I had the opportunity recently to attend a retreat deep in the Cherokee National Forest. Three others and I gave readings, offered lessons, invoked our favorite poets, and made dinners--passed the watermelon bowl and bean salad while we talked about process, failures, joys.
Advice my friend Charity gave me before I went: "Don't be hard on yourself if you don't complete much. Carry a notebook. It can be a small notebook. It can be a large notebook. And record the things you see." Referring to herself as a raccoon at our previous favorite writerly spot--the Blue Moose Cafe, with our carrot cake and pomegranate iced tea--Charity is a poet who collects.
I found my experience to be a little different. Of course, I didn't reach my goals but rather let the week be what it wanted to become (just as I do with poems): we hiked the waterfalls trail over blue neon beetles and stones of those muted greens, grays, reds. We patted our sweating faces with the cool mountain stream. We swam in Indian Boundary Lake, remarked how indigo the water was, paused at the inlets to let personal conversations strike the deepest chord.
This is the beauty of being-somewhere-else. The routine trails of everyday are physically different. The handmade quilt on the bed. The intermittently shrieking locusts at night. The honey-swirled hornets' nest kept just at bay by the window. Someone else's dinner--avocado over lettuce, black bean and sweet potato enchiladas, store-bought red velvet.
Charity, maybe, I was collecting... I felt my way through writing in a different place than usual. The other-than is so important, after the fact. I sat on the porch swing, watched the tops of the firs and oaks sway, swatted a bug or two from my notebook, and wrote here. The downstairs dining chairs that each had a different painter--"I Never Met a Chocolate I Didn't Like," pink swirly flowers, a desert sunrise scene, etc.--made their way into my work. The new subject matter ballooned my usual content--love, loss, loneliness (is that every poet's usual?) as I wrote and wrote.
Importantly, we had conversations that will last the year. Each writer contributed an exercise that deepened my perspective of the craft. We "chanted the flowers off the wall," an exercise from Practices in Poetry, by each repeating a word over and over to the woods--whisper, cloud, orange, thunder. We interrupted each other's stories and rerouted them, forcing the teller to recuperate with a lie--"that's right, I didn't adopt a dog; it was a cat," "that's right, I wasn't coming from my sick mother's house, I was coming from the laundromat."
We wandered through a Longenbach essay on King Lear's speech. (On reading poetry aloud to the self: "a composer turns to the piano not to discover the melody but to confirm it.") Poems teach us to read slower. When we do not, we are not really listening.
On the final day, at the picnic table by the bathrooms with the obscenely loud hand dryers, we wrote about ideals vs. realities and how to maintain compassion for the self through the disagreement. M recounted a story in which a man broke the hotdog eating record by about 30 hotdogs, he said, because he didn't know the real goal. Because he didn't place limits, he didn't see a destination but just ate and ate. There is a good last-day lesson there--write, enjoy, trust.