What historical event, book, movie, TV show, physical landmark, specific place anchors your sense of self?: Creative Prompt #2 for JanTerm043 “The Art of Race”

Second creative writing prompt generated for the class yours truly is teaching, SMC Jan Term 043: “The Art of Race: (Re) Imagining Ethnicity, Race, and Identity in Literature, Art, & Pop Culture.” We’ve been exploring how race, ethnicity, identity, gender, and sexuality inspire and shape creative work, such as music, film & TV, literature, and art, and how the forms and elements of creative work can help redefine, reconstruct, interrogate, and re-imagine notions on race, gender, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. So far we’ve read poets Carlos Soto Román, Barbara Jane Reyes, Harryette Mullen, and listened to musicians such as Beyoncé and Gingee. Viewed art by Kara Walker, and watched shows such as black-ish, Orange is the New Black, Jane the Virgin, and Atlanta. We’re currently reading Diane Glancy’s, In-between Places  (University of Arizona Press, 2005), where she writes in her introduction:

Written language seems to me a landscape. Land bound in words. I pick up stones or rocks in travel as texts I can read.

There is a map you open like a book. There are books you open like a map.

There is a map you decide to call a book? A book of the territories you’ve traveled. A book of the in-between places you’ve lived. A map is a meaning you hold against the unknowing. The places you speak in many directions.

Image result for diane glancy in-between places

 

The below prompts are inspired by Glancy, Reyes, and Soto Roman. Have a try for yourself!

“The Art of Race” Creative Prompt #2

 for Different Literary Genres

 

Poetry:

What song/lyric/commercial/dialogue from TV or movie is stuck in your head? Look it up, so you can accurately quote, if you need to. How is this found text related to what you are feeling right now? How does it give insight or confuse or challenge your emotions or your thoughts? How is it related to something your mother/grandfather/brother/partner/friend/roommate once said or always says? Take one of the words and create a new line, phrase, or dialogue to spin it your own way.

 

Non-fiction:

What historical event, book, movie, TV show, physical landmark, specific place anchors your sense of self? Do some research on this anchor. What is its history? How did it come about? How does its story of evolution give insight into your (d)evolution? How did you first learn about this anchor? Who introduced it to you? When? Why? How do you feel about this anchor now? Does it root you or shackle you? How do you claim it as your own or how does it claim you?

 

Short Fiction:

Make a list of your fears and superstitions. Then add fears and superstitions that you know of from close friends or family. Close your eyes. Circle one of them. Whichever one you circled, have your main character confront that fear or superstition. Where are they? What are they feeling? What are they thinking? What physical sensations are they experiencing? Are they alone? Is anyone else there? If so, what are they doing? How are they helping or hindering? What do they say that worsens the situation? How does your main character fight back? How does fighting back make matters worse?

More to come on “The Art of Race”…

Recap on Great Writing 2016: The International Creative Writing Conference, UK, Part I

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On the outskirts of Imperial College, London and just a block away from Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall, in the Huxley Building set on Queens Gate road, Great Writing 2016: The International Creative Writing Conference took place Saturday 18 June through Sunday 19 June.
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On my way to the conference, a fifteen minute walk from our Kensington Flat where three generations of my family were blessed enough to call our home away from home in London, I got to see a quieter side of the great cosmopolitan city. Streets were virtually empty, and I spied one of the iconic historic blue plaques, alerting me to a former residence of none other than Benny Hill.
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The conference was all about process, valuing process more than the product of writing, which was really a pleasant surprise. Below are some tidbits from the panelists, whose ideas I will definitely be thieving for writing courses and for crafting my creative writing.

Rachel Robertson of Curtin University spoke on “A Mosaic Patterning: Space, time, and the lyric essay” where she illuminates on Bakhtin’s “chronotope,” how time and space are fused and unraveled, in which time knots and unknots itself, and narrative is suspended. Robertson cited the Zen phrase “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.” Form was a continual theme that arose throughout the conference, particularly the shaping of form through the crafting or process of art-making. Robertson compared how music and dance are the only art forms that truly free us from the historical space, embodying the “presentic” space, where time fails to be to be anchored or concretized. She also spoke of the bricolage, which was first introduced to yours truly at Miguel Syjuco’s reading of Ilustrado, when I asked him how he researched for his novel, he said he used a bricolage. Robertson spoke of bricolage as a repetition of imagery, a mosaic.

The second presentation of the panel was one of the most enlightening talks from Karma Waltononen from UC Davis. Her presentation covered “Writing Outside the Lines: From ‘Essay’ to Creative Non-fiction” where she talked about teaching the creative non-fiction essay as breaking away from the required rhetoric and composition. Many students tend to believe an essay means one thing only: a three point thesis with five point paragraphs and no real development for each paragraph.
Waltonen discussed how when she introduces an essay students feel like they’re having the rug pulled out from under them. She takes them back to the root of the word’s origin. ‘Essay’ is simply: to try.
She lets students know that they need to just take a chance and be rewarded for taking a chance.

Waltonen immerses them in the 4th genre and has her students think about the choices they make. She emphasizes that a good essay demonstrates a voice. At the end of the semester, students try to determine different writers’ style by having them guess whose voice is is whose. Another assignment is to have students record a conversation in the cafeteria, so they get a feel for what true conversational writing is.
They cover metaphor and simile, and, most especially, reducing wordiness or tightening prose.

She also goes over what she called ‘breaking rules prudently,’ which is what her grade school teacher taught her. Breaking rules should only be done intentionally for a certain effect, such as run-on sentences. What effect do you want on your reader? Finally, she has her students do a complete revision, and tells them she should only feel a slight deja vu when reading their revision. The changes should be foundational such as change in POV or moving from present to future tense. She does not want to know what happens next. Her challenge to students is letting them know that every word a student uses is a choice, and asking them “Are you being brave with this essay and how?”

Yours truly had a cushy presentation time, not too early and not too late. I was slotted at 11:15am on the first day, which gave me just enough time to see how other presenters presented, get the hang of the logistics, and then dive right into it. Along with the advantageous scheduling, I enjoyed the pleasure of presenting with two savvy professor writers who covered some innovative writing and teaching practices.

