Linda Martin: Finding the Geography of Our Work: Post-conference workshop at Tutka Bay

Afaa Weaver

Sincerity, then craft. Afaa Michael Weaver, a black man from Baltimore, comes at poetry that way. He’s a quiet teacher, given to listening. He speaks Chinese, practices Tai Chi and other martial arts, gives his students room to ponder what he calls an artist’s “geography.”

He has published fourteen books of poetry. In 2014 he won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award—given to a mid-career poet, along with a $100,000 prize. He carries his brilliance quietly, lets his students talk their way into what he calls an “associative field.”

Ten participants attended a workshop with Afaa Weaver, following the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, June 14 and 15. Called a post-conference workshop, the two-night stay at Tutka Bay Wilderness Lodge combined stunning scenery, world-class cuisine and a deeply thoughtful look at one man’s creative process. But first, we seemed to be spinning our wheels, revved up as we all were from an exciting conference in Homer.
“When will he tell us what to do?” we asked one another. Our first session, held in a renovated boat near the lodge, was a series of conversations between Afaa and each writer, with the rest of us occasionally chiming in. Afaa talked in general terms about finding a map, coming up with a plan and a process. He created a schedule of individual meetings with each participant. Then this assignment: A thought exercise, Afaa called it. “Look out an imaginary window. You see someone beckoning to you. Climb out the window and follow that person. Describe where you go, how you feel. Record it. Repeat the route.”

We slept. I heard thunder in the night. It sounded like mountains collapsing into the bay, but the next morning all was peaceful. There was yoga on the deck and Afaa Weaver moving in a walking Tai Chi meditation beneath the sunlit mountains. Newly fledged varied thrush hopped ahead of me on my way to the lodge for breakfast. We were curious about others’ responses to the exercise, eager to meet and listen. Not everyone read before there was a break. Lunch was fisherman’s stew, with saffron broth and fresh mussels. Then we’re out in the warm sunshine, the agreeable Afaa letting other people work out the table and chair arrangement. I have drawn an actual map of my project. I haven’t understood yet.

Afaa missed a close connection in Chicago and did without his luggage for the entire conference—same blue shirt and jeans Friday to Wednesday when his bag arrived at Tutka Bay by water taxi, thanks to the efforts of conference director Carol Swartz. He unpacked a lesson plan and some clean clothes. He promised to describe his process for organizing a manuscript in the next session. Then he handed out assignments, a different one for each participant, designed to bend and free our minds. Some of us felt resistance. I took a nap. 

The manuscript ordering session was worth waking up for. Afaa spread out his most recent books on the picnic table and talked about map as a table of contents, map as a bagua diagram, geography as something internal. Want a little writing assignment? Here’s the one Afaa gave us: You walk into a restaurant. The waiter asks for your order. This is a strange restaurant. Order whatever you need to be genuine. To be sincere.

What revelations came from that assignment! We took walks on the beach and into the woods. We stared at the water and the mountains. Afaa talked with us, one at a time, calling each of us deeper into our own stories, even as we woke to the beauty of one another’s stories. 

The individual assignments, what Afaa called “home work,” produced startlingly good writing, solid beginnings for everyone.

On our last day together, Afaa revealed “Four Aspects and a Mode,” his intuitive method of teaching us to find the geography of our work. Here they are: 

  1. The associative field created by “fielding” our initial conversations and establishing a communal dialogue.
  2. The thought exercise described above.
  3. Writing creatively about the place you went in the thought exercise in order to extend the imagination.
  4. The “home work”—getting to where we have to go by writing directly to it or in opposition to it.
  5. The Mode—In all of it, looking to locate the balance in craft and sincerity.

I wish you all could have been there! 

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