In May, I had decided to quit writing poetry; told both my wife and Erin Elizabeth Smith that I was “out of the game.” Over the last two years, my focus was on pedagogy, a tenure portfolio and an endless stream of freshman comp papers. My creative energies were centered on finding new ways to scribble “thesis,” “I’m not sure what you mean here” and “citation needed” into the margins of student essays. At the end of the workday, there was nothing in the tank to make me sit down and think about drafting new work, let alone sending out any submissions.
And yet, because I would be in Knoxville on vacation anyway, I found myself going to SAFTA’s first undergraduate poetry retreat and camping trip. At the very least, I could offer an extra pair of arms to tote food, gear and supplies up from the farmhouse to the mountain-top campground. I could make runs to the nearby Ingles grocery store. That sort of stuff. My participation was going to be limited, and I liked that.
Then, two nights before it began, Erin sent out a copy of the weekend’s schedule; the 9:30am Saturday slot read “Writing Exercise with Dr. Scott Fynboe.” I protested the next day, as we worked on straightening up the farmhouse. “I told you, I’m out. I quit writing.” Her response was a one-note laugh, followed by “Tough. You’re doing it.”
So I sketched out an exercise that night and promptly turned my efforts to lending a hand at every turn. I met our guests on Friday evening, worked to make them feel welcome, helped give tours of the farm, and drove my SUV into the hills loaded down with three people’s camping gear – all the things I’d promised. But when the group settled in with their first writing prompts, just before dinner, I sat away from the campfire, not participating.
When the sun came out Saturday morning, I did my thing and led the group in a discussion of narrative poetry. Then I gave them two sets of prompts, and, for appearances sake more than anything else, drafted poems alongside them. My first piece was just okay. It felt stilted and dull. The second one was better. Its ending was more punchline than gut punch, but the rust was beginning to break off. I looked down at the legal pad, thinking “okay, this can be reworked. It has potential.”
Something snapped after lunch, though and as the day progressed, I felt invigorated. Prompted by Dr. Darren Jackson to write about “your mother’s tits” (taking after Robert Haas), I filled two pages, exploring deep fears about my parents’ advancing ages. Later, while I did not actively write during Dr. T.A. Noonan’s exercise that evening, I made a note on my phone of ways to crack open a piece I first drafted fifteen months prior. And come sundown, I found myself longing by the fire with a bottle of Mexican Coke, offering submissions advice and giving one-on-one thoughts about how to streamline a sci-fi novel. I was a part, not apart.
* * *
Before camp broke the next morning, Erin gathered all of us around the fire one last time to write about our weekend experience. “What is one thing you learned from this?” she asked and I set to compose my own “Ashokan Farewell.”* Last to read, I wrote that all of us – the SAFTA staff and the guests – should learn the words of John Denver’s “Poems, Prayers and Promises”** as he described, in four minutes, everything that had occurred over the weekend. Campfires, personal reflection, deep thoughts, gathering with friends (old or new), it’s all in there.
And that’s one way to think about the retreat. Campfires, tents and sleeping bags mixed with conversations, talk and s’mores. Another way is to think of it as meeting new people, learning new skills. Still another is the more traditional idea of the “writer’s getaway” – a chance to change surroundings and find some privacy to write.
The weekend with SAFTA was all of these things, sure, but for me, the “retreat” was a return. A return to something I had forgotten in the stacks of 500 to 750 word, double-spaced, MLA formatted pages and I deal with in sixteen-week bursts twice a year – that feeling of being back in grad school, drinking and smoking unhealthy amounts with a group of writing friends, sharing our work in dank bars and discussing how each of us would set the literary world ablaze.
Suffice to say, I’ve stopped telling people that I’ve quit.
* Best known as the theme music to Ken Bruns’ The Civil War, “Ashokan Farewell” was originally composed as a musical “goodbye” to campers at the annual Ashokan Fiddle and Dance camp in New Paltz, New York.
** And here’s the song:
Scott Fynboe is the Host and Coordinator of the weekly SAFTAcast.
Things Scott C has done:
– DJed at WHRW-Binghamton for seven years, hosting a variety of music, game, and talk shows
– Mobile DJed weddings, proms, reunions, karaoke nights, and at least one bar mitzvah
– Performed improv comedy as a member of The Pappy Parker Players
– Acted in both musical and not-musical theater
– Written and published some poems– Shopped for a futon
– Taught English at a Florida college
Things Scott C has not done:
– Visited Europe
– Worn denim to a black-tie event
– Owned a hammock or a gazebo
– Studied dentistry
– Vomited on a retired postal worker
– Woken up before he go-go’d
– Some other stuff
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