looking back at MASS MoCA

Today is the last full day of the Boiler House Poets Collective reunion residency for 2021. It’s always amazing to be back here at MASS MoCA together but the experience is heightened after having to cancel because of COVID last year.

I am in the same studio as I was in the Tupelo Press workshop/residency that first brought us together in 2015. As I was looking back at my blog to get the exact dates of that residency, I decided to re-visit all the posts from back then. I was surprised that I processed as much as I did at the time, while realizing how much I had downplayed the amount of confusion and fear I was feeling.

If anyone is so moved to join me in this walk down memory lane, the posts start here.

wrapping up at MASS MoCA

Yesterday was the last full day of our Boiler House Poets reunion residency at MASS MoCA, such a full day that there was no time to blog before collapsing into bed. I came into the studio early, picking up a steamed milk and an almond biscotti from Tunnel City Coffee on the way.

Thus fortified, I embarked on a morning of writing and visiting places that I could photograph or take notes on for future poems. I re-visited the North Adams Public Library and spoke with a couple of the librarians who helpfully supplied some of the historical information about the building. I walked into the newly spiffed up Colgrove Park with Drury Academy/High/Conte Middle/now Colgrove Elementary School perched on the hillside above. Workers were on site at the former Saint Francis Church, getting ready to removing the rubble that was left behind after the demolition. It is so strange to look at the North Adams skyline without that steeple among the rest.

After the museum opened, I went back to some exhibits that had particularly struck me and made some notes. One was a bit tricky because the room was almost totally dark. I discovered that there is an installation showing a short film set in the upper reaches of our beloved Boiler House. I visited the Boiler House and took (yet more) photographs, especially of the upper levels that are more difficult to reach for people without sturdy shoes and a certain comfort level with industrial settings and heights.

After lunch in the cafe, we reconvened back at the Studios for some workshopping of poems and for a special project. During our first residency, which was the inaugural collaboration between the Studios at MASS MoCA and Tupelo Press, we produced this video of us reading poems in the Boiler House.  The indefatigable Ann Dernier collected poems from an exercise that we did with Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo and made them into an anthology called Verse Osmosis.

For this reunion residency, we decided to create a collaborative videopoem about the Boiler House. Each poet brought some lines, in some cases written specifically for the videopoem and in others excerpted from a larger Boiler House poem, to the group. We made a few small edits and considered several options for ordering our lines before deciding on one.

Next, we went to Marilyn McCabe’s studio to use her microphone and computer to record the audio. Marilyn has produced gorgeous videopoems, so she offered to do the necessary recording and editing. We lined up in our agreed-upon order and recorded the reading, so that Marilyn could overlay it with audio she previously recorded in the Boiler House, which is a sound installation in addition to being a visual marvel. Later, she will use photographs of the Boiler House to complete the videopoem.

On a lark, we decided to take our poem over to the Boiler House to read it there; Marilyn brought her mike and laptop to record, although we assumed there would be too much noise for our words to be heard easily. To our amazement, when we listened to the playback, the balance was very good, so Marilyn may use that recording in the final product. You can be sure that as soon as it is ready, I will post it here at Top of JC’s Mind!

After a short break, which I confess I used to shop in the museum gift store, we reconvened for a bit more workshopping before returning to our apartments to get ready for dinner. We had made a reservation for Grazie, which is on the first floor of the building where we are staying and is where we had our opening night dinner, and had a fabulous time with great food and even greater conversation.

We re-convened in the apartment living room for more time together. First, we did book signing. Copies of Verse Osmosis were passed around for multiple signatures. We were also blessed to have several books by members of the group currently out in print: several books by Kyle Laws, Marilyn McCabe’s Glass Factory, and Ann Dernier’s In the Fury. Then, we snuck in a bit more workshopping and insisted on hearing people read just a few more poems before we were all too tired to continue.

This morning, we all faced the realization that we only had a few hours left before we would have to leave. Six days seems so short! Although we all accomplished a great deal, there is so much more we have to say. The challenge is to keep the creative energy we feel here alive, without the obvious advantages of having a writing studio, an art museum, other poets available for feedback and support, and at least partial respite from household, family, and work obligations.

Yes, it is going to be a challenge.

My hope is to continue to work on my manuscript so that I can send it out to readers in the coming months and have it ready to submit to publishers or contests by the middle of 2017.

You all know how my plans often go, though…

Wish me luck and stay tuned!

Hitting the ground running

Today, I discovered one of the advantages of a reunion residency: you can immediately settle in and get to work.

This morning, I drafted a new poem about Drury High School and transcribed notes from our inaugural residency on Mark Dion’s The Octagon Room. It may well become the longest poem I have ever written. I finished a first draft which I may offer for critique later in the week, even though I would get teased for using a lot of paper!

