Toward What? Away From What?

A poet alone in Costa Rica considers the nature of art—and loneliness

by Charlotte Pence

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics
Edited by Charlotte Pence
University Press of Mississippi
312 pages
$35

In a recent interview with Chapter 16, Gaylord Brewer talked about writing residencies, particularly “those attendant moments of dislocation, darkness, exhaustion bought and paid for.” He asked, “Why does the weary traveler put him or herself through such travail? Toward what? Away from what?”

Toward what? and Away from what? were questions I asked myself before I left for a July stint at the David and Julia White Artist Colony in Costa Rica, a defunct fruit farm on top of a jungly mountain, where the isolation leaves little choice but to write. I was four months pregnant, and I knew people questioned why I would leave the safety blanket of my home and husband. In fact, one woman in the village asked me, “Does your husband know you’re pregnant?”—implying that either 1) we had a relationship where non-consequential events like a child are sometimes glossed over in favor of deeper conversations regarding who paid the electric bill, or that 2) if he had known, he would not have approved of this departure.

Toward what? and Away from what? Most writing residencies offer similar goods: silence, isolation, a break from “adult responsibilities” like cooking, cleaning, and gardening, along with a drastic reduction in familial and social obligations. Who wouldn’t like that? I wish non-artists could skip the blow-the-bank-account week-long American vacation, too, and take more of these kinds of breaks. In many ways, writing residencies offer the idealized life, the fantasy behind statements like, “If only I didn’t have to do X, Y, and Z, then life would be P, Q, and R.”

Let me tell you about my P, Q, and R. I woke early, about 5:30, with the birds and sun screaming in through my studio’s windows. I began with yoga poses and push-ups. And then I would take my poncho, which was worth far more than its five-dollar price tag, and walk to the highest point in the colony, one that overlooked the village below. There I would eat some fruit I’d pulled from the trees and begin my work while watching the town and my words yawn and stretch awake. I would continue the little cycle of walk, write, and read until it was time to sleep.

Those were the best days. They took me away from life’s distractions and drove me, without any excuses left, into my writing. Going to a residency in another country adds another element, too, one that is not all bird chirps and sunshine. Loneliness and dislocation, for example, are very much a part of the experience, partly because of the language barrier. Yes, I would talk to the birds, the ants, and the little one inside me, but they didn’t talk back. The page, however, does talk back, and quickly becomes the one constant a writer can depend on in another country.

One afternoon I needed a break—from myself, I suppose—and decided to take a thirty-five cent bus tour—which meant I hopped on the bus that went to the next town. I heard that the mountain views along the way were spectacular and that the neighboring village offered a cute town square, complete with an impressive cathedral.

Yes, the sharp drops into the valleys offered stunning views, but the curvy roads also offered a swelling of motion sickness coupled with pregnancy bleckness that I had never experienced before. I arrived in this little town on shaky legs and with a simple mission: to find a place to discreetly puke.

A lone, blonde, female traveler arriving in a little town, however, is never a discreet arrival. What’s more, the town square wasn’t really so cute, and the church I wanted to see didn’t allow visitors. So badly damaged by an earthquake, it had been gated off and left to fall down at its own pace. The once-gorgeous stained-glass windows were pocked with so many holes from thrown rocks, I could see across the worship hall into the other wall’s stained-glass windows. There I stood, feeling disappointed, lost—and vulnerable. All these feelings occur at home, too, but not to the same degree. After all, a friend or loved one is always a phone call away. When you’re traveling alone in another country and need immediate help, no one is a phone call away.

I ended up walking into a butcher shop, the type where all the meat is unwrapped and decorated with flies, and asked for information about a bus that could take me back home. A woman looked me up and down and said, “I will walk you there.” Such an act of kindness. During the next fifteen minutes, we talked about nothing of consequence—the heat, the price of her recently purchased chicken, which village has better ice.

Afterward, though, what I felt was both pleasure and unhappiness. This type of travel is not meant to soothe; it’s not like a seven-day cruise where the aim is to make sure you never feel lost, unsure, or in want. This travel is about want. About loneliness. About insecurity. About all those things that go into the poems that stay with you, the ones that risk and surprise, that ache to be written, and that talk back to you on the page. This type of travel is like looking through a stained-glass window riddled with holes and seeing another stained-glass window riddled with holes.

Published Monday, 5 December 2011