Friday, September 25, 2015

Your Stay at a Writer’s Colony Is a Fabulous and Frugal Choice

I’m a poet and a playwright, and as many writers like me, I find myself ever needing more dedicated time to write.  Even though I am now fortunate enough to work my day job from home, scheduling my own hours to complete assignments and attend conference calls, you’ll find me in-between those hours keeping keen watch on my computer and phone for incoming messages and requests.

By midday I may be off to teach yoga for a few hours at a time, and just when I return home to send off more tweets and Facebook posts on behalf of my employer, and maybe even then try to squeeze in writing a poem, another scene or a blog post such as this, I'll look at the clock and suddenly see it’s time to make dinner for my husband who’s spent another wall-to-wall weekday pounding that challenging turf called teaching English at a Chicago public high school.

Yes, like many writers who juggle life and work schedules, I yearn for more time to write. My writer husband definitely does as well.  Beyond that, simply as people and as a couple, we need a scheduled vacation every once in a while. Here’s the question: Why not combine both vacation and dedicated time to write, and apply for a stay at a writer’s colony? My answer to that question is, yes, I have done so a number of times, and stays at colonies have been among the most interesting, satisfying and creatively prolific vacations yet. 

I have gone solo, as well as with my husband, one time even bringing our small son along to a private writer’s casita in the New Mexican mountains for two weeks, where we mixed writing with side excursions to Albuquerque, Taos and Santa Fe. I have spent two weeks at a working organic fruit and vegetable farm, pitching in with farm chores in the mornings and writing in the afternoons and evenings in an off-grid cabin. I have served as a writer-in-residence in a circa 1835 townhouse in the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin, and stirred up recipes that inspired food poems in the culinary suite of a writer’s colony in Arkansas.

Most recently, my husband and I were both accepted for a two-week residency at Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee, (pronounced swan’-knee) situated about four miles from the heart of town, in a grand old stone manor overlooking spectacular Lost Cove, an area where writer Walker Percy spent many a summer sojourn.  I chose to apply to Rivendell as it’s a day’s drive from our home in Chicago, while at the same time knowing the breathtaking Cumberland Plateau terrain would offer a total change from our urban life in the Midwest flatlands.

I chose Rivendell because while it’s part of an estate with a long history, it has been transformed into a writers’ colony only over the past few years. Not too many people know yet about this gem. The time to apply was now!

I also chose Rivendell because of its emphasis on food writers.  The Southern Foodways Alliance holds periodic workshops at Rivendell, and one of its directors serves as an advising editor to Rivendell. The colony director Carmen and her husband Michael nurture a lush garden of raised beds near the manor house, where residents can sometimes pick lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and other seasonal offerings to add to their meals.  

That brings me to mention Rivendell’s two kitchens, one country style and the other commercial grade, where residents can prepare and cook their own meals.

And lastly, I chose Rivendell because it is a short drive from the University of the South, home to Sewanee School of Letters, Sewanee Review and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Sewanee Review is one of the oldest literary magazines in the U.S., started in 1892. And the Sewanee Writers’ Conference has been an annual event for more than 20 years, gathering poets, playwrights and fiction writers from across the country. What a literary atmosphere in such a magnificent corner of Tennessee.

So what’s so frugal about a stay at Rivendell, which requires a fee for your residency, and where you need to supply your own food and cook your own meals? Firstly, the subsidized cost of a two-week stay is far less, perhaps one third or even a quarter of what you’d pay for a comparable hotel stay, if you are accepted as a writing resident. And, just as an aside, how many spots where you've stayed offers an open-air deck where you can practice yoga on a cool morning?

I don’t know about you, but the more I learn about food, the harder it seems to find restaurants where I’d care to dine.  When establishments serve Grade A eggs or meats, it does not mean that the animals weren’t factory farmed or fed GMO grains.  I eat more organic food than ever, and sometimes the only way to make sure I’m getting the caliber of meals using the wholesome foods I prefer is to cook them myself. 

