Vermont Studio Center

In this last quarter of what has been one of the most challenging years of my life, this.

I am extremely grateful and surprised to have been offered a scholarship and a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center, the largest international artists’ colony in the United States.  That I have been offered this gift and that I am actually in a place in my life to be able to accept it seems miraculous to me.  A couple more miracles will be required to actually make it happen, but then, what doesn’t require a miracle or two?

Solitude, time to focus on my writing without the demands of home and other employment, and the company of other creative people in a creative environment have proven to be the exact formula needed for my best work to come forward.  Never in my life have I had an entire month of those conditions.  Now, I will, which is both thrilling and daunting.  With all excuses removed, how will I do?  Will I rise to the occasion, or will I find out that all the things that I thought were obstacles were not the obstacles? Now that I’ve gotten what I thought I wanted (or a piece of it anyway), will it be what I’ve imagined it to be?

Time to really believe what I often say:  Leap, and the net will appear.

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Tinderbox Poetry Journal

I have two new poems up at Tinderbox Poetry Journal.  Tinderbox is a fantastic and relatively new journal run (in part at least) by the equally fantastic Molly Sutton Kiefer.   Poets–consider submitting!  Poetry lovers–put this journal on your monthly “to-read” list!

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I worked at a bookstore this summer, and I’ve had a lot of conversations about this summer’s blockbuster, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  This is the “found” manuscript that pre-dates To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lee wrote this version first, and it was rejected by an editor with the suggestion that she instead write the back story.  She did, and that book is To Kill a Mockingbird.  There is a lot of controversy about this “new” book–both about its content (Atticus is a racist?  What?!?) and its publication (Lee may or may not be of sound enough mind to have given her true permission, and the timing is suspect coming just after the death of her sister/business manager.  Lee was always adamant in the past that this book not be published.).  Taking all of that into consideration, I read the book, as I have taught Mockingbird for 26 years and plan to continue.  I must know all things Harper Lee. To assuage my conscience in supporting what is probably a money grab that exploits her, I did not purchase it, but read a borrowed copy.  It almost worked.

Here are my thoughts after having read the book:

It is clearly a rough draft, and the editor was correct to reject it.  I am not of the belief that has been expressed by some that this proves the rumor that Lee did not write Mockingbird (Truman Capote is the usually suggested ghost writer). The voice of the writer is exactly the same in both books.  In Watchman, however, the structure is much weaker.  Lee spends too much time “telling” and not enough time “showing.”  She skims the surface of events that need to be fleshed out. For those who know Mockingbird well, it makes perfect sense when Scout is horrified that her heroic father falls from grace.  But Mockingbird did not exist when this book was written.  Without the back story, the reader simply would not believe that Atticus was such a hero, or at least would wonder why.  Newsflash:  writers of bestsellers usually have many failed manuscripts in their drawers and attics before the book that hits it big.  To be a polished, competent, brilliant writer on the first try is pretty much unheard of.  This is a first attempt.  Like most first attempts, it is clumsy.  Add to that the fact that  Mockingbird came only after friends of Lee’s, the composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy, provided her with a year’s wages and the note, ““You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”  This freedom from having to earn a living gave Lee the time and focus that all writers yearn for, but only a few find.  Maybe that, plus the help of an astute editor and/or agent made the difference between Watchman and Mockingbird. Maybe Lee just got better with practice.

There has also been much hand-wringing over Atticus’s racism in the book.  I maintain that this makes us uncomfortable in ways that we should be made uncomfortable.  “Good white people” cling to Atticus Finch like a life raft saving us from the stormy seas of our own history (and present).  But it is unrealistic to believe that a 75-year-old white man who had spent his entire life in rural Alabama would have embraced desegregation in the 50s.  Lee is not promoting Atticus’s view that black people are “in their infancy as a culture” and not ready for the responsibilities of voting and self-determination.  She is exposing it. Scout (Lee) is horrified by it, and so is the reader.  That’s a thing Lee gets right in this rough draft–she makes us feel what her main character is feeling, and that’s no small feat. She also shows us that it is not impossible for a good-hearted person who loves law and equality above all else to be paternalistic and condescending to a culture that he sees as inferior to his own.  In this book, Atticus is wrong, and that allows him to be human.

