Return to Rockvale Writers Colony

An antique brown wood secretary desk with a brown chair, lamp, and a window behind it.

My desk

I am at Rockvale Writers Colony again, working (as ever) on Medea on the Bayou.  I am in the Giles Hill room, which has a four poster bed with curtains, tasteful furnishings including a wonderful antique writing desk, and a huge bathroom and wardrobe. It has been a lovely quiet week, and I’ve gotten both writing and revising done.  Maybe not nearly as much as I would have liked (it always takes a little while to adjust to being in a “room of my own”) but I am pleased with my progress overall.  What I really need right now is a beta reader (or two!)—someone who can give me real, structural-level and poem-level critique.  I’m not sure what the book needs right now.  I have some thoughts about how to make it more Louisiana-ish, but it’s unclear what the book needs to actually be good.

Look, I know I have a confidence issue, but this isn’t that.  My concerns have more to do with how individual poems work as poems.  Sometimes it feels like they are really just prose in disguise.  And that’s problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. This is meant to be a novel-in-verse. Emphasis on verse.  I don’t want to write prose.
  2. Prose is fine as a thing, but the world doesn’t need a novelized version of Medea. (But to be honest, I’m not sure the world needs a book of poems about a play that was already written in verse.)
  3. If I’m not writing poetry, what the hell have I spent the last 3 years doing? (I guess it’s possible that I’ve written another hybrid piece… and we know how well loved those are (not).
A chubby marmalade cat balances on a fence.

Oliver sits on the horse fence.

Anyway, you can see my dilemma.  For the most part, these poems haven’t seen the light of day (though I’ve sent many out, and even published a dozen of them) so I don’t know if they are working.  By the fact that so many of them have been rejected, one could say “they’re probably not working, JC.”  Or maybe they just don’t work as stand-alone poems.  Which is altogether another problem.  I want them to work as stand-alone poems, but sometimes you need exposition, and exposition isn’t very poetic.

The thing I tell my students about writing adaptations is that you have to honor the original source, but in the end the adaptation is a new piece of writing and it’s only about itself  I’m trying to do that; I honor Appolonius of Rhodes and Euripides by recreating scenes from The Argonautika and Medea, but I’m also adding new characters and new scenes and new information so that readers get a fuller image of Medea as a person. And I’m also trying to maintain a strong narrative voice.  How well I’m succeeding, I can’t be for sure.  But I’m trying.

An image of a lean and handsome black cat.

Pip the shy but sweet black cat.

One of the ladies I’ve met here at the colony (Jen Knox, check out her new book, We Arrive Uninvited, available as a signed copy here) read What Magick May Not Alter, which I had left a copy of the last time I was here.  She said she liked it (yay!) especially because of its strong narrative voice.  And I think that’s true about WMMNA—it does have a strong voice and it’s good with character development—but then it should be, because I invented everything.

Here with Medea, I’m not sure I’m delivering on the promise of creating something new and I’m not sure about the narrative voice.  She’s already a known quantity as a character—am I revealing something fresh about her by writing about the early part of her marriage (as well as the plot of the play), or am I just…wasting readers’ time?  I ask myself:  why should anyone read my Medea when Euripides’ play is so perfect?  My go-to answer—“Because I wrote it”—is not what you’d call a particularly compelling response.  Do I think that someday professors teaching a classics and adaptations class will teach my book (this is assuming it finds a publisher)?  Not particularly.  But it would be really cool if they did, right?  Who’s the audience?  People who like poetry and people who like Medea for sure…but is there a broader audience for it?  What if there isn’t?

A tortie cat (black and orange) standing on a wooden deck.

Lucy making a bee-line for my legs to wrap herself around.

I’m not sure what’s brought on this little crisis of faith.  I think it’s because I’m seeing the whole collection (it’s about 96% done) together finally and I’m worried that if it doesn’t work as a collection (or if it’s prose-in-disguise), then I will have wasted my precious writing time writing something that isn’t worth a damn.  Well, ok, it’s worth at least a single damn, but you know what I mean.

I am afraid I might have another albatross around my neck.  Last year, I didn’t sell one copy of WMMNA—not one single, solitary copy.  (In fact, Madville took a net loss of two copies, which were apparently returned.)  I don’t want Medea to be in the same situation. I want her to find an audience.  I want people to know her as someone besides a child-killer. I think my book shows her in a rich full way…I think.  (But what if it doesn’t?)

Anyway, that’s where I am with this project.  I say I’m 96% done because I have a few plot holes that need to be addressed, but I think the collection—whatever it is—is really coming along. (There’s still revising to do, which drops my percentage down to 46% done, but I’m working on that too.)

In other news, tomorrow is Mother’s Day (probably not Medea’s favorite holiday), so make sure that you tell your Moms how much you love them.  They do so much for us—mine is perfect—and they love us just as we are.  Even when what we are is a confidence-lacking, attention seeking, desperate-to-be-adored-by-the-masses writer of poetry.

