Monday, March 23, 2015

Palm Beach Poetry Festival – January 2015

     Brenda Shaughnessy’s flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed by almost four hours. That was four extra hours I had not planned on having. Four more hours of panicking over what it would be like to finally meet her. I had received the call back in early November, the one informing me I would be interning for Brenda’s workshop at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival the following January. I spent those four hours wandering the colorful streets of Delray Beach, discovering the city I would be calling home for the rest of the week.
     Cut to 9pm, and there we were. Brenda and I stood side by side behind my little grey Mazda that I suddenly wished I had made time to clean before her arrival. But poets are people, too. I opened the trunk, pushing aside empty Publix bags and a roll of half-used Christmas wrapping paper, sliding her suitcase inside. I told myself it could have been worse. We clambered into the front seats of my car and began the journey back to Delray. Any worries I had about the fluidity of our conversation quickly dissipated. I had imagined a woman exhausted from travel, but Brenda showed no signs of tiredness. In the first five minutes, I had already created a fresh new reading list in my head from her recommendations. Her enthusiasm transferred into the writing workshop the following morning, and continued relentlessly through the rest of the week.  
     Each morning, I met with fellow interns in the library at the Crest Theater. We would discuss our schedule and duties for the day before heading upstairs to our respective classrooms for workshop. As my workshop began, Brenda gifted the group with snippets of advice and anecdotes from the writer’s world, from the life of a real poet. Her words were nuggets of gold that I transcribed in ink, into my journal, and into my head. You don’t have to know what you’re doing, but something is happening, and that’s poetry. Complexity is irreducible and that’s why poetry exists. After workshop were craft talks leading up to evening readings where I reclined in the back row of the theater’s balcony with the other interns and listened to our poets, our friends read their work.
     The week moved quickly. Already, Wednesday had arrived and we were sat in the Vintage Gymnasium at the gala dinner. The old white building had enchanting string lights draped from the warm wooden beams of its ceiling. The gym was crowded; the floor filled with hundreds of dancing poets. Poets are people, and some of them are dancers. Yes, I saw you, Thomas Lux.
     Of the other faculty poets at the festival, I had studied Patricia Smith’s work during my years as an undergraduate English major at the University of South Florida. It was a pleasure and privilege to hear her craft talk and surprise reading of her spoken word poem, Skinhead. In this moment, everything fell into place for me. This is real life. I’m hanging out with world-famous poets, with the people who have inspired, prompted and still push me to do what I love to do. These are the people who make me want to write. Back in the lounge, I asked Patricia to sign a book for me. My copy of her Teahouse of the Almighty now opens with this:

Rebecca – May the voices in here inspire you to raise your own. – Patricia.

I’m not sure if she knew how much I needed to hear these words, how much they resonate with the kind of writer and person that I am. My one goal for this year ­– a new year’s resolution – is to raise my voice and to have the confidence to throw myself headfirst and completely into the creative world.
     Sunday morning, Brenda hopped back into my car for the trip to the airport, and on to Iowa; from perpetual summer into the depths of winter. Our last forty-five minutes consisted of extending my reading list and learning that magic happens in the first summer between years one and two of the MFA. Her last golden nugget for me was this: write. And keep in touch. 

Rebecca Jensen is a first-year MFA student in nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University. She graduated from the Honors College at the University of South Florida in 2014. She has worked as fiction editor for Driftwood Press, a literary magazine, and is currently nonfiction editor at FAU’s Coastlines. She writes feature articles for Fort Lauderdale’s city magazine, Go Riverwalk, and her creative work appears or is forthcoming in FishFood Literary and Creative Arts Magazine. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Richard Ford on Writing

