Moss Wood Writing Retreat 2019

Two years ago I did something for myself that was so far outside of my self-care comfort zone it changed me: I attended a writing retreat. That’s right, I left my family for the better part of a week and went to Maine to focus entirely on writing. While I was there, I realized that I hadn’t done anything so expansive to nurture my creative self in…well, way too many years. Definitely not since before I had my own family, and maybe not even then.

Last month, I went back.

The Moss Wood Retreats on Penobscot Bay in Maine are a gift to writers. Run by director and author Patricia McMahon, this experience gives you the chance to escape from whatever nightmarish summer weather you’ve been experiencing and settle in with a handful of other authors and just focus on your craft for several days. Two years ago I attended a workshop led by Gregory Maguire, which was glorious, but this year’s retreat, led by poet Josh Kalscheur and Patricia herself, was really different and completely fulfilling. Patricia has moved to a generative format, which means that the bulk of the group sessions focus on the generation of new material.

So most mornings we would have four writing exercises which included excellent prompts and then writing time, followed by voluntary sharing. In the afternoons we were on our own and could work on the pieces we’d written that morning; in the evenings during our after-dinner salons, we would share what we’d worked on, if we wanted to, as well as other poems that we found meaningful or enlivening. I also found time outside of these, including at night in my room before I went to sleep, to work on my own other projects if I wished. (I’ve been editing one of my novels this summer.)

I can honestly say this year’s retreat might have been the most productive week of writing I’ve had in a really long time. Aside from the novel work I did on my own solitary time, I wrote so much poetry. Possibly eight or ten of the poems I produced that week will turn into something publishable.

One of the fun exercises we did over the course of the week was to produce a collection of centos. At its simplest, a cento is a type of found poem in which all the lines come from other places. So every person at the retreat anonymously contributed a page of their writing, either a poem or a page of prose. We then browsed these pages and harvested from them lines we particularly liked and then fashioned those seemingly random lines into new poems. We shared these on our last evening together, and the centos were all so very different in scope and tone and subject! They were also delightful; I really loved finding out which fragments resonated with everyone. Here is my poem:

Moss Wood Cento
            Moss Wood Writing Retreat, 2019

Carnivals always start the same way:
three boys, three sharp-rocked beginnings
grabbing clandestine hand-holds;
spirits of slain warriors speaking from open mouths;
a tarantula stabbed with a stick;
the occasional hint of cabaret music.
Between the border of yellow birch and
the far shore of rockbound pine,
the tether of some other-than-temporal sea
pulls and pulls with the urgency of future demands
on the boy-man stashed behind the garage,
dreadful poverty and sadness floating across his face,
a grunt-crank biscuit in one hand and
a two hundred-year-old scroll in the other.
The memory of children’s cotton candied fingers
keeps his brusque demeanor at arm’s length.
He works in the negative, his pattern
a mystery to me, but a crease between the bridge
of his nose and his eyebrows is the absence
of sailboats long since stored for the winter.
Will we learn something by the weight of them?
He and I will never be young enough
again to think that friends don’t die.
You can keep your emptiness;
all I hear is sirens and defiance,
loud as a burst of gunfire through ghosts.
I’ve stopped believing in magic.
We are all dodging death,
scattered, secluded, incidents of light.

The phrase “two hundred-year-old scroll” is from one of my novels, a work in progress, but everything else in this poem came from the other nine people’s fragments. I offer my sincere thanks to all of them for their contributions to my poem.

Late on the last night of the retreat, a bunch of us new friends put on temporary Sherlock tattoos as a lark. (Mine read, “I never guess.”) Then around midnight, when three of us in the upstairs bedrooms were still awake and packing for our departures the next day, some spontaneous slumber party fun broke out. Two of the other ladies decided they wanted to see how long my hair really was and flat-ironed it for me. We squealed like adolescents as we did each other’s hair and helped each other pick out the clothes we would be wearing to travel in the next day — clothes we would wear home to Houston, to Louisiana, to Scotland. We shared pictures of our families from our phones and promised to write. And to write and to write and to write.

 

If I could, I would attend this retreat every year. It happens in early June, so if it sounds like something you would benefit from, put it on your calendar now. And if you want to hear more about this retreat and its marvelous director, Patricia McMahon, I’ll be interviewing her tonight on the LivingArt show on KPFT; the show begins at 6 p.m. central time.

While you’re waiting for that to happen, please enjoy these lovely photos of the landscape I looked at every day I was there.

This is the view of the bay from the screened-in porch where we had a lot of our morning group sessions.

 

The sun setting on this distant, unused lighthouse pretends to set it on fire. (The faint lines are from the window screen.)

 

Here’s the view from one side of my bedroom this year. (The faint lines are from the window screen.)

On the Radio Again…

So if you’ve been around here for long, you know that I am occasionally a guest on the LivingArt show on KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica radio station. Two weeks ago my cousin Justin and I were interviewed about our poetry, and tonight I had the chance to be a co-host on the show. I interviewed Anthony Suber, who is a visual artist and art teacher here in Houston; he has also been showing his paintings and sculptures for a long time — including internationally. He does fantastic work, sometimes multi-media, and engages really thoughtfully with culture and current social issues through his art. It’s excellent stuff, and he’s excellent, too.

If you’d like to hear the broadcasts, it will be up in the archives for a few more weeks. Click on April 25th to hear Justin and me, and click on May 9th for the interview with Anthony.

Living Art

And watch this space: I just might start co-hosting there now and then. It’s fun and — surprisingly — not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. I’m grateful to Bucky Rea and Mike McGuire and Mike Woodson for the opportunity to be a part of it!

