Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Goddard Experience

Excerpt from Mirror Talk
Copyright © 2010 by Barbara Alfaro

Every literature student wanted Mark Doty as her adviser. Mark Doty, so poetic you felt he had read the finest translation of Rilke when only a toddler. Mark Cox, another adviser, was a former steamfitter or something equally as rugged. Doty and Cox were affectionately called “the Marks.” Even the titles of their books reflected their public personae, Doty’s Turtle, Swan and Smolder by Mark Cox. I overheard a young student ask another to define passion. Her friend replied, “Going to the opera with Mark Cox.” “But I don’t like the opera” volunteered the questioner.

Goddard College with its big barn and red, yellow and blue wood dorms looked more like a summer camp than a college campus. When I worked as a production secretary at ABC in New York I attended Fordham University in the evenings, wolfing down a tuna salad sandwich and rushing to classes at the Lincoln Center campus – and discovering to my consternation I could disagree with my philosophy professor and still get an A. But resigning from ABC meant their tuition refund ended. Twenty years later, working for a publishing house, I applied for a tuition refund and registered for the low-residency program at the small liberal arts college in Vermont known as “the hippie school.” David Mamet and William Macy are alumni, along with many volatile vegetarians. For all my indignation at corporate America, their tuition refund programs made my college education possible. I suppose if I hadn’t retired early I might have a graduate degree. I thought the degree would change my life. It didn’t; it just looks rather pleasant on a resume.

I stayed in a quiet, non-smoking dorm. My friend Ann stayed in a “cool” dorm that had its own bar and an impressive amount of marijuana available. Ann fell in with a small clique who called themselves “the campus cats,” enjoyed gossip, and a local biker bar. In our forties, Ann and I were like the respected “elders” of a tribe since we’d both actually attended the original rock and roll concerts. My roommate was a rabbi whose husband was also a rabbi. Returning to my room after a poetry workshop, I’d hear the sweet sound of her playing the ram’s horn. Reading or writing poetry at my desk, I’d pause between stanzas to look at the lush Vermont woods. A journal entry made my first summer residency at Goddard reads: “Last night when I turned in bed to find a more comfortable position I accidentally saw a kind of dark perfection through the window. The round dusty trees and sky seemed connected to a single star somewhere to my right.” These exquisite dreamlike moments were balanced by the occupants of the room next to mine – the only belligerent Quaker I’ve ever met and a snoring nun. The summer moon in Vermont is gigantic and seems so close it is kissing the shoulders of trees. I remember walking on the long path between the library and the dorms one evening almost convinced the moon was stalking me. That is the way I think when I focus almost entirely on poetry. The winters were so cold my teeth hurt walking to classes. We all wore longjohns under our clothing and bundled ourselves like children on snow days.

Large circles of adolescent and middle-aged students, mostly women, were taught “how to” write poetry. We became a bit snobbish about rhymed poetry and slyly judgmental toward traditional, structured form. Veiled, never voiced, the preference at Goddard was clearly for free verse and confessional poetry. We were taught that free verse isn’t really that “free” if well written. Before Goddard I had discovered William Blake, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell “on my own” but Goddard and the Marks introduced me to Rilke, Paz, and Neruda, Galway Kinnell, Andrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney and Mark Strand. I remember writing poems in the garden surrounding “the Witches’ Well” but I don’t remember the legend concerning the witches. I imagine they practiced their craft on that very spot and it was not writing poetry. Evenings, lit students debuted their poems and themselves at poetry readings, singing like crickets praise of works that were read by others. We all seemed generous and happy and as far from scholarly as the planet Neptune. I couldn’t fathom why I was so nervous reading my poems in a roomful of kindred spirits when in the past I’d acted calmly before audiences of thousands in Shakespeare in the Park. Later, I realized it was because my thoughts, not those of a genius playwright, were being shared.

“The Goddard experience” as alluded to by the faculty, included a recital where for the first and last time I heard a cow’s jawbone played as a musical instrument. The musician wore overalls and a not exactly clean T-shirt. A friend assured me playing an animal’s jawbone was not uncommon in rural areas. It was a lot to absorb for a New Yorker used to jazz clubs and Bloomingdales. Another theatrical event at Goddard was an all nude dance performance in the barn. Belly down, flat, splayed out, the dancers slid across the wood floor as I worried they would get splinters in indelicate locations. Demonstrating my almost religious disregard for the practical, I chose classic fairy tales for my senior study. Surely, every prospective employer would like to chitchat with me about The Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairytales by M.L. von Franz.

I love looking through my poetry books from that almost enchanted time and seeing which pages I dog-eared and which poems I blessed with multiple exclamation marks – two for wonderful, three for divine. For some poems, Rilke’s “The Swan,” Neruda’s “Dream Horse,” pencil marks and dog-ears seemed sacrilege so I’d type these poems in their entirety and keep them nearby. In his essay, “Poetry in the World,” Mark Strand touches on how comfortable people are not caring about poetry. I always suspect people who say poetry isn’t for them haven’t read much poetry. “Proverbs” by Octavio Paz, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson and “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop ought to convert readers to noticing poetry is for them. Massimo Troisi, the Italian actor, knew he was dying of a heart condition, yet completed his gentle and moving performance in the film “Il postino.” This beautiful film brought Neruda’s poetry to filmgoers in the same way Tom Hulce’s perfect Amadeus in that extraordinary film brought Mozart’s music to new listeners.

I’ve never understood writers who say writing is torture. For me, writing is a joy and a kind of alchemy. Pain through distance and distillation can be transmuted into something else, sometimes humor. And humor heals. Years ago, recently divorced and almost broke, I was suffering from a long and severe depression. When shopping in a local supermarket I was about to pass a store clerk who was standing on a low shelf in order to arrange cereal boxes on a high shelf when he lost his balance and fell, fanny first into my empty shopping cart. Startled and amused, we both laughed and I blurted, “Have you fallen for me?” I actually felt my depression kicked away in an instant by this accidental humor. I imagined the gods on Mount Olympus giggling. When not being downright cruel, these cloud clowns like to pull this sort of prank. Thalia to Zeus:  “Daddy, she’s being morbid again. Let’s push a handsome young man into her grocery cart!”

Because of my Goddard experience, I began to take myself seriously as a writer. I was thrilled when my poem “Oddly American” was accepted by a respected poetry journal. I was also thrilled when the editor of the journal called to ask my approval before making a minor grammatical change in the poem. Having worked as a secretary for so many years, respect was a foreign substance. Writing has always had a healing affect on me especially during difficult times. Music also has a healing affect, whether Antonio Vivaldi or David Byrne, there is that gentle jump in the heart that signals joy. Once in a dream I heard a voice say, “Still, the music plays.” The music played at Goddard and does still.

“The Goddard Experience” is an excerpt from Mirror Talk, my award-winning memoir about a Catholic girlhood and working in theatre.


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