Laura Wetherington from Sierra Nevada College presented “Flipping the Creative Writing Classroom: Reading and Writing as Workshop.” In the flipped classroom, students gain exposure to new material. The flipped classroom is the anti-lecture, discussion based or workshop based, turning the workshop on its head. This kind of teaching has been dubbed the “new frontier” of the classroom. Students can reflect on authorial decisions to articulate why they made the choices they did and take creative approaches to reading. The emphasis is on reflective writing for each draft, and she has students revise with specific perameters, giving them a set amount of time to revise. Wetherington really stressed that students be conscious of the decisions they make on what to change with revisions, and she does this by giving them specific revision strategies that they have to choose from. She also quizzes them on technical terms and gives minute papers to guide their questioning with reading. Finally, she talked about the free-reading period where students came up with their own reading lists at the Poetry Center in the Sierra Nevada College. They roamed the library on their own to chose what they wanted to read to inspire their work.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett from Newman University in Birmingham, UK covered “Trick or Retreat? The Value of Creative Writing Retreats in HE,” explaining how she takes her students to retreats where they learn how to write by deadlines. It’s a challenge to write on spot, on location, and they use the model of flipped classrooms. The marking or assessment is based on informed analytical engagement–a term I may have to borrow for my Craft is Culture class–and the students work on writing prompts first as a group then move onto their own individual work.

Our panel raised some heated debate, which was most welcome since I expect to answer the same questions and address the same reservations from my students and other faculty. For more info on my paper presentation “Craft is Culture: Writing and Reading a Global Imagination” click here and here. A South African writer kicked off the Q&A by asking me why we should force students to write diversely. She understood why reading diversely is important but writing with diversity in mind didn’t see urgent or necessary. Three other presenters answered her immediately, talking about intention, motivation, and the need to expand voice and perspective. Some recommended reading they pointed to me, which I have to look into is Paul Gilroy’s After Empire and Kimberly Crenshaw’s work on Intersectionality.

More on the conference and what I’ll be nicking for my own teaching and writing practices to come soon…

Part II: Recap on “Great Writing 2016: The International Creative Writing Conference UK

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The view from the Kensington Flat, where I stayed during the conference.

Continuing coverage of “Great Writing 2016: The International Creative Writing Conference UK,” held at Imperial College, London, there were so many enlightening panels that offered great insight on the process of writing and best practices in teaching. Below is a taste from the hastily scribbled notes I took. Check out Part I here.

Melissa Bender’s “Just Like Us?: The Novelist’s Responsibility to the Historical Record, which she said was more of a meditation, focusing on Gwendolyn Brooks, Year of Wonders, a historical account of Derbyshire, 1666, where the town of Ames was quarantined to prevent the plague. Bender highlighted the idea of fidelity and reflected on how writers make decisions to be or not to be faithful to history, knowing that there are different histories. She focused on our responsibility as writers and readers to history, and how the historical novel transports readers to a different place, which allows readers to empathize with points of view that aren’t their own. The historians’ challenge versus the historical novelists’ challenge covers such questions as (some of the below are from yours truly):

  • What or who is demonised and why?
  • What is fetishized and why?
  • What is exalted and why?
  • Are the specific subjects demonized/fetishized/exalted to reflect our contemporary values or the values of the past?
  • What is the source of all the problems?
  • How do you develop empathy though you have a different set of values?

Bender cited Sarah Vowell, who says “education is empathy” and that we learn about our situations by taking in other’s people’s POV. Its not about policing the details of historical fiction or the duty to historical record. Novelists must use their imagination since we can’t recreate the past. As readers and writers we need to think about the choices we make and the consequences we create through narratives.

Lauren Hayhurst’s research perfectly coincided with mine in her talk “Creative Writers as Cultural Representatives: A critique of the ‘political’ in relation to ‘literature’ and how Creative Writing can help reinvent Multiculturalism.” Hayhurst doesn’t doubt the power of Creative Writing in multiculturalism. She spoke of the difference between process and product, and how the process is hidden. Reviewing the idea of British Multiculturalism, which she explained was met or is viewed as “confusion and ambiguity,” she highlighted how there is no consensus in its definition. Hayhurst pointed to Paul Gilroy’s After the Empire, and how Gilroy claimed that reckoning with history requires active dialogue to create cohesion. Fiction as an engagement with creativity. Writers must take ownership of our responsibility as cultural representatives, especially since we rely and use our products, the novel or text, to engage and understand the world. What biases inform our interpretations? Hayhurst demands a recognition of novels as a source and form of knowledge. She also referenced Jennifer Web and Donna Lee Brian’s idea on “agnostic thinking,” how knowledge is contingent as opposed to “true,” which provides a framework for an active dialogue. Hayhurst urges us to examine our motivations and intentions as writers.

One of the questions her presentation raised for me is how do we maintain the creative journey and intellectual discovery for the writer but also take into account our responsibility as “cultural representatives” or as givers of “knowledge”? How do we balance our discoveries as artists with the discoveries of the reader or what we want them to discover in our work?

Hayhurst wrapped up her presentation focusing on how writing requires developmental, growing consciousness?  Aesthetic values and ethical values are tied up she argues, concluding that our positionality leads to interpretation and therefore representation to the readers. “Its about flexing the imagination, imagining for your own gain or for someone else’s,” she concluded.

I truly hope to reconnect with Hayhurst, so we can collaborate on future work!
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Toward the end of the conference, I had a chance to reconnect with a fellow Hawthornden resident, poet and professor Julian Stannard (photo above), who said that a poem is an accident. He read from his new work What Were You Thinking.

There were two papers that intriguingly covered process, valuing the craft of writing more so than the product. Annabel Banks’ “The Poesis Project: Real Time Capture of Poetic Process” and Rosie Shepherd’s of Goldsmiths College, UK, “Where is the Creative Process? Its right there!” seemed to be speaking directly to one another in terms of the physical process of writing and the process that takes form and eventually turns to content with a poem. Banks talked about how as we edit a text it grows and shrinks. The finished product could in a sense, as Banks explains, be the dead body, the corpse after its life has run its course. “We are networked, part of a knowledge matrix when we go online and work on a computer as opposed to working with the simpler technology of pen and paper” she says. Both Banks and Shepherd seemed to consider the product as secondary to the process and had me thinking how technology assists and enables content, meaning, and therefore interpretation.

Some general thoughts, that came up for yours truly is how do we imagine our imaginations? How is form formed? Craft is part artists’ intuition and other part artist’s extreme rationality. We make countless decisions as artists, and those decisions have to be calculated or based on some knowledge and prior experience or perhaps the artist’s intuition is simply based on gathered knowledge and experience. The product is a time stamp, a time capsule, and part of the continuum of work of the networked matrix. There is lots to ponder as the rains started to flood the streets of London. See the sky view from the Kensington flat below.

One more final installment to come. Stay tuned…

 

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MFA vs. POC cont.