P.S.  The cats are Rockvale’s super-sweet barn cats.  (Doesn’t it figure that’s what I’d take photos of?)

A large orange marmalade cat with piercing green eyes.


A sleek black cat sits in the middle of the grass.

Pip the Panfur in the grass

New Poems in Hole in the Head Review

Well, sadly, I may be back in The ATL again, after my wonderful time at Rockvale, but some good things greeted me on the way back:  Jenny (of course!), and five new poems up in Hole in the Head Review.  So very grateful for their support of writers and their belief in my work!

The poems are kind of a mixed bag–they all belong to several different collections I have going on at the same time.  I was really surprised and delighted they took all of them, especially because they are basically unrelated to each other.  So anyway, if you want to see a range of new work, check out my new poems.

I hope you like them!

Redemption Sandwich

Today is my last full day at Rockvale.  It saddens me to be leaving—I’ve enjoyed unprecedented productivity in the last two weeks (22 different first drafts of poems), and it kind of shows me what my writing life would be like if I didn’t have a “day job” that takes up a lot of my creative energy and squanders it on quotidian crap.  Of course, that day job also pays the bills, so I can’t be too dismissive of it. I am grateful to have a job.  But I’ve been very grateful for these two weeks of “professional development” because I’ve really needed them.

Gerbera daisy in the garden

One of the best things that’s come from being here is meeting two new friends.  We were talking last night about how lonely being an adult is, and how difficult it is to make new friends.  But both Kelly and Rebecca have been a godsend.  We eat breakfast together and unwind at night with wine and tea, and becoming friends with them has been really remarkable—especially after the Year of Covid.  And sure, maybe friendship was born of proximity, but I feel like being around other writers, especially these two women—who are honest about themselves in a way that sometimes, surprisingly, writers are not—has been a real salve to my heart. Just this morning, Rebecca made me breakfast—a fried egg with cheese and kale on French bread—a “make-up” for the breakfast sandwich she made me the other day that was, to her mind, imperfect.  Today’s was delicious, for sure—it’s become a joke, her “Redemption Sandwich” (which she has been singing to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”).  But more delicious was her company!  I have felt too sequestered this past year (for good reason, to be sure), but I have missed human company.  Kelly and Rebecca, being writers—and kind, and funny, and goofy to boot—are my kind of people.

Mama (Little Mexico) in the mist

Another thing I’ve enjoyed about being here (besides the writing and my new friends) has been the wildlife.  I love the horses and the cows, and the flocks of goats on various farms.  But I love the other, unexpected, wildlife.  As I was driving a few days ago, I saw three wild turkeys, just hanging out in someone’s front yard, enjoying a colloquy.  I’ve seen deer everywhere.  When I was out at 6:30 a.m. one morning, I saw a whole herd of them, and the other night, when Kelly, Rebecca, and I drove to Publix at twilight, we saw families of deer along both sides of the road, eating dinner.  (So many deer!)

Gladiolus in the garden

Plus, I’ve seen hummingbirds, and butterflies, and even a turkey vulture, sitting on a post.  The rural life is really where I feel the most whole—it reminds me of Grandpa Reilly’s old farm in Pennsylvania, when we escaped the city and just could walk across his fields and take tractor rides and pet the animals in the barn.  That’s what being here has been like for me—a chance to reconnect with rural roots—and realize that in another life, I might have been a farmer poet, instead of an academic.  The trees and the hills and the fields feel like home.

I have always said I want to live in Tennessee, if the fates come together to permit it.  Every time I come to this state, something in my heart blooms. These last two weeks, my heart has blossomed from a year and a half of incubation, of being on hold.  I hope that I can keep blooming when I return to Atlanta—the idyll will be over, but the spirit of it doesn’t have to be.  That’s what imagination and poetry are for—to bring you back, to bring you back even when you only have memories to hold on to.

            Won’t you help to sing
            These songs of freedom?
            ‘Cause all I ever have
            Redemption songs
            Redemption songs
            Redemption songs

What My First Week at Rockvale Has Taught Me

A painting of the RWC farmhouse, in the front room

Way back when I was studying for my comprehensive exam in contemporary women’s poetry for my PhD, I remember sitting on my bed with all my books spread around me—opened hither and thither, bookmarks and stickies shoved in higgedly-piggedly everywhere. My love of note cards began here—so much easier for memorizing passages from poems. I could riffle through them constantly.

At any given moment, I was also reading five or six or sixteen books, and I went through so many mechanical pencils underlining important poetic passages, Bic should have given me stock in the company.  The method was decidedly chaotic, but somehow I felt like a true scholar.  This is what I imagined that the life of the mind would lead to:  being holed up with dozens of books around me, taking notes, and writing.

