Entering “a Lovely Light” at the Millay Colony

by Jennifer Martelli

It’s 3:00 in the morning, and I’m wide awake at The Millay Colony for the Arts.  The woods surround my room in the Main House; I wonder if Edna St. Vincent Millay’s spirit is out there, and if she’s upset that we walked through the grove of her pruned arborvitae, her overgrown tennis court, her sacred library (so many ashtrays!).  Certainly, her spirit inhabits the soil here in the Hudson Valley, where, down the road, you can buy duck eggs and blueberries.  And I then think, I’m here, safe, with four other poets, four women who, over the past two years, have become teachers, friends, muses.

A few months ago, I was invited to join members of the Salem Writers’ Group for a week-long retreat at The Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York. I immediately said yes. I had two goals in mind:  first, to re-organize an unwieldy manuscript of about 60 poems, and second, to be intimately surrounded by other poets. The latter has become central to my re-entry into the poetry community, and to relinquishing my self-imposed exile status from this country of writers.  The most important lesson I’ve learned about poetry is that if I’m not around it--in a physical sense--I don’t write it.  In between earning my M.F.A. from Warren Wilson and about two years ago, there were kids, there was housekeeping, there were ill, elderly parents, and very little writing at all. Thus, this week spent in the presence (albeit, an ethereal presence) of the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and my friends, was necessary and vital.

When I am home, about to sit down in my kitchen to the task of writing, or revising, or organizing poems, I think of the laundry or the cooking, the weeding that must be done now.  Millay afforded me a week of none of that. What I had for a 24-hour period was waking, coffee with Lis or Dawn or Jan or Cindy. Then a walk down the road (4 miles door to door, uphill on the way back). And then the hot sun and writing, while Lis wrote in her studio behind me; while Jan pinned her manuscript to the bright walls of the barn where she was staying; while Cindy and Dawn revised.  Poetry being written and touched throughout the day! During my stay, poetry was palpable: shuffled, pinned, placed.

The Millay Colony is a simple layout: up the road from Millay’s Steepletop estate is the original Sears and Roebuck 1920’s pre-fab kit barn with bedrooms and separate studio spaces, and another main building, built in the 1990’s, with bedrooms, gorgeous artists’ studios, a darkroom, a kitchen and common room. Because Millay also hosts visual artists, the lighting is perfect. I used a big white-walled studio in the main building, with long tables and a paint-splattered floor, to lay my manuscript out like tiles.  The sun shone down on it and I shuffled the pages again and again, as if I were playing a shell game. I did this for hours, walking around my mosaic, moving the pages while on my knees, sometimes with my foot.

5:00 p.m. was “Happy Hour,” when we would meet in the dining room. One evening, we did a “Submit-a-thon,” all five of us sharing journal ideas, sending out packets, bombing journals (I won’t name names) with all our packets. The next evening, we held a mini-reading of new work generated at Millay. We work-shopped our poems until supper; we read other poets’ work. The poetry was passed around the table with the food.  Again, poetry as nourishment, as communion.  We projected movies from my Mac onto the screen in the common room (this was a group effort figuring how to do that!). We watched W.S. Merwin in “Even Though the Whole World is Burning;” and we watched the divine St. Vincent in “Burning Candles.” We listened to her deep voice chanting “Love is Not All.”

I came to the Millay Colony with two goals and I achieved both: I re-experienced my own work and immersed myself in poetry for seven days. This experience was a true luxury: I escaped my little world and entered St. Vincent’s world that “gives a lovely light.” But, and here I become greedy, I took even more: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s story, which is such a physical, wrenching love affair with poetry.

Jennifer Martelli’s chapbook, Apostrophe, was published in 2011 by Big Table Publishing Company.  She’s taught high school English and women’s literature at Emerson College.  Most recently, her work has appeared in Wherewithal, Tar River Poetry, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Rogue Agent. A recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry, a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, she works as an associate editor for The Compassion Project: An Anthology and lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.