The 2020 Recovering Words’ Virtual La Romita Poetry Retreat!!! Covid- 19 Kiboshed the On-Site Umbrian Version So We Meet Online Instead!

Sunset from La Romita School of Art, Terni, Umbria, Italy, June 2019: Photo Credit: Liz McNally

Nancy writing “en plein air” at Villa Lante, June 2019

A Cento by Nancy Issenman

Say Yes

Sniff the naked page
It is time to praise!
white ash, sassafras

so beautiful on the tongue
waves of language across the skin
(makes) all the world a page

I have to say yes.
I can smell this poem
as one layer devours the next

your calligraphic hand
wraps around our tongues,
like music, portals open

to earth the earth inside you,
furtive thieves of seeds, all goodbyes
wrapped up here, too small to see

river runs narrow and brief

mine is a small threshold of knowing
so tame so predictable so lonely so silent
bowed head, I am

— June 13th, 2020

Welcome, sort of, to the 2020 Recovering Words Virtual La Romita Zoom Poetry Retreat! This cento by poet Nancy Issenman is from lines of poems our seventeen poets have been writing based on “adventures” I have been giving them. Thank you Nancy. She’s become our Cento poet and is writing her own poems as well. What a blessing, this retreat!

Poets writing in Spoleto, Oct. 2018


I was so pleased when I filled my 2020 La Romita ten-day poetry in Italy last year! Eighteen of us writing en plein air in Umbria and Tuscany from June 11th to 21st! Then Covid-19 had other ideas. No more retreat or so I thought. I kept wondering if there was something I could do to keep this group somehow! No ideas until I phoned my friend Sarah in Calgary. She had signed up for this year’s retreat and she told me so was going to keep that holiday time and celebrate each day with some Italian food and clothes she was going to wear in Italy!!! And watch videos of our favorite cities and towns we would have visited like Spoleto, Todi, Assisi and Perugia.

That’s it, I thought. A Zoom retreat. Five sessions of three hours each and a final session celebrating book and paper constructions inspired by Terry Ann Carter who was going to spend a full day during our on-site retreat in Italy for book making and paper constructions featuring lines of our poems written there. Then and there I asked Sarah if she would collaborate with me. Organize the Zoom meetings and receiving and putting all the poems on line as we read them. And sending out daily videos. She said yes! Let me tell you this wouldn’t be happening without her!

Word bowl by poet and paper artist Terry Ann Carter

And so I called Terry Ann. Could she give us examples during the retreat that we could share and celebrate in the last session? Yes! Then I sent out the invite. Eleven of us from this years retreat said yes. And six alumni from previous retreats!

I am so looking forward to our last session and seeing what people have been making as well as the incredible poems that they have been writing from the writing “adventures.” Four done so far. One to go! And I am looking forward to the Italian meals taken from the la Romita cookbook that we will have all made and will eat, with some wine, on Zoom!

To give a flavor: here is a reflection I wrote before the retreat for one of the sessions:

LA ROMITA ZOOM RETREAT – June 11th to 21st, 2020

Some Lines of Poetry, Thoughts, a Poem and Some Quotes
Richard Osler, June 6th, 2020

To build this language house. To make this case. Create.
This loving which lives outside time. Lord, this is time.
—Christopher Gilbert from Turning into Dwelling

I am here in early June at my desk flooded, as I am before a retreat I am leading begins, with confusions pf poems, quotes and my own apprehensions. And so many questions. What is poetry? Why does it matter? Why are we drawn to write it?

And I think of the epigraph above by the Black American poet Christopher Gilbert. What an idea to remember as write during this retreat. Create. This loving which lives outside of time. And I think of other lines of Gilbert brought to my attention by the prize-winning Black American poet Terrance Hayes, and Gilbert’s repetitions of “I am.” “I am.”

……………………………………..The ID bracelet
I’ve been wearing since I got here will say for me,
“I am.” The scar the surgeon left as a signature
on my belly’s right side will say “I am.” I am
I feel a gathering possibility passing from temporary
articulation to articulation the way the horizon
arises in the sun as a series of evident illuminations
while the earth spins clockwise toward futurity.
When Ithe time comes I’ll rise and say, “I am.”
I’ll gather all my questions, step into their midst
and say, “I am.” I am. I am.
—Christopher Gilbert from Christopher Gilbert: An Improvisation, in Across the Mutual Landscape, Graywolf Press, 2018

And for this moment as I read these lines I ease back and breathe deep into my lungs and I know, I know what poetry is. I know why it matters. I know why I am drawn to write it. Sing it with me: because I am, I am, I am. We are, we are, we are.

Ars Poetica – Unable To Be At a Poetry Retreat in Italy

Poetry is a structured language of “sono” – “I am.”
Poetry matters because “sono” – “I am.”
Poetry draws me because “sono” – “I am.”

I am—alive during the time of Covid-19 and
I can say contagiato – infected
I can say deceduto – dead
I can say guarito – recovered

I am—alive during the time of “Me Too” and
I can say you are mia madre – my mother.
I can say you are mia sorella – my sister.
I can say you are mia figlia – my daughter

I am—alive during the time of “Black Lives Matter”.
I can breathe and say dimmelo, ti prego – please tell me.
I can breathe and say dimmelo, ti prego – please tell me.
I can breathe and say dimmelo, ti prego – please tell me .

Poetry is how I ask: dimmi chi sono? – tell me who I am?
Poetry is how I ask: dimmi chi sono? – tell me who I am?
Poetry is how I ask: dimmi chi sono? – tell me who I am?

