Poetry La Romita, 2017 – We Discovered a Wider (Wilder) Eye

Crazy Marvelous Tarot Garden by Niki de Sainte Phalle in Tuscany

Oh, the world, the world,
What eye is wide enough?
What pupil sufficiently diligent.

 —  Greg Orr

………………………I want to go
howl in the city, or smash windows, or make my
life sheer shine in this miracle ache of the world.

Dennis Lee

Painting is silent poetry, and
poetry is painting that speaks.



For ten nights nine poets (eight Canadians and one Texan) rambled (rumbled by bus) and wrote our way around Umbria in Italy with a brief foray to the sea and Tuscany where we disappeared into Niki de Sainte Phalle’s astonishing Tarot Garden., as other worldly and wonderfully deranged as Bosch’s Garden of Earthy Delights! It should rank somewhere as one of the artistic wonders of the world! (For more pics of the retreat see the Gallery at the end of the Post!)

Angel on Top of the Black Madonna Chapel, the Tarot Garden

We shared another wonder of the world – La Romita School of Art , in its fifty-first year located in Terni, Umbria – with ten painters led by Chicago-based artist and teacher Nina Weiss. (Nina gave a lecture on landscape painting through the ages and included the Canadian Group of Seven which was a thrill for this Canadian.)

Painters and Poets – With an Assisi Backdrop!




Nina and her group – focused on Plein Air Painting – painting outdoors at locations where you travel – inadvertently transformed our experience. Not only through the silent poetry, as Plutarch says, of the paintings we witnessed coming to life around us where we travelled but, also, in another most unexpected way!

An Evening Poetry Reading at La Romita.

To make sure we could travel with the painters on their excursions we had to figure out how to incorporate poetry circle and writing time. My dearheart Somae said: no problem (her Jamaican blood speaking!) we will find places where ever we go, make a circle, you’ll introduce the day’s writing adventure and we’ll go off and write!

With some trepidation I agreed. Thus, our version of Plein Air Poetry began! And for me, I can say, this transformed our experience. The retreat theme was To Discover a Wider Eye and we sure did. Even though the writing adventures weren’t based on where we wrote, the poems each writer wrote in situ, so to speak, absorbed the sights and sounds and were transformed. Part of the excitement of this approach (and for me slightly nerve-wracking) was trusting there would be places for us to make a circle and to write! And there were.

The Partially Restored Roman Arch at Carsulae

At Carsulae, the site of extensive Roman ruins/excavations, we wrote in the shadow of huge funerary monuments and beside a small 2,000 year-old sarcophagus that had contained the body of a 10 year old girl. That girl came alive, and walked into many of the poems written that day!

La Romita Poetry 2017 – Nancy in situ at Carsulae writing her poem!







And yes, we wrote in the Tarot Garden!  We needed to be safety harnessed for those poems! Poems that not only were full of references to her crazy Tarot structures/sculptues/edifices (some 50 feet high) but also with tender gestures towards her somewhat tortured and fully eccentric life, its sorrows as well as its triumphs. To read more about de Sainte Phalle in the New Yorker from April 2016, please click here.

Tonya Writing at Vallo di Nera

While we also wrote and met on site at La Romita our Pleine Air Poetry excursions were special in so many ways, not the least being, how they taught me something as a poetry facilitator.  They taught me to trust and feed off group wisdom.  Somehow as a group we managed to find and agree to write from places I may not have chosen on my own. And the manifestation of this group wisdom brought us closer together and made it easier to write meaningful and, in some cases, vulnerable poems.




Part of Our Circle At Vallo di Nera. Richard, Cathie and Jodie. Courtyard and Chairs Provided!

By the time we said good bye at the Rome airport each poet had seven or eight poems from the poetry adventure handouts they had received plus any others they had written! The joy for me wasn’t just how surprised we were by the poems but how surprised the poets were by many of their poems; the oft heard where did that come from.  At times funny, at times heart-breaking, at times full of intimate details contained perfectly and safely inside the container a poem makes, these poems took us on far longer journeys then the excursion we made by walking or on our bus.

What I noticed so clearly during these days is how some of the poems dared their authors to include critical details from their lives that had never, or rarely, seen the light of day. Those Cetails inside a poem’s container did not ask for judgement nor did they receive any! These kind of details often come out at poetry writing retreats but I was especially aware during this ten day retreat of this transformative aspect of writing, of poetry.

In Part One of my introduction to the retreat I included a poem by Canadian poet Denis Lee.  I think it is safe to say we experienced a big chunk of the mystery he talks about in his poem. We lived, breathed inside, as Lee says: this miracle ache of the world!


Can’t talk about it,
don’t know if anybody else even gets it,
animals live in it, maybe they don’t know it’s there,
little kids the same;
grownups are oblivious – situation normal.
Half the time I just mooch along, then I laugh too loud.
But it catches me late at night, or in winter when
branches glow with snow against the bark, or some dumb old
song cracks me up and I want to go
howl in the city, or smash windows, or make my
life sheer shine in this miracle ache of the world.

Dennis Lee ( 1939 – ) from Heart Residence, House Of Anansi, 2017

With special thanks to Sheila Conner for some of these photos!

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