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As the semester winds down, as the grades are slowly being tallied, and, hopefully, soon to be posted, yours truly now has a chance to return to the research for an upcoming conference. I’ll be presenting come mid-June at the 19th Annual UK’s Great Writing International Creative Writing Conference hosted at Imperial College, London, where I’ll continue work on multiculturalism and creative writing. Two years ago, I presented on the global imagination focusing on Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss. That paper has lead me to riff off of Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC” (Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop 2014), inspiring the below paper title and proposal:

Craft is Culture: Writing & Reading A Global Imagination

“In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all…” Junot Diaz states in his “MFA vs. POC” (New Yorker, 2014) thereby igniting an urgent conversation about diversity in the literary arts. For historically marginalized artists, creative writing begins and ends with perilous tension. If we write and read from this premise, we are primed and prepared for the necessary conflict to fuel our art. How do we engage and interrogate craft to help us explore our understandings of identity and politics, and, conversely, how do we test notions of identity and politics to enrich and deepen our craft? Recognizing that craft is culture and that tension drives all creative writing, this presentation explores reading and writing practices to incite a global cultural imagination that ultimately pinpoints intersections where truth meets art.

Some of the core texts (though by no means not all) informing and inspiring this paper are:

Wai Chee Dimock’s Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton University Press 2008)

Harryette Mullen’s The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be (University of Alabama Press 2012)

Dorothy Wang’s Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity, in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press 2013)

Fred D’Aguiar’s essay “Have You Been Here Long? Black Poetry in Britain” in New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible edited by Robert Hampson and Peter Barry (Manchester University Press 1993)

Along with a series of essays in the Boston Review: Race and the Poetic Avant Garde

Other authors I’ve been madly copying notes from are depicted above. From my research and brainstorming for the paper presentation, I’ve also crafted a creative writing class proposal that has been accepted as one of Saint Mary’s College’s 2017 January Term courses. More on this to come!

I’m also hoping to organize for either Fall 2016 or Spring 2017 a panel discussion with writers of color who focus on craft and culture in their work, and I would love to start an anthology series as well as run an annual conference, possibly even a writing retreat on the topic. There is so much to be done. This is only the beginning.

Craft is Culture: Psyching up for The International Creative Writing Conference 2016

Great International Acceptance

Joy. Trepidation. Excitement. Yours truly tumulted through a gamut of responses when I opened the email declaring acceptance of a presentation proposal I almost gave up on and didn’t submit. But how could I resist the chance to throw in my hat for The International Creative Writing Conference, UK to be held this coming June at Imperial College, London? And what better topic to tackle than identity and creativity?

I’ve just assigned myself a hefty reading list to hopefully answer questions I’m a little scared to approach. The urgency to these questions is undeniable, not just for myself but for our writing communities. Below is the abstract and following are a list of links and articles that have spurred my mission along with the reading list I’ve assigned myself for the next few months.

Craft is Culture: Writing & Reading A Global Imagination

“In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all…” Junot Diaz states in his “MFA vs. POC” (New Yorker, 2014) thereby igniting an urgent conversation about diversity in the literary arts. For historically marginalized artists, creative writing begins and ends with perilous tension. If we write and read from this premise, we are primed and prepared for the necessary conflict to fuel our art. How do we engage and interrogate craft to help us explore our understandings of identity and politics, and, conversely, how do we test notions of identity and politics to enrich and deepen our craft? Recognizing that craft is culture and that tension drives all creative writing, this presentation explores reading and writing practices to incite a global cultural imagination that ultimately pinpoints intersections where truth meets art.

“We’ve certainly seen an increased urgency among individual student writers to locate themselves and their work within the evolving culture,” she says. For some, that urgency comes from self-identification with a particular ethnic or racial heritage. Others want to explore race as a means, as Voigt says, “to expand imaginative empathy without encroachment or appropriation.”

Assigned Reading

ed. Rankine, Claudine, The Racial Imaginary 

Young, Kevin, The Gray Album

Shivani, Anis, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies

Anzaldúa, Gloria, Light in the Dark/ Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality

and more to come…

The hope and ultimate aim is to expand these ideas into workshops engaging communities in the flesh. If you have any suggestions or would like to dialogue about craft and culture, please don’t hesitate. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

I Left My Heart in Lisboa, Portugal

Blue bricks

Portugal has long been a place to visit since I drew up the post-college list of “50 Things I Want to Do Before I Die.” Almost fifteen years later, I finally got to see the land of my namesake. I’d always thought our family name was Spanish–that was until I was introduced by my in-laws to the Brazilian legend Jorge Ben, who’s real name is Jorge Duilio Menezes.

My interest in our Portuguese background only grew after reading Stegan Zweig’s biography Magellan. In all seriousness, anyone who is a fan of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit should really pick up this adventure tale. Its just as breathtaking and riveting–only thing is this story is brutally true. Not only is my paternal family name Portuguese in origin, but Fernão de Magalhães AKA Magellan, the great Portuguese pilot purportedly the first person to circumnavigate the globe, landed on my maternal grandfather’s  island Limasawa near Leyte and died on Mactan killed by Philippine chief LapuLapu. Portugal is in the blood. This was proved soon as we touched down in Lisbon, and I had to show my passport to customs. The officer asked without hesitation, “where did you get that name?” I told l him I was part Filipina, and he answered, “That name is Portuguese, you know.” I got the same response when I departed the country and every other time I had to show my I.D. Apparently our handle draws attention.

Thanks to the Youth and/in Literature Conference hosted and organized by CETAPS of the New University of Lisbon I was able to visit this land of my European heritage. To learn more about the conference, click here.

Street Art of New University of Lisboa

Outside of academia, our time in Lisboa was nothing but captivating. She is a city of heart-breaking beauty. So many gorgeous buildings, such striking architecture and art from so many different historic epochs all in various stages of decay–a striking difference between the U.K., which has endless reserves of money to restore and preserve their architectural and cultural heritage. Not that Portugal is to blame for the decay and neglect.

westernmost capital city

The conference in Lisbon spent a good deal of time discussing Portugal’s inequality both among its own population and in contrast to other E.U. and U.K. states. The conference organizer took good time to criticize and analyze how the rest of the world wrongly classifies them as part of the self-destructive misnomer “PIGS,” and I’m looking forward to enhancing materials and topics for my Modern Global Issues course as well as explore this country’s history and future for later writing projekts based on ideas learned and experiences had in this diverse and complicated country.