White America would like to forget our racist past and slap a “post-racial” banner over our present.  Both are dishonest.  Both cause harm. Lee’s book makes us confront the reality of a particular time in America, in a particular place.  I hope that we can withstand that.  If we can’t, then there is little hope that we can withstand the scrutiny we need to be giving the present state of race relations in America, and little hope for the change we must demand from ourselves as well as others.

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Intentions, Actions, and the Law of Attraction

I start out almost every post with a mention that it’s been a long time since I last posted anything.  Why should this one be any different?  As I am about to enter my 27th year in the classroom, I realize that calendar years mean nothing to me.  August (or sometimes September) is my new year, my new start, my time to make resolutions. Even my daily planner is a school-year one, and I’m on the lookout for the perfect one for 2015-16.  Such decisions are not made lightly.  2014-2015 has been a roughish year, as transformational years always are, and that daily planner is one I’m ready to put in a box in the attic. We lost my dad this spring, which was just one of a few significant though not entirely unexpected disappointments. But if you know me, you know I don’t stay down for long, and there have been some amazing things to keep me going, most of which you’ve read about (or can read about) here.

The Associated Writers’ Program Conference of my last post has been a highlight, mainly because I got to spend time with my graduate school compatriots from the Sierra Nevada College MFA Program.  I met these people a year ago August, and I’ve only spent a little time with them over the year since then, yet they have become my lifeline, my tribe, my best readers, and my favorite writers.  This week, I head out to meet up with them again, for another 10-day residency in Lake Tahoe.  I’m thrilled to be working with Gailmarie Pahmeier as our workshop leader, and heartbroken that I can’t be in both her group and the one led by the amazing and transformational (and newly-minted Poet Laureate of Fresno, California) Lee Herrick. Alas, as Frost taught us, we cannot travel two paths and be one traveler.  This residency will also start a much-anticipated semester with Patricia Smith as my mentor, and I feel like The Golden Child for having the opportunity.

I will head to Tahoe by way of Seattle, where my classmate, roommate and dear friend Suzanne and I will start our road trip, camping our way through Washington, Oregon (maybe California?) and Nevada to get to the residency that starts with the new month.  I don’t know if I’m Thelma, or Louise, but there will be no slow motion swan dives.  Brad Pitt…maybe.

This trip is a portal, as all trips are.  I will start it as one person and end it as another, just as I started this sentence as one person, and end it as another.  Change is the thing, always.  Best  to embrace it.

One way of doing that is to set  intentions and watch for the opportunities to move closer to what you want.  Twenty years ago, I wanted to write more poetry and have someone besides my mom read it.  That has happened.  Fifteen years ago, I wanted a chance to learn from some of the poets I’ve admired.  That has happened and is happening.  Ten years ago, I wanted to have a book published and maybe have some people like it.  That has happened.  Five years ago, I wanted to get an MFA from a school with top-notch teachers, though it seemed utterly impossible.  That is happening.  Time for some new intentions.

What I want now is to have the courage to go where the writing takes me, and maybe, sometime, to become a writer who occasionally teaches, instead of a teacher who occasionally writes.

There you go, Universe.  Go wild.


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AWP Conference, Minneapolis, April 8-12

For the first time EVER, I am going to be attending the Associated Writing Programs Conference this year.  I’ve always wanted to go, but never could.  This year, it’s being held in Minneapolis, and I get to be there!  I know it will be quite overwhelming and I won’t get to do a tenth of the things I want to do, but I am still very excited.  It’s the largest gathering of writers in the country (I’m fairly sure) with around 14000 attendees.  There are over 2000 presenters, and–here’s the really cool part–I am one of them!  I will be a member of a panel discussion on teaching creative writing online, called Byte by Byte: Teaching Creative Writing Online on Saturday, April 11 at 3 pm.  Click on the title to get to the full description, location, etc.  I’m joined on the panel by distinguished poets and teachers Cass Dalglish (organizer and moderator for the event), Kathryn Kysar, Athena Kildegaard, and Wendy Call.