As a food poet, of course, cooking (and even drinking) are surely part of my research! Even making different popcorn recipes that I shared with other residents in the evenings helped inspire a new poem. What could be more frugal and fantastic than passing around a bowl of buttery popcorn, chatting on the outdoor patio overlooking the cove, and checking out Rivendell’s vivid sky full of stars.

Of course, frugality-wise, it didn’t hurt that I also applied for and received an Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grant to help fund my stay, food purchases and road trip expenses. 

Check your local arts council and see what type of help they can extend for writing retreat stays to help you complete your latest writing project. At Rivendell, I did just that, writing a number of new poem drafts (sometimes two a day) to add to my current manuscript, “Botanical Bandwidth: More Poems About Food, Drink, Herbs and Spices.”

In addition, it just so happened that the first week of our summer residency at Rivendell also coincided with the last week of the Sewanee Writers Conference taking place in town.  Besides the paid workshops and meetings the conference participants attended (of which we weren’t part of and costs upwards of $3,000), there was a sizable schedule of daily lectures and readings open to the public, free of charge. 

Not only did we enjoy two lectures on fiction writing and one on playwriting, we personally met some of our favorite writers who were on hand, including poet A.E. Stallings and fiction writer Tim O’Brien. What frugal serendipity!

Noteworthy to any working vacation, the town of Sewanee is surrounded by a spectacular network of hiking trails, with views that are priceless. What writing experience isn’t enhanced by an inspirational hike through the woods?

Find out more about Rivendell.


Monday, September 21, 2015

Damiana: The Natural Aphrodisiac for Women?

How many FDA-approved male sexual enhancement medications are out there? Dozens.  How many FDA-approved female versions? Zero.

One of the reasons may be because of differences in male and female sexual drivers. While male medications directly address men’s physical capabilities, ones that are currently being tested for females are instead targeting women’s brain chemistry.  

Did you know there is a natural, herbal product that also addresses women’s brain chemistry when it comes to sexual enhancement, which also does not pose any of the side affects of any of the proposed prescription medications, once any gets FDA-approval?

That natural herb is damiana.

Damiana leaf is in the Turneraceae family (ie. Turnera Diffusa) and is often included in the same family as Passionflower (P. incarnate) Passifloraceae. The herb is also known as Damiana Aphrodisiaca or Turnera Aphrodisiaca.

Damiana gives the mind a sense of relaxation and letting go. It helps when lack of sex drive is the result of mental exhaustion, when someone’s thoughts are occupied elsewhere and need to switch out to the sensual side of their natures.  According to some traditional wisdom, damiana is the “wild one who tames.”

With careers, motherly duties, household responsibilities, and an effort to maintain friendships and outside interests, many women are mentally and emotionally taxed to the point of occasionally, sometimes or often finding it difficult to relax enough to “get in the mood.” Damiana might be of help.

And as a writer, my ongoing thoughts are often occupied with my writing projects. According to playwright Eugene Ionesco, “A writer never has a vacation.  For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.” 

But I am also a yoga instructor. When practicing yoga or teaching yoga classes, I find yoga helps me to switch into a different mode than one in which I wear my writer’s cap. 

In a similar fashion, damiana can help a woman ease out of a mentally taxed mood to one that embraces more of a physical or sensual sense of expression.

One source actually claims the relaxing effects of the damiana plant is similar to the initial relaxation of smoking marijuana, but damiana is legal in most places.

I personally have used damiana for years with no side effects. And as we grow older, I can’t deny that we women may need a little extra “help” at the end of the day before turning special attention to one’s partner. Many men as they age often do as well. There is no doubt of the popularity of Viagra, Cialis and like enhancers among them for men. As far as damiana for women is concerned, I find the tincture version versus capsules to be most effective. I suggest women take one dropperful or more 20 minutes before sex. 

What would the frugal poet do? Take a costly sex-enhancing prescription medication on a daily basis and be subject to various side effects (which the proposed medication marks on each point when it is finally FDA-approved) or turn instead to a natural, herbal aid with a long, historical track record and use only when needed?

