Sabbatical Reading Tour, 2001

In 2001, Dr. Janice Moore Fuller, Writer-in-Residence and Professor of English at Catawba College, took advantage of the college’s new sabbatical program for faculty members and spent a semester abroad, concentrating on her writing. Following is her first-person account of that time away from the classroom and some samples of the writing she was able to do while away.

Traveling and Writing on Sabbatical

by Janice Moore Fuller

dylanTeaching will always be my first calling, but for years I’ve tried to squeeze in time for my other love—writing poetry. Scots Plaid Press published a collection of my poems in 1998—Archeology Is a Destructive Science. But it was a chapbook—a book of fewer than 48 pages. Since then, I’ve dreamed of publishing a full-length book of poems. When Catawba starting offering sabbaticals to its faculty members this year, I proposed to spend the summer and fall writing new poems, revising old ones, and assembling them into a manuscript.

Once I was granted the sabbatical, I was faced with the rare chance to spend eight months writing wherever and however I wanted. My daughters were grown. I could do anything. But that was paralyzing in a way. As I considered all the choices—rented cottages, artists’ colonies, structured writing programs—I had to figure out, for one thing, how to manage a balance between isolation and community. Like all writers, I need some solitude. But, as an extrovert, I can only tolerate small doses of isolation. When one friend advised, “If I were you, I’d just hole up in your loft for eight months and write like hell,” I knew from the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I would need to surround myself with other artists, at least occasionally.

I also needed to decide whether I’d be more productive in a familiar or strange environment. I love travel and the stimulation of alien cultures, but I also know writers sometimes need to feel centered and comfortable in order to be productive. To achieve some kind of balance, I decided to situate myself in places as diverse as St. Petersburg, Russia and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Looking back, I see that I probably fell prey to my life-long travel habit of “cramming.” From May to November, I spent only six weeks at home and no more than four weeks in the same place. But along the way, I discovered environments conducive to creativity, and I was more prolific than I expected. During the sabbatical, I wrote eighteen new poems and revised nineteen existing ones. I included most of these in what became my poetry book—a sixty-one-page manuscript in three sections entitled Sex Education. The biggest serendipity of the sabbatical, though, was my venture into playwriting. I wrote six short plays and started expanding one of them into a full-length script.

bothThe day after Catawba’s graduation, Keith Flynn, editor of the Asheville Poetry Review, and I embarked on a reading tour of Wales—six venues in two weeks, including the Chapter House in Cardiff, Dylan Thomas’s childhood home in Swansea, Trinity College, Theatre Gywnedd at Bangor University. Immediately afterwards, I spent a week in north Wales as Writer-in-Residence at Ty Newydd, David Lloyd George’s final home, now a writing center, where I’ve taught poetry courses before. It’s a magical place that offers an energizing staff and the allure of the Lleyn Peninsula’s coastline.

Next, I took the Holyhead ferry to Dublin, where I joined my Irish poet friend Ann Leahy for a week-long residency at Anam Cara in West Cork, an intimate artists’ colony run by an American. In the company of a sixteen-year-old Irish poet, an American landscape painter, and American actress Barbara Bosson, we wrote, ate gourmet food, looked out our windows at spectacular sea views along the Beara Peninsula, and danced at a tin whistle festival. It turned out to be my most productive week in terms of the number of new poems written.

In mid-June, I flew to St. Petersburg. A Regional Artist Project Grant from the Arts and Science Council funded my participation in the month-long Summer Literary Seminar at Herzen University. It was the only highly structured segment of my sabbatical: poetry workshops in the mornings with Paul Hoover and Sandra Gilbert, Russian classes in the evenings, lectures and readings at night by Russian and American writers like Robert Coover, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, and Amy Bender. I had never finished a play before, but in afternoon workshops with Constance Congdon and Paula Vogel, I managed to write six short plays. St. Petersburg provided a distinctive stimulation and challenge—cultural splendor in the face of abject poverty and mafia violence. Faced with the day-to-day struggle to remain well and safe, I wasn’t often able to relax into my normal writing process. I only wrote one poem in a month. But my stay there offered experiences, both exhilarating and terrifying, that I will write about for the rest of my life.

Kazanskaya Street, St. Petersburg

These chimes color the morning.
Whole bongs of no, then no more.
Mortified by such suffering
the dog follows us through town,
down, then down some more.
Nothing spilling onto the street.

This shiny sequence:
Inside the church, one stumbler
crosses himself, once then twice,
mutters, crosses, mutters.
He is my boyfriend from college.
He remembers, he forgets.