Arte do Lisboa

If you like fresh seafood, custardy pastries, the hot sun burning down in the daytime, and balmy nights wandering crowded avenues and alleys then you’ll love Lisboa. So much of Portugal’s capital reminded me of my other favorite and complicated metropolis, the City of Angels. When we hailed a cab at the airport, our driver greeted us with one simple word “Diga.” Our ride to the hotel could have easily been mistaken for a trek across the 405 or the 10 freeway. The shining slant of the sun was just as blinding as it is in Los Angeles. Oleanders, yucca, bougainvillea, and penstemon all competed in showy force along freeway embankments and bordering sidewalks. The air was hot and dusty. Street art covered every blank surface, grabbing the eye’s attention.

bahia

We stayed at the Continental Holiday Inn Hotel at Rua Laura Alves 9, only a five minute walk from the university where the conference was held, and at the other corner of our hotel complex was a cafe and patissiere where we enjoyed all sorts of sweet and puffy delectables during our stay. Soon as the conference let out, we were free to explore the city, so we spent the money and hopped on board the Lisbon sight-seeing double decker bus to get a good lay of the land. Sweltering hot, we took in both sun and city, traveling first to Belém.

conceived in 1939 by Portuguese architect Jose Angelo Cottinelli Telmo

Our first day of exploring this  country of explorers led us to the historical monument Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries). Built to commemorate the fifth centennial of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, this edifice sits at the edge of a pier overlooking the River Tagus, the point of departure for all the great Portuguese sailors, including Vasco de Gama.

The existing structure was started on the orders of Manuel I

We continued the maritime theme by visiting Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery) where de Gama is buried and where the cathedral’s ornate architecture features nautical symbols, ship’s knotting and ropes. The colorful statues of the Virgin Mary and Child are most exquisite and looking upon them its no wonder how the Catholic faith can take hold of hope and the imagination. It is this Monastery where most every famous sailor last prayed before pushing off to foreign waters.

King Manuel petitioned the Holy See for permission to construct a monastery at the entrance of Lisbon

Just across the way from the Monastery is the Museu de Marinha, where yours truly spent a good few hours scribbling notes and clicking the camera, gathering as much research as possible, which may find its way on this site, so stay tuned. Not only did this museum hold impressive replicas of the caravels that the likes of Columbus set off on to discover a passage to the Indies, but there is also a comprehensive collection of all the tools and gadgets that made precise navigation and cartography possible such as the pocket globe and compass. I dream of owning a replica pocket globe someday. This technology, invented by the Arabs, adopted by the Portuguese, and advanced by the British, made each culture ruler of the sea at some point in history.

sun setting in Lisboa

They say Venice is one of the few places to truly meet expectations. Well, Lisbon shatters expectations altogether. She is full of surprises. Music is everywhere, pumped into the Metro station and in cafes and fado bars. Music is on street corners and in the rhythm of the daily life. On two separate evenings, we stumbled upon two open air concerts right next to the city centre Metro. The first concert was performed by a youth orchestra playing contemporary “classic,” and the second was an adult orchestra playing a more traditional composition. A night can’t get more magical, under the stars, a cool breeze blowing through and a full orchestra performing with skill. Lisbon is a constant state of amazement.

For a taste of Portuguese song, feast your ears on the following: Melody Gardot’s Lisboa, António Zambujo’s Flagrante, and Ana Moura’s Desfado.

A 17th century Moorish palace is now home to a restaurant

Another evening we dined at the Casa de Alentejo, a 17th century Moorish palace turned into a club meeting ground and now a restaurant to enjoy a real Portuguese meal. The entrance is a nondescript facade that we would have otherwise missed if it wasn’t for the large party standing and chatting outside. Once inside, a long stairwell leads you to a jaw-dropping atrium elaborately tiled with lavish wooden arches. The second story holds a ballroom and dining rooms, where walls are covered with pastoral paintings. Not a place to be missed.

troops of tourists

No trip abroad would be complete without a day of shopping, and we got our fill at Baixa and a seven-story El Corte Ingles. A city as artful as Lisbon carries its own laid-back and sophisticated sense of style. Not a hipster to be seen, the clothes match the weather, bright, eye-catching, and celebrating sun and flesh. After the hard work of bargain hunting, we topped off the evening with a ride on one of the funiculars to see the panoramic views offered by the Bairro Alto. Like the Casa de Alentejo, the Gloria Funicular would otherwise be missed if one didn’t know what to look for. Tucked in an alleyway, the tram chugs slowly up a steep hill, where we passed ladies making the same trek on foot wearing five or six inch heels. Blink, and you’ll miss one of the many street art murals that makes Lisbon distinct.

The Gloria Funicular built in October 1885

Our last night in Lisbon had us living life like we’re golden. Our guidebook, The Lonely Planet’s Pocket Guide to Lisbon insisted no other bar offered a better view and snazzier place to enjoy a cocktail than the Terrace at Bairro Alto Hotel. Its a tiny space where you have to wait in the downstairs bar before you can get called up for seating to enjoy a 180 degree view of the city with the River Tagus in the distance and the Golden Gate. We sipped martinis and watched the moonrise. Life is a blessing!

best cocktail terrace bar

Some of the links we researched before visiting included a NY Times article about Lisbon fashion, Rick Steves’ episode on Lisbon and the Algarve, an incredibly helpful article my mamí sent me Destination Portugal from Travel Smith and one from my papí from HuffPost on Lisbon Street Art.

But Lisbon wasn’t the final stop on our summer travels. There is still Sintra, a romantic hillside city just thirty minutes away from Lisbon. Check back here for more on the city of poets.

To read the first leg of our trip, check out the post Oxford Called. We Answered.

at the Terrace BA

Until then, why not treat yourself to an absolute favorite musical artist, part of the Afro Portuguese diaspora, Ruy Mingas.

Oxford Called. We Answered.

Radcliffe Camera from Saint Marys Church

For years, if not decades, Oxford has been calling. The history, the mystique, and the recent unshakeable addiction to the murder mystery series Lewis, known as Inspector Lewis here in the States, have only fueled the impulse to visit this artistic and intellectual epicenter. So, yours truly finally got a chance when an abstract proposal was accepted for Interdisciplinary.net’s 7th Annual Diasporas Conference held at Mansfield College this summer, which inquiring minds can read about here, but this post is about pleasure not business though the two often bleed together for this literary devotee.

Arriving 1 July, with a thankfully uneventful trip across the U.S. and over the Atlantic, we stayed at the Royal Oxford Inn. Clean, cozy with wonderfully accommodating staff and a surprisingly spacious loo, the inn is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the train station, proving convenient when we ventured into London the evening of our first full day in the U.K., but we’ll get to that shortly.