Brief historical background of damiana
Damiana was first used in Mexico since the times of the ancient Aztecs and natives along the Baja peninsula. Although its primary use is to encourage sexual desire, it is also an effective nerve relaxant, digestive stimulant, mood enhancer. It can be used by men and women alike for any of these needs, but may not carry the same effectiveness on male sexuality as it does with female.

There is even a damiana-enhanced liqueur that is distilled in Mexico and sold in stores around the world. The glass bottle is shaped like a voluptuous woman with large breasts, large belly, and full hips, modeled after an ancient pre-Columbian goddess. The bottle is often given as a wedding or shower gift to new couples. Many familiar with Neolithic art might see a resemblance of this bottle to the Venus of Willendorf sculpture, discovered in Austria and dating back nearly 30,000 years.

As a side note, there is evidence that the original margarita cocktail incorporated a damiana-based liqueur as well, versus the triple-sec or orange-flavored alcohol used today.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Create and Connect: Making the Most of Your Writing Residency

A reflection in light of the 2015 AWP Minneapolis panel discussion

Minneapolis, Minnesota
As a poet and writer, I try to get away for a devoted chunk of special writing time at a writer’s colony/writer’s residency/writing retreat every other year or so. When I learned that the AWP conference, held in Minneapolis this year, was hosting a panel on writing residencies, I made sure to be there. The following are highlights from the panel, interspersed with my own reflections and experiences when it comes to residencies.

“Create and Connect” panelists were either writers who’d done their own stints at writing residencies such as Yaddo, Ucross, Anderson Center, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center and others, or writers who also administered writing residencies at such places as Hedgebrook in Washington State or Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

I don’t think I met one person at AWP who wasn’t a writer, no matter whether he or she were also a teacher, publisher or administrator. And last count, I think there were 16,000 people in attendance at the Minneapolis conference. That’s a lot of writers!

Panelist and writer Kathleen Ossip is also a mother, and getting away from an active family to a writing residency is no small feat. Juggling childcare, children’s schedules, clothes packing, each child’s eating habits, budgets and all the prep work that comes with organizing a two-week residency away from your kids most likely takes as much time and care as the residency itself, according to Ossip. Because of this, she stresses that working parent writers deserve the residency they so carefully plan and change their life for, and need to make the most of it.

As a writer, teacher and mother, Ossip has to have her act together to make each role happen and take place with a devoted heart, and she definitely seems to have heart, balance and nerve. She bemoans the fact that many residencies that offer longer-term stays don’t take into account that many writers have children, making it difficult to be away from home for more than two weeks.

At the Q and A, I brought up the My Time Fellowship for Writers with Children, an annual fellowship offered by The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for writers with children at home under the age of 18. The fellowship includes a two-week residency with meals, and a $1,500 stipend to help pay for childcare while the writer is away from home. Many hadn't heard about it and were glad I mentioned it. Unfortunately, only one person per year is awarded this grant.

Kathleen Ossip also suggested alternatives to actual residencies for those who can't get away from home, such as one-night-a-week dinner take-out residency; one night at motel residency without the kids, who stay with grandma or dad; weekend mini-residencies organized ad hoc with fellow writers; month of July residency at home, trying to be a little more writing focused while doing everything else. Here are some other ideas for stay-at-home writers' retreats.

Other discussions among the panelists included what it’s like as an administrator to start up a new writing residency -- and the importance of taking time to have fun and enjoy your surroundings while at a residency. It shouldn’t be all work, work, work, according to writer Sally Franson. Go hike, make friends, do handstands, don’t necessarily take the Calvinist approach to your work. Franson said, "A residency is a place to face yourself and what you're into or are writing; a place to be the true you. You fill yourself back up." 

Ossip suggests honing in on your work during the day and at least earmarking your residency evenings for outside activities and socializing with other writers. She added that in the two- or three-week residencies she's experienced, she got more done than six months at home with kids around. She also added, "Don't be upset if you don't reach your goals. But you may also reach or exceed your goals." 

