On Saturday, November 29, I participated in activities at the Bluff Arts Festival in Bluff, Utah. This little town of just a few hundred people really knows how to throw a party. I took my eighteen-year-old son, an aspiring writer, to this celebration of the arts, sciences, and the human spirit, and having him with me deepened my pleasure in the event immensely. He’s already a part of the unusual Bluff community via his participation in a Shorinji Kempo class held there weekly, but this was his first experience with a writing workshop and open mic reading.
The theme for this year’s Arts Festival is “The science of art, the art of science.” I’ve been charting the conjunction of these two disciplines for a while as I believe this is the way LDS artists can leap into the nature writing community and related stewardship activity in good conscience. The featured visual artist this year was JR Lancaster, “a chemical engineer by training and an artist by desire.” Experts having various cultural backgrounds and training in a wide variety of fields, including entomology, archaeoastronomy, and ethnomathematics, conducted workshops and offered other presentations exploring subjects like the preservation of ancient artwork and mathematical principles inherent in Native American basket weaving. A variety of visual artists had wares on display throughout the town. In fact, the whole village, confined to a narrow strip of real estate along the San Juan River — originally a Mormon settlement, by the way – was decked out with art.
My son and I attended two festival events. The first was the two-hour writing workshop that Utah Poet Laureate Katharine Coles presented. It had a clever title: “Writing What You Don’t Know.” The second event was the evening potluck dinner and open mic. This post covers the Katharine’s workshop; a second post will cover the reading, which was quite an experience in itself.
Regarding the festival’s theme built around the intersection of art and science, Katharine remarked, “These are not disparate conversations.” But before she dove into her topic and the workshop activities, she took a moment to remember Leslie and Kitty Norris, who have one time and another been the sun and the moon in the lives of many writers, Mormon and otherwise, for many years. Leslie was my thesis chair back when. I wrote an AMV tribute on the one-year anniversary of his death. Kitty died just this last week. Her funeral commenced in Orem, Utah during Katharine’s workshop in Bluff.
By way of remembering these two, Katharine read Leslie’s famous poem, “Hudson’s Geese,” which he wrote for Kitty. Katharine said that because Kitty’s health was at times frail, she and Leslie believed she would die before he did, and that belief lies behind the story Leslie tells in the poem. Katharine said that Leslie read the report of the two geese somewhere, wrote the poem, then when back to look for the source but couldn’t find it. Katharine told us that if you google “Hudson’s Geese,” Leslie’s poem is what comes up.
It was a lovely moment of connection for me, sitting in a motel conference room in Bluff, Utah, remembering what Leslie and Kitty Norris brought to my life while preparations for Kitty’s funeral were underway in another part of the state. It was good for my son, too, though he never met either soul. But he knows something of Leslie’s influence on me and now has more dots to connect that to.
Katharine launched into her workshop, asking the question, “How do we write into something that we don’t know?” At the center of each table, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks lay in jumbles. Before the workshop started, my son and I had begun reading through The Oxford Book of Villains by John Mortimer, a book that attracted my attention as soon as I sat down and that, working upon my subconscious, might even have drawn me to that table. It’s a clever book and I decided I must get one of my own. Other books, such as encyclopedias of firearms, saints, and so on, lay heaped before us on the tabletop.
Katharine said that she collects “peculiar dictionaries.” This fact was indisputable; the evidence lay all around. Katharine told us to flip through the books and make a list of intriguing new words along with thumbnail definitions. I had a hard time with this activity because I picked up the firearms encyclopedia. I know nothing about guns and the book seemed to assume its readers understood basic terms like “service revolver” and “single action,” terms I’ve heard most of my life but out of lack of interest failed to grasp. I did discover that a certain Dutch-made gun was considered a “handgun of questionable merit” and that a ”touchhole” is the word for that opening in cannons “permitting application of a glowing ember or smoldering timber to ignite gunpowder.” My son already knew this. It came as a revelation to me.
Following our listing of words new to us, Katharine told us to jot down five favorite proverbs or popular sayings. Then we passed our lists to the next table. We were assigned to write a fifteen-line poem where we used a new word in every line – words selected from lists we passed to each other – plus two proverbs or quotations, and one or more of the party words we’d written up on the board as a group activity earlier on.
The point of the activity was to play with new language because, as Katharine said, poets are obliged to simply love the language they write in. She explained that she reads science, philosophy, theology, etc. to do that very thing, to see the “ways words strange to [her] explode when put together.” Rhyme, she said, takes you places that you reach based on sound. She admonished us to try to write something we wouldn’t expect to write, to give ourselves tools, such as dictionaries, etc., and to try to learn to light up with interest where we find vocabularies that are “charming with each other.”
The next activity I found very distasteful, and that was part of its point. Katharine asked us to imagine a person we dislike. I find the concept of imagining a person I dislike meaningless. First, it makes assumptions about how I think and asks me to pass judgment on someone in a way I just don’t operate by: “Everybody dislikes somebody. Whom do I dislike? Easy, I dislike X.” The question of whether I like or dislike someone is irrelevant; it’s what happens between me and another person that I like or dislike, and I take my share of responsibility when matters go wrong. I can’t focus dislike on another person’s being, only in how matters rise between us, and lacking a real event to consider, the exercise left me cold.
Second, I have a strong reaction against forcibly holding someone beneath the hot lights of artificial and easy moments of judgment, even as a flight of imagination; my thinking simply won’t go that way. If I had had a choice, I would have opted out of the exercise. But I understood its purpose – albeit rather bothersome – and engaged in it as a matter of form.
After telling us to write from the POV of the person we dislike, Katharine led us through a series of prompts that ran something like this:
Imagine you are this person doing some task this person commonly performs.
Describe the task.
Begin the next line, “I have always wanted …”
Begin the next line, “I’m happiest when …”
Go back to the task and describe something more about it.
Begin the next line, “I have never wanted …”
Begin the next line, “The thing I really love…”
Begin the next line, “My mother always told me…”
Begin the next line, “I always say…”
And so on. This was a long exercise and my distaste for it did not diminish. It felt horribly invasive, like I was imposing a foreign will on someone, and it took me to a dark place where I had to force myself not to destroy via language the privacy of the person I chose to profile – especially since the person didn’t happen to maintain his/her privacy in a healthy manner in the first place. I’ll never participate in an exercise like this again.
But it did help my son develop sympathy for someone in his life who had caused him distress. In fact, even though his piece was quite good, he didn’t want to read it aloud, his feelings about the person had changed so dramatically. He had become sympathetic to his adversary’s plight. For him, it was a meaningful exploration, a good venture into writing something he didn’t know. Thus I count the exercise as successful and my aversion a small matter. We went home satisfied, and as far as I’m concerned, Katharine succeeded in pointing us toward what she meant by her challenge to write what we don’t know.
In thinking about how to introduce my son to the world of writing workshops and writers, I had imagined I should start him off someplace “safe,” like maybe an Association for Mormon Letters conference. But this festival, I think, got us off to a better start. The artistic community whose spirit we enjoyed Saturday night welcomed him with gusto and encouraged him to participate in its activities. It was a wider, more complex environment, culturally and spiritually, than the Mormon one I’ve frequented, and there was a lot going on for us to respond to. Yet it is able to include Mormons who can contribute to the community celebratory pot, which I would like him to learn to do. We’ll still go to AML meetings together, but that will be just one of the several banquet tables I hope to sit down to with him as we explore the arts.