By Tony Dee
Having spent the year leading up to Cirenaica teaching first-year writing courses, it was a delight to be on the “other side” of the classroom. Although in this particular instance, the “classroom” was a warm common area in a cabin (cannot stress this enough: on architecture and furnishings alone, Cirenaica scores a home run) and the teaching was a blissful break from my lectures on comma splices. Max Garland, poet-in-residence, had this magical ability to engage with our cohort on numerous levels—hard, theoretical, college seminar-prosody stuff—but made sure the humane integrity of the art remained intact. Discussion was both critical and generative, and I hadn’t spent that much time hunched over a notebook furiously burning through pages and wrist-strains since middle school (speaking of eras wrought with nostalgia and preciousness). Max was cheerleader and champion, scholar and peer; at several points he was also a park ranger (that was my second favorite Max) on a number of field trips, most memorably into the Wisconsin woods to behold Big Falls.
Despite the fast friendships, often, the best time was spent alone. The area surrounding the cabin offered many trails, opportunities to lose oneself if one was so inclined; had I conquered those grounds I suppose I would have taken advantage of one of the few up-for-grabs bicycles and rode into downtown Fall Creek, as one of my fellow writers did one morning. I opted to go on a social trip to a bar in Fall Creek with several of my newest friends; from what I remember, we had a really, really good time. On our walk back up the hill to the cabin, we sat, laid back, and admired the stars, the moon, and probably discussed art, God, Her capability to create such a subtle spectacle. You know how writers are, yes?
Long days of discussion, invention, discovery, and revelry were fueled by gallons of coffee and some of the finest cooking I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy, and enjoying food is my passion if poetry isn’t. Chef Brent will forever hold a dear space in my heart as the mastermind behind cold oatmeal. Yes folks, cold oatmeal. Where creativity was being nourished, our physical bodies were being absolutely satiated. I’d say spoiled, but frankly, we deserved the delights if for no reason other than the talent and camaraderie on constant display during impromptu or planned readings, sharings, and workshops.
I now humbly submit, what could be a journal entry or piece of intentional writing, as my honest to gosh recounting of my arrival at Cirenacia last summer:
“Portrait of a writer in motion: vehicle peeling itself off the long expanse of yet another Midwestern highway that surely I would write a poem about after a day’s worth of driving. Well past Chicago by breakfast time, Detroit, Michigan, was time-zones away in the rear view mirror. My little car buckled getting onto a local highway, parts of which were dirt. One of the many talented Eau Claire bands I’d brought with me were quietly playing to the added percussion of anticipation and small stones underneath my tires. Clouds obscured the otherwise tremendous expanse of land that makes up the vistas of Fall Creek, Wisconsin. I thought back to my M.F.A. friends in California, trying their best for my benefit but just not getting the treasures our pastoral landscapes offer. As if to snap my attention from the often reviled throws of nostalgia and preciousness, a bolt of lightning punctuated the long sentence of a thunderstorm.
I’ll blame the torrent of rain rather than human error, despite my ever gracious hosts making it abundantly clear how to locate the difficult to spot entrance to Cirenaica; I had to turn around in the neighbor’s driveway, which was quite far away from the bold and blue letters announcing my temporary new home. A dirt driveway snaked up and away from the road, into a row of trees, suggesting what woods lie beyond. Through the clearing there appeared as if by magic the kind of cabin that would turn a person into a poet: sharp edges on a vaulted roof, logs and bricks, long windows offering gaze into our isolated surroundings. Rain pattered in puddles in the sloping lawn, leaves danced on their branches, and, fully embracing the (now) nostalgia of hyperbole, I realized I had arrived at a home like which I had never resided."
The stuff oozes out of me after the weekend of reinvention, hard work, and good writing. The details of my arrival are abundantly more available to me because, after being ushered in by an impossibly energetic and welcoming host (local Wisconsin beer in outstretched hand, I might add) BJ Hollars, the individual moments of the Max Garland Poetry Residency begin to blur. I’m positive I did some of the best writing I’ve ever done in my life; that’s including time spent in a graduate program for creative writing.
Two memories stick out most profoundly to me. First, the very same friend (from graduate school) who made Michigan-me aware of this little writing residency all the way in western Wisconsin, also heartily recommended visiting Eau Claire’s Pizza del Rey. Like I said, poetry and food are my passions. I was determined to visit this landmark. Not wanting to be anti-social, I offered to my new group of companions that, despite having just finished an enormous (and delicious) meal, I’d be going into town for some pizza, “anybody want to tag along?” Two full cars went from the cabin into town, and the rest of that tale is found between boozy and cheesy poems written in some journal, somewhere.
The second is bittersweet. I had quite a long drive ahead of me, so my last morning at Cirenaica was a short one. Hurried coffee, tossing clothes and books back into my bag, tossing that into the trunk, another hurried coffee, then goodbyes.
I drove away barely remembering the apprehension I’d driven into town with; if there’s a more likely group of friendly strangers than writers, I couldn’t guess who they’d be. Full of spirit, creative energy, and eyes fully locked on the rear view mirror well beyond the numerous state borders I crossed on my journey, the Spirit of Cirenaica, I knew, would be a constant companion for the many months ahead.
Until, hopefully, next summer.