July 14, 2022
By Greg Pape, poetry faculty
“Poetry is ultimately mythology, the telling of stories of the soul.”
About this time of year, light years ago, after I completed my MFA degree at the University of Arizona, I wasn’t sure what my next move would be. I was writing poems and sending out the best ones for publication. No amount of rejection could stop me. I wanted to teach at the college level, but there were very few jobs available at the time, especially for someone without a PhD who had published only a few poems in magazines and a small chapbook from a very small press. Luckily a couple of true friends came across an announcement for a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and suggested I apply. I was hesitant, had hoped to stay in the West. I was enthralled with the desert. Massachusetts seemed a long way away. I had never heard of the Fine Arts Work Center, but I liked the sound of the name. When I looked closely at the map and saw that Provincetown was at the very tip of the beckoning finger of Cape Cod, a small town way out in the Atlantic Ocean close to the National Seashore, I was intrigued.
I sent in my application to FAWC, as well as a couple of long-shot teaching positions. I spent the early part of the summer wandering the desert mountains outside of Tucson picking jojoba beans to earn a little cash. It was hot work with temperatures over 100 degrees, but I was my own boss, and the beauty of the desert mornings and the building heat and stillness seemed to induce a dream-like state amenable to writing poems, which I’d work on in the evenings. I learned the names of the flora and fauna of the Sonoran desert: the cacti—saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, barrel, prickly pear; the trees and bushes—mesquite, ironwood, palo verde, creosote, and jojoba. I was careful not to step on diamondbacks, coral snakes, rubber boas, collared lizards, horned lizards, or Gila monsters. I kept an eye out for javelina, mule deer and white tails, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and coatimundis.
One evening I got a call from a man named Roger Skillings, chair of the selection committee at FAWC. Roger was from Maine and spoke with an accent I had never heard before. I caught about a quarter of what he said, but I liked his tone of welcome and was pretty sure he said I had been accepted for the fellowship. Seven months at FAWC in Provincetown, a studio with utilities paid and a small stipend (back then $50 a month) and all I had to do was come and be part of the FAWC community and write poems! Almost too good to be true. Like Spalding, the Fine Arts Work Center believes in nurturing and promoting the creative spirit. Each year FAWC gives ten fellowships in writing and ten in visual arts.
When I arrived at 24 Pearl Street in P-town I was given the key to a small studio apartment under the stairway leading up to more studios on the second floor. The FAWC, formerly a lumber yard, converted into studios for artists and writers, had a gallery, a mailroom/office, a common room with a couple of old couches and some donated books and magazines (now a library). I was told that Norman Mailer had once lived and worked on a book in my studio. Poets Alan Dugan, Stanley Kunitz, Mary Oliver, and many others lived nearby, and the place had a long and lively history as a haven for artists and writers. I soon learned the unwritten rule: do not disturb your neighbors before 2 pm when the mail arrives. Mornings were for work or sleeping after working late. We were all working hard on our creative projects. Some people were so excited about their work they couldn’t stop talking about it or inviting you into their studio to show you the new painting or sculpture or to read you the new poem or scene. Some were just the opposite, tight lipped and secretive. But the general feeling was that things were happening in those studios. You could smell the paint, you could feel the slight vibrations of rolling syntax on the air, you could sense the hidden music rising through the rafters.
Because a couple of friends were looking out for me, I ended up at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown where I met, among others, the poet Stanley Kunitz, who was a founder of FAWC. Kunitz knew how important the arts are to our human communities and dedicated his long life to nurturing writers and artists. He had a famous seaside garden in Provincetown where he tended his flowers and his poems and welcomed his new crop of FAWC fellows each October. I admired him as a poet, gardener, and mentor.
You know how you listen more carefully to people you admire? Well, at a party one evening to introduce the new fellows to the P-town community, I was talking with Stanley, sipping a glass of wine, when I pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He looked me in the eye and asked me in his mild and interested way, “Do you know what that is?” glancing at the little ribbon of smoke rising from the cigarette between my fingers.
“It’s a bad habit, I know,” I said.
“No,” he said, with a slightly melancholy tone, “it’s a failure of the imagination.”
There was a clear pause or caesura after the word failure. Those words stayed with me, and haunted me until I quit smoking. Thank you, Stanley, for caring enough to speak the truth, for accepting me into the Fine Arts Work Center community, for helping to create the kind of community that values and nurtures the creative spirit, a place like Spalding, where when we return after being away for a time, people say, “Welcome home.” Let’s look out for our friends. Let’s work to keep our generous communities going strong, and let’s feed the creative spirit with fresh air.
Greg Pape is on the MFA poetry faculty of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing. Former Montana Poet Laureate, he is the author of Four Swans, Animal Time, American Flamingo, and other books.