We’re on our way to Seaside, Oregon for the first night of the residency. It takes traveling in the car for a good hour before my body really understands that Oregon is a reality. In my heart and mind, I’ve been here for a day – and finally my feet have caught up with that. CF and I make it to Camp 18 [photo], where she enjoys the famous marionberry cobbler and I explain to the new student GW – a poet from New York – that in order to officially “be” in Oregon, he’s got to have someone pump his gas and he’s got to taste the native marionberries.
The building itself is a work of art, the main feature being an 85-foot central supporting timber that is known to be the largest in the United States. It weight 25 tons and holds the frame of the restaurant together. And it is underneath this ancient tree that CF and GW and I eat dinner and through conversation, I learn that GW was invited to the program by MB – the poet laureate of Iowa. I learn also that GW has interview Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, and dozens more of equal caliber. He publishes two literary magazines and writes 10-15 articles a week and yes, I confirm that he is now enrolled as a full time student in the same MFA program that I’m in.
“So, what was Bill Stafford like?” I ask as we leave the restaurant and turn back onto 26 towards the coast.
“Oh, he was magnetic. You were so drawn to him. Like gravity – there was this attraction to his life and his work. And he was an excellent correspondent. He was very calm and quiet and that’s evident in his poems.” GW is soft spoken and I have to learn my head forward between the two fronts seats of the car to understand him fully. “And Bill wrote everyday. He had this belief that if you really wanted to write, you had an obligation to practice that everyday. He committed to that. And he’d often bring his work down to the breakfast table with his kids and wife sitting there and share a new poem. If he passed it around and no one said anything, he put it aside. But if something sparked, if someone had something to say about it, he held onto it. They were his first circle of readers.”
My mind races with nostalgia and eagerness and in 18 more miles, we have reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Check in at the hotel is a series of hugs and kisses, as we everyone reunites for the first time in six months. The new students are there and I make a point to be helpful and friendly – it wasn’t long ago that I was in their shoes and it wasn’t easy.
By 8pm a handful of us are in the hotel bar and KL buys me a glass of wine as we talk shop about freelancing. He wants to get into it, needs some tips. I offer a little but I’m more interested in his creative work, the books he read – and before you know it we’re all comparing notes about our semesters, discussing advisors and oh yeah, you loved T.S. Elliott’s 4 Quartets too? And JB’s Breaking Clean and yeah, that new one by CD and then, and then…
Then it’s hurry upstairs to the hospitality room where everyone is chatting in the hallway and finally, JB and CD have arrived. Then I see PS and MB and more of the faculty and I start to feel that sense of explosion beneath my feet. Amidst so many new ideas and deep craft conversations, I can hardly stay grounded. I want to talk about Alexandra Fuller with JB and she’s read the books, seems all for it – even has some constructive criticism, which leads me to say something like:
“She’s just so good at reaching those fine tuned lyrical moments where language can fall into itself though, you know?”
To which JB nods her head, then points out that “the story did lack the finesse of reflection though.”
But what really strikes me, and almost knocks me over right there in the hallway between rooms 201 and 203, is when JB leans in and says to me, “Yes, I could really tell. I could really see the difference over just one semester’s worth of work. The storyline is present in your work, it’s there. And you have the poetry, that language and sensuality – you don’t need help with that. But your storyline is more refined. That’s what fiction writers can give us and that’s what working with PF was really helpful for, I’m sure.”
I nod, shout a silent yawp of joy inside, smile as wide as that western horizon I’m finally right next too, and say without blushing: “Thank you.”
This is where I’ve gotten to. Noticeable improvement. The ability to accept a craft compliment when I get it. The upfront intellectuality to dig into it at the get go. The support I need to go where I want to go. The friends back home to back me up when the going gets tough. And the friends right here to remind me that this really is my life, that words really can move mountains or at least move hearts, and that someday, maybe, mine will be out there for the world to see.