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No pictures today, but I’m posting a poem I wrote—yes, sometimes I write along with my students—during a weekend writing workshop at Tygart Lake State Park, November 8-10. We were a group of nine writers, and we had a great time. Not to mention good food and a nice hike in the woods. I hope some new folks will join me next spring or fall at Tygart Lake State Park.

The prompt that elicited this poem was one I have often used with very young writers: “Write a poem to anyone or anything: your dirty sneakers, your alarm clock, your great-great-grandfather, your dog, your big toe. Address the subject of the poem as if it were here with you and could hear you.” We often talk about the reasons for writing such a poem: you might want to say something to someone who’s gone, express a long overdue thank-you, or complain about someone or something anonymously. Writing a poem of direct address is the equivalent of writing a letter that goes unsent…unless, of course, you write it to a real person and send it to them. In the case of this poem, I decided to give a copy to my doctor, who seemed to find it amusing.

To My Intestines

Looped and wound about within me,
what a patient friend you’ve been.
Since those first few months of mother’s milk
you have accepted what I sent you,
masticated but hardly masked:
donuts and coffee, Junior Whoppers,
foods of every color and culture
from fiery Asian curries to noodle kugel.
Once, for fourteen diet-driven days,
nothing but GrapeNuts and fat-free yogurt.
Once, a quart jar of dill pickles.

I think of you hardly ever,
disregard the way you go about your business
mostly (not always) in silence, in darkness.
No breaks, no vacations, and few
complaints about being the one
who always has to do the dirty work,
whose groans of labor are the butt of jokes.

I saw a picture of you once, after
the indignity of a colonoscopy.
I’ll tell you, and it’s true:
I thought you were beautiful,
a sinewy channel of pink, not unlike
the coral coilings of a slot canyon
I traveled though in Arizona.
O secret and circuitous tunnel,
O pipeline winding through my flesh and bone,
O necessary viscera,
I honor you.

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ImageI love this picture of Irene McKinney enjoying an evening with other writers at the Aurora Project Fall Writers Retreat a few years ago. Irene loved the idea of the Aurora Project—a residency program for artists, where they have time and space to create, free from distractions. She generously donated her own time toward making the Aurora vision a reality, even while she was battling the cancer that took her from us in February of this year.

“I remember going to MacDowell Colony after four hard years of graduate school and teaching in a prison in Salt Lake City, and weeping in gratitude when they brought my lunchbox to my studio door,” she told me in an e-mail message. “I sat there in that quiet place looking out at the pines and feeling: someone thinks what I do is valuable enough to take care of me for a while.”

The Aurora Project Fall Writers Retreat takes place this year November 1-4. If you have attended a past retreat, you know what a wonderful weekend this will be: time to work on your own creative endeavor, fellowship with other writers in the evenings, beautiful surroundings, and wonderful food. Someone taking care of you for a while.

In past years we have invited a well-known writer to join us and give a public reading. Irene was our guest three years ago. Maggie Anderson and Anita Skeen have also been featured. This year we’re devoting that public evening to the poems of Irene McKinney. Everyone who attends the retreat will be invited to share, in a reading open to the general public, one of their favorite Irene McKinney poems.

For more information and a registration form, e-mail info@auroraproject.org.

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It’s the middle of a hot, hot summer in West Virginia, which makes me long for autumn. And I cannot even imagine autumn without a trip to my other favorite place, New Mexico. Again this year, if the fates allow, I will be teaching a weeklong class at Ghost Ranch. The title of the class is “KISS: Keep It Short & Shapely,” and it’s a week of writing short essays, this year from October 7 to 13. We’ll hear some wonderful essays, mine our own beliefs and experiences for inspiration, write amazing essays, and then make them even better by editing them.

Year after year, the quality of writing in this class thrills me. Part of that, I think, has to do with the atmosphere at Ghost Ranch. There’s space and time and a special camaraderie here that encourages one to open up, take risks, and work at a higher level. It’s a gift we give one another and one that can remain long after the class has ended.

So…meet me at Ghost Ranch. Sign up for the class at http://www.ghostranch.org. Quick instructions: Go to the menu for “Courses and Retreats,” choose “Online Catalog,” and then search by my name or the week, October 7-13. (Sorry about the complicated  procedure, but their website won’t allow me to link directly to the page.)

Hope to see you in October!

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writers at the 2010 Aurora Project Fall Writers Retreat

Writers at the 2010 Aurora Project Fall Writers' Retreat

I think it was about this time of year in 2007 when I first got to know Michele Mouré-Reeves, whom I consider the guiding goddess of the Aurora Project, soon to be West Virginia’s first and only full-time artists’ residency program. Earlier that year, I had been blessed with a three-month stay at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico; for the first time, I really appreciated the value of the gift of time and space to work on one’s own art or refresh one’s own spirit.

