Thanks to Jane Seitel, whom I had the pleasure of meeting during this summer’s Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, for her review of BreadLoaf’s program in Sicily.
Jane Seitel is an Expressive Therapist and writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. She received her M.S. in Education from Lesley University and her MFA for Poetry in the Poetry and Poetry in Translation Program at Drew University in June 2011. Her work has appeared in Lilith Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Bridges, and The Journal of Feminist Studies In Religion & Split This Rock as the poem of the week. In 2010, she received The Charlotte Newberger Prize for poetry.
Notes From Sicily: The Scent of Poetry
Being an old dog poet, I’ve been prowling around this summer—nose pointed downwind, and have managed to snatch some exotic whiffs of the good stuff. Now Italy in general has been a veritable garden of poetic delights through the ages: think Sapho, think Virgil, think the first sonnets in Italian of Petrarch and the first Hebrew sonnets of the Italian Jew Emmanuel of Rome written ten years before the first sonnets in Italian. Then think the modern masters Montrale, & Quasimodo (both won Nobel Prizes) & you are only getting started at the poets themselves—before even considering the genius forms of poetry invented by the Italians—sonnet forms, villanelles, sestinas, terza rima, octavio rima, not to mention all the delectable morsels of the sound and music which makes poetry wag a joyous tail.
I came to the Bread Loaf in Sicily Conference this September, fresh off the Bread Loaf Mountain in Vermont, having just attended that conference. It turned out that the New England peak was only a foothill compared with the setting of Erice—literally translated, The Mountain of God. And God was it ever a mountain—leaping over a landscape below of vineyard & olive grove, the salt flats of Western Sicily, the stone quarries dug from craggy hills & the brilliant azure of both the Tyrrhenian & Mediterranean Seas, with the Egadi Islands—promontories floating like ghost ships towards the horizon. In retrospect I stretched to come here for the setting as much as for the offering of poetry, and yet, here poetry was the landscape, the terrain, the music of the Italian language itself heard in ordinary conversation, as well as bird song, the barking of stray dogs, the wake up calls of roosters. But if I came away from Sicily Bread Loaf more inspired than from Vermont, it is probably idiosyncratic to being me. In Italy, there was more intervals, more space at which bell’ Italia moves. My rhythm adapted to the days—the pink sunrises, the before breakfast walks around the two mile circumference of the town’s walls. After a morning of poetry and a craft lecture, there was a leisurely lunch with wine and three courses, time to write or meander or daydream, followed by the sunset readings, the façade of a medieval church as a backdrop, the fading sea and hills to glance off to every now and then, poetry in my ears.
I might say much of my positive afterglow is due to Michael Collier, himself a wonderful poet & teacher, who has been The Director of Bread Loaf for twenty years. He found the location, had the impulse to set it as a conference, and does a fabulous job at both the domestic and off shore conferences. Noreen Cargill is his right hand woman, coordinating the workshop anthologies, setting up the details for rides from the airport, restaurant schedules, and pre-conference, fielding all those letters with all those questions from participants. Then there is Michael’s beautiful wife, Catherine who speaks Italian and graces the conference with a warmth and wonderful presence, and a knack for setting folks at ease and providing comforts for the occasional physical distress that sometimes visits travelers—remedies for headaches, tummy aches all seem to be present in Catherine’s backpack. Further, the conference is held at a lovely hotel, Villa Giovanni that is graced by fabulous views, a caring staff, and delicious food. As for our teachers, these are folks like Lynn Freed (fiction) Edward Hirsch (poetry) Jane Brox (prose) Marianne Boruch (mixed genre)— and all from received glowing reports from the students. My time for learning was with Ed Hirsch, a man I have long respected both as a poet and a man which an encyclopedic knowledge of poets and poetry. He exceeded my already great expectations! Not only did the talented poets (as talented as at the main campus, with seven in the class) take in valuable feedback on the poems—all was done in a spirit of humility, generosity. Everyone felt respected, honored and yet coming out of it everyone knew that Ed’s expectations were we could all write better poems, and there were additional skills, which we learned from him. Ed asked us (to ask ourselves) “What is keeping each poem from fulfilling its promise—how it could be better?” And he voiced the feeling that each of the poets in the group were “not beginners” and that each person could look at a poem knowing by poetic instinct what needed revision. Such confidence inspires confidence.
This workshop isn’t for everyone, I realize. But for me, simply making this odyssey to Sicily, by stretching—not only financially, but physically & psychologically to travel half a world for poetry, solidified in my mind that indeed my poetry was not just the fancy of some old hound, not just puppy love either, but that passion that revels in dogged devotion; that makes my old tail wag, my eyes flash.