A Gathering of Laureates

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Exactly one year ago today, I was initiated into my reign as 2017 North Carolina Piedmont Laureate. This wasn’t my official coronation, complete with tiara, but it had a lot to do with setting the stage for a fabulous year. On this night, Katy Munger, the 2016 Piedmont Laureate in Mystery and Crime Fiction, invited me to drink and dine with the Laureates Emeritus, so they could share with me the secrets to Laureate success.

“Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t write anything all year,” they told me, and although at the time I had grand plans of writing a poem a day (I was, after all, the Piedmont Laureate in Poetry. Who better to set an example as a poet by composing 365 new poems by the end of the year?) I found by the end of January that I’d been unduly ambitious. I will say however, that I’ve written a number of new poems this year, and spent the early autumn creating a new poetry collection.

“Being Piedmont Laureate is great”, the Emeriti told me, “but the really spectacular time will come after your year ended, when you’ll get to be one of us, a Laureate Emeritus. In the meantime, they said revel in the fact that you have been chosen, you have received the literary stamp of approval.”

It felt a little bit like being 11 years old, and hanging out with your big sister and her friends while they tell you what it’s like to be a teenager. Writers are notoriously nerdy, but on that night, I felt pretty cool.

So it seems timely that this Saturday, December 9th, I have the chance to rejoin a number of my compatriots for a Gathering of Laureates at Mordecai Historic Park, where they’ll get to share their writerly brilliance with you once again.

katy_mungerKaty Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
Mystery and Crime Fiction

 

 

james-maxeyJames Maxey, 2015 Piedmont Laureate
Speculative Fiction

 

 

ian_finleyIan Finley, 2012 Piedmont Laureate
Playwriting

 

 

 

scott_hulerScott Huler, 2011 Piedmont Laureate
Nonfiction

 

 
The day promises to be splendid, with Mordecai holding its official Holiday Open House, and four Laureates Emeritus and myself teaching bite-sized workshops (20 minutes to an hour) in the historic buildings of the park—the old post office, Andrew Johnson’s birthplace and the Badger-Iredell Law office—and the accessible classroom in the Visitors’ Center, starting at 10:00 am. We’ll follow this up with a reading in beautiful St. Mark’s Chapel at 4 pm. Come to one workshop or try out all five, and stay for the reading.

Five Laureates in one place, free workshops and reading, a chance to tour the stunning Mordecai house, and festive seasonal food and drinks—what more could you desire on a Saturday in December?

Sign up soon at https://raleigharts.wufoo.com/forms/a-gathering-of-laureates/. Spaces are limited.

We look forward to seeing you this Saturday!

Thanksgiving Gratitude

Sadie with her Gratitude Poem Line

Last Saturday, I got to spend part of the afternoon at the Durham Art Walk, inviting passersby to share the things for which they’re grateful. Little did I know what a moving and delightful afternoon it would turn out to be, as several dozen people, aged 2 to 70-something, stopped by to add their sentence strip gratitudes to our list poem, which you’ll find below. (I played a little with the order, to make sure everyone’s lines would shine.) Thanks to everyone who participated and wishing you all a wonderful season of gratitude.

Gratitude Poem

Gratitude

I’m grateful for a “hello” from just anybody as I’m walking down the street,
a sunny day with a cool breeze,
for color and words and music and food.
A lonely dog met a quiet cat—she cannot be more thankful for their friendship.
I am thankful for family and good food,
each morning that greets me & every sunset,
for God because he made us alive (Tara, 6 years).
my dog (Rocket), he gets me,
my family and friends, they are always there for me,
meeting wonderful strangers who inspire me to embrace my imperfections,
find beauty in all interactions and remind me that this moment is perfect,
because it just is.
I am grateful for surprise outcomes that can arise
when I let go and trust in the goodness of the universe,
sunshine in the wintertime,
for wonderful friends,
this beautiful community,
my God-given talents,
the high places I’ll go and the people I’ll meet.
I’m grateful for having a life,
the way I was raised, filled with love and support
I’m grateful for having a nice mom. Love you, Mom.
I am grateful for my sweet husband.
I am thankful for my family and my dog,
family and friends who love me through thick and thin.
I’m grateful for my mom, dad and my grandparents,
the natural world and the peace and beauty it brings,
my children and grandchildren who bring me infinite joy.
I’m grateful God created me in his image.
I’m grateful for my friends,
my home, son, old friends, my dog
warm weather and summer,
every time someone smiles.

