I’m a big advocate of writers’ conferences…I’ve always returned home exhausted and inspired, with a load of signed books I’m dying to read and a group of fun, new writers I’ll promise I’ll keep in touch with—and actually do. My writing has taken dramatic, exciting turns because of workshops and teachers I’ve encountered in that intense environment. So, I offer this guest post by poet Sandra Beasley (author of Theories of Falling, selected by Marie Howe as the winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize). She’s writing from the Sewanee Writers' Conference (which I’ve attended twice). Reading her postcard made me intensely envious (in a good way), and I suspect that I won’t be the only one to have this reaction:
Postcard from the Maelstrom: The 2008 Sewanee Writers’ Conference
By Sandra Beasley
Greetings from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I am attending this year's Sewanee Writers’ Conference. The campus is modeled on Oxford: sturdy but graceful academic buildings surfaced in rough, crumpled stone. A cathedral with a huge rose window; a cemetery where you can find the graves of poet Allen Tate and Father Flye of the James Agee letters. There are also some smaller bungalows with clapboard siding--Stirling Coffee House, where I like to go and hide out among the "normal" people here for the Music Camp, and the French House, where scholars, fellows and faculty gather most evenings for a later round of drinks and conversation. It's a small town, just a couple of stoplights and a market where most of the goods are canned. There's a Piggly-Wiggly in Monteagle. They sell t-shirts pronouncing, to the world, that you have been to the Piggly-Wiggly in Monteagle.
There's a definite Anglican atmosphere on campus, including the presence of a significant Theological seminary. Though it turns out that official mascot is the Tigers, I spent the first week hoping it was the Sewanee Angels (the "fighting" angels) because of their frequent appearances on bumpers, tote bags and neckties. There's a lovely walk down Tennessee Avenue that culminates in a 40-foot-tall cross, floodlit and looking out over the larger valley. I'm not a religious soul but I like the walk because of the luna moths, dozens of them, that are drawn to the looming white stone. There's a lot of wildlife here: a snapping turtle that lives by the coffeeshop, placid deer, curious bunnies, and great big beetles with black and gold-green carapaces. The citified writers are fascinated with the wildlife; the many writers from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky are fascinated by the cityfolk fascinated by the wildlife.
This conference is big, bigger than I had realized coming in. 18 faculty members, 19 Fellows, perhaps 120 people total with the Scholars and Contributors. They have us housed in three dorms, and I admit to being partial to mine, Humphreys, with its army of rocking chairs out front. One of the poems I read last Tuesday, "Vocation," uses this line: "All I want to do is sit on a veranda while a hard rain falls around me" Well, I've done that here. One of the other dorms, Benedict, is like a dingy Courtyard by Marriott--or Melrose Place without the pool. That's a snarky thing to say, and I admit I may just be jealous of their ownership of the lone ping-pong table.
I am here as a Fellow, a distinction--and full financial coverage--granted on the grounds of having my first book out. Upon arriving and meeting one Scholar whose book is coming out with Alice James, another who won the Bakeless Prize, another whose book is already out with Milkweed, I quickly realized it was a meaningless distinction in terms of talent. There's a bit of the inevitable grumbling about social divides, but I think people genuinely make an effort to support all events regardless of the reader's "tier." Sometimes the limits we come up against are driven by time and need for sleep, not lack of interest; I feel bad about missing the open mics, but I also have to worry about preparing to meet with those same poets for manuscript conferences. Some of the faculty members I've noticed to be particularly good at attending everything--even the staff readings at the ungodly hour of 9 AM, even the readings outside their genre--are Jill McCorkle, Margot Livesey, Andrew Hudgins and his wife Erin McGraw, and Mark Jarman. And Wyatt Prunty--good lord, Wyatt attends everything! And is always first in line with a welcoming comment afterwards. He reminds me of one of those hardy, mysterious bromeliad plants able to live on air alone.
A typical day's schedule is: 8-9 AM breakfast, 9 and 10 AM readings and panels, an 11 AM craft talk, lunch at 12:30, 1:45 PM workshops (each meets every other day, so there is theoretically "open" time embedded here), 4:15 faculty reading, 5:30 reception (sometimes a lavish spread, sometimes BYOB), dinner at 6:45, another big faculty reading at 8:15, receptions or open mics or socializing at the French House afterwards. This schedule rolls right through the weekend. Sometimes there are hikes at 7 AM. Whew, right? And you thought AWP was relentless! AWP is for sissies. We are Sewanee Writers, and we have livers of steel. And guts of--well, rapidly expanding guts. Theoretically the meals are supposed to be nutritionally balanced, and even themed according to different ethnic cuisines each day. But unless chips and guacamole have some pan-ethnic value I'm unaware of, there's a lot of default junk food. People feel guilty skipping meals because they want to be social; but in being social we're all eating, eating, eating to pace ourselves through conversations. Breakfast is the only thing I feel truly free to skip, after a disastrous attempt at slathering the South's version of a bagel (which had the consistency of WonderBread) with peanut butter (which was as sweet as CrackerJack and as smooth as toothpaste). Lunch is an endless variation on the salad bar--beets, beans, and limp greens. Sigh. I've heard the word "detox" used a half-dozen times in the past day alone.
