Literary Criticism Poets

At Chautauqua Institution with Laura Kasischke (August 10-14, 2015)

  A good friend had been pressing me to come to the Chautauqua Institution after he found out about my interest in contemporary poetry. For many summers he’d lectured on historical and geopolitical matters, and because of this enduring association, as well as his evident love of the place, he’d adopted a mien of ownership: “You’ve got to come to Chautauqua. We’ve got poetry, the symphony, world-class lecturers, plays . . . . You will love it there.”

  What Upstate New York health spas and summertime getaways at Saratoga Springs and Sharon Springs were for the wealthy and privileged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Chautauqua Institution was and still is for the civic-minded, intellectual and artist. CI is fine dining for the mind, offering lectures and studies on “a vacation level, a more serious level and a professional level.”

  CI is located 17 miles northwest of Jamestown and 75 miles west of Buffalo in the Western part of New York State. Within its scenic 750 acres on the shore of Lake Chautauqua, vehicular traffic is strictly limited and most people traverse the narrow streets on foot. Within the CI grounds are spectacular Victorian mansions, hotels and rooming houses, as well as one and two family residences, whose real estate values have exponentially increased with CI’s popularity. There are also sundry places of worship and well-patronized religious societies that harken to CI’s origins as a moral preserve of the mind and body.

  CI’s very informative website states that it was founded in 1874 as “an educational experiment in out of school, vacation learning.” Within just a few years the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle began a scholarship program to give individuals who hadn’t the time or money “the opportunity of acquiring the skills and essential knowledge of a College education.” CLSC’s four-year correspondence course was one of the country’s original forays into “distance learning.” Ironically (in light of its subsequent embrace of the performing arts), the Chautauqua program was an effort “to show Americans how best to use their leisure time and avoid the growing availability of idle pastimes, such as drinking, gambling, dancing and theater-going, that posed a threat both to good morals and to good health.” These educational programs gave rise to the “Chautauqua Movement,” as “circuit chautauquas” or “tent chautauquas” brought culture and education to small towns in the U.S. and Canada.

  By 1880 Chautauqua had become a national forum for the “open discussion of public issues, international relations, literature and science.” Each week of the summer’s nine-week program has a different theme. In 2015, CI’s 142nd season, these were: (1) 21st Century Literacies; (2) Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men; (3) Immigration; (4) Irrationality; (5) Art & Politics; (6) Vanishing; (7) Redefining Europe; (8) The Middle East Now and Next; and (9) Creative Livable Communities. So, for example, in week 4, the “vanishing” theme was devoted to topics like “endangered languages as part of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project.” There was a lecture on vanishing cultural artifacts and prospects for a “digital dark age.” Another lecture treated the vanishing wartime respect for citizens and another examined the vanishing of progress toward eradicating racism. Still another lecturer spoke about the vanishing honey bees.

  Each lecturer is a world class authority who speaks at length on the subject and then invites questions from the audience. Not only is the speaker an expert and highly engaging, but the questions from the audience are often as informed and informative as the speaker’s answers. CI’s website reports that approximately 100 lecturers speak at CI each season. The most popular lecturers appear in the 4000-seat Amphitheater, and others appear in the Parthenon-like Hall of Philosophers, the Hall of Christ, the Writer’s Center and other places on the grounds.

  By the early twentieth century music became increasingly important to the CI program, and in 1929 the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra was founded. The symphony plays three times a week in the Amphitheater, featuring distinguished instrumental soloists and vocal artists. Young Artists are also brought to CI on scholarship to study and perform in ensemble, orchestral and operatic works. I saw a Young Artist’s concert performance of La Boheme that was as good as any opera I’d seen at Covent Garden or The Met. In addition, CI hosts many popular entertainers. This year attendees were treated to The Beach Boys, The Punch Brothers, Bela Fleck, Sharon Isbin, and Carol Burnett.

  Want more? There’s theater too. This year CI presented a number of classic theater performances: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel and Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Henry V, as well as theatrical workshops for newly written plays. And if after all this you need to watch a good movie, CI has a movie house where current-run and classic films are shown.

  Revolving around the axis of CI’s nine-week program are the educational classes offered to attendees. At every level, the faculty is very prestigious [see, e.g., this year’s faculty biographies]. Whether the subject is history, philosophy, psychology, government, social studies, science or the arts, Chautauqua offers a variety of classes that will suit the taste of any novice or committed student.

  Undoubtedly, the arts have the highest profile here. The Schools of Art, Dance, Theater, Voice, Piano, Instrumental and Theater are intended for serious students who are pursuing a career in the arts and admission to the programs is selective. However, outside of the Schools, are the weekly programs for the novice and somewhat more advanced (but less career oriented) artist, who are given expert instruction tailored to his or her background and experience.

  CI’s one limitation is that it doesn’t have much to offer in the way of dining. There are a couple of good sandwich shops off Bestor Plaza and that’s about it, save for hotels like the Athenaeum, the Spencer and others which require notice of your intention to dine there. A few miles from CI, on Route 394 in Mayville, are some very good restaurants like the Watermark, La Fleur and Olive’s at Chautauqua Suites.