I hope you’ll all come back to meet me at the Durham Arts Council from 5:00 to 8:00 pm on December 15th to make poetry holiday cards and New Year’s (re)solutions (our ideas for ways to make the world a better place). I hear there will be ballet dancers and cookie-decorating that evening, too, so there will be something for everyone!Mimi Herman and Gratitude group poem

 

Photo of Sadie, age 9, by her mom.
Photo of gratitude poem by Susan Tierney, Durham Arts Council
Photo of Mimi Herman, Piedmont Laureate by Helen Wu

 

Pond and River

River
The bare (brindled) word of it word enough; brim-rhyming as it runs                              alongside reverie-bank (all rindled roots) and order.

                                                                                     by Atsuro Riley

Magnolia and Irises, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany

This Saturday marks the first Piedmont Laureate/North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences collaboration, “Find Your Muse on the Millpond.”

Pardon the pun, but it’s a natural connection. Everything about the sciences seems to lend itself to poetry: the wonders you find beneath a microscope lens or at the far end of a telescope; the ways nature constructs, deconstructs and reconstructs itself; the miracles of human bodies and bodies of water.

So on Saturday, we’ll take our human bodies (via kayaks) onto a body of water, a pond that looks less like a flat reflective pan beneath the sky and more like a meandering cypress stream. In the November afternoon sun, bundled up against the cold, we’ll create poems on the pond. We’ll stop periodically to collect names of trees and natural history, to magnify bark and leaf, to listen. And as the words and sounds accumulate, we’ll borrow from the flow of the water to create currents on the page, pausing toward the end to let our words settle onto the page like sediment, before releasing them to float on the waters we’ve paddled.

We aren’t the first to compose poems on the wonders of water, and we won’t be the last. In honor of the poems we’ll be writing, I offer you some that have come before us.

Cypress Swamp, Eliot Porter


The Pond
Cold, wet leaves
Floating on moss-coloured water
And the croaking of frogs—
Cracked bell-notes in the twilight.

by Amy Lowell

 

 

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A Walk in the River
A few companions had been doing too much talking beside the purple water. The troupe, panic-stricken, ran away, and I found I was incapable of following them. I stepped into the water and the depths turned luminous; faraway ferns could just be seen. The reflections of other dark plants stopped them rising to the surface. Red threads took on all sorts of shapes, caught in the invisible and doubtless powerful currents. A plaster-cast woman advancing caused me to make a gesture which was to take me far.

by René Magritte
Translated from the French by Jo Levy

Fireflies Over the Uji River by Moonlight, Suzuki ShonenBlack River – by Joe Hutchison
You believe you must be beginning again.
The river opens to accept your first step,
and you’re into it up to your knees—
the water’s wrestle brotherly, bracing.
You start across, shouldering goods
you believe you’ll need on the far side.
Waist-deep now. Feeling for rooted stones
through sopping boots. Surely this is where
you crossed before; there are no unknown
channels, no abysses, though the current
does seem swifter than you remember,
and darker (of course, it’s only dusk
coming on, staining the air and water;
and the river—you believe—only seems
to be growing wider). Chest-deep now.
Icy water races past your racing heart,
under raised arms that ache to balance
whatever you carry, what you must (you
suddenly understand) be willing to let go.
Chin-deep. Perched on a slippery stone
that shifts with each shivering breath.
No choice but to take the next step—
deeper into the black river, farther
toward the shore of ink-black pines
over which the feverish stars have risen
and the cold comfort of a bone-white moon.

