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.