            Richard Ford referred to us as “young writers” throughout our hour-long discussion in CU 321. The term seemed apropos given the context of an MFA program, but also appropriate given Ford’s age of seventy-one. He spoke with the grizzled confidence of a man who has put in countless writing hours that have produced seven critically acclaimed novels and four short story collections. His best-known work, Independence Day, won the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1995. He was kind and generous with his advice, an attribute that, for “young writers,” resulted in a small amount of idolization. “His eyes literally sparkled,” said a friend. “When he smiled,” said one of my colleagues, “it looked like a comedic theatre mask.” And perhaps that grin, an angular, thin-lipped joviality that pressed against his cheeks, betrayed a satisfaction with the work he’d accomplished in his career. When describing an ongoing dispute with his editor at Knopf, he claimed that at this point in his life he didn't care if his new book got published. When we pressed him about possible solutions to the problem (his editor, he claimed, “didn't want to edit”), he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I've written enough books in my life. I don’t need this one.” This statement was, most likely, not entirely truthful—I imagine even Richard Ford longs to see his book in print after writing it—but it’s an interesting thing to explore. It’s a statement that seems to signal a comfort with his legacy. I wondered: what is it like to be a writer in the twilight of a career and have that sort of satisfaction? What does it feel like to look back and feel that you have written enough, that you've said what you wanted to say? What does it take?
            The aspect of writing that Ford seemed most adamant about was the importance of taking the task seriously. He admitted that “marrying well” allowed him to stay at home and write (he suggested we all “marry as well” as he did), but it seems the seriousness with which he approached writing might be what separated him from other authors. He explained that he does not begin to write a word—“not a single word,” he emphasized—until he has done a year of research. This research included detailed notes on narrative structure and character and setting, notes which he said he would study as if he was taking the Bar exam. He was careful to include “thinking” as research, explaining how it was necessary for him to become completely engrossed in his project. The urgency with which he explained his research bolstered his overall message: “take you work seriously,” he told us. “No one else is going to. It’s your work.”
            FAU has had a string of accomplished writers visit us this year: Jo Ann Beard, Phil Klay, Roxane Gay, and now Ford. All of them have spoken about writing with the same dogged determination. Jo Ann Beard explained that she might sit down to write for an eight-hour stretch and not compose a word. Phil Klay spoke about fighting with an editor about a word choice because, “a serious sentence” he said, “contained a syllable count of 3-3-4-3.” “It didn't really matter,” he admitted. “But it mattered to me.” Of course, this isn't the first time we've heard writing discussed in this way. On our own faculty Professor Bucak writes so carefully that she tends to finish just one story a year. Professor McKay wakes up each morning at five and commences to write. Writing hard and meticulously is something that, hopefully, most of us already do. But the MFA provides an atmosphere in which it is easier to take our writing seriously because there is always a deadline approaching. And at the end of that deadline there are peers and professors whose job it is to read our work with careful attention. By virtue of our program, FAU creates an atmosphere in which we are considered serious writers.
            Which is why, after leaving my thesis defense last week, I had a strange mixture of accomplishment and foreboding. It felt wonderful to discuss my work confidently with professors that I have learned under for three years. I did not come into the program with that ability. But at the same time it felt as though I had been dropped from a very high ledge. The final deadline had been met. I passed. And there was no more work to turn in. I was on my own.
            Of course, graduating does not mean that the professional and friendly ties that I've made at FAU are severed, but the end of an MFA does signal a new phase of my development as a writer. I am confident that I will continue to write, but am also wary that the vigor with which I wrote during the MFA will be tempered by life’s complications. I am wary about this because, to a certain extent, I feel the real writing has just begun—the true test lies ahead. The impetus to write hard and long and well must now come solely from within. There is no longer the benefit of artificial deadlines and a community of writers who support my endeavors. It is up to me. And at this moment in my life, the goal is not necessarily to publish eleven books, but I do want to be seventy-one years old and know I have written everything I am capable of writing, to have said what I could say.
            This weekend I was on Highland Beach and saw, probably 100 yards away, a commotion on the shoreline. A crowd of beachgoers gathered and, through the swarm of legs and sea foam, I saw someone performing chest compressions on a motionless body. The tips of the waves flowed up the sand and stopped at the feet of the unconscious man. We all sat in our beach chairs and looked. We were too far away to do anything, but it seemed sacrilegious to smoke a cigarette while I watched someone die. I walked closer to the crowd and asked a woman what had happened. She told me that the man had been caught in the riptide and taken out to sea. Two girls saw him floating beyond the break and swam to retrieve him. “But he’s dead,” she said. “He’s gone.”
            When the paramedics arrived they strapped a machine to his chest, a sort of jacket that performed chest compressions. Lifeguards from Delray came as well, riding down the beach in a four-wheeler. The paramedics lifted the man onto the vehicle and I watched them drive past. One of the paramedics held the man’s limp arm by the wrist, checking for a pulse. The drowned man was old, probably in his seventies: stocky, with a healthy, white beard. When his chest was compressed, his belly shook. And as I watched him being taken away, I couldn't help but wonder if he had said what he wanted to say. I wondered if he had written his books.

