Today, my SENSE POETICS workshop at Cache Creek Nature Preserve came to a close. For the last ten weeks, members of this group have been reading Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, passing show-and-tell “sense lab” specimens around the table, and exploring at close range one of the most uncomfortable issues any writer faces: namely, the limits of language, and specifically, our limited ability to articulate or represent our worldly, material, bodily experience. How *wildly* uneven our vocabularies are for the different senses we live with, and how frustrated we sometimes feel when the closest we can get to writing our sensory experience is simply naming that which we’d wish to open further by description: the smell of lilac. The taste of smoked salt. The sound of glass shattering. We’ve learned how profoundly our vocabulary for visual experience dominates our other sensory vocabularies at a time when we’ve often wished those additional powers sharpened.
This workshop was made even more unusual by the fact that I wrote topically-related poems altogether out of the syllabus. This is something I’ve long wanted to try – to see what might happen when a group of writers came together in an exploration of poetry and process without being surrounded by poems which are sometimes taken as models, and which unconsciously shape the voice, form, or reach of any of the new work that comes into being. Our weekly sense labs turned each of us into storytellers, poets of the anecdotal. Some expressed frustration with a lack of “weekly inspiration” in the form of our usual weekly packets – an issue which became more pronounced once we’d articulated the limits we experienced as readers of Ackerman’s work.
And isn’t this, at the end of the day, one of the more valuable things a creative person can know about their approach to inspiration? That we expect it to come from outside ourselves, and to feel “uplifting,” and beacon-y, when in fact inspiration is much more often more closely related to frustration – to the motivation to change, undo, rewrite, or challenge that which we find around us when we’re not comfortably enchanted? Most of us do not spend all, or most, of our lives feeling particularly enchanted – and a creative education (in my mind) ought to include some examination of who we are as people, and how we approach this business of art, in order to be even remotely relevant to the fact of our lives. I think here of Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, which at least three people recommended to me last fall and from which I’ve pulled recommendations for dealing with this stuff that’s come up – this stuff we’ve written but written off. Is this not revision too, and thus every moment between the points we call start and finish?
In a nutshell, it has been an illuminating stretch – and one that has regrounded me and my work in ways I couldn’t have predicted at the start. I’ve personally begun more difficult poems that feel out of my reach these last ten weeks than I have in other recent workshops, and I am taking that as a sign that I’m doing something other than repeating myself. I find myself wondering what could happen in a creative community where all new works are accepted as innate failures vis-à-vis our expectations of them… and thus freed to reveal more of our creative impulse to ourselves.
On another note, the close of our ninth season means that the Writer-in-Residence program at CCNP is now officially in its tenth anniversary year. In the weeks to come, I begin applying for grants that will hopefully bring us the best programming we’ve ever enjoyed in 2011-2012. It’s my hope to be offer a co-sponsored short workshop in fall (tentatively: The Poetry of California), and a longer, multi-chapter four-to-five-month-long workshop next winter and spring on theories of beauty. Please, everyone, cross your fingers that the goodwill & good luck that have kept the country’s only conservancy-sponsored public arts program alive (in California, during the Great Recession!) will sustain this coming year.
To all those returning and new writers who have joined me in this year’s exploration: thank you for your presence, your commitment, and your creativity. The world needs what you do. Feel free to share your additional thoughts in the comments if you’d like, now or in time to come. I’d love to know how our discussions these last ten weeks continue to unfold for you. And please remember that you’re welcome to come out and write at the Preserve anytime it’s open – just call first to make sure someone’s around.