Writing in a Roofless Church

This is how my husband explained my trip to New Harmony, IN to his sister: “Yeah, she’s going to this place in the southern part of the state where there was this religious cult…”

Rest assured, friends, I’m back and I did not join a cult. I did spend a week in the small town of New Harmony sleeping in a bunk bed, wandering around in the rain and writing. I did a lot of writing. This opportunity to stage my own mini-retreat came in the guise of chaperoning a group of twenty some honors students for their “domestic travel study,” a requirement for their degree.

New Harmony is a fascinating place, and while I’m not going to get into the history here in this post, because it is long and convoluted and really odd, you should totally spend some time there if you ever get the chance. The way I explained it to my parents was, the Harmonists started off in Pennsylvania waiting for Jesus. He didn’t show up, so they moved to Indiana. He didn’t show up there either, so they went back to Pennsylvania, at which point they all died out because they believed in celibacy. The result is this beautiful, bucolic, kinda creepy little town in southern Indiana that was restored starting in the 1970s. Obviously there’s more to it, but you get the idea.

On Wednesday morning I took my students to a series of spots around town and we read some poetry: “Sleeping in the Forest,” by Mary Oliver, “Water Picture,” by May Swenson & “Bringing Things Back from the Woods” by David Shumate (to name a few). One of the places we visited was called the Roofless Church, and when I scouted locations for possible poetry drafting, this place seemed perfect.

The church is essentially a large, open area courtyard and it is roofless because the benefactor, Jane Blaffer Owen and the architect, Phillip Johnson, decided that “only one roof—the sky—can encompass all worshipping humanity.” The space is primarily dominated by a dome that “was built in the form of an inverted rosebud, tying it to the New Harmony Community of Equals, whose symbol was the rose.”

The students and I talked craft for about fifteen minutes and then I sent them off on their own for about twenty minutes to see what they could come up with on their own. It’s important to stress we were just free writing, so I encouraged them to write about whatever they wanted as long as it had something to do with our surroundings. We repeated this process at two other locations and then shared some of what we wrote.

I was so taken by the roofless church that I went back the following morning and wrote for two hours. By the end of my time, I had the sketch of a poem and by the time we left New Harmony on Friday afternoon, I had a full draft. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but I’m a notoriously slow writer, so the speed at which this poem came to me made me happy. I worked on the piece a bit more this afternoon and I’m really liking it so far.

The moral of the story? Apparently traveling to once strange, utopian communities can be be good for the creative mind. Of course, it could be the simpler idea that a change in scene and some time to think is usually a good thing.






Poetry Summer Reading List Book #2: Confluence

Book: Confluence 

Poet: Sandra Marchetti

Publisher/Date: Sundress Publications, 2015

Why I bought the book: I became familiar with Sandy’s work through a FB group I’m part of and then was lucky enough to meet her at AWP. I attended the panel she was a member of and then was able to meet her face to face while she was signing books at the book fair. Sandy is a lovely person and an intelligent, talented poet. She also has a beautiful voice. If you get a chance to hear her read her work, you should definitely check it out.

What I admire about this collection: For me, reading Confluence, feels like slipping into a beautiful, loved piece of clothing. These poems are carefully crafted artifacts that examine memory, emotion and experience through a unique lens but at the same time there is something wonderfully familiar about the way that the poems come together. The pbookoems that take on domestic tasks like washing the dishes or eating lunch or walking through a room are some of my favorites in the collection because while they are interesting and lyrical and new in language and line, they are also subjects that I relate to and write about. In other words, reading this book was like finding my tribe. It’s similar to how I felt when I read Elizabeth Bishop for the first time. Incidentally, the epigraph for Confluence is from Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”

I also love the recurring imagery & themes of birds, water, light and skin; love, identity, landscape and memory.

Favorite lines: “We rub eyes until/we’ve made owls/of each other:/under the lurching/fur of eyebrows,/of blue and green/of our slight glows,/flicks out and open” (20).  “Curved like nautilus shells,/milk-white with golden ribbing,/our spines slope to the sink;/we bow over the warmed water” (51).