All Souls founded by Henry VI and Henry Chichele in 1438

All Souls College from Saint Marys Church

The evening of our arrival had us sight-seeing at the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin sandwiched between All Souls College and Brasenose College and right smack dab next to the iconic Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library. Dusty and musty, we sneezed our way up the 127-step tower climb and took in the panoramic views of Oxfordshire, squeezing our way past other photogging vista-lovers and gawking at the hundreds of gargoyles who growled and grinned above us. The sights over head, below, and all around only affirmed we had arrived and were ready to conquer.

A gargoyle of Saint Marys Church

Our second day in Oxford couldn’t have started or ended better. First, a beautiful run along the Thames and then through Oxford Meadows, followed by lunch at The King’s Arms with good friend and great poet Dr. Gregory Leadbetter, who was one of the six fellow residents at Hawthornden Castle last June. Such a treat to catch up!

After our luncheon reunion, we boldly made the trip to London to catch Richard Armitage in The Crucible at the Old Vic, which was no small feat facing the frenzied chaos of Wednesday rush hour in the tube. We might as well have been in the seventh circle of hell, but Mr. Armitage proved worthy of every ounce of frustration and discomfort that included being squeezed into cars, pushed and pulled through the thick and throng of commuters, and getting lost in the tropically humid labyrinth that is The Underground.

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At the time of our visit, the production was still previewing to audiences, but performances were startlingly electric. I often found myself unable to breathe. Sarah Cooley deeply impressed with her debut as Abigail Williams and though many of the actors, including Mr. Armitage himself, fell back on yelling rather than emoting, Anna Madeley as Goody Proctor was able to command the house with just a whisper. The theater-in-the-round was also an unforgettable experience, being able to see the audience react as the story unfolded from so many angles. We didn’t return to Oxford until one in the morning, yet yours truly felt like she was floating on clouds from London.

The third day had us visiting the Bodleian, which featured an exhibit on World War I correspondence, The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches. A letter from Yeats protesting the violence gave reason enough to shudder at this recent history that tore our world apart only one hundred years ago.

Looking for Mad Eyed Moody at Magdalen College

New College later lifted the spirits once we entered the cloister where Mad Eyed Moody turned Draco into a ferret in The Goblet of Fire. More than 600 years old, the gardens are just as impressive as the cloister’s ancient statues that haunt the corners with their shadow-like, ghostly figures. Here you can follow the ancient wall of the city and hear time rustle centuries old legends and stories.

Tea, tasty fat scones, and a wicked lamb stew at the Vaults & Garden Cafe next to Saint Mary’s Church reminded us, to our misfortune, of Sergeant Hathaway’s misadventures in the Lewis episode “Wild Justice”, which you’ll just have to see yourself to understand. Still, we managed an afternoon at The Ashmolean where twenty minutes before closing yours truly happened to stumble on the exhibits of East meets West during and after the age of exploration when Asia and Europe began to trade. So despite missing the Tutenkhamun show, which opened 24 July many notes were dutifully scribbled in the travel journal for a current projekt in the mix.

A little California love at the Oxford Botanic Garden

On our third day, we made our own garden party at the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the oldest gardens and the first scientific garden in Europe, but more notably for this telly junkie the sight of another favorite Lewis episode, where Sergeant Hathaway dallied with love and lost. Of course, this was where Lewis Carroll concocted many of his stories and just paces away from our picnic spot, two students tangled in heated debate over some professor and lecture. You can’t stop the brain power here.

one of the most diverse yet compact collections of plants in the world

Magdalen College across the street was the next jaunt. The chapel holds some of the most magnificent stained glass windows depicting Biblical images in smooth, velvety rich colors with Pre-Raphaelite attention to texture and movement. We took our time on these college grounds to amble a path following the River Cherwell, spy on deers in the deer park, and admire a Goliath plane tree. The weather for our entire stay was unexpectedly warm and welcoming. Our first few days greeted us with eighty degree heat, and we got soaked by rain showers only once, having packed jumpers and tights that only took up needless space in the luggage.

Magdalen College was founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete

The River Cherwell

The New Building was built across a large lawn to the north of the Great Quad beginning in 1733

Some of the best eats we had were at The Inklings’ favorite pub, The Eagle and Child, a pilgrim’s destination for fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. There were plenty shops to feast at The Covered Market, and we enjoyed the rare chance to dine at one of our favorite British Asian chains Wagamama with fellow colleague and Diasporas conference presenter Dr. Dana Herrera, her beautiful family joining us for an evening of fun. Dr. Herrera’s presentation was absolutely insightful and engaging on Overseas Filipino Workers and the use of social media. I look forward to reading more of her work and here’s hoping we can meet up again in California sooner rather than later.

The Eagle and Child home of the Inklings

Blackwell’s, Britain’s most beloved bookstore, pulled us in twice during our stay, and yours truly picked up a copy of Javier Marías All Souls to get more intimately acquainted with the university along with William Golding’s The Inheritors to read for later. Throughout our Oxford explorations, we were counseled by the good book The Pocket Guide to Oxford, a must for anyone curious about the history and the hidden gems of this sacred space.

We couldn’t help but take a peek at the Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christoper Wren, where many of the graduation ceremonies are held, and where the dome offers yet another astonishing panoramic view of the city.

The Philosophers outside of Sheldonian Theatre

Before we knew it, our three days of soaking up the sights came to an end, and the three-day conference began. Pleasure soon turned to business, which means we didn’t get a chance to enjoy punting on the Thames, hire a bike to cover more ground, visit the Wolvercote & Trout–an old haunt of Inspector Morse–catch an evening of madrigals performed on punts, or see any one of the outdoor Shakespeare productions including As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Perhaps next time, fingers crossed.

If we had to go back in time for this trip, we really should have taken a double decker bus around Oxford on our first day since when we left we spotted all these sights we meant to visit but couldn’t find on the map or through the trusted but faulty inter-web. Those buses may be expensive and touristy but proved more reliable since there’s nothing like seeing the lay of the land with your own two eyes.

Every three years the Lord Mayor and Corporation of the City of Oxford take a walk along the Wall

Our fourth trip to the U.K. only fortified our love for these great isles, and yours truly is already anxious for the next visit. In the meantime, what we won’t be missing are: double tap faucets, weak hand dryers, sharing a bathroom in the dorm at Mansfield College, showers in a separate quarter from the toilets, no lifts, and baked beans for breakfast.

waiting to punt

What yours truly will be missing and eagerly waiting to enjoy again are: all the variations of accents, watching Lewis whilst in Oxford, Pret a Manger, the English countryside, Blackwells, tea and biscuits, ginger beer everywhere in all shapes and forms–not just Crabbies.