Poem-A-Day: Um…Me :)

Tonight my cousin Justin and I were interviewed on KPFT’s LivingArt show — which was super fun, by the way — to talk about poetry and our respective books. If you missed hearing us live, you can click here and listen to the archive for April 25th and hear the whole show (which included several other poets, too, including Fady Joudah, who will have a poem in this series as well) for a few more weeks.

Since I have a new book of poems out, I wanted to share one of those with you as part of the series this year. This is from The Sharp Edges of Water (Odeon Press).

New Love in Dead Cornfields

Memories quicken my pulse
when I think of how we strode
through the funhouse of artists and thinkers
that year the corn didn’t grow.
They beat out rain-dances on the walls
with paintbrushes, charcoal, and empty-paged books
while we marched past each closed door
and every muffled prayer. The mirrors
were hung with towels as if death
had taken everyone by surprise, and even
the writers couldn’t figure out how to cope
with this dry spell.

I felt old and familiar when you led me
out the back door and onto the rows of plowed dirt.
The tall joys of sitting cross-legged
in those hesitant, sown fields of fecund not-yets
were our thrown-to-the-sun discoveries,
the most ineffectual revelations
on a most ineffectual harvest.
We made a gift of feeling
in this pursuit of strained giving,
begging the ground for food
and from each other, our stare-eyed patience.

The craze of collecting surprises,
one kernel in each pocket and a
love-letter in your shirt,
started to involve the very dirt and sky,
and the haunting, used principles
of withholding, withdrawing, and retreat
shrieked and screamed the wild west of our planting
until I said, No more, and it was back,
back, back to the east, and your tender verve died, too.

***

You don’t really need a biography of me, do you? If you really want one, click here.

author with journals, photo by Lauren Volness

Otherwise, let me tell you about this book. It’s a collection of stories as much as a series of poems. In it, the characters swerve between the rain-drenched, tree-lined, concrete plains of Houston and the voluptuous, dynamic terrain of Los Angeles. They face multiple realities, and though they’re earnestly grounded, they sometimes swim in the waters of magic realism. Their story is both relatable and a little bit surreal.

And here’s some advance praise for The Sharp Edges of Water:

“For Jamail, loss is the fecund territory complicated by the travails of geographic movement, emotional upheaval, and cultural dissonance and where the poetry sings its best.” — Sarah Cortez, Vanishing Points: Poems and Photographs of Texas Roadside Memorials (editor and contributor)

The Sharp Edges of Water is a collection of superbly crafted poems…poems of faith and freeways, of lies and longing. Angélique sees the details of Los Angeles and love, with a necessity of details we locals have forgotten. As the title implies, you might get wet reading them. Wear appropriate clothing.” — Rick Lupert, author of Beautiful Mistakes and God Wrestler, creator of http://www.PoetrySuperHighway.com

Poem-A-Day: Justin Jamail

My cousin Justin is in town this week from New Jersey, and we’re going to be interviewed together on the radio tomorrow evening (Thursday) on the LivingArt program on KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica radio station. The show starts at 6:00 and goes for an hour, though I don’t know what time our segment will be. If you can’t hear it live, you can hear it later for a while on their website. I hope you can tune in; the show is always lots of fun.

Here tonight is one of the poems from Justin’s book, Exchangeable Bonds, which came out last year from Hanging Loose Press.

Four Negronis in Singapore

When one thinks that recorded human history
has taken not more than seven or eight weeks,
and that even our sun, though an immense ball
of party talk, is a pygmy beside most of the furniture,
the figures of remotely viewed people begin to dwarf
this country’s houses into comparative insignificance.
The farthest source of commentary
that can be seen with the naked eye
this afternoon is a faint splotch
available in a few university libraries
so far away that its import takes a million
episodes to traverse the intervening glasses
of cool relief and fan-conditioned conquests.

***

photo by Amber Reed

Justin Jamail is the author of Exchangeable Bonds (2018, Hanging Loose Press) and has published poems and commentary in many journals and online publications. He is the General Counsel of The New York Botanical Garden. He studied poetry at Columbia University and the UMass Amherst MFA program. He grew up in Houston, TX and now lives in Montclair, NJ.

Radio Silence (Actually, Let’s Hope Not!)

Normally I like to post a little more often during the summer months, but I have been neck-deep in poetry revisions for my new book coming out later this fall. (More details on that later!)

And this evening I’m going to be co-hosting the LivingArt program on KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica station, from 6:00-7:00 (Houston time). If you’re here in the city, it’s 90.1 FM. If you’re looking for it online, click this link.

I cannot deny that I’m (probably ridiculously) nervous about this radio appearance — far more so than for any other radio spot I’ve done before. So send some good vibes this way, please. Our guests this evening are the very excellent John Hovig and Adam Holt, and I know they’ll be great.

Catch you on the other side of my editor’s duedate for this book of poems, my friends. And I can’t wait to tell you more about it!

A Few Things Happening in Author-land This Week

You might have seen the post earlier this week about my essay “Making The Better World” being published over at Femmeliterate. There are two other exciting things afoot over here as well.

Tonight is my first radio appearance. I’ll be interviewed on the Living Arts program on KPFT (90.1 FM if you’re in Houston). It’s an hour-long program beginning at 6:00 local time, and they usually have more than one artist per program, so I’m not sure how long my segment will be or when during the hour it will happen. I will try very hard not to sound like an idiot once they place a microphone in front of me. (Can you tell I’m slightly nervous? I’m also pretty excited about it.)

This Saturday evening I and usual suspect Adam Holt will be sharing a space at the Sawyer Yards Arts Market, selling books and cards. It’s the final evening show of the year (because in Houston it’s too hot during the day to do something like this during the summer), and the show lasts 6:00-10:00. There will be food trucks, live music, and art everywhere you look! The event is free, as is the parking. Find out more about the event here.

That’s about all the news that’s fit to print for the time being. Thank you, as ever, for your support.