By Kathleen Driskell
Spalding MFA Associate Program Director
I’m delighted to be leading our Spalding MFA summer abroad residency in Edinburgh, July 12-24, with Katy Yocom, Associate Program Director, and Ellyn Lichvar, Administrative Assistant. With our distinguished summer 2017 MFA faculty Silas House, Shane McCrae, Dianne Aprile, Leslea Newman, Charlie Schulman, and Helena Kriel, we are planning a bonnie curriculum for our students and alumni, along with exciting cultural experiences for them and their family members and guests who come along for this great Scottish adventure.
This will be Ellyn’s first trip abroad with us and we welcome her heartily, knowing her smarts, humor, and calm will make her a perfect traveling companion; of course, Katy Yocom and I have been steady traveling partners, along with Sena Jeter Naslund, since the very first abroad residency was launched in Paris in 2007. As has come to be our standard practice, for that first residency Katy and I arrived a couple of nights early in order to gather our wits about us before launching what is nearly always a new experience in a new country in a city location we’ve usually never seen until we roll our suitcases up to the hotel door.
That first exciting night in Paris, by the time I dropped into bed, sleep deprived and travel weary, and making very little sense in English, much less my foul French, I had already nearly killed a very elderly Parisian man who insisted on carrying my suitcase up the steep Metro stairs to the street. By the third step, I could see the regret in his eyes. I learned my mistake, too, and have never packed so heavily since.
Once at the hotel, I discovered I could only pack myself and that big suitcase into the tiny triangle-shaped retro-fitted elevator if Katy put her foot against my derriere and pushed as hard as she could. She then jumped back and quickly slammed the door behind me.
On the fifth floor, when the elevator door opened, I fell out into the hotel hallway. Backwards. Doors opened. Heads peeked out. Finally, I unlocked my door and crawled into bed just as a musician was warming up his trumpet, faltering through cranky scales right below my window where an all-night street music festival was about to commence. I’m a chronic insomniac; nonetheless, I’ve never slept so soundly. And Katy and I have come to agree jet lag sleep is the best kind of sleep.
Katy and I had read that two women—especially foreign women—despite having a reservation, might be turned away from a popular Parisian restaurant on a busy night. We were on guard the next evening as we wandered up to the restaurant we had carefully picked from Rick Steves’ travel book. When the maitre’d couldn’t find our reservation (oh, really . . . ?), Katy, who has a knack for languages that I lack completely, was magnificent. She wouldn’t budge, insisting we be seated.
Eventually, the maitre’d relented, and barked for a busboy move a small table into the main dining room. The diners seated around us had to be scooted this way and that to make room. Grouchy looks. Grumble. Grumble. Who are these Americans, anyway? we imagined them thinking as they chewed on, bitterly.
Still, Katy and I sat down triumphantly and made our way through ordering. Our waiter, who spoke little English, tried to entice us into having hearts of leeches salads, which we did agree to order, after gasps and language negotiation, having learned what we would actually be eating was hearts of lettuce.
Waiting for those salads, we were delighted when a jazz singer began, noting our makeshift table had inadvertently given us the best seats of the house. We toasted with delicious cold white wine and proclaimed ourselves capable. We can do this! I sighed, happily, looking over Katy’s head and through the window opening onto the busy exciting Paris streets. And, then, I noticed a sign across the street, framed neatly within the window. I squinted to make sure I read it correctly. I sat my wine glass down. “Uh, Katy, what was the name of the restaurant where you made the reservation for us tonight?”
She gave me a puzzled look.
“Turn around,” I said. “What does that sign say?”
Traveling abroad with Sena, Katy, our students, faculty, and alums, family members and friends, undoubtedly, has been one of the great privileges of my life. It opens me to new experience, has given me confidence (sometimes unduly earned), and, taught me, yes, to be a better writer.
I’ve learned traveling is a metaphor for writing. We begin with an idea and think we know where we’re headed, but are often pulled mysteriously into a right turn: off Las Ramblas into a Gothic Quarter alley, a narrow passage lined with tall stone buildings blackened by centuries of chimney smoke and general grime, so darkened that when one looks up to see the bright blue sky over Barcelona, it becomes the sky one has never seen before. A one-time experience of sky. A discovery. That place where something old is seen anew, that place where all good writing takes us, whether writers or readers.
In Edinburgh, I look forward to discussing our Program Book in Common with my fellow writers and travelers. For our plenary reading assignments for summer, Sena and I like to select important texts rooted in some way to the place we are visiting: in the recent past we’ve discussed Fellini’s films 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita in Rome; Homer’s Iliad in Athens; Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Dublin; and Kafka’s The Castle in Prague. Scotland offers us an opportunity to read and think about the iconic work of a woman: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a novel by Dame Muriel Spark. Spark’s canonical book is often listed along with Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, the poetry of Bobby Burns, and the novel and film Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, as one of the most beloved texts of the Scottish people. If you are traveling with us, read the novel and then also watch the film adapted from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (available for free viewing on youtube.com) to prepare for our plenary discussion early in residency. I’m interested to know what you think of Miss Jean Brodie as a character. I imagine you’ll find her interested in travel and art and language, but also over-confident and brash. Perhaps her character will remind you of other women you know.
Kathleen Driskell is Professor of Creative Writing and Associate Program Director at Spalding University’s low residency MFA in Writing Program. Her most recent collections of poetry are Next Door to the Dead (U Press of KY 2015) and Blue Etiquette (Red Hen Press 2016).