Looking for Lewis in Oxford

Should we find ourselves in Oxfordshire again, we’ll be referring to this New York Times travel article and The Oxford City Guide to help us plan our itinerary in the land of Radiohead and Stornoway. For now, I’ll be faithfully watching Lewis to savor the memories, ever grateful for the chance to set foot in such storied land.

Inciting the Global Imagination in Oxford & Lisbon

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Yours truly had the honor of presenting at two academic conferences this summer, 7th Global Conference Diasporas: Exploring Critical Issues, organized by Interdisciplinary.net and held at Mansfield College, Oxford, UK, 5-7 July 2014 and The International Conference Youth in/and Literature, organized by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Universidad NOVA de Lisboa in Lisbon, Portugal taking place 9-11 July 2014.

The Diasporas Conference ran con-currently with Interdisciplinary.net’s other conference “The Apocalypse”, and it was great fun asking those presenters how the apocalypse was going during mealtime. I also got a much appreciated dress rehearsal from the apocalyptic attendees who asked about my research and then surprised me with a host of questions, which even more surprisingly I found myself not only able to answer but enjoyed mulling over and discussing.

So what was presented in Oxford? Along with fantastic papers such as fellow Saint Mary’s College Professor Dana R. Herrera’s “#OFW: Social Media and the Public Discourse Regarding Overseas Filipino Workers” provocative topics included:

  • What Difference a Century Makes: Caribbeans in the Amazon in the Turn of the 20th and the 21st Centuries, Maria da Graça Martins
  • Locating the Self in a Disaporic Space: A Study of Imtiaz Dharker’s Poetry, Rimika Singhvi
  • The Stories We Tell: Drifting and Linking in Dionne Brand’s Prose, Eshe Mercer-JamesEconomics and Diaspora, Ram Vemuri

Each of the presenters on my panel complemented each other’s work, as we all spoke on ambivalence and pluralism to deepen the discussion of diasporas from multiple perspectives. See for yourself:

Session 8: Border-crossing Narratives
Chair: Richard Merritt

  • Then the World Widened: Daring Creative Writing Students to be Cartographers of the Global Imagination, Rashaan Alexis Meneses
  • John MacKenzie’s Letters I Didn’t Write: Home is Where You Are, Kristen Smith
  • Collaborations in Diaspora: Canadian Experiments in Cross-Diasporic Multi-Authored Poetry, Heather Smyth

And what exactly did I present?

The abstract:

Then the World Widened: Daring Creative Writing Students to be Cartographers of the Global Imagination

Pankaj Mishra called for a “bolder cartography of the imagination” in his essay “Beyond the Global Novel” (Financial Times 2013), and a chorus of critics echoed his sentiments posing that the “global novel” or “world literature” sacrifices the specificity of real political traumas for the sake of deadened, feel-good multiculturalism. Though no matter how publishers and academics categorize, plenty of creative writers in our proliferating MFA and PhD creative writing programs aim to tackle transnational narratives. Likely to fictionalize aspects of their own transnational experience or origins, a novelist-in-training will set the world as her stage and her characters as polyglots. How will she avoid the relativistic dead-zone of multicultural platitudes while interrogating notions of politics and identity? How does she begin to depict what Mishra demanded as a “challenging cultural otherness”?

The global or transnational storyteller will likely implement such techniques as the multi-stranded narrative. She will have to demonstrate multilingual sensitivity, and her fiction will undoubtedly straddle simultaneous senses of space and time. This paper examines ways for creative writing students to practice these specific techniques by exploring the works of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss and Chris Abani’s Virgin of Flames both of which demonstrate linguistic virtuosity and polyphonic narratives with the intent to grasp what Bertolt Brecht named the “estrangement effect.” Taken from a craft rather than theoretical approach, this paper will illustrate ways to shape a de-centered, global narrative. For a cartographer at this scale must pursue intersections of truth and art, which requires from the writer and the reader a mutual construction of story and meaning. The writer, in this sense, relies on ambiguity and ambivalence to create a purposeful vertigo that is both world-making and world-breaking.

An excerpt:

In crafting the polyphonic narrative, the writer will want to assume that all perspectives, no matter the social or economic standing, have something to lose. From the wealthiest and most comfortable to those who are beyond the margins, every voice has to count. So how to justly cover the stakes? How to viscerally capture the urgency of what’s at stake for each character? The writer must ask herself:

  • How does each character represent a microcosm and how do these individual microcosms make a multiverse?

  • How does each perspective contradict, complement, mirror, and refract one another?

  • How best to splinter the self of each character, knowing that heart, body, and mind are in opposition with one another for each character?

  • How do these oppositional forces within each character map time and space both for the characters and for the reader?

The takeaway from this conference in this particular network  is that passion is key. Interdisciplinary.net goes to great lengths not to emphasize titles or rest on stature but to focus on shared interests and dialogue. Each of the presenters were deeply invested in their topics, which was most engaging and inspiring.

As for what happened in Lisbon, the two conferences couldn’t have been more different. The first one was small and intimate. Forty attendees maximum aside from the two organizers, everyone present sat on a panel, so attendance was expected through the duration of the conference. Conversely, at the New University of Lisbon, I never got a hold of how many attendees were present because people were always coming and going. Half of the presentations were in Portuguese, so panel attendance was uneven depending on which language was spoken. Despite the variation, the opening keynote speaker, Shane Blackman, Professor of Cultural Studies, Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent, United Kingdom, proved most informative and timely, speaking on ethnography, which yours truly will be experimenting with come fall semester.

My panel included:

1) Bulgaria and Spain, Petya Yankova and Lida Aslanidou (University of York & City University London, UK)

2) “Then the World Widened: Daring Creative Writing Students to be Cartographers of the Global Imagination”, Rashaan A. Meneses (Saint Mary’s College of California, USA)

3) The Biggest Loser: Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter Series, the Queer Art of Failure, and the American Obsession with Youth Achievement, Michelle Ann Abate (Ohio State University, USA)

Of course, with the good counsel of a wise colleague I didn’t present the same paper from Oxford, but riffed off the original and found myself deeply interested in exploring how the bildungsroman of the 19th century reflects the building of a nation that mirrors the building of an individual through socialisation. Pushing the idea into a contemporary context, I’m curious to see how the bildungsroman, especially concerning the global novel, examines how individuals gain agency in parallel to how ethnic minorities might pursue sovereignty in the face of national hegemony. Yes, a mouthful, but this is the stuff that revs my engine. With that said, here’s an excerpt:

3. Performing Identity
Our identities demonstrate our allegiance to certain traditions and our rejection of other traditions. We essentially perform our allegiances or denial through identity. How we act and who we act with is our show of moral, personal, spiritual and physical integration into specific communities and even our integration into our larger global society. Jopi Nyman speaks to this in “Performing Englishness”: “By rewriting the generic repertoire of the Bildungsroman, the novel does more than represent a post-colonial critique of a Western genre. Rather, by redefining the process of learning in the context of the nation as a way of learning how to be English, the novel addresses questions of (national) identity and stresses its performative character.”[1] Identity is performative demonstrating our membership or rejection of values and traditions, and we might see the parallels between how the shaping of an individual identity reflects the shaping of a community or even a nation as Benedict Anderson speaks to in his Imagined Community.


