The title of Rita Dove’s keynote address for the upcoming Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is “Silence and Utterance: The Poet’s Life.” In a conference so packed with utterance – taught, chatted, overheard, recited, whispered, shouted, discussed, rhymed, rhythmic, plain-spoken, exclaimed, sung, read aloud, muttered under the breath, interjected, bantered, (and in Dove’s case, surely set to music, surely danced) – I look forward to the spell she’s sure to cast the first night, introducing that often unsung element so crucial to a writer’s life: silence. I love the way the keynote speaker drops a seed into the crowd’s ears on day one, and it germinates overnight in our brains, and sprouts in the most unexpected places: in talks, during panel discussions, in conversations over lunch or morning coffee and muffins, on the boat ride, or bellied up to the bar. A seed of an idea sprouts among the flapping wings of puffins and kittiwakes at Gull Rock. A seed of an idea sprouts on a beach walk. It sprouts during the quiet hour of a writing circle. This year, it seems, that seed will be silence.
But so much more, as always, so that we who teach and attend this yearly immersion in love for language leave the conference thrumming, jangling, energized. In my case, I can’t wait to head to my writing room to press pen to page. In that silence that comes after, having absorbed language until I’m saturated, I sit – the taste and feel and sound of words in my mouth and ears, along my skin, drunk with ideas and new friends, a new stack of books piled up on my desk, a poem begun in a workshop needling away, an essay knocking at my brain – and what I learned, what I heard, pushes that pen along its way.
Some of us presenters are asked to monitor panels and workshops and classes and it’s agonizing to decide on just one during each session. Of the four concurrent, there are always at least two workshops I can’t live without. From this year’s line-up, how do I decide, for just one instance, between a session about the “hermit crab” essay taught by the very person who coined the term, Brenda Miller, and a workshop about “ekphrastic” poetry, taught by a man who’s written not only poetry, but a novel, a memoir, and children’s books, and who won an American Book Award: Rigoberto Gonzalez? And right here, with these two selections, I see warm, dark earth for Dove’s seed of silence to germinate. The hermit crab essay resides on the lyric (vs. narrative) end of the essay continuum, and that end is rife with silences, the silences of poetry. And ekphrastic poems, which are inspired by other art forms, require a silence, staring long and long at a painting or photograph, let’s say, until its utterance moves the poet to give it voice on the page.
That seed of silence extends to the post-conference workshop called “Sensory String” at the Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, led by Gonzalez. Here is the description:
“In this cross-genre generative workshop, participants will zero in on the natural textures of the environment to identity “seeds” that will grow into micro-prose or prose poems. Participants will gather their textures, sounds, smells, etc. from the local landscape, and then use each image to tease out a narrative or lyrical piece of writing. As strategies for growth, participants will employ such literary devices as synesthesia, language or sound poetry, and white space.”
There are at least 49 reasons to attend this year’s Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, and the theme of silence – the white space between utterances – is just one. The 18 teaching faculty provide 18 more. Check them out at:
The 100+ participants: well, that makes way more than 49 reasons.
Another reason is the unfolding story of each year’s gathering, the memories that stick. What memory will Rita Dove leave behind? Each keynote presenter imprints a mark on us, beyond a shaping idea, beyond the work itself. Russell Banks had his Hummer, sighted by locals roaring down dirt roads miles from town. After lunch one day, we meditated with Maxine Hong Kingston, and renamed ourselves. After the boat trip, Billy Collins achieved new artistic heights with his puffin haiku. Amy Tan brought her lap dogs (everywhere) and read wearing extra-tuffs. Li-Young Lee taught us Zen in the art of poetry.
In the end, it’s not so much a conference as a gathering: a temporary community made up of people in love with words, kind of like a literary Burning Man, but with just a tad less debauchery, a Burning Pen festival, not on the playa but on the bay. Which brings me to yet one more of 49 reasons to attend: Kachemak Bay itself, back-drop, shape-shifter, muse, flirt. Sometimes I imagine all of our previous keynote speakers still holed up in yurts over in Kachemak Bay State Park. Russell Banks left his Hummer in the Lands End parking lot for days after the conference while he disappeared into the woods across the bay.
And did I mention one of the top-ten reasons? Rita Dove. Here’s just a taste, the opening of her poem called “Flirtation,’ which, I’m told, is another one of the 49 reasons to attend (and also under “F,” friendships, old, renewed, and new):
After all, there’s no need
to say anything
at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares
like a tulip on a wedgewood plate.
Anything can happen.
That sums it up for me. Come silent, come stuck, come lost to words, or overflowing. It begins in quiet, no need to say (or write) a word at first. And then some workshop, some poem or story read aloud, some conversation peels the layers back, and there it is, the reason you came: the flare. Bring extra pens. Bring a coffee cup. Plan to stay up late. Bring your dancing shoes. Anything, anything can happen.
The details: This year’s conference is from June10-14 at Land’s End Resort in Homer. For program schedule and other information, see the website: http://writersconference.homer.alaska.edu/index.htm
Early registration (at the lowest price) is until April 29.
Academic credit is available.
You can apply for need-based scholarships.
Eva Saulitis, author of the memoir Leaving Resurrection, is on the faculty of the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference, and the UAA Low-Residency MFA Program. She lives in Homer.