Guest Post, Heather Altfeld: Assigning Solitude

Heather AltfeldAnother tiresome story in the news this morning about a mother who let her child play out in the family’s backyard and was subsequently reported to both the local police and to Child Protective Services.  For those of you not on the parenting circuit, this is an extreme example of a now-common phenomenon—the expectation that children ought to be treated much like the tiny priceless bell your grandmother brought over from the Old Country, kept close to the nest and dusted off for company.  The danger of a child accidentally strangling themselves with dental floss in the bathroom seems more present than the worry they will skin a knee or break a leg.  For those of you currently embroiled in the household care of small charges, be forewarned—your greatest enemy may not be the random kidnapper (accounting for, incidentally, about 100 children a year, half of whom come home, compared to a whopping 1,100 children a year killed in motor vehicle accidents, usually when you, the parent, are driving) but the proverbial Monsters on Maple Street who police your every move, making sure you haul your kid in the aforementioned car six blocks to soccer practice rather than let them hike it on their own.  So the current prevailing parenting wisdom is this: Do not let your little tadpole out of arm’s reach until they are old enough to rent a car.

Much has been written about the generation of helicopter parents and children of late, centered often around the importance of play, even exposure to nature—several very wonderful books and a few recent articles on Aeon’s website have attested to the value of doing less, of play, the significance of the outdoors, even the importance of boredom.  But these ideas, a reaction to the stubborn impulse to shelter children beyond all experience, remain largely on the fringe for the time being. There is little discussion in parenting literature about the value of solitude.  We love, as a society, to lament the nation’s youth as a veritable wasteland of social media, but we provide little in the way of experiential lone-someness. Solitude, if anything, seems an enemy, something to be avoided, if possible, a harbinger of anxiety and depression.

What does this have to do with writing?

Solitude—the good kind, borne of the quiet pleasantry of one’s own company, not the painful variety, borne of sheer loneliness—seems endangered, a victim of the digital age and the culture of fear.  As does silence, which, Galway Kinnell writes, is the mother of poetry. This is of particular interest to me both as a writer and as a college teacher.  Hailed as supreme in the classroom, collaborative work, so often at the heartbeat of current pedagogy, has its limitations in scope.  The intimacies of writing, the intricate sound of one’s own rhythm, one’s pulse, one’s story, is hard to hear unless you invest in quiet.  For the last decade or so, I have been experimenting with assigning solitude as homework for writing students.  At first the assignment rotated around a social justice curriculum I taught for Academic Writing.  We read, among other works, Atul Gawande’s sharp and timely article called “Hellhole” about the harrowing reality of solitary confinement.  He opens the article by talking about Harry Harlow’s famous experiment with the cloth monkeys, and progresses into a discussion of hostages and the current prison system, in which a staggering 80,000 + people are held in solitary confinement in the United States alone.  It seemed like an interesting idea to have students write essays responding to questions of social justice while experiencing for 1.5 hours a self-imposed version of the confines of quiet, set up in a “cell” of sorts, usually a bathroom, meant to approximate the size of the enclosure of the modern inmate. The conversations afterward—and the writing—were more intense and more engaged than at any other time during the semester.  “The mind,” wrote one student, “is much, much darker when you are alone.”

To provide a counterpoint to this experience, we talk a bit about epiphany, about catharsis.  I can remember my own first experiences with great immediacy; walking to school alone, three miles each way, listening to Cat Stevens on my Walkman, the engine of the universe stopping me to look at new lupine, at the thunderous sky.  I can remember reading James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in eleventh grade and feeling a deep desire—something like hunger—to experience a fragment of life as Stephen Dedalus did, for the caught glimpse of an ankle at the seaside to be a portal to an entirely different world.  While some students are familiar with the experience of awe, many—by their own admission—have been kept so busy for so much of their lives that they have had little time to experience the shock of the self.  Again, the links between epiphany and solitude—a connection with the most ragged, most divine experiences—seems limited, haunted by the preferential treatment of safety, of the known.  As part of this segment of the semester, we read Bill McKibben’s gorgeous introduction to Thoreau’s Walden.  Here is an excerpt of the part I love most:

The idea that we know what we want is palpably false.  We’ve been suckled since birth on an endless elaboration of consumer fantasies, so that it is nearly hopeless for us to figure out what is our and what is the enchanter’s suggestion.  And we keep that spell alive every time we turn on the radio or the television or the net.  Because when someone is whispering in your ear, there’s no way to think your own thoughts or feel your own responses.  The signals that your heart sends you are constant, perhaps, but they’re also low and rumbling and easily jammed by the noise and static of the civilization we’ve lately built.

