Reflections on Poetry Barn's First Retreat

by Ryan Clinesmith, editor, The Poetry Distillery

On the first day of Poetry Barn’s first annual Peak Color Retreat, while I stood in the barn as I have done many times before, the importance of the moment held a weight that I had not expected. Perhaps because Second Draft Sundays and the new lending library have both been creating an electricity within the stacks. Maybe because of the many weeks of brainstorming and execution that led up to the weekend. Or maybe because of the “Rebel Poet”—Philippe Petit—we were all anticipating. As cars full of poets pulled up the Poetry Barn’s steep driveway I truly felt as though I was being joined on a precipice. Some of the poets had met before, others shared the rich connection of New York City, the Poetry Barn’s online workshops, and/or being a Poetry Distillery author. After sharing our intersections over a delicious meal, we gradually departed for our respective beds for a good night’s rest before the next day’s workshop.

The next morning, Judith Vollmer kicked things off with the first installment of her three-session workshop on the living object. After reading image-driven poems by Maxine Kumin and Terrance Hayes, we moved around the Poetry Barn’s space, some of us looking through a monocular, others through a glass brick, a chunk of terracotta, and a copper ball. We wrote poems in response to prompts that had us describe our sensory experiences in relation to these objects. By the end of the workshop, we were full of inspiration and embarked on a journey to sculpture park Opus 40 and began to fill our notebooks.

The following day, after an in-depth workshop of the poetry we generated the day before, the barn was opened up to the public and Philippe Petit arrived. The rebel poet slipped into our lives and let us glimpse the inner workings of his creative mind. Amidst allusions to bullfighting, barn-building, and singing childhood rhymes while walking a wire high above a foreign city, the force of his creative capabilities was undeniable. A master performer, he delighted and mesmerized the crowd and retreat-goers alike, particularly when he climbed up high on the library’s rolling ladder to read an excerpt from one of his many books.

After the performance, as Petit signed copies of first edition out-of-print book To Reach the Clouds, the crowd shared their memories about Petit. Then, just as quickly as Mr. Petit delighted us, he disappeared in the car he had borrowed from the great composer George Tsontakis, who was in attendance, down the steep hill in front of the setting sun. The festivities continued, with poets giving a reading driven by the exhilaration the “Rebel Poet” left behind. We shared another meal and prepared our poems for the final day of the retreat.

In our last workshop session, Vollmer had us engage with Chilean poet Nicanor Parra’s poem “The Teachers.” In many ways, her prompt felt bespoke to this retreat in which the importance of education was a centerpiece. After discussing “The Teachers” we were prompted to write a poem about our own memories and experiences with grade school. The poems that came from this last workshop were some of the best. They spoke of injury and delight, broken systems and generous encouragement. Afterwards, we enjoyed brunch and said our goodbyes, united in a creative spirit that could only be described as radical.

Lissa Kiernan1 Comment