New York Water (Osgood Pond), Roe Ethridge

 

River Rhyme
The rumpled river
takes its course
lashed by rain

This is that now
that tortures
skeletons of weeds

and muddy waters
eat their
banks the drain

of swamps a bulk
that writhes and fat-
tens as it speeds.

by William Carlos Williams

 


Elk River Falls, Jasper Nance, flickr

Elk River Falls
is where the Elk River falls
from a rocky and considerable height,
turning pale with trepidation at the lip
(it seemed from where I stood below)
before it is unbuckled from itself
and plummets, shredded, through the air
into the shadows of a frigid pool,
so calm around the edges, a place
for water to recover from the shock
of falling apart and coming back together
before it picks up its song again,
goes sliding around the massive rocks
and past some islands overgrown with weeds
then flattens out and slips around a bend
and continues on its winding course,Clearwater, Michael B
according to this camper’s guide,
then joins the Clearwater at its northern fork,
which must in time find the sea
where this and every other stream
mistakes the monster for itself,
sings its name one final time
then feels the sudden sting of salt.
by Billy Collins

[IDAHO-B-0003] Clearwater River - Ahsahka, photographer unknown

Credits:

Poems
River, by Atsuro Riley
The Pond, by Amy Lowell
A Walk in the River, by René Magritte
Black River, by Joe Hutchison
River Rhyme, by William Carlos Williams
Elk River Falls, by Billy Collins

Art
Magnolias and Irises, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cypress Swamp, Florida, by Eliot Porter, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Six Tamagawa Rivers from Various Provinces, by Utagawa Hiroshige, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fireflies Over the Uji River by Moonlight, by Suzuki Shonen, Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York Water (Osgood Pond), by Roe Ethridge, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Elk River Falls, by Jasper Nance, flickr
Clearwater, by Michael B, flickr
Clearwater River – Ahsahka, by photographer unknown, flickr

 

 

Upcoming Laureate Events

Jerry and Pat Donaho-North Carolina-Blue Ridge Mountains

I’ve always thought of the calendar as a square, with autumn on the right side, sliding down into winter. Now that I’m back from our Writeaways in France and Italy, I’m very aware that we’re sliding toward the end of my wonderful year as Piedmont Laureate. I’ve had ten months of creating the workshops and readings and events of my dreams, with the support of the four marvelous directors of the Piedmont Laureate program: Eleanor Oakley, Belva Parker, Margaret DeMott and Katie Murray.

The good news is that between now and December 31st when I hang up my tiara, we have a glorious fall and early winter bouquet of upcoming Laureate events, which I’ll describe here in the hopes that you’ll join me for some of them.

 

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The Geography of Your Life – Sertoma Arts Center
1400 W Millbrook Road, Raleigh, NC 27612

Saturday, November 4, 2017
10:00 am-12:00 pm
Free and Open to the Public (ages 6 and up)

This is a workshop for kids and grownups—and families composed of both kids and grownups. You’ll delve into the important events, people and places from your history through art and poetry by making a map of the journey of your life. Discover your own personal history in a whole new way, by making a map of your life. You’ll find intersections between important people, landmark events, and detours you’ve taken along the way as you use art and poetry to create a three-dimensional map. You’ll explore, create and discover in this journey into what really matters to you. Bring your friends, your family and your memories. 
To register, go to https://reclink.raleighnc.gov/Activities/ActivitiesAdvSearch.asp and enter 219231 in the barcode search.

By the way, I’ve just been invited to teach a weeklong version of this workshop–including writing, visual art, dance, theatre and music–this summer for Family Week at Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keefe’s home and inspiration in New Mexico. I hope some of you will be able to join me there!

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The Laureate’s Thanksgiving
Orange County Public Library
137 West Margaret Lane, Hillsborough, North Carolina 27278
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
7:00 pm
Free and Open to the Public

We have so much for which to be thankful. Piedmont Poets Laureate Emeritus James MaxeyKaty MungerScott Huler and 2017 Piedmont Laureate Mimi Herman invite you to a reading in which we’ll express our gratitude for the things, people and events that have changed our lives.

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Educator Trek: Find Your Muse on the Millpond –  NC Museum of Natural Sciences
Robertson’s Millpond
Saturday, November 11, 2017
12:30-5:00 pm
Open to Educators of All Kinds

Join Museum Educators and Piedmont Poet Laureate Mimi Herman in an exploration of the connections between nature and writing. Discover an amazing swamp ecosystem as we paddle on beautiful Robertson Millpond in eastern Wake County, and use the beauty of nature and the wonder of science as a means to express yourself through poetry. This workshop is generously supported by the United Arts Council of Raleigh, the Raleigh Arts Commission, the Durham Arts Council and the Orange County Arts Commission.
To register, go to http://naturalsciences.org/calendar/event/millpond/

unnamed-1Hands-on Poems of Gratitude – Durham Art Walk Holiday Market
Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris Street, Durham, NC 27701

Saturday, November 18, 2017
1:30-3:30 pm
Free and Open to All Ages

In this hands-on poetry-writing workshop, I’ll be carrying on the theme of gratitude from our Laureate’s Thanksgiving at the Orange County Library, as you learn to write poems to share your own various gratitudes. You’ll learn a few simple techniques for writing poetry and then create a poem suitable for sharing at Thanksgiving Dinner.