Richard Osler, unpublished

And when these last lines came to me I realize I must keep asking: who am I. Poem after poem. And will I ever know the answer to this? And I realize I never live outside the context of events around me. How they change me, my “I am”. How my poems write me differently after Covid-19, Me Too, Black Lives Matter and the killing of George Floyd.

As Christopher Gilbert says in his poem Horizontal Cosmology: My face is a mask. Everyone wears it./ When I take it off there’s another face./ I turn around to you, you this moment/ I have come to empty-handed and not myself.

And maybe I am thinking of poetry, masks and who I am because we are about to begin our retreat by sharing Self-Portrait poems. And this idea of masks has already come up in my introduction to that pre-retreat adventure.

Maybe every time I write another mask slips off. And as I think of masks I think of shape-shifting, a fluidity and changeability of forms and thinking and I come back to Terrance Hayes’ idea of the poetics of liquid. This is from his recent and wonderful personal biography and auto-biography of the Black American poet Etheridge Knight all wrapped up in one book. That fluid shifting from one life to another.

And as I read Hayes I marvel at how fluid a poem can be And how I only understand that by writing. Hayes says: the best way to grasp the wonder of poetry is to make poetry. Making involves actions, not deduction. It involves wading into the restless liquid of language.

Oh, how I hope you are already experiencing this as you flowed through the liquid of language as you wrote your pre-retreat poems. Maybe this liquid as Hayes writes:

The poetics of liquid is the poetics of wind. The poetics of liquid is the poetics of escape, the poetics of doors and windows. The poetics of liquid is the poetics of hallucination. It is the poetics of blood. It is the poetics of feeling. It is akin to the poetics of love, it is akin to the poetics of pleasure. The poetics of liquid is the poetics of huinger. The poetics of liquid is the poetics of the self; the poetics of liquid is the poetics of reflection, reflective minds and reflective mirrors; a place to reverse the place, a face to reverse the face…..poetics is a reflection of a being being.
Terrance Hayes from To Float In The Space Between, Wave Books, 2018

Poetics is a reflection of a being being. I know we will see this in your poems. And how much I see it in the poem that sits at the heart of Hayes’s book. Each section heading includes lines from Etheridge Knight’s  poem: The Idea of Ancestry. And the title, To Float In The Space Between comes from it as well.

The Idea of Ancestry


Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.

I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”

Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the old
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)

This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.

Etheridge Knight, from The Essential Etheridge Knight, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986

How fluid can you get: I am all of them, they are all of me, I am me, they ar e thee. And the heart-breaking line that flows from the others, that he will not be a direct ancestor of anybody: and I have no children/ to float in the space between. And especially at this time of being so aware how differently black lives are treated in a white-dominated world this idea that all his ancestors are all of us feels like such a generous inclusion.

I promised quotes and here they come. But first this idea of poetry being a reflection of a being being brings me back to my conviction that the more we bring of ourselves into our poems and the more we keep making bigger selves the better. You can hear reflections of this in these quotes by Ocean Vuong, Dorianne Laux, Natalie Diaz, Jane Hirschfield and Seamus Heaney.

The language we use to communicate with one another is often one of distance and hyperbole. The risk is that we end up dismissing or, at worst, shunning the particularities of an idiosyncratic life…poetry creates a space where we don’t have to clear our throats, where we can be as strange and obsessed as we actually feel. And someone can read these thoughts and hopefully recognize their own strangeness and uniqueness as a human being. In this way, poetry is the side door to our inner selves, where we can see one another, without shame, more closely. Because maybe it’s these things that make us care for another: when we can recognize each other’s fears, vulnerabilities, joys, and histories.
— Ocean Vuong from an interview with Tanya Olson in Split This Rock, Feb. 15th, 2016

That seems to me what poems do. They call out to us, not by just any name, but by our particular name, and keep us tied to the world by accessing our memories. Poems keep us conscious of the importance of our individual lives……When we write a poem of personal witness, a poem about an ordinary day, an ordinary life, seen through the lens of what Whitman called “the amplitude of time,” we’re struggling to find the importance of the individual who is stranded in the swirling universe, a figure standing up against the backdrop of eternity. I think of the fisherman’s prayer: Dear Lord, be good to me / the sea is so wide / and my boat is so small.
— Dorianne Laux in Conversation with Dana Guthrie Martin, in Read Write Poem Poet, 2006

The foundation of poetry has never been those of us who are in the “mainstream” or those of us eating dinner off it. I wish that poetry shakes those foundations not reiterates them. I don’t know what it means to be a poet right now, and I’m working hard to be a person first.
— Natalie Diaz on Twitter, June 5th, 2020

I felt that I’s never make much of a poet if I didn’t know more than I knew at that time about what it means to be a human being…. I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.
— Jane Hirschfield from I Would Lie to you if I Could – Ten Interviews with American Poets, Charles DeNiord, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018

Learning the craft is learning to turn the windlass at the well of poetry. Usually you begin by dropping the bucket halfway down the shaft and winding up taking of air. You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpected tight and you have dropped into the waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin of the pool of yourself. Your praties (potatoes) will be ‘fit for digging’.

At that point it becomes appropriate to speak of technique rather than craft. Technique, as I would define it, involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of metre, rhythm and verbal textures; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality. Seamus Heaney from Feelings into Words in Finders Keepers, Faber and Faber Limited, 2002

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *