"Throughout Lucille was hung up on truth, not facts, 'every poem has it's own rules---follow them. Maybe the poem has something it wants to be you don't know about.'"

-- Wendy Taylor Carlisle, quoting Lucille Clifton, at Flight of the Mind

Flight of the Mind

Women Fly in Oregon: a Workshop Review

___by Wendy Taylor Carlisle

I hesitate to call myself a workshop junkie. I'd rather say, I travel a lot for the sake of my muse. Over the past four years, she's led me from Arkansas to Vermont, Michigan, to Wyoming, New York and even San Miguel de Allende. Chasing her, I rarely land in the same place twice. I want to see everything, study with everyone. But this year for the third time, I'm off to Central Oregon to a women-only writers' conference called Flight of the Mind. I'm not disappointed to be going. I consider myself fortunate each time I'm invited back. I call myself a Flighty. I consider Flighty a compliment.

After returning from my first Flight of the Mind in 1996, I wrote to a friend:

    In the airport leaving, I clutch my pen close. As we lift out over the scattered mountains, I realize I've seen little of Oregon beyond the McKenzie River that runs past St Benedict's Retreat Center and the center itself. I barely heard the riverwater's constant whoosh, or noticed the Douglas firs that stretched above me, scary as six foot kindergarten teachers. I didn't take advantage of the nature walks, the mountain hikes or the nearby hot springs. What I did do was write and write and be reassured by Flight's co-founder, Ruth Gundle, "the work you are doing is important."

I imagine Ruth says that to encourage women writers at Flight who do other things to earn their living. Those like me, who sometimes have difficulty believing their writing is valuable. Surrounded by tolerance and non-competition, Flight fosters our ambitions. There isn't any money. There aren't any mirrors. Women writers share nurturance, information, energy. They take time to help. They write, they read, someone listens. If they want to work alone, no one's feelings are hurt. At Flight, writing comes first, there are no responsibilities except to craft, you get three meals a day of wonderful whole foods and in the evening there is entertainment. It's my working definition of heaven.

The women on the McKenzie cover a wide range in age, race, economics and life situations; there are professional and amateurs writers, published and un and some just beginning to write; There are writers of fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, memoirists, poets, occasionally musicians. In daily three-hour workshops and evening readings by staff and students, they share a delight in work combined with the exuberance of a week-long bunking party. What conversations! What ideas!

The tone of Flight is loving, civil, respectful. The surroundings and the spirit of Flight are attractive enough to draw extraordinary writers to the McKenzie. Distinctions are nonexistent. Participants and staff have meals together and ample opportunities for conversation. There is no them and us. We are all women. We are all writers. There is time and room.

Naomi Shihab Nye, Dorianne Laux, Lucille Clifton, Mimi Kalvati, Ursula le Guinn, Grace Paley, Toi Derricotte, Sarah Schulman, Lucinda Roy, Elizabeth Woody, Judith Barrington (the other co-founder), Andrea Carlisle and a host of others have taught at Flight. Many of them return again and again. I am not surprised.

As for this summer, how can I explain how it was to be a student of a master? On day one of the workshop, when we gathered for introductions, there was Lucille Clifton. Lucille, the possessor of "magic hips" and "jump-up" hair. The Lucille of "letter to my sons" and of "to my last period." The Lucille who showed me there were women who felt as I did about a woman's life. From the first time I read her poems, I thought "these say how my life is." From the first time I heard her story, I thought "if she can do this, I can do this." Despite her disclaimer, "I never graduated from college, people," she is among the most wide-ranging, and literate of women, educated beyond any degree, a writer from childhood. Had I known, I might never have had the courage to believe I could follow her lead, but that would have been another story. It wouldn't have been me there on the McKenzie River and the very Lucille Clifton talking to the fifteen of us as if we were her own. "By the end of this week we will be a community," she said, "we already are a community. By the end of this week we will know it." And by the end of the week she was right.

That first night Lucille quoted William Stafford, "What the river says, I say." But in our smaller community of fifteen, she said more, so much more: Early on her advice included: "pay attention to everything ... trust the language." "trust the reader" and bow to the "power of the authentic." She added "the voice of poetry is not intellectual but comes out of the whole self, not just the head." and charged us: "let us make our place a safe place to serve the poems."

Then as we addressed the problems of specific assignments: "If poetry can do anything good, it can say, 'you are not alone.'" "A poet has as her mission not to add to the chaos of the world." "The world of poetry is not a competition, it is a community." She encouraged us to be vulnerable for art's sake and to be single-minded, too. "Whatever gets in the way of art, throw it out."

Throughout Lucille was hung up on truth, not facts, "every poem has it's own rules---follow them. Maybe the poem has something it wants to be you don't know about." Above all she reminded us to defend the poem‹even from ourselves. "Be outrageous. You are going to make somebody angry--too bad." "If poems are allowed to enter, they will. I remain open to the poem." "I write for the poem. I serve the poem."

So the poet talks gently to us, on and on during the classes and at meals and in the hall. We have a gentle dialogue on race (Lucille says, says "I am not a subgenre of American poetry. I am an American poet") and more wisdom than we can absorb, certainly enough advice to keep us busy for the next years. But I can try and, should the opportunity ever come again, I may quote Lucille back to herself, for the grace and intelligence and generosity of her words.

    why do i miss it
    for lucille

    what do I miss
    the hot trickle, the stained pants, the cramps
    the damned inconvenience of it
    where it came to me
    standing up in the subway
    or in the bed of a man who was frightened of blood
    when it came
    slyly, as a surprise
    not on time, but welcome
    because of who I was
    because of what was possible

    -- Wendy Taylor Carlisle

Back to more basic matters, accommodations at Flightare upstairs (the showers, meeting hall and dining room are downstairs) in three rustic lodges owned by the Dominican Order of monks. There are 44 private rooms, 5 doubles and triples and one bunk room. The lodges have shared baths and a giant shower room (individual showers are available for the timid) with what may be, in these days of low flow, the most powerful water pressure remaining on the continent combined with an unending supply of hot, hot water. The air temperature (rain aside) usually ranges from daytime 70's to evening 50's, bliss for those of us who come from places where the days are already nudging 100 degrees by late June.

Flight of the Mind has two one week sessions, in late June (2000 workshops begin June 13 and June 23). Information may be obtained after January 1 by writing Flight of the Mind, 622 SE 29th Avenue, Portland, OR 97214. It is advisable to apply early as there are places for seventy writers at each session and the admission process is competitive by manuscript and essay. There is a limited scholarship fund available. More information is availabe at their web site or by email to: soapston.teleport.com

Wendy Taylor Carlisle and her husband, David, live in East Texas. Some of her poems have appeared in Acornwhistle, Borderlands, Prairie Dog, Ankhology, Maverick and on line at 2 River View, Unlikely Stories, Perihelion, The Astrophysicist's Tango Partner, Isibongo , Conspire, Tintern Abbey, A Writer's Choice & Zuzu's Petals and are featured this month on poetrymagazine.com. She has won The Lipscomb Award, a Passager Poetry Contest Award, placed in Suite 101's Poetry Month Contest and has been three times nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has a new chapbook, Reading Berryman to the Dog, and her work appears in Athens Avenue: A Collection of Poetry (Funky Dog Publishing, 1999)

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