While on the subject of detox: yes, there is drinking at Sewanee. In my case, a flask of scotch or, when they are available, a bloody mary (the staff makes a mean bloody mary). Coolers of Miller Lite and carafes of icy, sweet white wine are put out at the reading receptions starting from 5:30 on. But there actually isn't much to be seen in terms of drunkenness, and I haven't caught any embarrassing conversations fueled by alcohol. Perhaps it is because much of the faculty returns each year--there is institutional memory, a desire to not blackball oneself for down the road--or perhaps it is because of all the 9 and 10 AM events, but it's a remarkably moderate atmosphere, happily buzzed and no more than that. Of course, "moderate" is relative. A 1:30 AM turning-in is average. Being in bed before midnight is positively saintly.
The highlights? The drive down with Jehanne Dubrow, which held the deepest and most personal conversations I'll have in my time here. Mark Strand's craft lecture on Wallace Stevens. Claudia Emerson's reading, with Kent chiming in on his guitar at the end. The Fellows' readings--having an audience of 120 as the first reader on the first day, in my case--and terrific sets by Michael Dumanis, Eric McHenry, Dave Roby (a playwright who literally kicked his own ass! on stage!), and Jason Ockert (fiction), to name a few that stick out in my mind. Eric McHenry is my "fellow Fellow" in workshop with Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser. If there is anyone I would want to team-teach with in my own workshop someday, it would be Eric. If you look at us on the page, we're coming from different aesthetics, but we both value humor and modesty in tone, and our comments dovetail nicely in the classroom. He's just about as damn smart and quirky a guy as you'll ever meet. The staff is also wonderful; I hope everyone is paying as much attention to them as I do. Kevin Wilson is one of the best short story writers here, period, Juliana Gray is one of the funniest people here, period, and Carrie Jerrell's first collection of poems--whenever it finally breaks into print--will break big. When I first arrived I had a note in my registration packet regarding my food allergies (a big challenge here in this land o'liquid margarine) from Erica Dawson. Is Erica in charge of food service? Yes. You know what she also is? The 2006 winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Do NOT underestimate the staff.
The biggest surprise of the conference, for me, is the intensity of its formalist focus--not just in the older generation of teachers, but in the younger generation of students. I should have guessed it from the roster of poetry faculty, but perhaps I'm too used to thinking of West Chester as "the" formalist conference. When George Core of The Sewanee Review spoke on an editor's panel, he was explicit in seeking formal work; he derided the "casual" quality of much of today's poetry. I've heard from a few of the fiction fellows that there is a similar conservatism on the fiction side--an implicit favoring of traditional narrative styles. As a former student of Henry Taylor, and currently nursing a side-project of sestinas, I'm not a total fish out of water. But it has taken some getting used to. I can't remember my last workshop with so much discussion of spondees and quatrain choice and headless lines. But Aaron Baker, another fellow and another former UVA student, made a really good point: the terms for formal discussion can be quickly agreed upon in this limited time of a conference workshop, whereas the groundwork for a really meaningful dialogue on free verse has to be built over a long familiarity with each other's work. "Otherwise," he said, "it's just one big group therapy session." I think he has a point--I've seen most students happily come away with discrete feedback and grist for revision, and my ear is now better-tuned to the metrical finesse the sestinas have been missing. But a few students have slipped through the cracks; their poems needed to be interrogated with more "why," and less "how." Something to think about if I ever turn to teaching, which this conference (and this is a compliment to the conference) has me thinking I might do. Someday. Maybe. Eventually.
That's the scoop, at least until tomorrow--when I plan to commit a trio of scandals involving nudity, fireworks, and the otherwise innocent bystander of Jill McCorkle. Pity I'll have already sent my postcard out to you all, but so it goes. A conference must keep some of its secrets...
About: Sandra Beasley won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize for her book Theories of Falling, selected by Marie Howe. Recent work has appeared in SLATE, The Believer, AGNI online, and The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. Awards for her poetry include the 2008 Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, and VCCA. She is an editor for The American Scholar in Washington, D.C. Her website is at www.sandrabeasley.com; she also has a "Chicks Dig Poetry" blog at www.sbeasley.blogspot.com
For more information about the conference (it’s never too early to plan for next year!), please go here.