Favorite poems: “Blue-Black,” “Skyward,” “Music,” “Hollow,” “Saints,” “Pilgrims,” “Fissures” & “Walk Through.”

Links: When I read the epigraph for Confluence, I was a reminded of a line from another Bishop poem, “Sandpiper” that I used as an epigraph for my poem “Snail Shell.” The line reads “The world is a mist. And then the world is/ minute and vast and clear.” The poems in Confluence bring a clarity to the subjects they examine. They allow the reader to fully immerse themselves in the experience, so you finish the poem feeling like you’ve unearthed a treasure that you can slip in your pocket and carry with you.

Previous: Octopus Game by Nicky Beer

Next: Streaming by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

Poetry Summer Reading List Book #1: The Octopus Game

Book: The Octopus Game

Poet: Nicky Beer

Publisher/Date: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015

Why I bought the book: I met Nicky Beer while I was working on my MFA at Murray State University. In fact, if I remember correctly, I think she shared a poem or two from this manuscript during one of the residencies I attended toward the end of my degree. Nicky is brilliant and kind and she was also at AWP this year, so I got to see her again, which was delightful.

What I admire about this collection: There is so much to admire in Octopus Game, but I think what I like best about all of these poems is they way Nicky uses language to craft thick, layered images that feel like paintings. When I read these poems I feel like I’m reading art. The poems are ornate, weighty and beautiful. I’m not ashamed to say that I had to look up many words while reading these poems. Just a sample: polygot, mesalliance, chromaphores, epicenes, penury, labella, petioles, diastoles, cicatrix & guywires. So I should also thank Nicky for inadvertently making me smarter. I also appreciate that while Nicky’s poetry is meticulously executed and extremely intelligent, it is also accessible and humorous. It may seem somewhaunnamedt limited, but when I read poetry collections I often wonder if there are poems I could share with my students and these are poems they would love to read.

Favorite lines: “Today, love will be like starlight:/when it arrives, whatever it comes from will have already collapsed,” “Black Hole Itinerary” & “A poem like being born/behind a dead bird’s heart,/eating your way into the light,” Oblation.”

I could just list the entire book, but that’s silly, so just take my word for it and buy it so you can immerse yourself in all the gorgeousness.

Favorite poems: ” Octopus Vulgaris,” “Boys in Dresses,”Pescados De Pesadillas,”Nature Film, Directed by Martin Scorsese,” & “Harvard Med Field Trip.”

Again, I loved the whole book. See above.

Links: When I read Octopus Game I was reminded of the poem “Cephalata” by Anna George Meeks in her chapbook Engraved. I’m also a big fan of nature documentaries. I have been since I was five years old sitting on my grandfather’s lap and watching Nature on PBS. Recently, I’ve revisited two of my favorite nature documentary series Life & Planet Earth, and while reading Octopus Game I was reminded of this clip:

As a new mother, I’d also mention watching this clip while feeding a screaming newborn gives it a whole new meaning.

Next: Confluence by Sandra Marchetti

Poetry Books: A Summer Reading List

I came back from AWP with a massive amount of poetry collections. When it comes to books, I have poor impulse control (understatement of the year) but there were a lot of poets at AWP that “I knew” either through previous interactions (MA, MFA, readings, etc.) or who “I met” through Twitter, FB and Binders, so again, I had to buy their books and get them signed. I had to.

My intentions after returning from AWP were good. I would finish out the spring semester and then bury myself in the lovely pile of books that I stacked on my dining room table. Guess what? It’s June 17th and the pile is still there. Untouched. The major reason for this literary neglect is that I thought I had a solid three weeks of reading time from the end of the spring term, May 11th, to June 4th when my son, Cameron, was supposed to be born.

Let me reiterate: his due date was June 4th. When did he show up? May 16th.

So, yeah.

Anyway. I’ve found that mornings, after Cam eats and goes back to sleep, are prime time for poem drafting/ revising/reading, so I am finally prepared to tackle that stack of books that is taunting me from across the room. I’ll be posting about each book (I’m hoping to average a book/chapbook a week) because I know that most of the time I come to poetry collections through recommendations from other poets.

Stay tuned.