Hard to believe, but Michele and I have collaborated on spring and fall writers’ retreats ever since, in the process becoming friends and learning to write grants together, among other things. The most recent retreat, in early November, featured a special guest, poet Maggie Anderson. Maggie’s public reading, on the Saturday evening of the four-day retreat, inspired me. So did her encouragement for the Aurora Project board and friends. As the founding director of the Wick Poetry Program and chapbook series, Maggie had valuable advice to share, but it was her enthusiasm, more than anything, that will keep me going.

It’s no small project to start a residency program. It’s even more challenging when there’s not a big endowment, when the funding must be raised bit by bit, and when the economy takes a nose-dive halfway through the process. It has been ten years since Michele and her board launched the Aurora Project, and the progress toward renovating the cottages that will eventually house artists and studios has been slow. But it has continued. Each time I visit, something new has been accomplished: a roof repaired, porch railings added, furniture acquired.

And I have to believe that the writing retreats play a role. I have to believe that each of the writers who come, spring and fall, to enjoy a restorative weekend at Aurora go home inspired, refreshed, and ready to spread the word about this wonderful vision.

The next Aurora Project Writers’ Retreat is planned for May 5-8, 2011. Writers, put it on your calendars.

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This is a typical morning sky at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. That flat-topped mountain on the left is Pedernal, one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite painting subjects. Needless to say, this landscape is still among the most inspiring, and not only for painters.

Each October, for the past few years, I have had the privilege and joy to lead a workshop at Ghost Ranch. It’s happening again this year, from October 10-16. “Read-Aloud Writing: Shapely Short Essays” is the title of the workshop, and that’s what we’ll be writing: short, shapely pieces that are meant to be read aloud. The class meets every morning for a week, and afternoons are free for writing, hiking, thinking, visiting with new friends.

And, each October, I am amazed by the quality of writing that emerges. There’s something magical about the camaraderie at Ghost Ranch, the awesome landscape, the collaborative process, and perhaps the students’ willingness to revise, revise, and revise some more.

Last fall, in fact, I thought that some of the essays my class wrote were so good that, when someone suggested publishing a chapbook, I agreed to edit it. The resulting booklet, published by Village Books Press (Cheyenne, OK), turned out beautifully, as you can see:

The fine cover photography (and Photoshopping) are the work of one of the class members, William Graustein, who also took this picture of our group:

Can you tell that we bonded? I can’t speak for the students, but I would have to say that this one of my all-time-favorite experiences as a workshop leader. I won’t promise a chapbook every year (in fact, it WAS a lot of work), but I do promise you’ll meet some fine people and do some writing of which you can be proud.

There’s something about Ghost Ranch. If you have a yearning to write short essays, to spend a week with a congenial group of fellow writers, and to experience the place that has inspired Georgia O’Keeffe and so many other people, I hope you’ll check out the Ghost Ranch website and search for “Read-Aloud Writing.”

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Misty morning in Cathedral State Park

For the past few days, I have been in one of my favorite West Virginia places, the town of Aurora, attending the third Aurora Spring Writers’ Retreat. Once again, I have enjoyed several luxurious days in which to be renewed by solitude and nature, nourished by gourmet meals, and energized by the company of several other writers. At these retreats, we are on our own for most of the daylight hours, except for mealtimes. In the evenings, we are more social, and usually give informal readings.

After a few sunny days, the weather has turned cloudy, and today I have been walking in mist and (sometimes) rain. Somehow the wet weather made Cathedral State Park even more beautiful. Within the past couple of days, many jack-in-the-pulpits have sprung up. Here’s a look at three that are just unfurling themselves. I love the way their leaves are folded, almost like origami:

Cathedral State Park is very small, but it’s one of just a few places in the state where the huge hemlocks have never been timbered. That’s how the park got its name, from the huge trees that resemble the supporting columns in a cathedral. It’s a very small park; in less than two hours, you can walk every single trail in the park, crossing this little creek quite a few times in the process.

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Aurora Again!

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Once again, I’m spending a long weekend in Aurora, where Michele Moure-Reeves and her Aurora Project board are working on creating West Virginia’s first full-time artist retreat center. Each time I visit, there’s progress. And each time I learn something new about this small town and its fascinating history as a resort community and a 1920’s artists’ community. Soon it will again be a place for artists to come and live. For an overview of Aurora and the Aurora Project, please read the article I wrote for Wonderful West Virginia earlier this year.

This weekend, about a dozen writers are gathered here for a short-term retreat. During the daylight hours, we are free to work on our own writing, hike in nearby Cathedral State Forest, or just relax at Brookside Inn, our “headquarters” for the retreat. Last night, before and after a wonderful dinner, we listened to selections of each other’s writing. This evening we will have a real treat: a reading by West Virginia’s poet laureate, Irene McKinney. And, if the aromas coming from the kitchen and permeating the whole inn are any indication, the reading will be preceded by another fabulous meal.

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