By Ted Deppe
When asked by the editors of the Faculty Blog to write about the origins of the Stonecoast in Ireland (SCI) program, I found myself going back a lot farther than the July 2006 residency when we first gathered in Dingle. Just as what Richard Hugo called the “true subject” of a poem or novel is often quite different from the event that triggered it, SCI may have been born the day I was kicked out of my high school creative writing class (let’s say I had “artistic differences” with my teacher).
The loss of the creative writing class meant I was one English course short of graduating from high school, so I wound up bicycling each afternoon to an Asian poetry class at Indiana University. The next year, I took a Japanese class at Earlham College to prepare me for a walk I was planning that would follow Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. Failing to become proficient enough to make the literary walk I wanted to in Japan, I made a six-month, thousand-mile walk around Ireland instead. The imagination rarely likes the straight, logical path.
My Irish walk was an early sort of “low-residency” program (made six years before the first low-res MFA program appeared at Goddard College). I read books assigned by my mentors, wrote poems and stories, and sent packets back to Earlham with instructions as to where my professors could respond to me (“I’m in the Knockmealdown Mountains now and should make it to the Beara peninsula in two weeks; could you respond to me at Poste Restante, Allihies, County Cork, Ireland?”)
Joseph Campbell’s advice was, “Follow your bliss,” and to some extent my wife and I have tried to do that. Annie and I always wanted to find a way to write in Ireland, so, after raising a family, we sold our house, quit our jobs, and rented for one year the southernmost house in Ireland on the cliffs of Cape Clear Island, hoping to make it as freelance writers. Campbell said that doors you didn’t even know about would open if you are doing what you love, and 13 years later, we’re still in Ireland, making it all up as we go along.
That’s what writers do on the page, too. We try to tap into something urgently felt inside us and then play with that idea, work with it, follow it where it wants to lead us.
During a conversation in Maine, over a pint of Guinness, I floated the idea of bringing 10 Stonecoast students to Ireland each residency, and Annie Finch challenged me to “Draw up a proposal.” Suddenly the creative idea was met with the demand to do a lot of work, including fleshing it out and coming up with a budget, and the task was to imagine each step as vividly as I would a poem or a scene in a novel.
We have just accepted the roster for the 16th Stonecoast in Ireland residency, which will take place in January 2014. These days, SCI often feels like an intense and exhilarating week-long play, with a different cast each residency, all there to write their own lines and make up their own meaning. The sets are superlative: In the winter, we’re in the charming fishing village of Howth, outside Dublin, and, in the summer, we stay in Dingle on a mountainous peninsula on the west coast of Ireland. Prominent Irish writers play important roles, offering challenging talks and readings, but the heart of the residency always centers on the writing of the 10 Stonecoast students.
Living and working and writing: Some of it is planning ahead, and some of it must always be making it up as we go along. That’s true for residencies too. There’s a necessary balance between being in control and being spontaneous. In the Irish residencies, things are carefully planned out but there’s also time for adventures: One can venture off the beaten track and open oneself to new experiences. We encourage students to take some time before or after the conference to explore Ireland, take flights to the Continent, rent a writing studio by the sea, or do whatever they’ve always longed to do.
Every student who has come to the Irish residencies has given us glowing evaluations of their time here. That’s amazing. If you are a Stonecoast student or alumni, we hope we can share some of Ireland with you. If you’re not connected to Stonecoast yet, the residencies in Maine are marvelous, and the opportunity to take at least one of your residencies in Ireland is a great reason to consider enrolling in the MFA program.
Ted Deppe is the author of four books of poems, Orpheus on the Red Line (Tupelo), Children of the Air and The Wanderer King (Alice James), and Cape Clear: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, Ireland). He and poet Annie Deppe live on the coast of Connemara in County Galway.