Donovan Ortega is graduating this semester with an MFA in fiction.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Detail of Moment/The Moment of Detail

            When I first met Jo Ann Beard, her demeanor surprised me. She was quiet, reserved, and in constant thought. Her speech was deliberate-- you could almost see her thoughts forming as she searched the air for what she wanted to say. During the week I spent with her, she spoke of the importance of trusting the reader, trusting your own mind, and most importantly, the power of moments. She had us read many short pieces of nonfiction that were based on singular moments that retained all their emotional resonance. I thought I understood what she was talking about, but I didn’t fully until a moment during the following week:

As I drive to school, my boyfriend texts me saying that our dog, Sidney, has had a stroke. I press him for details to make sure it's not just an allergy attack, which she's had a few times this past year. But the more he tells me, the more obvious it becomes. I speed down 95 fighting the urge to cry. 16 years old now, we'd rescued her from an abusive home years ago, and we'd always commented that she'd saved her youth for her aged years. That she must have been the runt because she was small enough to be a large teacup, and large enough to be a small miniature. Tears well up in my eyes. Her white fur, her front legs imperfect, bowed out like a bulldog’s. My mom hated the poodle cut, so we always gave her a puppy cut. When she was completely shaved, she looked like Dobby the House Elf, when her hair got too long, she looked like a Muppet. My mom had adopted her when I went away for my first year of college, her empty nest syndrome replacement for me. My mom’s fiancé didn’t like pets, so I'd taken over care of Sid for her final three years. For a while it was she and I, alone in the house. We depended on each other.
My mom moved back home a month before Sidney had her stroke. Jo Ann Beard's ideas were still reverberating loudly in my mind. I wanted to spend my time reading and writing, but my mom interrupted everything. Tensions flared. Emotions frayed. Her passive aggressive, cutting comments needled me. It hadn’t been a week and I already wanted her gone. I resented how she was treating me like a moving service; she undid anything I started in the house, she took over, and she wasn’t sorry about it. Then, Sidney happened:
I come home that night, and my mom is standing in a room she'd re-carpeted during the sudden move. She and my grandma had torn down wallpaper, sanded, and repainted. The walls are now a beach sand color, but the baseboards are still a palm frond green, a remnant from my childhood. The room is otherwise empty. She stands in the dead center, arms crossed, staring into an empty corner. I lean against the doorframe, feeling the vacuum Sidney left behind. My mom eventually turns around and we chat. First about the move, and then the work she'd done on the empty room; anything, really, except Sidney.

Finally, she fills me in. She'd been getting ready when she'd heard Sid’s nails scratch irregularly on the tile. She'd stepped into the hall and saw Sid, her neck contorted back, convulsing on the floor. She picked her up to comfort her, also trying to comfort herself. She explains how she had felt Sid’s tiny body go rigid, her neck stiff and little legs locked. All she could do was stand there, trying to comfort her, crying. When the episode was over, Sid started wailing, unsure of what just happened. This only instigated more sobs from my mom.

Here in the empty room, I listen to my mom, fighting back my own tears. We avoid eye contact. After Sid's seizure, my mom had stayed home, watching her walk crookedly, bumping into everything, falling over. I bite my lower lip and turn my head, looking out into the hall. When she took Sid to the vet, the doctor said she could live a happy life after the stroke, but in his professional opinion, it was time. My mom is crying again. We stand, completely at odds, avoiding each other, watching one another fall apart. She'd stayed the entire time. The vet commented that people usually only stay until their pet is anesthetized. My mom had stayed until Sid was completely gone; she explains to me that she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself if there was any minuscule chance Sid could still sense her presence. This gets me. I can’t hold it back any longer, no amount of chewing my lower lip can stop the deluge. This prompts my mom to keen with me. I grab tissues for both of us. One tug and the box is empty; two tissues are all that is left, and they are both in my hand. My mom and I spend the rest of the night standing in the incomplete room, sobbing into each other’s shoulders.

This moment would have been lost to me, but Jo Ann, still ringing in my mind, enhanced it for me. The details stick out-- there's no way to ignore them. The last two tissues, the incomplete room, the tension between my mom and myself, the remaining green paint from my childhood bedroom. They all add to the moment, are each somehow necessary, and I see that we weren’t only crying over the sudden deterioration of Sidney, but also our deteriorating relationship.

And Jo Ann Beard gave all of this to me.

Scott Rachesky is a first year MFA fiction candidate at FAU. Aside from singing Carmina Burana in community choir, being a photographer, solving imaginary murders,  and raising Unipegs, he enjoys to write…go figure. His writerly influences include Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Egan, Lori Moore, and Joseph Heller. Some people have described his writing style as similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he doesn’t believe those people and thinks they only make the connection because of the shared name of Scott.