If, like poet Minnie Bruce Pratt observes in “All the Women Caught in Flaring Light,” one thinks of “a poem as a door that opens / into a room where I want to go,” Nicole Cooley hopes to teach her students techniques to enter the place by any means necessary.
“How do we get to the room?” asked Cooley, who is the Week Seven poet-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. “Open the door? Break the lock? Punch a hole in the drywall?”
While prose writer-in-residence Rion Amilcar Scott leads his week-long workshop, “I’ll Build Me a World,” Cooley will guide participants through “Writing About the Difficult and Finding Grace in Poetry,” in a workshop that echoes Lucille Clifton’s wish for her poems to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Both Cooley and Scott will give readings at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the Hall of Philosophy, in front of an audience that returning poet-in-residence Cooley described as “so wonderful.”
Cooley will read from her two most recent books of poems, Of Marriage and Girl after Girl after Girl, as well as from a manuscript about her mother’s sudden death and the New Orleans landscape of her childhood. Scott will read from his forthcoming book of stories, The World Doesn’t Require You, a collection that returns to the fictional town of Cross River, Maryland, a setting Scott first explored in his collection Insurrections. Home to robots, divine musicians and “water-women,” Cross River was established in 1807, after the only successful slave revolt in the history of the United States. It is also a fitting example of building a world that is strange yet familiar — the crux of Scott’s class. By bringing the ordinary world into an alien space, Scott wants to unleash the magic of reality.
“We tend to neglect how much we can do with the material of our lives,” he said. “Not just by transmitting it in autobiographical way, but in ways that are somewhat metaphorical.”
Situated within Week Seven’s theme, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts,” Cooley’s workshop interrogates the relationship between hardship and grace. She’s experienced these “intertwined” concepts personally; in recent years, Cooley has lost her own mother and helped close friends navigate serious illnesses, divorces and deaths.
“The poet John Berryman said, ‘We are on each others’ hands who care,’ ” Cooley said. “I deeply believe this. We are in this world to help each other find moments of grace. Community is everything.”
In the face of so much grief, Cooley ultimately believes “that writing is play; that writing is fun.” She cites Emily Dickinson’s maxim, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” as the workshop’s “point of departure.”
“Our focus will be on how to access hard things and our obsessions through ‘slant’ — ways we did not expect to get there,” she said.
For Scott, shaping a workshop means considering a community of writers “before (stepping) in with a certain standard or level.” It is all the more gratifying when, by the week’s end, “students reach for something they didn’t realize they could reach for in the beginning.” Often, he said, it is the students who teach him.
“A vast majority of the time, students have a lot of ideas that I couldn’t even conceive of,” he said.
As she begins her fourth residency at the Institution, Cooley is ready for another gratifying week.
“I love teaching and I adore the students at Chautauqua,” she said. “I learn so much from my students. I can’t wait for my class.”