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A Gathering of Laureates
Workshops and Reading with Piedmont Laureates Past and Present
Mordecai Holiday Open House
1 Mimosa Street, RaleighNC 27604

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Scott Huler, 2011 Piedmont Laureate in Nonfiction
Ian Finley, 2012 Piedmont Laureate in Playwriting
James Maxey, 2015 Piedmont Laureate in Speculative Fiction
Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate in Mystery and Crime Fiction
Mimi Herman, 2017 Piedmont Laureate in Poetry

Visit the Mordecai Holiday Open House on Saturday, December 9th to experience five Piedmont Laureates in one place. Mimi Herman, the current Piedmont Laureate, will offer a morning workshop in poetry, “This is My Letter to the World: Epistle Poems for the New Year” for ages 8-adult. In the afternoon, visit the historic buildings for 20-minute workshops with the Laureates. Finish out your day with a reading by all the Laureates and a chance to chat with them over seasonal treats.

 

CHPL-Logo_300Author’s Tea – Friends of the Chapel Hill Public Library
Chapel Hill Public Library, 100 Library Drive, Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Thursday, December 14, 2017
3:30-5:00 pm
Free and Open to the Public

Possibly my final reading of the year as your 2017 Piedmont Laureate. The Friends of the Chapel Hill Public Library invite you to join us for a reading and refreshments. I’ll try to remember to keep my pinky up, and limit my petits fours consumption to three!

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Holiday Card Making – Third Friday Art Walk
Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St, Durham, NC 27701
Friday, December 15, 2017
5:00-8:00 pm
Free and Open to the Public

Bring your kids, family and friends to create handmade art and poetry cards for the holidays. This is your chance to take the time to remember the people who matter to you, and custom-design cards so they’ll always know how much they mean to you.

 

Autumnal Beauty,” Valerie, flickr, Creative Commons, 2012
Blue Ridge Parkway,” Jerry and Pat Donoho, flickr, Creative Commons, 2008
“Chapel,” Belva Parker, 2017

Absence Makes the Writer Stronger

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It’s the last night of my Writeaways adventures in France and Italy, and after walking five or six miles throughout Rome, I’m ready to curl up in my armchair and rest my feet on my own footstool at home, pen in hand, and write.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder; it also makes a writer stronger. I’m returning home a better writer and teacher, more knowledgeable not only about the world, but also about how writing works. There’s something about getting away from the familiar that allows you to see everything you thought you knew more clearly – and there’s something about taking risks abroad that makes it possible to take risks in your own writing.

I saw that adventurousness in each of the writers who joined us at Chateau du Pin for our Writeaway in France, and at Villa Cini for our Writeaway in Italy. Some arrived with no idea of what they’d write about. Others found themselves on unfamiliar journeys through places and experiences they’d thought they knew well.

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A Texas writer put away 20 chapters of a murder mystery he’d written to start again from a different angle. A writer from Florida discovered a depth of feeling in her writing that she didn’t know she had, a depth that fueled the delightful characters she’d created over the past year, and gave balance not only to her writing but to the way she saw herself. A writer from Singapore wrote a complete short story – her first since graduating college – and stayed up until 1 a.m. on our last night in Italy, submitting her story to some of the most respected literary journals around. Another, from Victoria, British Columbia, invented an older brother and created for him such a vivid picture of a family that I kept expecting to hear their dog scratching at the door of our villa to come inside (along with the cat who lived there, who seemed mysteriously able to enter the villa through locked doors and closed windows).

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A Pennsylvania writer in France found herself recalling previously unreachable memories about her family as she worked on her memoir. A returning writer from Texas used writing and revision of a long poem to deal with a deep and longstanding pain—weaving imagery with a new understanding. A North Carolina writer finished the children’s book about Manfred (a very vain and valiant mouse) that she’d begun five years previously at her first Writeaway while another North Carolina writer began a children’s book about a cloud named Miranda and her friend Sirocco the osprey, a book which deftly wove scientific facts with fiction to make weather concepts accessible to children and the parents who might someday read her book.