A view from the front porch

Real life, not so much.  But this week at Rockvale has reminded me a little bit of that crazy time.  I have been reading a wide variety of books (from Greek myth to poetry by Katherine Smith and Sandy Coomer [the doyenne and proprietor of Rockvale] to YA fiction by Melissa Marr and Ibi Zoboi to books about immigration) and journaling and taking notes and hand-writing poem-ish things.

I’ve tried sitting down at the computer directly and writing, but that hasn’t worked so well for me.  Instead, I have had some good luck writing messily, not even my best handwriting, just scribbles and scratches and erasures.  And while the poem-ish things aren’t yet poems, I have found that when I go to type them up, they’re not nearly as bad as I fear they might have been.  For sure, they are drafty as an old robe, but there are many potential kernels, waiting to be popped.

I did not come here thinking that I would be transformed (for all the experience is proving transformative)—I am wise enough to know that you take your emotional shit with you everywhere you go—but I have felt open in a way that I’ve not felt in a long time.  How can I explain?  It’s like I’m only responsible to myself.

It’s downright amazing to be cut off from the penny-ante minutia of day-to-day work.  I am still working—probably 12-15 hours a day since I’ve been here—but because it’s “professional development” time, because I am working solely on my creative growth, I feel remarkable.  Awake.  Like I’m not sleeping through my life, filling it up with things that don’t matter.  And I don’t feel guilty about it either.  I can’t check my email?  Oh well.  They’ll have to figure it all out without me.  And that’s totally ok. (It’s fan-fucking-tastic.)

Horse paddock…check out that Tennessee sky!

Of course, the goal is to produce a number of poems that can go in my new manuscript—but maybe part of the problem of the last year is that by not having a break (either a vacation or teaching in Scotland as was planned two summers in a row), I’ve kind of forgotten what my own company is like. I’ve forgotten how to be just “JC the Poet” instead of “JC the Administrator/ Managing Editor/ Teacher/ Cat Lady/ Wife/ who writes poems in her puny spare time” person.

How many poems I’ll have by this time next week, I’m not sure.  But midway through, I’m feeling motivated, expansive, and ready to see what the next seven days will bring.  If Rockvale has taught me anything, it’s that a different setting doesn’t change everything, doesn’t make you any more of a scholar than you are already, but it changes things enough to give you some useful perspective.

Yes, Virginia, I Do Need a Room of One’s Own

Ah, to be outside one’s typical milieu for the first time in 16 months!

I think about how it is when I am at home, trying to write—the cats are constantly jumping up on me, getting in the way of my computer, sitting on the books I’m using for research, whatever.  There are endless things to clean (not that I get up and clean them, but whatevs, they taunt me).  The phone rings constantly.  The emails and work fires intervene.  Someone in the cul-de-sac invariably manicures on his lawn, the incessant whine and growl of lawnmowers and weed-whackers destroying my concentration. It is hard to find a creative “zone” when too many things make demands on your attention.

Scout, with Sandy petting him

Since I have been here at Rockvale (in Tennessee, 35-ish miles south of Nashville as the crow flies) I have reveled in the almost uninterrupted quiet.  I read here in my “cell” (a beautifully appointed room with a cozy chair and desk and bed with a quilt on it from 1925) or in the fireplace room (which smells of a century of winter fires), and write in a little pool of sunlight on the enclosed porch.  It is almost like I alone have run of the place.  But there are other women here too, working on their own writing, finding their own paths.  Except for a little chitchat in the kitchen when preparing meals, the only noise is the AC turning on and off.  What must it be like to have this kind of quiet all the time?  I think I didn’t realize how exhausted and depleted I’ve been feeling until I rediscovered my own being here in this writer’s colony.  I am truly decompressing.

Mama… a.k.a. Little Mexico

From my window, I can see a paddock, and usually there’s a mama and her foal far out on the other side, nipping the grass.  Today they were over by the fence nearest me, so I went out there and got to pet Scout.  His mama (whose real name is Little Mexico (?)) didn’t come too close, but Scout seemed pretty interested in me, and in debonair Finn and chonky Ollie, the two cats who came running when they saw me.  (I can’t escape cats!)  Scout was so interested that he gave me a big chomp on my forearm—which hurts a bit, but didn’t break the skin.  Still, I’d pet him again if he came to this side of the fence.


Ollie (who is really Oliver)

I feel grateful to be here.  I think after a year and a half-ish of being shut in the house, I just needed…another house. 😊 I needed a place of clutter-free, basically cat-free peace.  (And wifi and cell service are spotty, so I’m even hard to reach, which actually, I love.) I am hoping to get some good writing done.  I’ve already brainstormed a number of ideas of where to go on my next project, I’ve organized a list of what I have, I’ve done some journaling (I know, what a shocker!) and I’ve read two whole books for research already.

Tomorrow, I’m writing two poems if it kills me.  And maybe I’ll go visit Scout again.