickens, goats, or bees to both inform their time there and to see how they might take something from the natural world and, by exploring it as a metaphor, use it as a back door into writing about personal material that might otherwise be difficult for them to approach in their poems.
We read Lia Purpura’s fantastic essay “Against Gunmetal” about the need to find fresh language instead of relying on cliches, especially when describing ubiquitous things like the sky, then happily tromped to a nearby cemetery (happily, because what Harold & Maude-loving teenager doesn’t relish getting poetic beside a tombstone?) where each student selected their own grave site and wrote a letter to its inhabitant describing that day’s particular sky.
And tonight, midway through the conference, they turned in their poems to be workshopped. Nickole and I were thrilled to see how early drafts had grown into moving, surprising poems in which the students allowed themselves to risk both clarity and emotion, to step out from behind grand abstractions and impenetrable images and be truly present on the page. We saw them using their poems to ask hard questions and then explore possible answers–or to try and accept that such answers are not always knowable. It made me not just remember how much I love teaching, but what poetry can really do for us as both writers and readers.