And that’s not all!  At some point in the conference, I’ll be spending some time volunteering at the conference tables of The Loft Literary Center and the Sierra Nevada College MFA Program. 

Plus, there’s the Prince Purple Party at the Record Room, and who knows what else.  There are so many things to attend, I’ll just wander into conference rooms, knowing that whatever is going on there will be stellar.

It’s going to be a whirlwind–most of my writing buddies in the same place at the same time!  My head spins just thinking about it.  Let me know if you will be there–yes, YOU–and we will be sure to touch base.

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Sierra Nevada College MFA Program

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here.  That’s at least in part because I’ve been doing my writing elsewhere: namely, in my work toward a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Sierra Nevada College.  I’m just embarking on my second semester, after an absolutely transformational first semester working with Lee Herrick as my mentor. I simply cannot say enough about Lee’s mentorship–his intelligence, sensitivity and generosity.  He was exactly the right teacher for me at exactly the right time, and I’ll be reaping the rewards in my writing and my life for a very long time.  Then I spent a magical and transcendent ten days in a workshop led by Patricia Smith, and found more transformation and growth there, aided in no small part by my stellar classmates. This semester, I’m beginning to work with Laura Wetherington, and I expect the leaps to be just as great.

There’s a lot of discussion of MFAs in writing and of MFA programs.  Some people feel that they are just factories, turning out writers who all sound the same, who engage in a kind of in-crowd cronyism, and who stretch out their schooling as long as possible because there are no jobs for writers. I can’t speak to any of that.  Maybe some programs do that.  Sierra Nevada definitively does not.

I do know that the MFA, and especially the low-residency MFA, is only available to a fairly privileged sector of the writing world.  The cost is great, and the monetary rewards are few.  For me, though, the non-monetary rewards are enough.  (Remind me I said that when the loans come due).  I’m not doing this to get a different job.  I’m not doing this to get good grades.  I’m not doing it to make connections that I plan to capitalize on at some point.  I’m doing it because I have to.   Because something inside me is driving me to it, to push myself, to be a better writer, to be in an environment with other writers and creative people who are having significant discussions about the things I love and value most.  It’s an important step in my own personal development, career development notwithstanding.  And I’m doing it because I have the level of privilege and agency in the world to be able to.  Can’t forget that part.

What I’m realizing  is that to really “do poetry” at the depth I want to do it, the lines dividing poetry/life/self have to dissolve.  I can’t keep my writing  in a separate compartment anymore.  That changes things.  And it’s as terrifying as it is wonderful.

Stay tuned.

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Closing Reception: Reassurances at Cedar Crest

Last week, Tiffany Besonen and I traveled to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Cedar Crest College.  It was an incredible trip.  Yes, it was the first exhibit of our collaborative work, Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined, but it was much, much more than that.  It became a collaboration not just for the two of us, but for the two of us and the Cedar Crest community.

Art Department Chairperson Jill Odegaard coordinated a campus-wide community art project.  Students, faculty and community members were invited to write their own incantations or prayers against fears, and to create bowls on which to write them.  The results were stunning, and turned out to be my favorite part of the whole experience.  This is a part of the exhibit that we will continue, as it (we hope) travels to other places.

Listening to our fellow bowl-creators talk about their processes and share their courageous words with us was transformational.  And that’s what these bowls have always been about, from ancient Babylonia to now.  They are about confronting our fears, standing up to them, asking them what they want of us, and casting them out so that we can move forward with grace and awareness.  Two people doing that is a big deal.  A hundred people doing that is  a HUGE deal.  I have to think that so many people coming together and fighting the forces that hold us back, as individuals and as a community, must have a beneficial effect beyond the people in the room last Thursday, and beyond the bowls that were displayed there.

Making things and having people come and look at them is one thing.  Having them join you in what you are creating, and take ownership in it, and think deeply about it as a participant and not just an observer is something else.

Deepest gratitude to Jill Odegaard, to gallery director Brian Wiggins, and to all of the students, staff, faculty, and community members who contributed to this exhibit.  You made it so much bigger than we knew it could be.

LouAnn Muhm is the recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is funded, in part, by the Minnesota State Legislature from the State’s arts and cultural heritage fund with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2008.

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