I tend to side with Ossip. With so many other distractions in my life in Chicago – work, family, friends, poetry readings, yoga classes, more, I find a residency away from the urban hub-bub as a time to really focus on my writing in an uninterrupted manner. During a week in a Wisconsin cabin at a retreat center, I fitfully completed forty pages of a first-draft play and several mandala colored-pencil drawings (unrelated to the play!), while also taking time to enjoy meals with other residents and opt for a few onsite yoga and meditation activities. It was an exhilarating week, a lot of effort, and a deeply satisfying start to a new work under my belt.

Panelist, writer and Hedgebrook alumni Allison Green outlined the process the women-only colony takes to whittle its 1,000 annual applicants down to 40 residents for the year. Thankfully, many residency programs are not as competitive. A special hint many panelists gave for aspiring applicants is to choose any other time of year than the summer months for one’s residency, as this is the prime time many educators and/or parents with children take time to leave home.

To my mind, residencies where a formal cost is involved are often less competitive to get into than those that either completely cover the cost of the residency or carry a nominal fee. As well, programs that accommodate only a smaller amount of residents at a time, such as the Millay Colony or Ragdale, as well as Hedgebrook, can be highly competitive. One’s state or local arts council may have grant programs that can help cover the costs of a residencies that come with a price tag. Funding can include travel expenses to and from, if such grants are available that particular year and an aspiring resident applies within a reasonable amount of time beforehand.

Someone in the audience asked how to go about choosing the right residency program. Poets & Writers Magazine maintains a Conferences & Residencies Database through which one can narrow down venues by state, type and cost, if any. AWP itself also maintains an online database called Directory of Conferences and Centers. And one of the panelists suggested the Alliance of Artists Communities

Other aspects I would personally consider in choosing a residency include how isolated the venue may be -- or not (in the wilderness, the city or near a quaint town?); how difficult or easy the colony may be to travel to (close to an airport or within driving distance from home?); how many other writers to expect in attendance (would you rather to be by yourself or a few others, or surrounded by a nurturing – or competitive – network of perhaps dozens of writers?), and the emphasis or culture of the particular colony.

At a place such as The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, I heard that residents can enjoy the best of many chosen worlds; to write all day in one’s assigned cabin with a delivered lunch basket, as well as interface with scores of other writers at the main house during dinner and after-hours activities – or not, according to one’s preferences. A poet I met at the AWP conference told me she’d been a resident at MacDowell 12 times(!!) and loved each one of her stays. Thus, she’s inspired me to apply some year soon.

I strongly feel (again, it’s a personal opinion) that the ideal way to select a residency is to pre-visit the venue itself, perhaps during a road trip to another place you’re going to anyway. When visiting friends in Burlington, Vermont, my writer husband and I made a short side trip to the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. We called ahead and one of the administrators was kind enough to take us on a personal tour. In many unique ways, the colony is the town of Johnson itself, its various venues, studios, performance centers and lodging areas dotting the entire area. However, as beautiful as the place, the town, and the people were, we both felt the center placed overwhelming emphasis on artists rather than writers among its 700 annual residents.

On a different trip out west to visit a friend’s farm in Montana, we three poet travelers stopped for an hour at the Ucross Foundation in the Wyoming foothills, again calling ahead and getting a friendly reception. This peaceful, ranch-style, getting-away-from-it-all haven with an equal mix of writers, artists and musicians had a lot of appeal – and its own art gallery and library.

Where have I taken residencies myself? I started back in the 90s with my husband and young son at La Casita in Jemez Springs, New Mexico (our little family in a little casita in a sweet little mountain town; program no longer in existence), then jumping ahead 10 years -- two residencies at The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow, Eureka Springs, Arkansas (among five or six other residents at any given time; I was lucky to end up in its fantastic, fully-equipped Culinary Suite for food writers), Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, Wisconsin (a solo residency, now for Wisconsin writers only), The Poetry Farm in Wisconsin (a work/writing program, no longer in existence), The Christine Center in Willard, Wisconsin (where I spent a week writing a play in a cabin thanks to an Illinois Arts Council Grant), and the Rivendell Writers' Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee, a newer venue in a vintage Old South mansion, where both my husband and I look forward to residencies this summer.

