Attending the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference was an incredible honor. For one week this summer, I was in the Green Mountains of Vermont with poets. It was quiet and motivating. I could hear myself and others. I slowed down. I ate the freshest food, and my clothes smelled like campfire smoke. I remembered my Wisconsin roots.
Soon after the conference, I sped up, traveling the country, visiting family and friends. Until now, I haven’t carved out the time to write what Bread Loaf meant to me. I’ve tried here and there, scribbling a few thoughts, but I’ve felt overwhelmed or blocked.
I want to convey the sense of gratitude I felt, concisely describe significant moments, thank each person who made that week fulfilling. Blogging is the wrong form, not personal enough, so I’m writing a letter…
Dearest Bread Loafers,
I hope this finds you healthy and hearing your poems.
I’m writing to thank you, all of you, beginning with my mentor-teacher, Jennifer Chang.
Jen, thank you for your teaching style, thoughtful questions, being present as you asked and listened, giving us the quiet to think and write, supporting, helping us grow our poems. Thank you for encouraging us to read: “On Gardens,” “Another Antipastoral,” “Snowdrops,” “Alphabet,” and specifically for me, Stranger, Baby and Milk and Filth. Thank for the questions you had us consider before we arrived. Thinking about how each poet perceives the world, our habits of language, our preoccupations and visions, the things we question and learn from reading and writing poetry-all of these considerations were food for my hungry brain!
Thank you for your book, Some Say the Lark. Before the conference, I walked around with your poems in my head, and I couldn’t wait to meet you. You exceeded my expectations-rock star poet, excellent instructor and down-to-earth woman. Thank you for the coffee breaks, your sense of humor and seeing the mischief in me.
I took your advice. I journaled a meta poem about pronouns, and I’ve written my way into understanding the ‘she’ and ‘you’ within “The Pelican and the Girl.” In the course of journaling, and applying feedback from my lovely classmates, this poem feels more complete.
Thank you for the one-on-one lunches. I’ve checked out Taffeti Punk-so cool! Suggesting that I try to connect with a theater group was a revelation, an avenue I hadn’t considered for my work. You helped me remember my strengths as an interdisciplinary artist. You helped me remember who I am.
Thank you to my other mentor-teachers and speakers: Helen MacDonald, Drew Lanham and Sean Hill for teaching from questions like: How do we write about nature, considering history, culture, race, class, region and gender? What are the lenses through which we write? Are we leaving anything or anyone out? Are we being too metaphoric or romantic? Are we showing the love we feel for nature? Are we connecting?
Helen, thank you for your sense of humor and for answering questions from the audience with grace, honesty and humility. Throughout the conference, you were in my orbit, always at a nearby picnic table, but I was too shy to approach you. The poetics within your book, H is for Hawk stunned me. Your voice lingers, and I’m excited to read Falcon next!
Drew, thank you for your tenderness and for sharing the painful history of pheasant hunting. We needed to cry, and you opened this space for us. Thank you for loving nature, loving birds. As a child of two regions, Midwest and Southeast, I’ve spent hours in marshes and swamps, watching red-wing blackbirds tilt on cat tails, holding my breath as herons stepped lightly through water. I’m ordering your book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, and I can’t wait to read it!
Sean, thank you for teaching with such an emphasis on inclusivity, and thank you for my parrot postcard. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to share all of my lenses aloud. I should have spoken. Please know I am aware of them, and my writing has more balance now. Here’s the list I wrote:
white (German, Polish, European)
able-bodied now, challenged-body before
artist, poet, teacher, feminist
daughter, granddaughter, niece, sister, cousin, aunt, collaborative partner, lover-wife, friend
With my parrot card, I was tempted to write from my Floridian lens, because she was bright and colorful, but voice came louder than image, and I heard how my parrot might be stereotypically trained to talk: “Pretty bird, Pretty bird.” Words of my body spilled onto the page. I am still writing for my collection of nature and body movement, so I suppose it was natural that this would come forward. Thank you for coaxing poetry out of us during that whirl-of-a-week. I’m looking forward to diving into your books, Dangerous Goods and Blood Ties and Brown Liquor.
Thank you to my classmates and the people I met during meals and random encounters…
Thank you, Mary. Thank you for what you do- the farm work, the nutrition and educational workshops, and writing about all of this. Thank you for sharing your ideas with me. I won’t forget them, and to prove it, I’ll paraphrase two of them here:
“We need to make room for the grief we feel.”
Yes, we need to cry. Thank you for crying next to me during Drew’s lecture. In answer to your question, ‘what will happen after we do this,’ I truly think we can change and act upon our changes. This isn’t faith alone. I know what it means to face pain, walk through it and get to something better on the other side. I think pain and tears have to come first, and then we move.
“There should be more young adult stories normalizing menstrual cycles. If I started a collection, would you contribute your story?”
