Monday, July 26, 2010

Sewanee Writer's Conference 2010

Here is a letter I sent the Professors who wrote me recommends. Thought it summed up the experience so I'd share it rather than try to repeat the entire thing for those who've been asking: "How'd it go."

Dear (Hollins Folks)

First of all, thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to write recommends to Sewanee for me. I’m sure that had a lot to do with my being awarded the Tennessee Williams Scholarship. Secondly, I thought you might like to hear how it went so I wanted to share with you a few things about my experience, which was completely amazing and life altering. I was in a writing workshop directed by Robert Hass and Claudia Emerson. (I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even KNOW Robert Hass or anything about his work before I was accepted into the workshop!)

Also in the workshop were some really first-rate poets. A “goose-bump” moment came when my workshop team-mate, Beth Bachman (an emerging poet who won 2008 Donald Hall prize for her first book Temper) gave a reading. She mentioned that the very book she was holding in her hand had its genesis in the workshops she attended when she was a scholar at Sewanee the previous year. I hope this is not annoying, but I do want to share at least one more class member. They were all remarkable poets, but Jehanne Dubrow made quite an impression on me also. She has three books of poetry out and has also won several awards (her latest book is Stateside and it’s amazing.) So, now you kinda get a glimpse of the quality of work I was surrounded with. Needless to say I arrived on campus and felt as if I were, in this company, something between a garden gnome and a gnat.

The craft lectures were probably one of my favorite things to attend. Jill McCorkle and Padget Powell gave talks about writing which about cooked my brain. In a good way, I mean. Powell spent the first ten minutes of his talk going around in circles and explaining why a talk about craft was simply ridiculous. Which, when one is giving a talk about craft one would think one shouldn’t call one’s own talk ridiculous, but who knows? It seemed to work and turned out to be not quite as ridiculous as he had insisted it was even though he began by saying: “My Jesus wears a pink panther suit” and I’m not sure any context will help you out when considering whatever subtext about exposition he might be implying there.

McCorkle likened the act of writing and revision to the internal parts of the body. My favorite comparison was that of the large intestine to “editor.” Also the statement “we will never be as smart as our subconscious,” made me really stop and think, and then after I stopped to think I realized I had to think about stopping to think or maybe it was exactly the opposite…I had to stop thinking about what I was going to be thinking. Or I had to stop thinking. Or something like that.

It was around this time my brain started to obtain the consistency of oatmeal.

Although I think I loved every minute, the first workshop was rough as the first poem I’d selected (The Bookbinding Lesson…I’m not sure if that was one I wrote in any of y’alls workshop or not…) anyway…no one quite got why I juxtaposed bookmaking terminology with average descriptions of a girl walking in the snow. Many in the entire class seemed befuddled and in some cases…annoyed.

So, I wandered back to the dorm after workshop. (Got lost on the way.) Wandered around until I found the way…went to my room…which luckily was easy enough to find. Cried. Felt really good and sorry for myself. Felt closer to gnat size than gnome size for a while. Then, I got myself up and got over it. Moved on. ..

A few really remarkable people I should mention meeting are David Yezzi, (New Criterion) David Barber (Atlanta Monthly) and Don Share (Poetry.) David and David sat on either side of me on the couch during one of the after parties and took turns playing a guitar and singing. In the midst of breaks from the singing (No, I didn’t sing.) we talked. We discussed the ghost of Emily and the future of publishing. Not sure what one subject has to do with the other but somehow it all made sense. (And no, we were none of us sloshed. Or not completely sloshed anyway.)

This is probably going on a bit too long at this point…with (as my children like to say) TMI.

Moving on…okay, I should probably share the most humbling and yet uplifting experiences at the same time *helped me get over the gnat feeling anyway and move beyond gnomish also.* Anyway, the second poem I picked to workshop was called Loom(ing). When Hass gave his craft lecture “The Roots of Being” (which was brilliant) he had the crowd literally singing at the end…anyway, I digress, back to the point…(he somehow managed to show how rhythm and poetry are genetically related. As in…poetry is not IN the genes…it IS the genes…) I don’t know how he did it, but he did…wait, I digress again.