The morning was punctuated with some local fun. Jessica and I took a break to shop at the Farmers’ Market where I bought some local goodies. A fun feature was the costumed dogs getting ready for the Dog Parade that was part of the Fall Foliage Festival. We also headed up Main Street to the Fall Foliage craft fair where I picked up a few local craft pieces, including some cards featuring local scenes.

A new feature of the residency for us this year is that a daily meal is provided. We are able to send our lunch orders for the MASS MoCA cafe in advance, so at 12:30 we can all grab the box with our name on it, sit in the cafe, relax, and eat. It was fun to have a chance to chat and listen to the folk tunes that a group of musicians was playing.

After lunch, we returned to the studio to workshop poems. I am in awe of the talent in the room. Our two new poets slipped seamlessly into the group. The discussion was insightful and reached beyond the particular poem at hand into more general craft talk and technique, which I, as a community rather than academically trained poet, find immensely helpful.

We ended just before four o’clock, so I decided to cross the street to attend vigil Mass at St. Elizabeth of Hungary. The building is familiar to me because it was my grandmother’s church, although at that time it was St. Anthony of Padua. The homily began with a story about the first weekend of October in 1987. Father Cyr reminded us that there was a huge freak snowstorm that weekend, which immediately brought to my mind my in-laws, who lived near North Adams in Stamford, Vermont. They had come out to visit us that weekend and wound up staying an extra day because a state of emergency had been declared so that they could not travel home. They were both public school educators, but schools were cancelled due to the heavy, wet snow, which broke many trees because they still had their leaves and could not to take the additional weight. The moral of the story was not to personalize unfortunate experiences. A snowstorm is not about you! Instead, as was seen in the Scripture readings of the day, we are called to have patience, to have faith, to gather spiritual strength, and to act for good. Given the animosity that has been on public display in these last months, I took heart that we can still change and act in a positive way. I needed that reassurance.

We spent the evening in various constellations talking and eating and talking and walking and talking some more. I love how our conversations flow so easily through family, travel, our work, change, poets and poetry. And Ezra Pound, whose name I have heard more today than any other day of my life…



Mass MoCA Poetry Residency: Wednesday

I started the day early with a shower and bonus blog post before heading out into the frosty morning with my wet hair, camera, and paraphernalia. I took some shots of steeples and St. Francis church on my way to breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts. As I ate and warmed my hands with a cup of mint cocoa, I called B to check in and fill him in on the happenings here in North Adams. After thawing my hands, I went out to take more photos, heading over to Sperry Ave. where my grandparents had lived and taking some photos of the Hoosic. Next, I crossed back over to St. Francis and what was Drury High School before becoming Silvio O. Conte Middle School and is now becoming Colgrove Elementary School. Then, I went to my studio at Mass MoCA and drafted two new poems, one on the Hoosic River and one on mocha sundaes. Before any one else arrived I also had time to call my mom who helped me recall some details about Apothecary Hall on Main St.

We assembled at the studios later in the morning to welcome Tupelo Press managing editor Jim Schley. First, we did a round of workshopping with a view to what we noticed about each poem. I had particular fun with the poem I offered today, which I added to recently after letting the poem rest for a year. A new version will be forthcoming after I return home – or tomorrow if I am up at an obscure hour.

We adjourned to Lickety Split, which is the cafe at Mass MoCA, for lunch and great conversation, and then prepared for a special project conceived by Ann, one of our intrepid nine resident poets. We each chose a poem to read in the Boiler House, which is a soundscape art installation of the old boiler house for the mill. We then recorded them as we stood or sat in various locations in the Boiler House, with the sounds of the installation and other ambient noise providing a new layer to the experience. At the risk of sounding like a native New Englander, it was wicked cool! We were happy to have Jim with us to join in the fun by reading one of his poems. Jim also took our photo together. The video will be available online once our video-savvy members get it ready. Watch for the photo and link as they become available!

It was a bit chilly in the Studios, so we decided to convene in a cozy living room at The Porches where one of our poets is staying. Jim gave an interesting talk on various routes to book publication and outlined the roles of the various people and entities involved. He also showed us some of the nuts and bolts of the editing process.

By this time, it was dark and we had to think about dinner. The eight women poets set out to Gramercy Bistro, also on the Mass MoCA campus. We had a great opportunity to talk and eat and talk and talk. We had some extra excitement when Kyle checked her phone and found out she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize! We continued visiting back at our residence in various constellations before finally heading to bed. I need to do that now, too. It’s so hard to believe that we will be wrapping up nearly all our activities tomorrow!

Mass MoCA Poetry Residency: Tuesday

Today was full of surprises and women’s voices.

This morning, we had a fabulous session with Carol Ann Davis. She masterfully tailored her talk, handouts, and exercises to our group of poets, with so many useful tips that I should make them into a (large) sampler and keep them beside me when I write. She graciously signed two of her poetry books for me which I am looking forward to reading when I am in a more relaxed situation.

