“From Bread Loaf to Sugarloaf” by Jo Pitkin

(My thanks to Jo Pitkin for this guest blog. And let me recommend her wonderful chapbook, The Measure.)

In 1977, summer jobs for college kids were scarce in my Hudson Valley hometown. In previous years, I had been an arts counselor at a day camp making god’s eyes with campers on rainy days, an assembly line worker at a local perfume factory, and a waitress at the Hammond Museum’s al fresco café where I served chilled blueberry soup to opera legend Marian Anderson and Guideposts’ Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. But 1977 was different. I couldn’t land a job. Caldor’s and the A & P weren’t hiring. So I convinced my wonderful, supportive parents to let me—one of the first generation of undergraduates to major in creative writing—make good use of my time. In August, I spent two weeks in the Green Mountains attending the renowned Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont.

My parents and younger sister drove me part way from northern Westchester to a rickety, rustic bus station in White River Junction, where I caught a bus to Middlebury. On the way, I did a little light reading—not Robert Frost but a pocket-sized, red-and-white City Lights edition of Kora in Hell by William Carlos Williams. I wondered what in the world a writers’ conference entailed. I was embarking on a great adventure! I was just 21.

Once I arrived in Middlebury, I was kept hopping with a full schedule of readings, lectures, and a poetry workshop with Mark Strand. During the day, I attended presentations by both established and up-and-coming poets and novelists. For example, I heard future Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison; David St. John reading from his first book, Hush; Stanley Elkin; John Gardner; and my future graduate school professor Donald Justice. (For insight into the 1977 conference from a fiction writer’s perspective, see this piece.) In late afternoon, I had time to browse the bookshop, sit in one of the Adirondack chairs aimed at the mountains, or hike in cool, stream-ridden woods. However, I felt awkward going to the raucous parties at night. (In fact, I felt more at home with the bored, teenaged sons of faculty members John Irving and Terrence Des Pres and often shared meals with them.)

Bread Loaf was so far away from my college life yet was similarly enriching. For the first time, I encountered firsthand the work of Carolyn Forché, Tim O’Brien, John Engels, and a wonderful children’s author, Nancy Willard. Nancy caught my attention because she was one of the few—if not only—children’s writers at the conference. Although I had no plans then to become a children’s writer, I did have a fondness for them: the wife of my college’s president is Natalie Babbitt. I remember Nancy’s soft, gentle voice and her beautiful long curly hair, like the ethereal princess in a fairy tale.

Flash forward to 2008. More than thirty years after attending Bread Loaf, I was again living in my native Hudson Valley within walking distance of the river itself. One icy February night, I participated in a reading at Poughkeepsie’s Muddy Cup Coffee House with fellow contributors to Riverine: An Anthology of Hudson Valley Writers edited by Laurence Carr. Imagine my delight when I realized that Nancy Willard and I would take turns on the same spotlighted stage. Until then, I hadn’t realized that Nancy, the first recipient of a Newbery Medal for poetry for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, was a longtime area resident who taught at Vassar College. Even more thrilling to me than being in the same company as Nancy was her generous comment to me after my reading of a poem in the anthology: “I liked your poem about the heron,” she said.

My poem’s great blue heron had skimmed very low overhead one summer afternoon, almost like an airplane buzzing my yard. It turns out that Nancy has written about her own heron, which appeared at nearby Constitution Marsh. Could it be the same bird? This poem is from the section entitled “The River That Runs Two Ways” in Nancy’s elegant collection In the Salt Marsh.

The Boardwalk

Who called for this trail? Not the thrush, who needs none
and whose tongue has no peep or syllable for drown.
Not the water striders, who dance on the shroud of the drowned,
which is also the sky over the trout’s nest.
The boardwalk is planked like a dock, it is what I need
to enter the freshwater marsh on the hem of the bay
and speak with the herons, who think I am one of them,
standing as still as they and fishing for what I love,
the poplar shaking the light off itself like a dog,
the muffled torches of cattails, the smokebush shaky as sand
and the water lilies in bud unpacking their crowns,
their round leaves slit, like clocks with one hour lost
and water sounds the same as the word for land.

Apparently, Nancy has also spent time in winter in the shadows of Sugarloaf Hill, Storm King, and Crow’s Nest in the Hudson Highlands where I live. In another poem from the same section of In the Salt Marsh, she perfectly captures the familiar groans of shifting ice packs, like the distant murmur of conversation, that I too have heard while on a snowy walk along the river.

Breakup on the Hudson

The ice in Rhinebeck calls to the ice in Kingston
and below, a window cracks in the dim rooms
heavy with sleep, the sleepers in deep suspense
like the paraffin roof on a jar of summer preserves,

as if a dinghy that sank off Cold Spring
rolled restlessly in the open palm of the water.
What time turned off for the winter, what stopped
the dance of the shad, the lick and shine of the waves

opens now to faint applause. I eavesdrop
on distant thunder. I hear the ice cracking
a dirty joke as the sharp words break loose,
good loose talk letting the world back in.

“The Boardwalk” and “Breakup on the Hudson” are both used by permission of the author. Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Willard.

* * * *

The Roman philosopher and writer Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current.” For me, a literal river—my Hudson—shapes and binds. It gathers together disparate times and places and gently deposits its wayward gifts, like polished driftwood, at my door.

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