Home Again at Malabar: Early Autumn OPA workshop

When the Ohio Poetry Association contacted me to lead a weekend poetry workshop in the fall at Malabar Farm, I was reminded of the 1990s, teaching a course in "Ohio Literature" for 18 years, hauling van loads of my college students to experience what Louis Bromfield was writing about in The Farm. This would be a ramble down memory lane and a test of my ability to lead a workshop for the first time since coming home four years ago.

I chose the topic of "Poetry of Place," for  this locale which holds such place-iness in my heart, as does Ohio, the heart of it all, as we used to say on a license plate. Too, I could have the materials close at hand in my latest book of poetry, The Places We Find Ourselves. I began by gathering quotes on place and then on a new workshop, not just a canned lesson but something to fit this time and, um, place. I have posted the quotes, an outline of my presentation and some of the examples in my next blog, but here I leave my personal narrative of this wonderful weekend and praise for OPA.

FRIDAY -  I came a day early, meeting up with writers Judith Crandell and  Cathy Essinger, and we headed off to dinner at the Malabar Farm Restaurant, one of Bromfield's dreams
Gina worked hard all weekend
that came to fruition only after his death. My very favorite restaurant in central Ohio. The three of us ate and drank into the evening, then headed back to the Malabar hostel, along with other early arrivals, Grace Curtis, Gina Tabassso, Robin Mullett, and the hostel host and OPA member Mark Sebastian Jordan. 

In the Malabar Hostel, I slept the sleep of good wine and food and air, to rise next morning and walk with Judith and Cathy up Mt. Jeez, named after one of Bromfield's staff climbed the hill the first time and exclaimed, "Jeez!" at the top, viewing five counties, particularly spectacular in October leaf season.

SATURDAY - Throughout the day, the rest of the writers drifted in: Mela Kircher, OPA Secretary Susann Moeller, Alan Mathos, Laura Grace Weldon, the mother-daughter team of Karen and Alexandra Scott, my dear former UF colleague, Carole Elchert, my OAC-AIE colleagues Wendy McVickers and Debra Conner, two Oberlinites Christa Champion and Nancy Boutilier, Patricia Black from Athens, OPA Prez Chuck Salmons and OPA VP Mark Hersman.

We all gathered around for an amazing potluck. Really, outside church ladies and my Kendig relatives, no one cooks as well as poets: three huge pots of rich soups, both meaty and vegetarian, two kinds of chicken, many salads and deviled eggs, cookies and treats and wine. There was LOTS of great talk in the kitchen all weekend.
Chuck, Wendy, and Debra
Doh! Eating again

Nancy, Robin, Rhinda, Mark
And then, we got down to work, squeezing ourselves in and around the living room of the hostel, spilling out into the hallway. First I asked poets to brainstorm a list of places significant to them-- not important places necessarily (remember Rita Dove's exercise in place titled "Your Grandmother's Kitchen") but personally sigificant, even if general, like Wordsworth's "London 1802." Then after hearing me blather about types and examples, we each drafted a poem focusing on ONE place using ONE method to explore it: description, the name itself, the scene going on there.

I myself seldom get anything on a first draft , but I invited readings of drafts and was amazed by what I was hearing, really good starts, even starts, middles, and finishes. Days later, I can recall Susann's lines about parachuting, Karen's pointing out places in Columbus to her daughter, Patricia's socio-linguist (or was he psycho-?), Mark Jordan's start set in L.A.

And then, I introduced nesting rhymes. Some people took to it like poets to word play, while others, as though tin-earred, went off and formed a new exciting word play we called "The Malabar Pod"-- taking a long word and unpacking and using it and its parts. We also decided to throw in "sight rhyme," which I love as the shape of a nesting poem has been one of my additions and visuals are visuals, as they were to the 17th century metaphysicals like George Herbert who used nesting rhyme.

And then, we all went to bed... I mean, no one did, and some went outside to a big outdoor campfire, or, as we say now, fire pit, where, stuffed from dinner still, we never dreamed of eating-- I mean, we uh, broke out the hot dogs and S'mores, and I have Mark Hersman to thank for serving me the first S'more I have ever had. And then as one by one people drifted off to bed, I, who am usually asleep by 10 p.m., stayed up till 2:00 talking and griping about poetry publishing and reading and readings and writings and zzzzzzz.....