McKibben goes on to say,

Without silence, solitude, darkness, how can we come to any sense of our true size, our actual relationship with the rest of the world?…What nature provides is scale and context, ways to figure out who and how big we are and what we want.  It provides silence, solitude, darkness: the rarest commodities we know.

To this end, students would spend a (yes, I’ll confess to it, mandated) two hours in the outdoors.  Alone.  We are lucky, I realize, to live in rural Northern California, where a rather safe municipal park, much of it wild, stretches from campus fourteen miles into the foothills of the Sierra.  I cannot substantiate whether or not individuals in fact took their phones or traveled in packs or pairs, but I take it on good faith that, for the time, they were sufficiently intrigued by the prospect of epiphany that most were willing to at least attempt this.  Again, an excerpt:

It was the squirrels and the trees that seemed, for the time being, to be my friends.  I was able to forget my planner, the constant updates of my friends and enjoy the peace of being myself.  I felt entirely free.

I do not know, for certain, if these moments in the outdoors, alone, hold for longer than a day, or a week, the time it takes to finish a semester—or if they intrigued the recipient of solitude sufficiently to invite more.  I do not know if the small joys of silence can ultimately transcend the fear of quiet, if attempting to learn, as McKibben says, a sense of our own true size, will ever be anything but intensely intimidating. I do know that while not every bit of writing, not each poem, must itself contain an epiphany, the experience of composition is about hearing one’s own thoughts above the din, trying to make sense, and even noise of them.

Guest Post, Cortney Davis: Who’s Your Daddy?

Regardless of our life circumstances, we each have a biological mother and father. 50% of our genetic make-up comes from Mom, and 50% comes from Dad. But as writers, we also have another set of “parents.” They may be living, or they may have died decades, even centuries ago. They may come from another country or write in a foreign language. We may not agree with their politics or life choices, nevertheless these other parents influence our lives. They are the poets and writers who have shaped if not our genetic futures, then certainly our creative destinies. These special parents are not simply the writers we admire―they are the writers whose work has turned us inside out, touched our souls, and changed the way we put pen to paper. Often, we recognize our creative parents immediately and instinctively. Sometimes, our connection to them becomes evident only over time.

My poetry “Mom” is Anne Sexton. Although I’d written as a child, I returned to writing seriously as a wife and mother during the decade when feminist and confessional writing flourished. Involved in both undergraduate studies and an ongoing women’s writing workshop, I was taught that nothing in a woman’s life was out of bounds. Suddenly, it was okay to write about our most intimate bodily details, about our psychological struggles, our families’ flaws and our innermost yearnings. Of course, reading Anne Sexton was required. I admired her poetry for its boldness and its craft, but I didn’t recognize her as my poetry mother until a few years later, when I was about to graduate, finally, with a BA in English and a minor in Creative Writing.

It was late, maybe midnight or 1 a.m. My husband and my two children were sleeping, and I was in the family room, curled in a chair, laboring over a poem that wasn’t quite working. I was deep into that space we writers can sometimes enter, that place in which time is meaningless and there seems to be an open conduit between our unconscious mind and our hand. Pausing in my writing, I felt a presence enter the room. It was clearly feminine, and generously approving. It seemed to surround me and―perhaps because in that mysterious space we have access to understandings that elude us otherwise―I knew, in my very marrow, that this presence was Anne Sexton. Then and there, she claimed me.

She’d died by her own hand in 1974, years before this visitation occurred. I was already moving away from purely confessional writing, sensing that some events were better left to memory or exploration in a private journal. And, at that point, Sexton wasn’t even my “favorite” poet. Maybe I’d been half-asleep or dreaming. Regardless, in that encounter, I was infused with a deep recognition. There was, and is, something about her ability to blend the formal with the personal, the way she risks the edge in her poetry, and how her poetic voice is both vulnerable and determined, that captured me. Her presence faded, and I returned to my poem; new, just-right words easily led to a perfect closure. Since then, when my poetic bravery wanes or my poetry becomes too staid, too bland, I return to be nourished by Anne Sexton’s poetic strengths.

Wallace Stevens is my poetry “Dad.” (Imagine that marriage, Anne and Wallace debating the purposes of poetry over dinner!) Again, although I’d read volumes of Steven’s work as an undergraduate, it wasn’t until I was doing graduate work at New York University that I recognized Stevens as my creative father. One of my teachers, Galway Kinnell, required regular memorization of poems. We had to absorb every word, every line break, every punctuation mark, and so be prepared not only to speak our chosen poems, but also to transcribe them perfectly. One week, I chose Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” If you don’t know this poem, find it. Read it. Get lost in it. That’s what I did, and in the process some of Stevens’ poetry DNA became mine. After I recited the poem, Galway Kinnell said, “His rhythms seem to suit you perfectly,” and I could feel it too. It was as if Stevens’ poetic constructions―the placement of his line breaks, the mysterious underbelly of his stanzas―fit into my own creative sensibilities like a final puzzle piece locking into place.