Want more details? If you comment below with questions or your own experiences at any of these wondrous places, I’ll be happy to answer or chat.


Friday, February 20, 2015

The Year of the Ram 2015: A Poem to Celebrate Chinese New Year

you make a mistake and want to erase it
from the board.
you tire of dabbing the bottom of the paint cup.

you want a fresh start,
to break free from the same-old, same-old,
be brand new, but still be you.

China? they know how to work with
the same old thing,
they’ve have been at it for five thousand years.

so every Chinese New Year’s,
there are reasons we clean our houses
from top to bottom, sweep away
last year’s bad luck with a broom.

what better time to wear new clothes,
make up with friends you’ve had fights with,
paint the front door with a fresh coat of red,
spread out bright flowers and bowls of glowing fruit.

and most of all, spill by the hundreds to line streets for
parades of dragon puppets 50-people long,
looping and curving into a long-life ahead,

to see lions dance with roosters 
dance with monkeys,
and watch clowns mime, 
somersault and walk on stilts.

gongs and cymbals ring through icy air
warming the winter February here in Chinatown
into a new spring we can’t yet see, but can imagine.
even our ancestors celebrate,
and clap their hands from a faraway place.

there are reasons this happens over and over,
because no matter how old our culture grows,
each year is new to its people,
we are all young ones in this ancient world,

with hopes, ideas and heartbeats
that spark and pop
like a huge braid of firecrackers,

there are countless reasons to believe
that everything we are
will fill up the next year

to the brim.

~ Cynthia Gallaher 


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Post-Katrina Mardi Gras Poem & Some Thoughts on the Holidays

Post-Katrina Mardi Gras

Katrina, huffy hurricane, howler, home wrecker,
how could New Orleans celebrate after the likes of you?

was it not your winds, but your rains that broke the levees?
left homes lopsided, lives lost or misplaced
in the wake of the flood?
how much more did you take away?

Lakes Ponchartrain and Borgne swelled and
spewed mighty waters as if from Neptune’s mouth,
south across the Ninth Ward, Arabi, Chalmette.
that God of the Sea was the one in our living rooms,

if he didn’t climb all the way up to the roof,
he at least was knocking at our door.

“But not having Mardi Gras in New Orleans
would be like not having Christmas,” some say,
while carnival floats awaiting next year’s celebration,
were “floating” the streets after levees gave way.

“Fat Tuesday” had grown so slim,
you could count its bones,
could New Orleans ever gain back
what Katrina had stolen away?

but somehow trumpets sounded, drums pounded,
whistles blew, maracas shook in anticipation,
and NOLA pushed Mardi Gras plans ahead
taking pride in its annual February vacation,

as exuberant, gaudy and giddy as it seemed,
to forget past troubles, take new time to dream.

could it happen between building and tearing down,
between devastation and renovation,
with people displaced all over the place?
could it happen among those on their way back,

and those who still had a long way to go?
it happened.

down St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street,
crowds applauded krewes on floats
with fewer members, lost to Katrina,
wildly caught “throws” of bead necklaces

and flashy doubloons that showered down,
cheered marching high school bands
from flooded-out high schools,

caught up as ever in the annual whirlwind
of lavish masks, hats, and costumes,
profuse confetti and striped umbrellas
up and down so many noise-filled streets,

while other streets stood silent amidst collapsed roofs, overturned cars,
roadways strew with muddy shoes, furniture and stuffed toys,
Ash Wednesday come early.

much disappeared,
much had washed away,
but the Crescent City felt mighty pretty
when Mardi Gras kept its day.

laissez les bon temps roulez

This poem originally appeared in a shorter form in Midnight Circus: Holidays issue from EAB Publishing 2014.