SUNDAY- An early riser, I had time to walk with one of my favorite walkers and photographers (and, as I always note, friend of the Dalai Lama, because she is) Carole Elchert. I went back up Mt. Jeez with her, and then, for the first time this weekend, we hiked up to the cemetery, which I have always loved for Bromfield's tombstone, which has the opening lines of Bryant's "Thanatopsis:"

TO HIM who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language

I had pointed that out to my students dozens of times and never noticed the passage Bromfield must have chosen for the tomb of his wife, who died before him. Right there, to the left of the poem I had pointed out so often, I was blown away by this passage from the Song of Solomon I do not recall from the cemetery nor my reading:

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.

I was so glad to have finally seen what I had missed so often before, looking at what I already knew and not what I needed to learn. Carole and I hiked two more paths, got lost, got found, and returned to the hostel

Nancy, Christa, (Mark J) Wendy, Susann
After an incredible breakfast prepared by OPA Membership Chair and Mansfield poet Rinda Samson, we headed back to the living room for two more hours of workshopping. First announcements. Actually first, we remembered Jennifer Bosveld by hearing her poem, "The Mastadons Are Dancing." (Thanks to Ann Lederer for finding it for me.) Then on to business: upcoming workshops, Senate Bill 84 (to have an Ohio poet Laureate) and a pitch for buying Ohio Poetry. In the group, there were several poets with books: Laura Weldon, Grace Curtis, Mela Kircher, Nancy Boutilier.  

 And so I began the morning with two of these poets, Nancy's perfect poem for the gorgeous sun we were experiencing, if not a California sun, "Why I Love Mornings," and the opening poem from The Shape of a Box by Grace Curtis, "Wordsplay," splaying and playing being what I hoped we would do with the nesting rhymes. Then I introduced the fourth type of place poem and asked the poets to take their draft from the night before and add a second place to it OR to write a draft that juxtaposed two new places. I had James Wright's "To a Cicada" (Ohio and Italy) and my "Unearthing a Path" (Findlay and Oberlin). And away we went! Mark Sebastian Jordan killed the assignment by writing a draft that did all that and included deep echoes from Sherwood Anderson's biography, an amazing poem I hope to see in print somewhere soon.
Me, Patricia, Grace C., Judith
And THEN, the group got both silly and serious with the nesting form and with our new Malabar form. I think I can safely say that Christa Champion definitely gets nesting rhyme, and I look forward to 50 of her poems in this form. In the category of silly (and sexy), I'd name Judith Crandell's poem and in the category of serious, Mark Hersman produced, whole cloth, a moving account of his brother's return from serving in the Middle East.  His is another of the weekend's poems that some good poetry publication needs. As soon as we began, our two hours were over.

And then we began packing up, jockeying our cars, heading off. As I packed, I thought again of what an incredible experience the OPA creates here and what a bargain. The Ohio Poetry Association holds these workshops at Malabar twice a year. (Robert Miltner is workshop leader for May, and he is terrific). The cost is $35, and if you want to add a night on the front as I did, it's another $15 for a total of $50, a price so astoundingly low as to be unfathomable. Most weekend retreats like this cost at least three if not four times as much in places almost this beautiful, few with such a long-standing history of writerly happenings compounded with famous weddings, cemetery, their very own ghosts, wagons tours, rich soil...

It had been a weekend much like the weekends that E.B. White chronicles in his very long poem, "Malabar Farm," just a quatrain of it here:

Stuff being planted and stuff being written,
Fields growing lush that were once unfitten.
Bromfield land, whether low or high land
Has more going on than Coney Island. 

Certainly what is planted at Malabar these days, as in Bromfield's day, is more than just the feedcorn still standing in the fields. It includes friendships and camaraderie, healthy calories and campfire. And that stuff being written? Some of the best around. I wish I could keep it a secret, but really, every poet deserves a weekend at the OPA Malabar Writers Retreat.

No comments:

Post a Comment