What was I saying? “Rhythm, out of what music does it spring forth?” OH! Yeah, he was talking about this and (a lot more) then he expressed the thought that poems could usually fall into one of two forms: liturgy or lament.
He quoted (from memory) some passages which expounded the idea of rhythm/form as “lament”
(which I did not write down quickly enough so unfortunately I can’t remember.)
THEN! *knock your socks off moment coming, hold on to them…* All right, maybe not so much for you then, for me…I’ll hold on to mine. This still blows me away.

To give an example of a form of liturgy he read my second workshop poem!
I mean, what? I turned to the girl who was sitting next to me whose face and name I no longer remember and I said. “Holy shit. Robert Hass is reading my poem.”
I wasn’t sure what to do with my face. I think it had fallen completely off.
I have to say that again. Pardon me. I hope this doesn’t seem gloating or crass but, Holy Shit. Robert Hass read my poem in a craft lecture.

AND Here’s where I must remark on the excellent teaching at Hollins and how without all of you, well I simply would never had been able to say *third time* Holy shit. Robert Hass read my poem. Aloud. In front of like, people.
  (TJ Anderson III, Richard Dillard, Cathryn Hankla, Pauline Kaldas, Thorpe Moeckel  and Jeanne Larsen!) How could I forget Jeanne of the Manchu Palaces, Jeanne of the Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon, Jeanne of the Adv. Studies in Poetry class who had her students create the "Poem without Words"

What’s next? I don’t know. Hass invited me to check out Squaw Valley? I think it is. I know I definitely want to do this writer conference type of thing again!

Speer Morgan, editor of Missouri Review apparently saw me read. He’s invited me to submit a partial manuscript to his magazine.

And…that’s all I can think of.

I’m so glad to be home, but so grateful, humbled, overwhelmed…to have had this experience so I guess I should say this again. THANK YOU. Please give my love to everyone in Swan. Well, give my love but not in a literal way, unless it is a hug, and then you can be literal when you give love from me to everyone.


PS I DID sing some bluegrass with Claudia and Kent. (Just one song.) I also did a ten second clog routine with her outside the library.

PSS *you are sworn to secrecy on this one.* Jenny Sheridan Pecoraro came to visit me. I took her on a tour of the campus. We went to the library. I got us lost in the basement of the library. I found a long hallway leading to what seemed the only way out of the basement of the library. Neither Jenny nor I noticed the note on the door which read, quite plainly:
Alarm WILL sound if you open the door.

Jenny then gave me this very, very good advice. Which I shall never ever forget.

“If you run, you look guilty.”


  1. Aww! That's so awesome! It sounds like you had a great time!

  2. you are the best at sharing. holy shite times three is v necessary and am glad you had both that experience and also the experience of how to do the innocent walk.

    glad you went, but glad to have you back.

  3. Melanie, I left you the Versatile Blogger Award on my blog. I hope you'll be back to Valley Writers soon. We've missed you at the meetings in July. Plus, thank you for having your blog. I'm learning so much about poetry on it. :)

  4. Thanks Cherie and Sherry!

    Good to be back...gonna try to get back into the swing of things here with blogging and attending writer's group. Thanks also for the "Versatile" blogger award, very sweet of you!



    I've really missed reading your posts and hope to spend some time catching up.

  5. Hi Melanie,
    Thanks for the note on my site about Sewanee! I can't believe that was your poem Hass read in his lecture! Very exciting. I worked with Christine Schutt and Padget Powell -- a really interesting and intense workshop. I really love how Christine thinks and talks about language -- how you should try to make it wild and interesting, and also about motifs -- she kept talking about "using your objects," looking back toward the beginning of your piece to see what you've already started to obsess over, and then turn those things, darken those things as you move forward. It was an amazing couple of weeks. Very overwhelming, but I miss a lot about it already. Also, now that I'm home, it feels like time to get back to work!

  6. Thanks Jessica,

    The Powell workshop was one that I'd heard about, was General Powell or Colonial Powell that he referred to himself as? I'd met Christine at Hollins she was the visiting writer there the year I graduated, what an amazing writer...and just an all around wonderful person. Her readings at Sewanee had me choking back the tears. Powell is brilliant no doubt, and a writer could learn a lot from him. He has a way of cutting right through the ego to get to the point, which although painful at times does seem to be a needed thing.

    Thanks! Good luck on your journey!