It was mid-December, there had not yet been a frost, roses still bloomed in the sandswept front yards of Cape Cod. We were deep into our seven-month residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. We lived two blocks from the bay, where the sun rises, and less than two miles from the ocean, where it sets. As if to remind us we were living with the tides, a storm during December’s syzygy full moon swept away a waterfront restaurant and sent the seaweed washing along Commercial Street.
And we lived with the tides of creativity, twenty writers and visual artists selected each year, given a living space (and in the case of the visual artists a large studio), a small monthly stipend, and best of all, the gift of time. We had been awarded time to pursue our individual work as we saw fit—a bunch of creative oddballs free to be ourselves and able to draw on each other’s company and inspiration. In my journal one day I wrote “During this week of revising, I’ve felt the most light and free ever—in adulthood, in adolescence, in late childhood.”
Light, no metaphor on the Lower Cape, inspires both visions and canvasses, illumines the air, reflects off the water, permeates the bones. It can wake you and break you. Blessings like this are the kind for which poets are grateful.
Provincetown’s ecology is fragile. It borders the feeding grounds of the humpback whales at nearby Stellwagen Bank, where legend said the major part of the waste from the Manhattan Project was dumped; it is bordered by shifting parabolic dunes which can move 90’ per year and would have buried the town by now had folks not channeled an outlet for Pilgrim Lake and planted dune grass and dune grass and dune grass. And the Pilgrims—Plymouth, across the bay, has since stolen the show, but the Pilgrims first dropped anchor in P’town harbor and while staying there six weeks celebrated the first Thanksgiving. They deforested the sandbar. They were the first whites to show up since Leif Ericson and his crew in 1003.
I can tell you the questions most frequently asked about my Provincetown experience: Did you write a lot? The answer: No more than usual, if you count by finished pages, but every part of me was writing. Was it difficult being separated from your partner? I have never been more lonely, nor more joyous. Are you looking forward to going back to work? But I’ve been at work. The response to one other frequent question—Did the setting influence your writing? is a simple yes, for the landscape is so unequivocal that ironic answers trail into silence.
I walked along the tideline, around the dunes, in the one deciduous grove known as the Beech Wood, where once or twice I crossed paths with Mary Oliver. I talked with forest rangers from the National Seashore and cetacean researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies. I learned about my feet. My routines of walking and yoga and a disciplined study of modern Greek exercised body and mind. Then the soul could make best use of the several hours of fully attentive composing that are possible in an average day. I dreamed. I slept with paper in my bed and woke reaching for the pen. I abandoned the computer revising to which I had grown accustomed, which had seemed so convenient for about five years. Its convenience left other conveniences in the poem—stray bits of sentimentality, hyperbole, extra words and other forms of untruth. My daily mantic activity of reciting aloud as my pen flared across the page again and again from the beginning of the poem, taking it from the top, brought me back to the child who was publishing her verses at eight and who had too quickly, by adapting to praise, learned to lie. My consciousness, sharp editor, directive will, audience awareness, receded before the essence of each poem. I remembered the reason I had started doing this work: love.
My fellow FAWC Fellows hailed from Hawaii to Poland, ranged in age from 24 to 44, and refused in as many ways as possible to be categorized. Some were novelists, some were painters. Some kept a grueling and undeviating work schedule. Some let the reservoir fill after years of labors. Some were regulars at the Holiday Inn’s free nightly movie, with reel to reel projection and a weekly change of program. Some played ping pong in the Common Room every night at 2:00 a.m.
Living alongside visual artists was a rich experience. I witnessed incredible art created from driftwood and sea flotsam. I learned about sculptors who work on installations rather than separate pieces, and I collaborated with sculptor Beverly Ress to produce a page for that year’s Provincetown Arts. With more than one creative mind employed, the need for clear verbal communication obviates most of the soloist’s niggling questions and doubts. We found collaboration to be half the work and twice the play of individual creation.
The Fine Arts Work Center was founded in 1968 by a group of eminent artists and writers to encourage and support emerging talent. I know of no comparable place—FAWC Fellows are free to plan and pursue their own activities; they are given a peaceful, supportive environment in which to work; the residency period is long enough to call it real time.
At the end of April when I was packing to move home to Ithaca, Stanley Kunitz arrived to open his house for the season. When I feel discouraged, this poet’s lifework restores my perspective on the vitality and the necessity of the art. Since I was the 1990-91 Stanley Kunitz Fellow, I made a bold phone call to ask if he needed help in his garden. For a few hours we puttered, the light shifted, the gulls busied themselves watching the tideline. Pruning the ivy while Stanley, one of the founders of the Work Center, watered flower beds, I was absorbed in the work of poetry.
(Excerpted from an essay that originally appeared in The Bookpress v.1, no.1 (1991) Ithaca NY and in the FAWC newsletter, spring 1992)
Mary Gilliland lives in Ithaca, New York, where she serves on the Board of Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, the Dalai Lama’s seat in North America. Recent and forthcoming poetry can be found in Chautauqua, Notre Dame Review, Passages North, Seneca Review, Stand, and AGNI Online. (updated 4/2009)