Marybeth Holleman: Wild Writing Residencies

I’ve just returned from the annual Associated Writing Programs conference,
this one held in Boston. It’s a
massive gathering – 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, and agents. Heavy on
the writers. One of my panel presentations, on “Wild Writing
Residencies,” mercifully took that roomful of writers out of the sterile Hynes
Convention Center
, off the busy
streets of Boston, and into wild
places where artists can find what one keynote speaker, the poet Derek Walcott,
said all poets must first cultivate: silence.

A poem comes out of silence first. In all the arts you have to recognize the
real silences that arrive.

Four of us spoke from our experiences with artist residencies in some of America‘s
wild public lands.Gary Lawless spoke about his time as Artist in
Residence (AIR) in Isle Royale National
, a wild island full of moose and wolves. Nancy Lord spoke
about her time in Denali National
, where she was finally, she said, called to
write poetry for the first time in her life. Mimi White spoke
about falling in love with the Schoodic Peninsula of Acadia National Park. And
I spoke about my AIR in Denali
National Park
 and in the Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness of the Tongass National

These residencies are part of a long tradition of artists in America‘s
public lands, going back to Roosevelt‘s New Deal Works
Progress Administration – between 1933 and 1943, hundreds of artists were
gainfully employed in our national parks. Today these residencies (no, we’re
not paid) recognize art alongside science as a way of interpreting,
understanding, and creating awareness of these wild places. A necessary, vital

They’re different from other writing residencies in that you don’t just hole up
in a cabin and work on a project you’ve brought with you. Instead, you immerse
yourself in the place, and then create art from that experience. Then you
donate one piece of art (in my case, an essay) to the national forest or
national park for their use.

How do these programs enhance an artist’s work? Inspiration, most certainly.
For me, a major inspiration was collaborating with other artists. In the
Tongass, I was paired with photographer Irene Owsley, and she
and I have gone on to work on several collaborative efforts. In Denali,
I have worked with artist Rika Mouw on a joint project for the National Park
Service. And it was these collaborative projects, these artists, who inspired
this blog.

But of course the benefits of such unmediated, uninterrupted time in
a wild place are much more subtle. With such time, I could sit and observe
the pattern on rock in front of Sawyer Glacier; I could notice the gray skin of
a harbor porpoise breaking the milky blue of glacial silt waters; I could bend
down to view the quality of sunlight from within a whitish gentian on the
slopes of the Alaska Range.

As panelist Gary Lawless said –

A symbiotic relationship is created between the artist and the wild place.

The benefits come from diving deep into a wild place, from relearning the
vocabulary of interracting with the more-than-human world. A vocabulary we all
once knew, and need to relearn for our own, and the wild’s, survival.

On the wall of the AIR cabin in Denali was a quote by
Edward Abbey, one of the writers who was instrumental in inspiring my own
life’s work:

If we could love space as deeply as we are obsessed with time.

It’s just a phrase, not a complete sentence, but to me that makes it all the
more perfect, because these wild residencies left me open-ended and awake.

Marybeth Holleman’s next
book, Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into
Alaska‘s Most Misunderstood Animal, will be
out next October. She is also author of The Heart of the Sound and
co-editor of Crosscurrents North. Pushcart-prize nominee, her essays,
poems, and articles have appeared in such venues as Orion, Christian
Science Monitor, The Future of Nature, and on National Public Radio. This
post comes from her new blog, Art and Nature.
AWP 2014 is in Seattle, about as close to Alaska as it ever gets. Panel proposals are due
May 1.

1 thought on “Marybeth Holleman: Wild Writing Residencies”

  1. Thank you, Marybeth. I missed AWP this year, but would have loved to hear this panel. Looking forward to your new book. Kurt

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