In the eight weeks between my first and second trips abroad, I decided to return for two weeks to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I had enjoyed three previous residencies. It was a good decision. I needed time to reflect on the first half of my sabbatical and begin to shape some of my notes into poems. VCCA is one of the few places I can count on to inspire me, and it didn’t fail me this time. When I drove up the road toward the familiar meadows and the silo at the Studio Barn, I felt a surge of language. My best poems came during these days.

I left again for Europe on September 17, the first day KLM flew international flights from the US. (In the weeks ahead, friends would e-mail to say how lucky I was to be away. Anthrax and exploding buildings seemed so remote in Wales and Ireland, even during my stay five miles south of the Northern Ireland border.) My fall visit was much less structured than my summer one. I spent five of my six weeks back at Ty Newydd in one of the adjoining cottages. The relative isolation there was right for revising poems and arranging them into a manuscript. My somewhat ascetic lifestyle—writing, sleeping, taking long walks, watching the Irish Sea turn angry as summer edged into fall—was interrupted by drives into Snowdonia, a visit to south Wales to interview poet Menna Elfyn for the Asheville Poetry Review, and dinner with my friends Sally and Elis. I wrote a poem “Fish Bones” to honor Elis’s catch that we shared one evening:

Sea cat he calls it,
this thornback ray
caught off shore near Cricieth,
raja clavata, the Norwegian
sceath becoming skate.

He slides it fragile and thin
onto my plate. No bones,
only cartilage we needn’t remove.
He half-lifts it, a white harp
with strings so delicate
I can almost hear its glissando.

In first grade, the teacher grabbed
my hand, stopped me
from probing my fish stick
for needles.
Where are your manners?
Use your fork.

But Mother had said, You might choke.
Find the tiny bones with your fingers. 

Mother who’d lost a baby
with lungs like flounders too small
to keep, barely veined with bronchia
no machine could coax to breathe.

If he’d lived, my brother
would have asked to hold the rod
on the long Yaupon pier.
I would have helped him slip
the hook through the worm,
cast against the waves.

And our mackerel, king
of the day, would have danced
on the planks, sea-tail lifting,
spine arching inside
the shiny vest,
his accordion gills still heaving.

On the U.K.’s Poetry Day, I was invited to read at an art gallery (Oriel Mostyn) in Llandudno in conjunction with an international exhibit on intimacy. In preparation for the reading, I wrote two commissioned poems about works displayed in the gallery and rediscovered the joy of writing in response to art.

Near the end of my sabbatical, I spent what were probably my happiest two weeks—a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center located at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan. (At his death, the legendary director bequeathed his family’s country home as an artists’ colony.) I was the only non-Irish artist and the only poet among the ten residents. While there, I put the finishing touches on my poetry manuscript and, perhaps because six of the eight residents were screenwriters, started expanding my short play about conjoined twins.

The place itself became a presence in my work. I slept in a brass bed in the Lady Guthrie Room and wandered among the antiques and memorabilia preserved from Guthrie’s rich life. I’ve traveled to Ireland a half dozen times in the past, but until this fall I believed the real potency of the Irish landscape was in its coast. I had always dashed through the interior counties like Monaghan on my way to someplace else. But I found that the elements of the landscape at Annaghmakerrig—the lake, the pastures, the gnarled evergreens—worked their own kind of enchantment. Each day I fed a mare and her two foals, and from my window I watched them go about their routines. Observing their movements—their tail swishings and nuzzlings—nudged me into finally writing a poem I had been thinking about for a long time:

Remembering Seven Horses Struck by Lightning under a Tree Back Home

This is my last walk down the hill
toward the shade, toward what I imagine
must have been the company of nuzzles,
the swish of a single tail brushing aside all flies.
Seven, huddled close, not knowing
how electricity travels from mass
to mass, not knowing
the only hope is distance.

So cool inside, the dark here.
Big enough for one softness,
seven sets of flanks, fetlocks,
one engine, one chewing,
one ear flicking
at the first flinch of light.

The lake itself was most important and mysterious—its glassy surface, a blue heron dragging its long legs behind it, a pair of swans teaching their signet to fly. I took a boat ride with a screenwriter on the lake at dusk one day. Everything seemed to float, lost in an amniotic kind of mist. The vertigo and the unwillingness of anything to differentiate itself that day found their way into the opening monologue of my play.

When I was invited to give a reading at Annaghmakerrig on my last night, I read only poems I had written since May. It seemed the perfect celebration of my sabbatical adventure, my temporary immersion into the writer’s life.

Portions of this article have appeared in the North Carolina Writers’ Network Newsletter.