There were other factors too. Stevens had a day job, as I did. His co-workers didn’t know he was a poet, and neither did mine. He embraced a certain privacy and orderliness, evident in his poetry, and yet that order worked to amplify, in a paradoxical way, the secrets and tensions that lived beneath the surface. In “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” Stevens suggests that it’s the misery of not having poetry, of not having something beautiful in your heart, that might be fatal to the human spirit. When my poetic music threatens to fade, or my poems seem too superficial, lacking that lovely “touch of strange,” I return to Stevens, especially to that poem I memorized so long ago.

Maybe you have also discovered your creative parents along the way. Artists too have creative parents, and it’s not unheard of for a writer to have an artist or a sculptor as his or her creative parent. Happily, we can even assemble entire families. Although in reality I’m an only child, my poetry sisters are Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux. My poetry brother is, without a doubt, Henri Cole. My poetry aunt, on my mother’s side, is Louise Glück. My poetry uncle, on my father’s side, is Yehuda Amichai. My favorite poetry cousin is nurse-poet Jeanne Bryner. An eclectic family indeed, but wholly mine. And while I honor them differently than I honor my actual relatives, I return to my creative parents and siblings again and again, for guidance, for reassurance, and simply for the pure pleasure of being in their company.

Guest Blog Post, Dorianne Laux on The Dodge Poetry Festival

Dorianne LauxI had planed to keep a daily journal of my impressions of The Dodge Poetry Festival, but was so tired each night I could hardly keep my eyes open. I don’t know how many people attended this year, though the festival usually draws around 12 to 15 thousand. Thank gawd it’s biennial. I don’t know how they would plan such a massive undertaking without the break of a year between events.

The first time I ever went to the Dodge Poetry Festival I traveled there in a car with my friends, The Grubins: Dave, Joan and their daughter poet Eve Grubin. I was unfamiliar with New York, and so had no idea in what direction we were headed. But soon the city seemed to slip away and when the car stopped and we stepped out, we stood in a dirt parking lot the size of Detroit. I could not believe it. I remember asking Eve, “Every car in this lot is here for poetry?” Yes, she said as she took my astonished hand and lead me to the tents. This was Waterloo: Valhalla for poets. Except we were all alive!

What used to be a circus tent, mud and boots affair, has now moved to the streets of downtown Newark’s Arts District where poetry lovers stroll, fast-walk, or flat out run from one event to another. The day is packed with panels, talks and readings, as well as music and food. Books are for sale by every poet there as well as poets from former festivals. Literally hundreds of thousands of poetry books are stacked in rows 10 deep on the fold out tables, as well as Dodge Fest merch: t-shirts, mugs, baseball hats and jerseys, all with the Dodge logo proudly displayed. One woman I spoke with said that when she filled out her form for the suggestions box, she asked, “Why not scarves?”. It was getting chilly by the end of the fest so I feel sure I would have snagged one.

It’s really too much to take it, or to do justice in so few words. If you are a poet or a reader of poetry, it’s one of those things you must journey to at least once in your life. When I give a poetry reading, I’m still amazed that anyone shows up. Why would you stop watching TV or shut down your computer to go listen to someone read a poem? But they do, in droves. Some buy four-day passes so they won’t miss a word.

The first time I attended the Waterloo Dodge, I was there to listen to poets I revered, like Stanley Kunitz, Lucille Clifton, Gerald Stern, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Stephen Dunn, C.K. Williams, as well as newer poets I’d come to love Li-Young Lee, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland. Nothing prepared me for the sound of 3000 people settling into folding chairs as Stanely Kunitz began his slow walk across the stage. When he reached the microphone, the sudden quiet was so loud I could hear the tent top high above us billowing in the breeze. And as he spoke, the silence grew around his voice, the poem knitting itself into the air. When it was over, the silence sat a moment longer, still and close, and then the applause rose up to fill the void like sudden light through tall windows.

The other moment among the many moments I’ll never forget was when Marie introduced me to Stanley before the reading. I was shy, worried about what to say. I was shocked that the body that housed this great voice was so thin and fragile, and when he stood up I wanted to say no, don’t. But his eyes shone and he gripped my hand in his and planted a soft sweet kiss on my cheek. I blushed like a girl. For days, I did not wash my face.