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Thursday Book Club: It Takes a Village

April 16, 2009, 12:00 am
By SFR Staff
I attended the College of Santa Fe from August 2003 to May 2008, graduating with a BA in Creative Writing with concentrations in poetry, fiction and nonfiction and a minor in Journalism. As many current students, faculty and alums do, I have endless thoughts on the closing of CSF. While this isn't a book review, as Thursday Book Club aims to be each week, it's thoughts about words and their placement within a piece and how they come to be there - and that's what books are made of, right?

It's been said, or “proven” in some study or another, that Santa Fe contains more artists per capita than any other city in the US. Everyone you speak to, it seems, has done some sort of art, from the advertising manager in Tierra Contenta to the retired surgeon on Bishops Lodge Road. For some, this is a rewarding experience, as if everyone around understands art, has a love for it and wishes to improve upon themselves, artistically. For others, it's not so much of a blessing.

A few years ago a friend of mine, who had only recently moved to Santa Fe, was planning to move away. When I asked her why, she said: “I was coming here to be a photographer. To stand out. But everyone's a photographer. Everyone stands out.”

I would perhaps have felt the same way as she did, only about poetry, were it not for the College of Santa Fe. I had been planning on attending the school since I was 16 years old. I attended the school from 2003 to 2008, and I would do those five years again in a heartbeat. Well, I would if I could. But I can't, and neither can anyone else, ever, it seems.

The professors at the College of Santa Fe took their craft seriously (well, still do, I suppose, only they won't be CSF professors while they do it any more). In addition to that, however – and this is what makes them different from most people who take their craft seriously – they take their students' craft just as seriously.

Dig, if you will, the picture: Creative Writing 101-01. Charlotte Jusinski was 18 years old. Mark Behr was leading the class. For those who don't know the formidable Herr Behr, who hails from the South African bush, he is a former commanding officer in the South African military, a former spy, a world-renowned novelist, and is in the US on a “genius visa” (which he never hesitated to mention to his classes). He went around the room and asked each person why they write. At least one student burst into tears on the spot. Mark and I later ended up becoming good friends and colleagues, but that first day – wow. That was scary. He was one of the most intimidating professors I'd ever come across. I knew I was in for the ride of my life in this writing program.

Mark's method in that first class (I don't remember if he admitted to this, or if my friends and I just decided this was the truth) was to scare away those who weren't serious about writing. And it worked. Maybe one-fourth of that class actually continued on to graduate from the Creative Writing program at the College. That is the only intro class Mark has ever taught, and I like to think that that graduating class (which would have been my class had I not taken an extra year) was one of the best the College has ever produced. Anyone who wasn't willing to heed Mark's advice to write for at least 3-4 hours a day, to make every word matter, to read and read and read and, when your eyes start to cross, get glasses and read some more, dropped that class and eventually dropped the program. He was writing boot camp. And it worked.

From there, I had at least two classes with each CSF writing professor (Behr, Matt Donovan, Valerie Martinez, Dana Levin and Greg Glazner, plus a few adjunct professors), except for Robin Romm, who came in the year before I graduated. While I was a student and even now, after my graduation, I have sat in Dana Levin's office for hours at a time, talking about my work, why I'm not writing if I'm not, what I am writing if I am, books I should read, people I should talk to. Matt Donovan hands out his home phone number on all his class syllabi (with the polite request not to call after 9 pm as not to wake his son) and talks animatedly and passionately about every piece his students turn in. Valerie Martinez, in one class (I believe it was my Intermediate Poetry class), took each poem a student turned in, and would stand in front of her bookshelf at home, choose a book that contained a specific poem that the student's piece reminded her of, and would photocopy it for the student.

This kind of dedication – the knowing each student's name, the caring about each student's individual story, the being able to pinpoint what it is they think we're trying to say and the trying to hone it, to guide it to its goal – is exhausting but invaluable. We weren't shapeless faces in a lecture hall, listening to some PhD ramble on about pentameter. We were humans who were writing, who were on the same human path as the professors.

When I first came to Santa Fe, I was miserable. I missed home like no other. Everything here was strange and different. I was 18 and I knew nobody. For two years I loathed every second I spent outside class. I stayed in Santa Fe for CSF – more specifically, for CSF's writing department. I finally came to terms with Santa Fe after a while, but I will never forget that the only reason I stuck it out and came to love this city was because of the College of Santa Fe.

With the closing of CSF and the possible dispersion of CSF's writing professors, this invaluable resource will be lost. There won't be anywhere poets like me can go to find kindred spirits who care about others' development as much as they care about their own.

While Santa Fe may be full of artists, poets like the ones found on the CSF faculty are few and far between. I've been to so many poetry readings and literary events – and I won't name names – where, as I talked to my fellow audience members-cum-writers, I felt like I was invisible. They wanted to talk about what they were writing, what inspired them, what they liked to read, what their accolades were, and had no interest in me, what I was up to, how I was doing, really.

Poets take their craft very seriously - as well they should. Poetry isn't about writing whatever's in your mind, pressing enter more often than usual and calling it a work of art (or maybe that's what a first draft is about, if anything); it's centuries, if not millennia, of craft and form. In a truly good poem, the almost endless ancestry of poetry becomes compressed into a matter of lines, the history of the world is revealed in a few words. To create true poetry is to master the art of compression.

But it's vital to remember that the first step to being a poet is to be human. It is, after all, the human condition that we write about, that we strive to express with words. And the first step to being human, I have come to believe, is making a connection with other humans. While the creation of poetry is an exercise in solitude, the creation of a poet is nothing short of a community project.

My education at the College of Santa Fe was an education in writing, yes, but it was an education in humanity. In connection. In associating with other people. I wouldn't be the person I am today were it not for the College of Santa Fe. With the closing of the College, more is lost than an institution. A community is gone. The possibility of more well-rounded, conscientious, talented poets coming out from under the wing of the incredible professors there is gone. All I can do now is count myself as one of the lucky few.

 

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