- The Lifelong Conversation
In a tucked-away corner of Provincetown, Massachusetts, amid sandy, narrow streets flush with galleries, restaurants, and bed & breakfasts, resides the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center—FAWC for short—an artists' community where writers and visual artists commingle. Week-long workshops in the summer, prestigious seven-month fellowships in the winter, efficiency apartments, studios, and classrooms ringing a gravel parking lot where participants greet each other coming and going. The cross-pollination promotes fresh ideas and new perspectives across genres and mediums.
I first stumbled upon the FAWC several years ago, when a friend from back home in Florida earned a scholarship including a week-long workshop and seven nights in one of those on-site efficiencies. I was living in Boston at the time, earning my MFA in nonfiction, so I took the 90-minute ride on the Provincetown Fast Ferry and stayed overnight. That evening I heard the students read their work, strolled through the photography and painting studios, and the next day, on the ferry back to Boston, cheered along with a boat full of queer advocates and allies when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
That was a turning point, it's clear now. My whole life I'd projected myself as a cis-het man, and I had enjoyed many meaningful relationships from that perspective. From early in my adolescence, though, I knew my attractions [End Page 193] were broader than that. I liked men, too, romantically, though I never lived in a position where such a divulgence seemed relevant, or necessary. Leaving Provincetown that day, I realized I was ready to come out to myself and to begin the process of coming out to the world.
In Boston, I kept exploring—sexuality, literary genres. At some point, I switched the settings on my dating apps to both women and men. Sometimes, while laboring over nonfiction prose, a poetic voice would overcome me, and I'd rush to copy down what it had to say. A few years later, once I'd finished the MFA, I landed my own scholarship to the FAWC, but not for any of the nonfiction classes I'd ranked as my top choices. Rather, they offered me a poetry workshop, with Craig Morgan Teicher. I searched him on the internet—his poems were clear, direct, often confessional; he worked as a content manager at Publisher's Weekly and the poetry editor at the Literary Review; his prose writings were being compiled in a collection of essays, We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress, by Graywolf Press. It seemed he too was an explorer—a poet writing essays about poetry and more. Our shared genre crossings emboldened me to dig up my best poems-in-progress, book a room in P-town, and ferry back across the Massachusetts Bay.
"Poetry as Conversation," the class was called. Its controlling idea was that poems summon a voice by addressing someone, or something, or the nothing that is something in itself. The idea runs through Teicher's book, too. We Begin in Gladness focuses on how poems—at least the ones that matter—converse with those before and around them. The progression of these poems results, over time, in the arc of a career. Tracing these relationships between poems helps Teicher examine how some poets become great, moving from youthful promise to writers of masterpieces to owners of their own voices. And if a great poet lives long enough, Teicher finds, they become imitators of their own styles.
Teicher's essays accomplish this feat not by focusing on biography, however, but by studying the chronological development of poets' works as found in their writings. And while Teicher brings a poet's entire career arc into play, he acknowledges in his useful introduction, "I'm most interested in the ascent, the way a poet climbs to her greatest possible profundity and specificity. That's what we can learn from the most." From these heights, poets have nowhere to go but down, to "disimprove," as Teicher calls...