[1] Nyman, p 97.

And now what?

I’m eager to continue exploring how global writers explore issues of identity, transnationalism and politics through craft techniques. I’m also hoping to scheme up a panel+workshop with fellow literary artists to explore the following themes:
1. How does your literary work serve or shape your social action or your commitment to social justice?
2. How do we read AND write for craft versus culture (in terms of being a person of color writer)?
3. How can writing & reading chart a “living” map of culture, identity, self, and community?

Stay tuned to see what happens next…

Post MFA: Covering Residencies on November 20, 2:35-3:35 at Saint Mary’s College of CA

On Wednesday, November 20, 2:35-3:35 at Hagerty Lounge, Saint Mary’s College of California, yours truly will be part of an afternoon panel discussion on life after the MFA. Tapped to speak on residencies and colonies for 7-8 minutes, here’s some musings on what might be covered that afternoon, which we hope you can join.

Applying to Residencies

Why residencies? How does it sound to live, work, dine, and stroll with writers, artists, composers, dancers, choreographers for weeks or months? How about having food delivered to your door. Meeting for supper and a cocktail or two to talk shop about books, paintings, photography, and film? What of days and hours devoted solely to reading and reflecting on your work? Residencies in essence are a chance to hole away in some remote and often rural setting and remember what it means to read and create for the sake of reading and creating.

Hawthornden from the Lady Walk
Retreat for Writers, Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, UK.

There’s no magic formula I know of but years of practice, revision, and navigating rejection. I’ve been applying to residencies and colonies since grad school, so I’ve had almost seven years honing my artistic statement and project description(s), which have seen many incarnations. I’ve been through countless drafts and am constantly revising every artifact I send out to apply.

Maintain contact with professors from graduate school since they are the community who will support you through this creative journey, and be sure to make the recommendation letter process as easy as possible by giving at least two months advance notice with all the supplies already stamped and addressed, ready to post. Keep a short sample, CV, and statement handy if they request it to refresh their memory about you and your work.

344 Questions: The Creative Person's Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic FulfillmentKeep refining both your artist statement/letter of intent and the writing sample. These are the two legs you’ll stand on when you face the faceless committee. Keep a list of questions and journal freewrites in response to keep the artist statement/letter of intent urgent and relevant. It should change as you evolve as a writer. I love this little gem of a book 344 Questions?: The Creative Person’s Do-It Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Finding Artistic Fulfillment which I crack open every now and again just to exercise and play with portrayals of self. These musings come handy when piecing together and updating the artist statement.

  • Literature Summary Description (MacDowell Colony)

In two to five words, please describe the work you are proposing to do at the Colony. You will have an opportunity to describe the project in greater detail in the next step of the application. Examples: memoir, historical novel, short fiction, prose poetry.

In the space below, please provide a detailed description of the project you intend to work on at the Colony. If you have already begun the project, tell us where you are in the work process and what you hope to accomplish with your residency. The text field is limited to 2,500 characters including spaces.

  • Intended Project (MacDowell Colony)

Please provide a brief synopsis of the creative work you propose to write if offered a Residential Fellowship at Hawthornden. This may be work already in progress or work still in its infancy. You should be sure to mention any necessary research that you may need to undertake while in residence. Please limit your description to this sheet only.

While in Residence

Before I left for MacDowell, I got the best piece of advice from novelist and dear friend Mary Volmer who warned me not to place too much expectation or pressure on myself. “You’re not going to get everything you want done, but you will get what you need,” she urged, and she was right.

An hour feels like three in our studios. It’s amazing how much work you get done when you sit down to it, and let your mind settle with the tasks in front of you.

Some of the highlights are not just spending evenings talking with fellow artists but having a real

Mansfield Studio at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
Mansfield Studio at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.

dialogue with your project. I found that once I was tucked into my cabin and allowed myself to reacquaint and essentially renew my vows to the craft and to the piece I’ve dedicated years of my life to, the project started speaking to me and telling me what needed to happen to it. I learned how to read and write all over again.

One of the many traditions practiced at the Colony is for fellows to give presentations of their work, whether it be a reading or an open studio, you’re encouraged to share your artistic endeavors. The idea wasn’t that appealing, really, until a fellow explained that its best to present earlier rather than later during residency so that other fellows will have much needed context in terms of why you’re here and what you’re doing. This context cements a substantive foundation to conversations at dinner, breakfast, random encounters on the hallway or on the way to the studio. The whole purpose of the colony is not just for individual, solitary work but to be a part of the community, and being a part of a community means sharing.

Mansfield Studio in the mist at MacDowell Colony
Mansfield Studio in the mist at MacDowell Colony

What to Bring

All your favorite creature comforts: chai tea, scented candles, warm socks, an eye mask, if you have trouble sleeping in strange places, blank pads of paper and post-its, permanent markers, push pins, chocolate, nice stationary and stamps to write to loved ones, a wall calendar to keep on task, a hard drive to back up regularly, a pocketknife, and gin, lots of gin or your personal choice of poison because you deserve it after a long day’s worth of reading and writing.

These websites are chock-a-block with listings of residencies and colonies:

http://www.artistcommunities.org/residencies

http://www.resartis.org/en/

For more insight on MacDowell click here, here and here and for Hawthorden click here.

Where I learned of the badgering hour: June 2013 at Hawthornden Castle, Part I

Hawthornden from the Lady Walk
Hawthornden Castle from the Lady Walk

Forty five minutes outside of Edinburgh, tucked in a hidden pocket of Midlothian, sits a 15th century castle where I spent my June at the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers. Not even the bus drivers knew of the castle. Kept a secret, deep in a Scottish glen, the ruins, renovated in Victorian-era, were tipped on a crag overlooking the River Esk, and here I continued my ongoing education of reading and writing for a summer month.

But the story doesn’t start here.