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Our workshops each day were astonishing journeys, too. All the writers, both in France and in Italy, were able to help each other’s writing be—as we often say—“what it wants to be when it grows up.” We talked about imagery and plot, about “speed bumps” that wake the reader from “the fictional dream” described by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction, and about crafting characters and ideas that would remain with readers long after they finished reading. After each workshop, our writers delved again into their work, discovering anew what they wanted to say in this journey not only to the countries of our chateau and villa but to the countries created in their imaginations, each with its own customs and language.

Villa Cini Dinner-Gayle Goh

And me, I wrote too, and revised, not my usual practice when we hold our Writeaways. But I had a book of poetry to complete, and a deadline by which it needed to be finished. I found myself looking at my own poems, some written several years ago, to see what they “wanted to be when they grew up.”

The distance from home allowed me to become closer to my own writing, as it does. This is something I wish for all writers, the chance to leave the home where you live to discover the home you create.

Photographs by John Yewell, Gayle Goh and Jean O’Neill, with permission by the photographers.

Writing in a French Chateau

IMG_4021.jpgThis week I’m leading la vie dure: living in a fifteenth-century French chateau surrounded by topiary, eating four-course dinners prepared by a French chef (Did I mention the three local cheeses each night?) and drinking fabulous wines.

Every year, I get to spend a week with my partner John at Chateau du Pin in the Loire Valley, teaching writers from British Columbia, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and other exotic places. Some of our students are brand new writers, while others have been writing for years and have MFAs and a long list of publications.

We begin the week with conferences with each of our students to help them design the writing projects of their dreams. Some write poetry, some memoir, some fiction. In the five years we’ve been doing this, we’ve had a book about how money works; a charming children’s story about a vain French mouse with his own exercise equipment and a mirror where he can admire his muscles, a collection of poems written from the point of view of the poet’s grandmother, and an outrageous bodice-ripper set in our very own chateau, to describe a few.

Each morning, we begin with fresh croissants (always an inspiration) and coffee (definitely an necessity), plus an assortment of yogurts that make American yogurts taste like Elmer’s glue. We spend our mornings in the petit salon, sharing what each person has written the day before, and discussing what’s working and how that person’s writing can become even more effective. Afternoons are for writing, relaxing, visiting nearby wineries and touring the Cointreau distillery, a surprisingly small place from which Cointreau flows throughout the world.

At the end of this week, we’ll bid a fond adieu to the chateau, and travel to Italy by overnight train, sharing a sleeping compartment with two of our students, for what we call The Grand Tour: a week in France followed by a week in Italy. We’ll spend a night in Florence, gather up more students (including one from Singapore), and drive to our villa, where we’ll spend a similar week (fabulous breakfasts, writing projects, afternoon adventures, and four-course dinners)–only in Italian.

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We also do something similar in North Carolina. I know: France, Italy…North Carolina? Trust me. It’s lovely, and has the added bonus of having a river in the backyard, and kayaks in which to explore that river. So we never feel particularly deprived.

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These are our Writeaways, adventures we invented to help writers discover themselves far from the responsibilities that so often get in the way of writing. We wanted people to be able to come to irresistibly beautiful places they didn’t have to maintain, to eat fabulous food they didn’t have to cook, where we could offer them the guidance that would help them leap forward as writers.

When we started Writeaways, I thought I was doing this for other people–sort of a big, fabulous writing party that would give people a vacation to become the writers they always wanted to be. But over the past five years, I’ve discovered that these Writeaways are a gift to me, too. I teach writing year-round, to elementary, middle and high school students, as well as teachers and administrators. Though I love what I do, much of it seems to fall in the category of persuading people to do something they’ve always hated, to find that spoonful of sugar that helps the poetry go down.

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But on a Writeaway, I get to teach at the highest level I know. Our workshops and one-on-one conferences force me to think about how writing works. The process of pondering my students’ challenges helps me to figure out how to make my own writing better. For these weeks, I get to stretch myself to understand the craft of writing in ways I’ve never considered before, in the company of strangers who become friends, and friends who become family.

And the fresh croissants and wine don’t hurt either.

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