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The Chautauqua Writers Festival: A Retrospective

by James King

When I told my friends in the early weeks of June that I would be heading to upstate New York to attend the Writers Festival on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution, the inevitable question always followed shortly after: “What is Chautauqua?” To be honest, I struggled to answer. You would think that this being my second time attending would mean I could easily explain, but the right words evaded me. Arts colony, lecture series, seminary, summer camp for adults, even—all of them partially true and yet nowhere near the full picture.

Chautauqua, I’ve found, defies the elevator pitch that we writers are so (perhaps begrudgingly) fond of. Even if the boundaries of the place itself are clearly delineated—the little wedge of historic houses, parks, pedestrian pathways and quaint plazas nestled between the highway and Chautauqua Lake—the soul of it is less so. My first visit, I joked often with our former designer, Gabi Stephens, that Chautauqua was “a place of the mind,” where one leaves the mundane concerns of the body and the world at large behind. But this year’s festival and its theme, “Hope and Its Entanglements,” spoke to something grander than that kind of escapism—an active involvement with the world in both art and activism.

The logistics of the Festival belied its emotional and creative significance for me. Four days of workshops, craft panels, and readings by both faculty and festival participants, who came from all walks of life to share space in Alumni Hall and write together. It sounds brief, but it didn’t feel that way. I spent my Festival time under the brilliant and empathetic tutelage of poet Leila Chatti, who said from the outset that we would be writing ten poems in the four short days we were together. She held true to her promise. I wrote so much that I completed the composition notebook I’d been plugging through since February and filled much of a new one. I lounged on the Alumni Hall porch, reading newly-purchased books and writing with Gabi and Gillian Pribicko, both my colleagues and dear friends. I read my fledgling poems out loud to our intimate workshop group from the soft red chairs of the Atheneum Hotel sunroom—I despise sharing my work hot off the presses, but at Chautauqua, it felt only natural.

I came to the Writers Festival at a time when my own creative work was, and still is, in flux. I am about to embark on the third and final year of my MFA program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. By the end of it, I need to have created something resembling a book, and yet, when I arrived at Chautauqua’s gates, I had very little idea of what that book would look like. I still do not entirely know, but the Festival and Leila’s workshop helped nudge me in the right direction. The theme of the Festival, as I have said, was on hope, and Leila’s workshop focused on the praise poem—praise for the mundane, the divine, praise in the face of great fear, doubt, and loneliness—one of the oldest modes of poetry, and one of its most powerful forms of work. I began to see the ways in which my practice might become an ode to my living.

What the Festival—and Chautauqua as a whole—gave me was, more than anything, a new stance, a new approach. Sitting on the long lawn between the Atheneum and the lake, I watched the steadfast rippling of the water and surrendered myself to my senses, my feelings, more than I had ever dared to before. I dared to seek pleasure in my writing, to plumb the depths of what it means to be a thinking, feeling being. As Joseph Osmundson said in the Festival keynote address, “all humans deserve safety and pleasure both.” I felt it there, at Chautauqua, walking the brick pathways shaded by trees, watching the white wings of sailboats glide across the lake. And I feel it now. The poetry is waiting. I’m going to chase it.

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