If we were to go all the way back, it would have opened two years ago when at a faculty gathering poet and friend Raina León prodded me to apply. Get thee to a writing residency was her imperative, and she clued me in on this gem of a fellowship with a low profile at Hawthornden Castle. Thank you, Raina.

This fellowship is sponsored and run by the great patronage of Drue Heinz of the Heinz company. Publisher of The Paris Review, she established the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the Drue Heinz Lectures in Pennsylvania. Deepest gratitude goes to Ms. Heinz and her staff.

There is no magic I know of that got me to Scotland for a month of committed writing. Persistence and focus is what I brought to the table. Applications to these residencies are something like gearing up for grad school. Long and involved forms that demand you know who you are, letters of recc to prove you are who you say you are, and a writing sample that speaks to enough people on the committees that matter. I’ve been applying to residencies off and on since grad school, which means I’ve lived in hope for over six years. Let me say again, persistence and focus.

The Pentland Hills and sun
The Pentland Hills in the distance

The plane trip from San Francisco to Edinburgh was another test of patience: ten hours trying to sleep upright, a three hour layover in Charles de Gaulle, where splurging on Lauderée French macaroons was worth every euro, and a final two hours that seemed like forever before touching down in Scotland.

The sun still had a good hour to set when I finally arrived around 10pm, which I would later learn was the badgering hour. Jet-lagged and frazzled, I met two of the writers who I would live with for the next four weeks, one of whom was an East Coaster turned Bay Area based. She happened to know many of my colleagues and writer friends back in California and thankfully made me feel that much closer to home despite being a continent and ocean away.

***

property of the Abernethy family from the 13th century
The castle garden

Born to John Drummond, the first laird at Hawthornden Castle, William Drummond (1585-1649) turned laird of the castle himself at 24 when his father died. A poet and historian, William Drummond read well and widely, tackling the History of Scotland during the Reigns of the Five Jameses as one of his many literary works. Over 400 years later, in his study, a room where he was known to pace between tackling quill to paper, I stared out the window that overlooked the gravel driveway, pulled my hair out rearranging scenes and crossing out swathes of paragraphs, and dragged myself to bed, willing myself to sleep at midnight even as the last sun rays still poked their way through the west-facing window.

Flowers in the sun
On the walk to the bus stop

On the first full day since my arrival, still adjusting to UK time, I woke at 5:30am to metallic squabbling and screeching of what I thought to be baby dinosaurs nesting right outside my western window. One bird would start up and then her siblings, would follow in discordant chorus. Almost every morning, afternoon, and early evening was graced with their shrill choir, and not only did I viscerally experience the scientific fact of how birds are cousin to pterodactyls and triceratops, but I understood how quickly and deeply I’d been thrust into nature. The castle was immersed in all things wondrous.

Evenings made the badgering hour when the lawn in front of the castle became a buffet table for a family of five hungry badgers. Stags, doe, and their fawns were frequently spotted on the road that led to the castle. Peregrines learned to fly just across the river, and we watched them from the castle garden at lunch time as they tested their wings. Spiders insisted rather persistently to claim the sinks and bathtubs as their resting spots. They were known to creep up cozy into our beds on more than one occasion.

***

I never knew I could be so jealous of poets.

The town of Roslin
The town of Roslin

These daily and nightly encounters with all things feathered, eight-legged, doe-eyed, antlered, and winged charged the poets, and they wrote with a sense of immediacy that doesn’t really jibe with long form fiction. One evening, a bat flew into the drawing room, circling over our heads for a good seven minutes. We tried to guide it out the window, but s/he seemed to enjoy our company more. Eventually, tiring of us, s/he took to an open casement and was gone. The next day, all three poets reported writing poems of our vespertine encounter. I hadn’t ever felt so keenly envious of poesie writers up until then. What I would have given to slip out of time for a day or two, to step away from my projekt and write in attendance to the here and now with such urgency? Fictions writers, particularly those noveling are stuck in another time zone and geography that rarely meshes with the present moment. We are caught in a loop of our own making.

***

We were there to write.

And we did. Everyday,  at least six days a week, from eight in the morning to at least five in the evening. Oh, there were mid-day strolls along the castle grounds listening to the songbird soundtrack that ran from sun up to sun down, late afternoon jogs on the Old Railway to Dalkeith, and jaunts to Lasswade’s The Laird & Dog pub, which was the closest and easiest access to Wi-Fi. All sworn to an informal oath of silence while in the castle, Hawthornden’s motto was “Requiescat in Pace,” and from nine in the morning to six in the evening, we maintained relative quiet, so all writers could work in peace and decent ease.

River Esk
The River Esk

With no internet access, limited mobile service, and a vow to abstain from talking, the task of writing wasn’t necessarily easier but the setting secured focus and commitment to both the projekt at hand and the vital art in which all writing thrives, the act of reading. In a recent Guardian article “publicising a novel – the problems,” (Thursday 25 July 2013) Anakana Scholfield speaks to an issue close to this heart:

…why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?

There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely. You certainly need to contemplate reading a book in translation, unlikely to be widely reviewed in newspapers, many of which are too busy wasting space on “how to write” tips and asking about an author’s personal fripperies. It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Six years into the projekt, reading is the through line that keeps this writer grounded as the shape and meaning of the story collapses, condenses, and often over complicates itself, constantly morphing like land shifting under volatile forces. To write is to read. There’s no way around it. But how to keep up the art? How to maintain the necessary strength and focus for such a vital skill? You’d think that as one grows older, reading would become easier, but it doesn’t. Its just as much of a challenge as it ever was. Technology and the ten million distractions aren’t just to blame. The old adage the more I learn, the less I know seems to confound the reading eye. The mind skitters, won’t settle but jumps with expectations, preconceived notions, rather than sitting with words, images, sentences. Slowing down to savor syllables seems a fleeting wish. The reading mind must be taught and re-taught, and taught again. Its a muscle that can easily atrophy.

Reading at Hawthornden was s-l-o-w. As it should be.

Decades into becoming a “professional” reader, its hard to come to literature with an open mind. The more one reads, the more layered the lenses the reading eye gains and cannot shake away. So we must learn to read through prisms, knowing these prisms can be switched, combined, simplified, or complicated.

Prismatic. Requiring constant practice. The conjoined arts of reading and writing remained the main focus, but not the only activities at Hawthornden. There were encounters with Crusties, treks to the Pentland Peaks, and day trips to Edinburgh. But that’s all to come next…

For another a peek at the Hawthornden experience, check out poet and professor Gregory Leadbetter’s post “After Hawthornden” on his site.

Midlothian wheat
Roslin Glen Park in the distance