Yes, I’ll contribute mine. It’s actually a bit funny. It involves practical jokes, a wish gone wrong and cheerleading. Heh heh…
Mary, I’ll read your blog and keep in touch. Thank you for being a touchstone and friend.
Beth, thank you for sharing insights about working in theater with college students. Thank you for the tenderness, concern and honesty in your voice as you shared how your students were navigating identity, sexuality, the body and critical thinking. And thank you for not laughing at me, but rather with me, regarding my groupie feelings for Helen.
Tonnia, thank you for our lunch conversation. I’m still smiling about our connection over Julie Dash’s film, “Daughters of the Dust.” It’s wild to me that there we were, in Vermont, you sharing the challenges of teaching in Oklahoma, me sharing that I taught in Florida, and we were in Vermont talking about a film set in Georgia! We were two women from different parts of the country, connecting over one of the most beautiful and necessary films ever made. This is the power of story, of excellent, image-driven literature. Thank you for mentoring Robert and for being one of the most courageous teachers I’ve ever had the honor to meet.
Joumana, thank you for our moment sitting together, reading your poem in two voices. I loved doing this! All of your water and radio imagery resonate in me still, like waves. I hope your poems continue to migrate and you record in voices and layers. Thank you for teaching me through your voice to extend my heart and pen to all the places in critical need of clean water and peace. And thank you for hanging out with me when I was teary about leaving Bread Loaf. I hope your road trip back was beautiful.
Robert, thank you for sharing your poems and short story with me. Your voice is direct, poetic, perfectly narrative, heart- racing and haunting. I felt honored that you wanted me to read and give you feedback. Thank you for the walk we took, for discussing politics, for teaching me about tornados. This summer, while our train slid through Iowa and Nebraska at night, I watched the lightning in the distance and hoped the sky did not turn green. Thankfully, it did not. Get your work out there, Robert. The world needs your voice.
Jane, thank you for sharing the sound and visual aspects within your work, the images of hems and paintings, the way the endings of your poems hung in space. Thank you for recognizing the coming-of-age theme in my work and for introducing me to movingpoems.com. I watched a video on that site where a modern dancer moved in an abandoned building, littered with paper and envelopes, and she was moving to a conversation between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I couldn’t help crying.
Katy, thank you for your passion and empathy, for loving the earth, asking if a landscape can love us back, and for lines like: “an agenda to hold our anger” and “the book we die in.” Thank you for your death metal poems and sharing your voice with me one-on-one. I truly hope that you find musicians to play with, however you can, wherever you are, because you’ve got something going on, you really do. Thank you for offering a way to release anger in a productive way.
Gwen, thank you for taking my eyes on a journey with your poems. Throughout your work, I saw the microscopic and the infinitesimal, and you did this with splashes of humor-brilliant, just brilliant. Thank you for your love of gardening and monarch butterflies, your Instagram photos are amazing! Thank you for telling me about corn ice cream and listening as I shared my corn anecdotes. As promised, here’s a link to a cachapas recipe: http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/fresh-corncakes-with-cheese-cachapas/
Michael, thank you for such detailed feedback on my work, especially for recognizing my syntactical bounds and how they emphasize an interconnectedness. Thank you for your “Ode to Insects” poem. It is so gentle. I liked reading it quietly, and I loved watching you perform it with such passion on the Button Poetry series. Thank you for using phrases like “hummingbird masculinity” and “I pray this woman a poem.” And lastly, thank you for noticing that everyone in our group was from a different place. I was happy about this too and so comforted by it.
Whitney, thank you for the sensual and shadowed imagery in your poems, for making me see patterns through all kinds of screens and lattices. Thank you for your compassion for snakes and how your human subjects had their bodies pressed to earth too. Thank you for the overall falling in and falling through your poems. Lastly, thank you for suggesting that my band look for gigs in Asheville! You made me feel hopeful about the combination of music and poetry.
Diana, thank you for all of the science language in your work. I loved that it sounded like prayers. Thank you for writing about cold places and teaching me through your poems to see the beauty of these places. Thank you for reminding all of us of the importance of sitting still. Lastly, as a fellow ESL teacher, thank you for sharing our powerful language creatively. It’s so good to know that a poet is teaching English.
Kit, thank you for suggesting that I try to get my work out there in chapbook form. Before Bread Loaf, I was feeling discouraged about this form, disheartened by my own disorganization in gathering enough poems, but you, fierce, amazing you, reminded me to stay with it, to keep writing. Thank you for being such a one woman force of nature. Most of all, thank you for being part of a movement to keep our air clean.
It’s months after Bread Loaf, but I’m still feeling it. In the pockets of our vast country, there are poets fighting for and loving nature, and I am grateful. Thank you all from my whole body and please stay in touch.
Love and Green Mountains,