Writing teachers read their own works
By Timothy Gillis
PORTLAND – Faculty at an intense, weeklong camp for high school writers took to the microphone Wednesday night, to showcase their own creative works and disprove the old adage about those who teach.
Nationally-known authors and some of our own local literatti have been sharing their skills with high school kids this week, as part of the author camp called The Hive, now in its fourth summer at the Telling Room.
Ron Currie, jr., a Waterville native who has broken into the national scene, said there is a perfect word for the environment of a special place that holds dear memories: “thrum.”
CC Davies Robinson, director of the Hive, told this anecdote as she kicked off the reading at One Longfellow Square. Then she called upon a couple of student readers to set the tone for the evening.
Sophie Warren and Ethan Pailes read a “Choreopoem,” a poetic duet wherein the two take turns at the mic, and though the task was hurled at them by surprise, they performed with aplomb.
Robinson returned to the stage to introduce the faculty readers. She said the first reader had, like Currie, invented new words. In a recent published piece, she created the verb “chiapetting,” and described a locale as being like “a medieval village without the bubonic plague.”
Sara Anne Donnelly, journalist and former James Michener Fellow, is in her first year at the Hive, and as a newcomer was lined up to be the first faculty reader. Published in Streetlight Magazine, Mainebiz, and the Portland Phoenix, she also has had audio stories featured on MPBN. She is the Hive’s managing editor.
“I’m a hometown girl raised in Portland,” she said. “And I’m going to read a story called “Skeets” involving another hometown girl, my grandmother.”
She had asked Robinson if she could swear in her reading. She had taken the colorful words out for camp, and then put them back in for the evening performance.
Donnelly’s story describes a few rough characters, spied on in the streets below from her grandmother’s darkened windows.
The Grandmother goes from watching this roughneck character named Skeets to holding him in her arms while he seemed poised for death.
Donnelly tells her funny, sad poignant story with beautiful, parallel phrases, and prose built on poetic cadences. Her voice, well-trained from her work for MPBN, went from caustic curses to wavering emotion when she read through her autobiographical story, crafted in the new language of creative fiction.
Her opening story set a high water mark for others to reach, and displayed once again the literary talent that hails from Portland.
Next, Justin Tussings, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, read from “The Best People in the World,” his novel published by HarperCollins. His quiet style provided counterpoint to both Donnelly’s polished voice and inflection before him, and the other-world poetry that came next.
Aaron McCollough has published three books of poetry: “Little Ease,” “Double Venus,” and “Welkin.” He is co-editor and founder of the online poetry magazine GutCult. He received his PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.
He said his poems were influenced by James Shea, who read later. His four-line poems were delivered consecutively, creating the feeling of an epic haiku.
Taryn Bowe, who read next, works at the University of Southern Maine. Bowe’s fiction has appeared in several literary journals, including the Boston Review, The Greensboro Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, and Redivider. Her short stories have received a 2010 Robert Watson Literary Prize and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She read an excerpt from “Proper Breathing” a short story about a kid doing stomach exercises with a dictionary to strengthen it for his singing career. Meanwhile, his father, recently returned from the hospital with one less lung, transforms the story title into its double meaning.
Matthew Vollmer read next. He has been published in Tin House, Virginia Quarterly, and Paris Review – publications that Bowe highlighted as being the holy grail for all writers when introducing him.
Vollmer said he was going to read “long-winded epitaphs about myself.”
His first one, titled “#12,” sounded like a Bob Dylan outtake, winding down several side streets before he got to – not even the point – but the end of the sentence. Vollmer uses so many dependent clauses, one almost loses track of the main phrase. The spinning journey is enjoyed in the parentheses, though.
James Shea read some poems from a work called “The Lost Novel.” Shea is the author of “Star in the Eye,” selected by Nick Flynn as the winner of the 2008 Fence Modern Poets Series. His poems have appeared in various journals, including American Letters and Commentary, Boston Review, Mrs. Maybe, and Verse. He currently teaches at Columbia College Chicago and DePaul University.
Amy Amoroso and Andrew Foster also read from their works. Lewis Robinson, who co-founded The Hive four years ago with his wife, CC, read from a forthcoming memoir about an experience with the Moonies cult in California.
“It was the first time I had heard it,” CC said. In addition to the Hive, Lewis has also taught at Stonecoast Writers’ Conference where Bowe was a student. Robinson’s first collection of short stories, “Officer Friendly and Other Stories” won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. His first novel, “Water Dogs,” was published in 2009. He is a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and a National Endowment of the Arts grant.
Curry and fellow Maine celebrity author Jaed Coffin couldn’t be at the reading, but at the Hive this week, they led a “Swarm,” which takes the students out into the streets of Portland to allow place to inspire and influence content.
“Ron led a swarm with Jaed about the theme of place and the difference between being in a store in a strip mall vs being in a specific place that holds a lot of memory and association,” CC Robinson said.
That’s when they both used the word ‘thrum’ to describe a place that held resonant meaning, she said.
Currie wrote “God is Dead” and “Everything Matters.” Coffin write “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants” and is due to release “Roughhouse Fridays,” about his bar boxing days in Alaska sometime soon.
The afternoon Swarms bookend the morning “Buzz” with which the Hive instructors start each day. It’s a quick writing exercise to get kids warmed up.
A big difference in this year’s Hive is the advent of a new source for instruction. “This year, we have watched student leadership develop,” CC Robinson said. “Emma MacMullan has been a hive student every year. To see her on the stage last night, holding her own with published authors, was amazing.”
MacMullan was a sophomore at Greely High School when she attended the inaugural Hive in 2009. She has returned each summer. This year, she went to Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She was invited back by the Hive to join them as their managing director.
Alex Balzano went to Casco Bay High School, and was also in the Hive’s first class of 2009. This year, he went to Southern Maine Community College. He returned to the Hive again this summer as an intern.
“It’s exciting that we’ve been around long enough that the students are able to have more of a leadership role this year,” Robinson said. Learn more about the program at portlandhive.org.