Most of our group had a fun lunch at Brewhaha, which is close to Mass MoCA and our residency apartments, then went in several different directions. I wanted to go visit the North Adams downtown churches and take some photos, because I am writing a poem that features them. Another poet who fancied a walk on this gorgeous afternoon accompanied me as I played tour guide. I took her into the library, which was once the home of the Blackinton family, owners of a woolens mill and the wealthiest residents in the city. I used to go to the library as a child because it was so much larger than the one in Monroe Bridge, which occupied a relatively small room in the school/town offices/town hall. On Saturday trips to the North Adams library, I remember climbing the grand staircase to the children’s section. The library has since been renovated and is even more beautiful than it was 45 years ago. It also has a new, LEED-certified expansion in the back, so there is plenty of space.

We circled back to the studios. I needed to pick up my things to bring them to the Tupelo loft for a 3:30 presentation. Because the batteries in my camera had died on the first walk, I headed back up Main Street to continue my photo-taking tour. I had made my way back to the library and was taking photos of woodwork and fireplaces and chandeliers and the staircase, when someone called my name. It was Cousin Kim, from B’s side of the family, who was up from Cape Cod visiting old haunts. I had not seen her in over twenty years. As a Facebook friend, she had seen my blogposts and knew I was in North Adams, but had resolved not to contact me because she knew we were busy. We had time for hugs and about twenty minutes of conversation before I had to get to the loft and she had to head back to the Cape. It was a wonderful bit of serendipity.

At the loft, Cassandra led an enlightening exploration of the use of space in poetry, with wonderful exemplars and discussion. It was fun for me that music made several notable appearances. I love drawing music and poetry together as some of my poetic impulse came from the forced diminishment of my musical life. But that’s a whole other blog post…

I ate dinner on my own so that I could talk to B and tell him about Kim. And I got to have a mocha sundae for dessert, although it is not as good as in childhood days at Apothecary Hall where we used to go with Nana. Another poem I need to write.

This evening, we continued our reading series among ourselves. I read with my three apartment mates. We had so much fun! The others’ poetry was amazing and I so loved hearing it in their own voices. It was also fun for me to read so many of my poems at once. It’s the first time I have ever read more than three poems at an event. It was fun, even though I kept reading poems about illness and death. I did sprinkle in some lighter poems and ended with my Mahler haibun, although I realized too late that I had grabbed an earlier draft.

I get a chance at redemption tomorrow as we hope to do a recording of the whole group in the boiler room sound installation. We may even record it on video, which would be cool, especially if we get to share.

Settling in to Mass MoCA

I’m writing this from my spacious bedroom in our residency apartment with a view of Mass MoCA from my windows.

I arrived about four and we spent the next hour gathering and chatting. When we were all here, except one person who was set to arrive later, we started our tour by seeing our private studios. We have 24/7 access to our studios. One of our poets said that things get serious when you have your own studio – you really have to write!

Next we went to our apartments, which are kittycorner from the museum and on the second and third floors with businesses on the first floor. They are newly renovated with wood floors and substantial casings and trim. I am lucky to have a corner room with three windows, and lovely light blue walls. We also have a sitting room and a full kitchen and laundry. I don’t know if I will cook anything, though.

At seven, we gathered at Tupelo Press’s Loft at Eclipse Mill for pizza and Greek salad to get to know Jeffrey Levine, publisher and editor-in-chief of Tupelo, and Cassandra – and learn more about each other. We are a group of nine, eight women, although one had not yet arrived, and one (brave, younger) man.  Fortunately, he is a cool guy and not daunted by the company of so many women. He explained that he worked in a mostly female environment in his job, so he is used to being surrounded by women. He and I do have something in common though; we both grew up in this area, albeit in different towns and eras.

It is strange, though, because Monroe Bridge, my hometown, is so small that most people who live in North Adams or Williamstown have never been there, with a hefty proportion not even knowing of its existence. So, while I consider North Adams part of my home territory, where we visited relatives every week and where I and my sisters went to Drury High School, which was also where I met my spouse, there is this other side to my story which is unknown here in North Adams and complicated by how much the city has changed from the 1960s and 70s to the present.

One of the things we talked about was how we would like to balance alone time and together time during our residency/workshop week. It seemed that most people favored significant amounts of solo writing time. I didn’t even attempt to answer. This is all so new to me that I don’t know what I want. My gut feeling is that I will learn more from interaction than from being off by myself, although if I am writing from a prompt or working with a piece of art, I realize I need solo time to think and write and edit. Jeffrey is also open to us doing our own mix and changing tack from day to day as suits each of us.

I just hope I can figure out what is the right balance for me. As I had anticipated, I am on the less experienced side of the spectrum, so I think my goal is to soak up as much as possible from everyone here, even if I don’t understand it all right now, trusting that each thought, concept, and experience will lodge somewhere in my brain and re-present itself when I am in need of it.

I also hope to get some sleep.  Good night, WordPress!

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