By Sena Jeter Naslund
Spalding MFA Program Director
It’s a bit odd to say to a group of students and faculty, recently arrived in Rome, “Welcome Home!” But you know how that goes: wherever the Spalding Master of Fine Arts in Writing gathers, I always say, as program director, “Welcome Home!” and we are at home when we’re with each other.
As we convened in summer 2016, I spoke of my earlier acquaintance with Rome, five years before, when I went with the MFA, a bit begrudgingly, to Rome, wishing it were Paris, fearing that I would find Rome to be a sort of second-rate Paris. But by the end of our stay, hand-arranged by Katy Yocom, I was thinking that I preferred Rome to Paris. I felt more at home there; more bathed in art and architecture, more connected with the very deep human past. Let me explain the context for that feeling.
Actually, I had been to Rome even earlier, when I was 26, in 1968. I had interrupted my graduate studies at the University of Iowa to teach full time for one year for the express purpose of saving enough money to take my mother to visit Great Britain and the urban highlights of Europe. On that trip our Rome highlights had included the Pantheon, with its oculus set in its dome open to the sky. We liked the idea of letting in all the gods, as the name implies. And she pointed out the slanted drain holes in the marble floor to carry off the inevitable rain water. “Like nostrils,” she said, sucking in the air through her own pair. And we loved the Spanish steps, which the poet John Keats had also loved as he lay dying of TB in a room with a view of their grace and beauty. I arrived back in Iowa City, having taken a bus from NYC, with one dime left in my pocket (hadn’t heard of credit cards back then): money well-spent.
Five years ago, with the MFA, I enjoyed those landmarks again. This year, with the MFA, I particularly enjoyed visiting the Borghese Museum, with its Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio paintings, and the Roman forum, where, at the place of Caesar’s assassination, our guide began to recite in an understated, quasi-introspective way (as Richard Burton might have done) “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen, lend me your ears. . . .” The entire speech no less! And Shakespeare was there with us, too. My having viewed the ancient statuary, bronze and marble, in the National Museum of Rome made it more possible to picture those friends and Romans.
But I wanted to share with you, also, a different bit of personal history. I grew up in the industrial city of Birmingham (a post Civil War city), Alabama, but it had its own inspiring beauty: a walking park over a mile long, Norwood Boulevard; a fine public library built with columns in the classical style; a domed railroad station, a cast-iron statue of Vulcan atop a great column on Red Mountain overlooking the city; arched entrances to tunnels and stately public buildings. I knew that many of these architectural features were not indigenous to Birmingham. The architecture I found most inspiring in those growing-up years hinted to me there were wonders out there, beyond my perimeter, to be experienced in other places.
In Rome, of course one lives with such features—everywhere. A casual stroll down the street and one is surrounded by arches and columns and domes, and for me, now a sense of connection in time with ancient people. The city is over 2,000 years old. There, I felt like a small part of a great chain of human beings that extends into the shadowy recesses of time, even to the Etruscans who invented the arch before the Romans; I felt my humanity enhanced and more at home as a human being.
Sena Jeter Naslund is the Editor of Fleur-de-Lis Press; Program Director and Co-founder of the Spalding University’s Low-Residency MFA in Writing Program in Louisville, KY. A winner of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction award, she is the author of nine books, including Ahab’s Wife, a finalist for the Orange Prize. Her most recent novel is entitled: The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.