Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Northwest Inland Writing Project Summer Writing Retreat: Day 3

Day 1
Day 2
Days 4-5

Our third workshop opened splendidly with several members of our group reading their experiments with being lenient.Deep wishes, strong dreams, and wistful tinges of regret surfaced. Our retreat’s inner beauty took shape: those sharing their writing were unconstrained as was the atmosphere of support and respect.

From my perspective, the retreat was moving into a realm of experience deeper than simply getting some writing done. The retreat was becoming spiritual. Not only the spirit of trust, but the spirit of creativity, innovation, experimentation, and exploration pervaded the room. Writers reading freed up other writers to write more bravely. Our retreat’s inner beauty was taking shape.

When, as a teacher, I lay out principles of writing, I know they are also principles of teaching. I have to be authentic. I must be awake and receptive. I’ve got to let it rip. My instruction cannot just be cerebral: it must be located in the body.

In positing the idea of leniency as a central ethic of writing, I was also, implicitly, establishing an ethic central to my work as a teacher (or a visiting writer). In all my years of studying and acting Shakespeare, again and again and again what impresses me most deeply is his generosity. Shakespeare endows character after character after character with a full range of human traits and in all of them, no matter how unlikeable, Shakespeare creates at least a teaspoon of humaneness or at least a sliver of something that moves us to feel some sympathy or empathy with them all.

So, on Day 3, I felt an obligation to deepen our collective understanding of and experience with leniency and, above all, generosity.

When Robert Grudin, in his book On Dialogue, digs deeply into the idea of copia, he opens to door, to those who will enter, into the joy and generosity of thinking and writing about a subject as fully as possible.

The most helpful image in Grudin’s reflections upon copia is when he suggest that the mind is like a prism and when a single thought or idea or image comes, like a single beam of light, into the prism of the mind, the thought or idea or image refracts into countless other ideas or images or thoughts. If, for example, I put the single idea of my newly born granddaughter Olivia through the prism of copia, the idea of Olivia breaks into everything that she stands for in our family’s life: joy, new life, obligations, hospital fees, unprecedented responsibilities, crib, diapers, high chair, nourishment, nurture, beauty, anxiety, clothes, unity, exhaustion, vulnerability, strength, and on and on. One cannot exhaust an idea as full of life as Olivia and to even begin to arrive at the truth of her new life requires a form of thinking that is generous, full of vitality, and at ease with infinitude: such a mode of thought is copia.

In other words, Day 3 of our retreat focused on expanding. Expanding possibilities. Expanding thinking. Expanding feeling. Expanding consciousness. It was about mindfully becoming more generous as a writer.

Together we looked at a poem by George Bilgere. It’s “The Table” and in it you can see how he copiously and generously explores the man dimensions of a family dining table, even as helps to destroy it:

The Table

I’m helping my brother-in-law
Knock apart an old table
By the tool shed, a table they’ve loaded
With planting pots and fertilizer bags
For years, until a decade outside
In wind and rain has done it in,
And suddenly, as in a myth
Or fairytale when the son
Recognizes his lost father under the rags
Of an old beggar, I realize
It’s the kitchen table of our childhood,
Where my mother and my two sisters and I
Regathered and regrouped inside
A new house in a new state
After the divorce, where at the end

Of every day
We talked about our day,
Practicing our first fictions
Over pork chops and mashed potatoes
When mom had a job, or fish sticks
Or fried Spam, or chicken pot pies
When she didn’t.
Where we dyed
Our Easter eggs, and played through
Rainy days of Scrabble.
Where I sweated over algebra
And German verbs, and our mother
Would drink a bottle of wine
And lay her head down and weep
Over everything, terrifying us
Into fits of good behavior,
Of cleaning and vacuuming, until
She snapped out of it,
As if nothing had happened
And made it up to us
By doing something crazy,
Like making pancakes for supper.

The table where my uncle
Got me drunk for the first time
And where I sat down for dinner
For the last time with my grandmother.
The table where my sister
Announced she was pregnant.
Where I said that, on the whole, Canada
Looked a lot better than Vietnam.
Where the four of us warmed ourselves
At the fire of family talk.

Plain brown table of a thousand meals.

I’m starting to sweat now, the hammer
Overmatched by iron-grained walnut
Bolted at the joists. It takes a wrench
And crowbar to finally break it down
To a splintered skeleton, to the wreckage
Of an old table, built
When things were meant to last,
Like a hardcover book, or a cathedral,
Or a family. We stack up what’s left
For firewood, and call it a day.

George Bilgere

The prompt that grew out of this poem was simple, but would inspire beautiful work: it was to look at a family table or some other item and copiously explore that item’s (or that place’s) many aspects, its copious dimensions.

On Day 4, the workshop opened with another beautifully copious poem, Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses”:

She Had Some Horses

byJoy Harjo

She had some horses.

She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
She had horses who were fur and teeth.
She had horses who were clay and would break.
She had horses who were splintered red cliff.

She had some horses.

She had horses with long, pointed breasts.
She had horses with full, brown thighs.
She had horses who laughed too much.
She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses.
She had horses who licked razor blades.

She had some horses.

She had horses who danced in their mothers' arms.
She had horses who thought they were the sun and their bodies shone and burned like stars.
She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon.
She had horses who were much too shy, and kept quiet in stalls of their own making.

She had some horses.

She had horses who liked Creek Stomp Dance songs.
She had horses who cried in their beer.
She had horses who spit at male queens who made them afraid of themselves.
She had horses who said they weren't afraid.
She had horses who lied.
She had horses who told the truth, who were stripped bare of their tongues.

She had some horses.

She had horses who called themselves, "horse."
She had horses who called themselves, "spirit." and kept their voices secret and to themselves.
She had horses who had no names.
She had horses who had books of names.

She had some horses.

She had horses who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.
She had horses who screamed out of fear of the silence, who carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.
She had horses who waited for destruction.
She had horses who waited for resurrection.

She had some horses.

She had horses who got down on their knees for any savior.
She had horses who thought their high price had saved them.
She had horses who tried to save her, who climbed in her bed at night and prayed as they raped her.

She had some horses.

She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.

These were the same horses.

No comments: