In the Spring of 2011, I arrived at the Banff Centre for The Arts, to undertake the 'Writing With Style' program, a seven day residential writing course. There were thirty-two participants, divided into four genres, each group lead by a renowned published writer. It was overwhelming to be in the company of so many accomplished Canadian writers, many with published works and extensive experience in the literary field. And there I was, a humble high-school English teacher from Australia, someone who had merely dabbled in poetry and scribbled in somewhat self-indulgent journals for the past twenty years. My self-confidence was dinted slightly when one of the published authors read a piece that denigrated blogging, describing the word 'blog' as a "vomitous sound that an alien might make". I wondered if this somewhat pompous attitude stemmed from ignorance of the scope of the blogging world, resentment at the idea of writing no longer being exclusive to the educated elite, and perhaps some antipathy caused by the associated threat of self-publishing. Needless to say, I was immediately resolved not to read any of her books, and relieved not to be in her workshop group.
Fortunately, my poetry group consisted of the nicest, most supportive people (and I'm not just saying that in case any of them happen to read this post one day), so the task ahead did not seem as daunting or alienating. During our daily workshops, nightly readings and writing exercises, we shared so much of ourselves and our perspectives on life, through our art and because of it. The personalities, abilities and insights of those six poets was a gift surpassing monetary value. I can't recall an educational experience more rich, challenging, stimulating and fulfilling.
Of course, the physical setting contributed to the inspirational atmosphere. Surrounded by mountain vistas and wildlife, I must have taken a record number of photographs, certain that one day I would use them in some incredibly creative way. It would be remiss of me not to mention the meals, a smorgasbord of succulent meats, chicken and fish marinated in delicious sauces, tasty vegetarian dishes and a dessert selection that would tempt anyone away from their bowl of fruit. The free wine with our evening readings reinforced the sense of this experience being a rare indulgence, to be savoured with each sip.
For me, the significance of any learning experience lies in the quality and depth of the connections made with self and others. Our poetry group quickly earned a reputation for being the most animated, with raucous laughter emanating daily from our workshop space. As our teacher, highly-esteemed poet and educator Carolyn Smart explained, we laughed to gain much needed relief from the gamut of emotions we were exploring in our poetry. In addition to her brilliant mentorship and editing prowess, we were treated to readings from Carolyn's new book, Hooked, a collection of poems exploring the lives of 'seven famous or infamous women'. From Carolyn, I learned that poetry was meant to be read aloud, that overuse of adverbs and adjectives can detract from the strength of an image, and that the didactic voice should be avoided. From the group, I learned that the poetic impulse must always be followed and that writing poetry truly is the best way to work through those experiences in life that threaten to damage our spirit and suppress our emotional selves.
Poets at our morning workshop (sans Emily)
In addition to learning how to craft effective poems, I connected in a special way with each group member. I enjoyed morning meditations and afternoon walks with Marina, a spritely 'mature-aged' woman with a youthful energy. Marina's poetry shone with her passion for language and exquisite attention to nature.
Marina, the intrepid adventurer
The youngest in our group was Anna, a Harvard graduate whose poetry reflected her sharp intellect and acute observations of everyday life. Danny's poetry spoke to me of the importance of living a simple, honourable life in harmony with nature, family and our fellow man. Danny affectionately dubbed our group the 'peace poets' in honour of Mary Aitken, who shared a powerfully poignant collection of poems dedicated to Peace, reminding me of the salience of activism through artistic endeavour. Finally, the poetry of published YA fiction author, Emily Pohl Weary impacted me on many levels, resonating with social justice themes, challenging power inequalities and providing a voice for the silenced and disadvantaged. I had the privilege of discovering these special people through conversation and poetry, recognising a little something of myself in each of them.
Poets on balcony (avec Emily, sans Mary)
This unique experience awakened aspects of myself that have been relatively dormant for twenty years, making brief appearances only at times of extreme emotion. It summoned that mystical poetic spirit that transcends the everyday, transforming pain into an emotion we can live with. I was reminded of my own capacity for observing the internal and external world, my love of words and images, and the imperative to write, write, write. Since returning from this writing retreat, I have been to two poetry readings, purchased a few books and joined a writing group. My literary ambitions are modest and realistic, for the time being. I know my talents lie in the classroom, in the work I do with young people and in educational leadership. And yet, there has always been this urge to write, for myself and now, perhaps for others.
If you are ever presented with an opportunity to give yourself a gift such as this, I strongly suggest you take it without hesitation. Alternatively, create your own 'Writing With Style' experience. Travel to a picturesque natural environment, gather a group of like-minded people with similar passions, pack a spirit of creativity and adventure, equip yourself with writing tools and a camera, and fill yourself with good food and wine. Pause every now and then to gaze at the horizon. You won't regret it.
Causes Cindy Sullivan Supports
Plan: 'Because I'm a Girl'
Fred Hollows Foundation