I got to go back
The first time I went to the Oklahoma Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain was in the summer of 1995, a few months after a fire destroyed the lodge, its rooms and dining hall and library. I was sixteen, one of about a dozen high school students from across the state who’d been accepted to the summer program in poetry. Quartz Mountain is beautiful, an isolated chain of red crags along a lake in the southwest part of the state, but my introduction wasn’t poetic: because the library was gone, our class met in a trailer, with a limping air conditioner, folding tables, and a couple of electric typewriters that we shared. But our teacher was the poet Peter Fortunato, brought in from upstate New York to spend six hours a day in that trailer with us, six days a week, for two weeks, and I would have hung out with him in a dumpster, if I had to.
Peter had wavy black hair and a goatee, and he rolled his own cigarettes, occasionally during class. (I should add, disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer, that this would of course no longer happen at OAI.) He had been an apprentice to Gary Snyder, and he introduced us to the work of Mary Oliver, James Wright, Robert Hass, poets whose voices and rhythms worked me like a tuning fork. Peter took us on walks around the foothills and the dry meadows and up to a cave where we read aloud, and I’m about 90% sure there was a smudge stick involved. At home, I was more interested in going to punk shows than communing with nature, but I remember those weeks so clearly, because it was at Quartz Mountain that I first felt taken seriously as a writer, and that I could call myself a writer, capital W, without feeling naive or sheepish. At sixteen, that was a tremendous feeling. At thirty-six, it’s still a tremendous feeling.
Peter worked on the side as a hypnotherapist, and you could hear it in his voice: both soft and firm, careful. One day, while we were discussing some poem or other on the topic of dreams, he told us that, on a couple of occasions and with much practice, he’d been able to control his dreams by getting into a very focused, hypnotic state at bedtime. We were riveted. I tried it myself a few times, never with any luck. But I still think about it sometimes, especially when I’m working on a book and find myself dreaming in words, writing in my sleep. My mother reminded me the other day that I even named my first car after Peter Fortunato, a totally mortifying fact that I should probably keep quiet but this sentence is already almost finished and well, there you go. He made an impression.
I went to Quartz Mountain again the following summer, and again in 2000 and 2002, when I was in my early twenties, to work as a counselor and an assistant to the writing faculty. By then, I wasn’t writing anymore, not outside of school assignments, and I felt detached from even the idea of writing. It had been my teenage thing, and I was done with it and glad. I don’t know why I thought to go back to Quartz Mountain, but there I was, working for and with poets George Bilgere and Ruth Schwartz. If they noticed what a cynical shit I was, they said nothing. It wouldn’t be for another couple of years, until I started this blog, that I would start to sort it out, get out of my own way, and return to writing.
I got to go back to Quartz Mountain last week, this time as a teacher myself. Each fall, OAI offers a Fall Arts Institute, a series of four-day workshops for adults, and Oklahoma public school teachers automatically receive full scholarships(!). I taught a workshop called Writing Life, on personal narrative and memoir. It was my fifth time at Quartz Mountain, but only my second visit since the rebuild was completed, a new lodge and library and, across a foot bridge, a large performing arts facility at the foot of the mountain. I wanted to go back to the amphitheater where we always gave a big reading on the last day – barefoot, as was the tradition – and to the pavilions along the lake where the dancers and photographers and actors held their classes. I was elated, and I was terrified. Nobody hears the words Oklahoma arts retreat and thinks, Carnegie Hall of the Great Plains! or, if I can maaaake it there, I can make it annnywhere!, but being asked to teach at Quartz Mountain felt bigger, more significant, than anything else I’ve achieved. Bigger than ten years of blogging, writing two books, or having a baby, even a baby who weighed nine pounds. I got to go back to the beginning.
People come to Quartz Mountain ready to work hard. As a result, the place feels electric. I asked my students to read a lot, and I asked them to write a lot. Every day, they showed up and did the work. We read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” some David Sedaris, a chapter from Calvin Trillin, a chapter from Roz Chast, some M. F. K. Fisher. In the off hours, we ate chicken fried steak and listened to lectures on Shakespeare and watched the relief printmaking students steamroll their panels in the parking lot, and I took a glass blowing lesson in the amphitheater. I was so charged up that, for two of the four nights, I hardly slept.
It occurs to me that, while writing this, I’ve felt electric too – this manic kind of drunken feeling that I get sometimes, if I’m very lucky, when I catch the updraft of a story and it pulls me up up up and along on its momentum. I usually come to a couple of hours later, jittery and light-headed, and find that I worked through dinner. Writing isn’t often like that; it’s usually a lot of sweating and grimacing and taking breaks to eat another package of your kid’s string cheese. But that feeling is what I’m always hoping for, every time I sit down. Peter had a term for it, a term that came back to me this weekend, when a student was describing her experience with a writing exercise. “You’re riding Pegasus!” he told us, “Isn’t it amazing?”
P.S. Delancey is a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards! This is one of few – or maybe the only – book awards chosen by readers, not fancy judges. There are some incredible books and authors in this year’s competition, and if you feel so moved, please consider casting a vote.