  As my friend kept beating the Chatauqua drum like an Iroquois, I finally checked the website and saw that Laura Kasischke would be teaching poetry during week seven. I knew Kasischke’s poetry fairly well. She is the author of nine books of poetry. Her most recent book, The Infinitesemals, was published last year. Her previous book of poetry, Space, in Chains, won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award. She’s also produced ten novels, a few of which have been made into movies. Kasischke received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she now teaches, and was Alice Fulton’s student. So it I didn’t take me more than a minute to sign up for her class. [During the week she was at CI, Kasischke was awarded the Bess Hokin Prize by Poetry magazine.]

  By my lights, Kasischke is an important contemporary poet. One whose aesthetic traffics in the idea of poetry in portraiture or biographical incident, rather than in a strict rendering of persons or events in a poetical fashion. That cerebral element is what attracts me to poets like Wallace Stevens, George Oppen, Lorine Neidecker, and John Ashbery, as well as Alice Fulton and Ange Mlinko. One of my favorite Kasischke poems is the enigmatic “You’ve Come Back To Me”:

A small thing crawling toward me
across this dark lawn. Bright
eyes the only thing I’m sure I see.

You’ve come back to me,
haven’t you, my sweet? From
long ago, and very far. Through

crawling dark, my sweet, you’ve
come back to me, have you? Even
smaller this time than the stars.

  Because Kasischke taught at Chautauqua in prior years she likely knew that a number of her students would have limited or no instruction concerning the composition of poetry. This was true in my class; and from what I gathered in conversation, most of my classmates had not even read much contemporary poetry written since the heyday of the confessional poets; if they had it would be more the Main Street of Billy Collins and not the hinterlands of John Ashbery and Rae Armantrout. As it turned out, one didn’t need a background in poetry to benefit from this class, and I think that was part of Kasischke’s tutorial brilliance in this instance.

  The five-day class was entitled, “Tapping the Well,” which consisted of a series of free-writing exercises that were designed to help the fledgling poet, as much as the accomplished one. To my surprise, I learned more from this class than I had anticipated, and my experience was enhanced by the quality and variety of writing that emerged from all participants. Of course it helped that all members of the class were highly intelligent and expressive, the kind of people that CI naturally attracts. Among my classmates were lawyers; teachers; a retired medical doctor; a scholar on Middle Eastern and North African affairs, a university professor of pharmacology, and a high school student who’d just won second place in the New York State Poetry Out Loud competition (also winning the Western New York Regional competition en route).

  In the last year I’d been stuck in the revision process and was not developing enough new material that could be fashioned into poems. Instead I was taking drafts and reworking them to death. I was writing, sort of, and progressing very slowly. Sometimes the revision process worked; other times I would abandon the poem. Occasionally a new poem spawned from some unique experience. I was working on a number of things; voice, representational style, form, you name it.

  But the important thing was to keep writing, and I wasn’t doing enough of it. Of course, I handled a lot of business and “legal” writing, as well as a fair amount of correspondence. In addition to professional obligations, I also try to read a lot of poetry. I have subscriptions to numerous poetry journals. I overexpose myself to what is out there, and that is perhaps a sin of a different stripe. Another poet’s poem can create a spark that moves me to respond. But my responses were coming few and far between. The sin of a poet is failing to write poetry and the penance is the miserable feeling that time is slipping away.

  Kasicishke’s class led me out of this slough of despond. Each day’s class usually started with a free-writing prompt, for which she allowed us three to five minutes to jam. The objective was to write a prose piece in response to the prompt, “to keep the pen moving.” After the class had finished the exercise, Laura asked for volunteers to read their pieces. [N.B. Free-writing prompts are available on the internet, starting with those found at Poets & Writers magazine.]

  The fruit of each exercise would be to isolate the poetic moments in the writing, to elicit and understand the expressive character of each and the way the author had won his or her way there. In this way, we witnessed the events that would spark the future poem. She would pick out a stunning image or characterization that was the highlight of a student’s effort. There were two or three free-writing exercises during our daily two-hour class. Each night she would give us “poemwork,” consisting of other free-writing exercises in prose, at times to be coupled with a companion poem. These we would also be asked to read on the following day.

  In addition to the free-writing exercises, students who wanted to workshop one of their poems (either one created for the class or previously) were allowed to do so by distributing a copy a day before its presentation so that students had time to review and comment.

  Part of each class was also devoted to reading and analyzing poems selected by Laura as exemplars, which enabled her to focus on the technical aspects of the poetry from both the interpretative and compositional viewpoints. These poems were written in a style that was easily accessible to the average poetry reader and as such appropriately tailored for our class. [I have seen course descriptions of other CI poetry and prose workshops that look like they import a quasi-MFA experience to the class, so prudence must be exercised when registering for a given class at CI.]

  Interspersed with the work of the class were discussions on related subject matter, including how one gets published (submit to journals and magazines who are likely to publish the kind of poetry you write – although as either a known or unknown poet there is always a degree of serendipity in having a poem selected for publication); how one creates a publishable book of poetry (when you’ve had a reasonable amount of poems published you can assemble and submit a manuscript to a poetry press – the strength of past publication is an encouraging sign to editors that there is an audience for your poetry); and where does one find out about poetry contests (Poets & Writers magazine is a good source).

  At the end of the week, there was the familiar exchanging of email addresses and fond goodbyes. My personal experience with this is that one is lucky to make one lasting friendship from a poetry seminar, so my expectations are considerably reserved in this respect. Nevertheless, it is a happy accident of life when the seed of friendship grows from poetry.

Next year in Chautauqua.

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