Soul Mountain in Connecticut.
I arrived at Soul Mountain Poetry Retreat after seven months spent out on the Colorado Plains, with only a brief pit stop at my home in Iowa, my car limping along with severe internal complaints and arthritic brakes.
Nothing could be more different to the Colorado country than rural Connecticut. The Colorado plains are vast and empty with a sky as big as God. At their edge, the Rocky Mountains thrust upwards like giant molars. The air is high and dry, and trees are noticeable mostly by their absence. It’s a wonderful place to take deep oxygenated breaths and let your eyes expand to infinity. Connecticut by contrast is intimate and personal, full of secret spaces in the woods decorated with rugs of rusty leaves, old stone walls, and tumbling streams. The coast is clad with white clapboard, picture-perfect Puritan sea towns. The air is soft and rest-inducing; it smells of soil and history.
Soul Mountain Retreat nestles in a grassy glade near the town of Lyme, with smooth lawns sloping down to a copper-colored lake. Nearby, Eight Mile River chuckles by over scattered granite boulders. The retreat was founded in 2004 with a grant from the University of Connecticut College of Liberal Arts and Sciences by Marilyn Nelson, a former state Poet Laureate and faculty member at the university, and was the fulfillment of her long-held dream to create a seasonal residency for poets to write, rest, and ponder.
I first came across Soul Mountain in 2005 via an article from Oprah magazine (I am not a regular reader, honest). The article featured a photograph of Marilyn with her feet dangling in Eight Mile River against a background of lush trees, and described how her dream to establish a poetry retreat became reality. It ended with these words: “Poems not my own are being written under my roof. My guestbook is filled with gratitude. So am I.”
I was intrigued. To my surprise, I had just had my first book of poetry published the previous year and was growing more comfortable with the idea of myself as “poet.” Marilyn’s article was so generous and inviting. Soul Mountain seemed the perfect place to create poetry. But being busy at the time, I filed the article away for future reference. Two years later, while clearing up several years of mismanaged filing, I came across the article again. This time I just knew I had to go.
I Googled the name and found Marilyn’s website, which laid out the application process and provided downloadable forms. The home page described a typical day at Soul Mountain: “You wake to the chirping of birds and the buzzing of bees. You lie in bed for a few moments, mulling over that strange dream you just had, and think about maybe writing it down. You yawn, you stretch, and then you contemplate what you’ll have for breakfast. You shower, and then head for the kitchen where you make yourself a lovely meal, and perhaps have a conversation about your craft with another resident. After you clean up, you decide to go to the basement for a little joyful movement, or else you go take a walk/run outside since the weather is so nice. You come back refreshed and ready for work.” Yes!
I filled out the application form and sent it out with samples of my work and references from three friends to prove I was a well-behaved poet. Three months later, to my delight, I was accepted. “We believe you will be a welcome addition to our community,” the letter said.
I had timed my visit for April, reckoning that the weather would be nice, but not too nice, so I wouldn’t be tempted to be outside all the time and would dedicate enough hours to writing (I’m easily distracted). Spring is a time for renewal and after a long, working winter, I was in need of a renaissance. April is also National Poetry Month, though at the time of my application, I wasn’t aware of that, which shows you what a good poet I am. My plan was to spend my time at Soul Mountain putting together four years of poems into a new collection, adding a few more and writing some personal reflections to accompany them.
As I pulled into the driveway, the smell of spring was in the air. The trees were still bone-like from winter but the first green shoots were edging their noses out into the warm sunshine. Marilyn welcomed me at the door. She is a warm and generous spirit—a poetic earth mother. I felt immediately at home. Within five minutes, Marilyn had me helping her make the bed in a delightful corner room overlooking the lake, which was to be my pied-à-terre for the next four weeks. It was my kind of place. I sat down and began to write. The comfortably aged wooden desk that I sat at once belonged to the novelist Rex Warner.
Looking back, my pilgrimage to Soul Mountain was as much balm for my spirit as it was inspiration for my muse. Although I did complete my manuscript while there, my visit was not just about writing; it was also about understanding myself as a writer. I had time to meditate as well as to work with words, to have long discussions about writing, spirituality, politics, and all kinds of subjects with Marilyn and the other writers in residence, or, when I needed it, quiet time on my own. In between, we took trips to bookstores, museums, and poetry readings, and even had a slice of Mystic Pizza. Soul Mountain Retreat was exactly what I needed to contemplate and shape the spirit of my work. I left confident in my role as a writer and eager to find an audience for my poetry.
P.S. During my second week my car died of a fatal gasketectomy and had to be consigned to the great wrecking yard in the sky. Fortunately, the local garage was kind enough to trade in its now lifeless body for a well-worn but functioning Ford Explorer. A friend, who is a bit of a psychic, said it symbolized renouncing the old and bringing in the new. Gideon, Marilyn’s assistant, pointed out the new car looked exactly like my old car, only bigger; and in what may be the world’s worst poetic metaphor, and certainly not the best environmental one, I rode in on a low-slung Subaru and left riding high in a four-wheel drive (it’s still running great, but at $4 a gallon for gas, it may soon retire).
Hear Marilyn Nelson on KRUU-FM, July 4, at 1 p.m.
Tony Ellis is a Fairfield-based writer and poet. His new collection of poems, The Morning Tree: Poems and Personal Reflections on Moving Closer to God, which he completed at Soul Mountain Retreat, is due for publication in 2008/9. To read samples of his work, visit www.tonyellis.com.
Read Tony’s blog at www.iowasource.com.
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