A Record of an Inverted Retreat
by Jesica Carson Davis
The urge to create is fundamentally human, whether we write poems, sing songs, or paint pictures. Creation is a form of record keeping, one way of saying I was here, this happened. In an attempt to capture some of the magic I got to experience as Editorial Assistant at Inverted Syntax’s first staff retreat, I present here a record of what it was like to be at the beginning stages of an exciting project, meeting the other editors, finding our own way together. Inverted is a journal about exploring hybrid forms, finding out what happens when we go outside the given lines.
Our Founder/Editor-In-Chief, Nawal Nader-French, had planned a full agenda in which the primary purpose was to work on Inverted’s first online and print editions. However, the retreat weekend up in Boulder County was balanced out by fun, creative events, such as a poetry workshop, meditation time, a painting session, video calls with other editors and writers, and of course, writing. There wasn’t anything on the agenda specifically about team-building and camaraderie, but those were some of the best outcomes of the weekend.
The other Inverted editors knew each other from Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program, but I’d never met any of them in person (though we’d had plenty of communication over email and Submittable--the digital platform we use to track submissions). This could have been nerve-wracking, but immediately upon arrival, Nawal made me feel beyond welcome in her gorgeous home with thoughtful gift-filled tote bags and conversations about poets we both admire. The other Editorial Assistants, Melanie and Allissa, greeted me with warm hugs, and soon enough we were all bonding over wine and a massive welcome dinner. Melanie, a nonfiction writer, drove in from Oklahoma, and Allissa, a poet, had driven in from south of Denver, so we all appreciated the decompression.
Friday evening we attended a local poetry workshop at the Firehouse Art Center in downtown Longmont. Getting there became an impromptu team-building adventure after we discovered someone’s notebook had been left on the car’s rooftop and we had to work together to retrace our path, joining forces to find it. Luckily, it was recovered and still intact; the tire treadmarks gave it extra character. The workshop itself was a quietly meditative experience in which attendees got a prompt (write 10 lines about “Home” and then edit them based on a series of suggestions), followed by everyone reading their work and giving each other feedback.
Though we knew that Saturday would be starting early and packed with activities, we all stayed up past midnight talking about life, getting to know each other better, playing with Nawal’s adorable beagles, and sometimes even discussing writing.
Saturday morning began with a guided meditation led by Melanie, who teaches yoga and has a perfect voice for leading such an exercise. I’d thought the meditation lasted about 15 minutes, and was stunned when she told us that it was closer to 50. A focus on the creative chakras and Melanie’s guidance put us in an open mindframe and made us more receptive to creativity, ready to read, organize, and assemble upcoming issues.
Nawal opened up the day’s editorial duties by proclaiming that “We are rewriting the rules,” setting a tone of freedom without expectations, which we ran with. Since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there isn’t an inherited, existing framework to adhere to; we can make new decisions as we go.
The next 30 hours passed in a blur of reading, conversation, and good times: When we began assembling the online and print magazines, Nawal encouraged us to look for themes, such as boundaries, disruption, and relationships.
A video call with Andrea Rexilius, a poet and Program Coordinator for Regis’s Mile-High MFA, confirmed this approach: consider the journal’s layout like you would organize a manuscript. Stay open to a narrative arc, or consider folios (chapters within the journal), which will be subconsciously informed by our aesthetic and the pieces we’d already selected for publication.
Thus, we spent Saturday morning reading each accepted piece and writing down three or four keywords (like tags or metatdata) for each piece, simple descriptions of themes. Later, when reading the pieces aloud, we compiled a list of the most common keywords that would be used for grouping. It became clear that many of the pieces we’d selected were linked, through tone and imagery, sometimes even subject matter. These links weren’t consciously intended, so it was cool to see them appear as we read.
One of my favorite parts of the weekend was sitting in a circle, reading accepted work out loud to each other. We savored favorite lines, sometimes gasping, getting goosebumps and tears from being moved by pieces we’d read before. It was a gorgeous reminder of how art can break against you again and again, like a wave, how delicious it can be to get drenched.
Throughout the weekend, we kept up a lively discussion about the differences between publishing online or in print. We talked about how a piece posted on the internet has a better chance of reaching many more people than one that’s perfect-bound and physically distributed. How some pieces feel more urgent, like witnessing refugee experience, and thus should be published in a way that gives them a chance at the greatest possible audience. How online issues have a spatial advantage over ink: a 25 page piece would take up a quarter of the print version but can unfold at length on a website, without restrictions. How lucky we are to have both routes available to us now.
We skimmed dozens of print and online journals, charting what we liked and didn’t like, to stimulate discussion. We covered everything from the table of contents organization and serif vs. sans-serif fonts to letters from the editors and placement of contributor bios. The exercise made my tech writer brain begin to assemble a style guide to capture the editors’ decisions on pressing issues, like whether to use indentations or line breaks for paragraphs and how capitals would appear in the titles of pieces. Writing our own rules as we go.
It is exciting and a little intimidating to realize that since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there’s no formula for how to run it; we can collectively decide the best way to do things, find ways to make the form best fit and reflect the content. For example, while some Editors-in-Chief wait until their readers finish going through the slush pile to narrow pieces under consideration, Nawal was in Submittable for hours every day looking for new work. Instead of sticking to one genre, readers were encouraged to provide feedback on submissions in every category. After all, Inverted’s mission centers around hybridity.
As the day grew long, we decided to skip a yoga session in favor of tea time, and to keep working, though a dance party broke out because we needed to reinvigorate. A sense of urgency began to set in: the retreat will end soon and we will disband in the morning, so let’s make the most of our time together.
Soon it was getting dark, and it was time time for a video call with David Hicks, the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Regis Mile-High MFA. After some discussion of the retreat life and what we’d been up to, he generously invited all of us to attend one of his writers’ retreats next spring! As part of the support that Inverted Syntax receives as a journal partly supported through The Mile-High MFA, the retreat invitation included a personal manuscript consultation, for those of us working on our own books. It felt like winning a small fellowship.
Once we hung up, it hit us that we’d been at it for almost 12 hours, and that we were approaching the end of our productivity. It was time to pour wine and take a break. Canvases and paints appeared, Nawal’s Ghanaian-influenced curry released its enticing aroma from the stove, and we finally put our work aside. I’m still thinking about that curry, topped with tomatoes, onion, peanuts, banana.
As we unwound from Saturday by collaging and painting with acrylics, we took turns reading from our own work, pieces that not many others had yet heard. Reading poems-in-progress felt like making proclamations: I am here, I made this. Creating and sharing art as a way of raging against, or embracing, the void.
Sunday morning rolled around, and once again we collectively decided to forgo physical activity (a planned hike) in favor of focusing on the journal. There was still so much to do! By then we were fresh enough to want to keep working but brain-drained enough from the previous day to take a break from the creative side, which meant focusing on marketing and logistics.
We discussed our wish list, dreams for the future: possibilities of a local reading series, the AWP conference, poetry contests, maybe even another retreat someday for other writers. Then we pivoted towards administrative duties and deadlines, playing with design for the online issue and entering pieces onto the draft site in advance of October’s online publication.
Too soon, it was time to go home.
Being at the start of something, being part of an endeavor’s nascent phase, feels exhilarating. There is no rulebook, and we are not writing one so much as recording our choices, creating documentation.
Most writers and artists are compelled to some kind of record-keeping, including sculpture, comics, poems, and songs. To create something is to cheat death a little: this thing you make may outlive you, if only on a bookshelf, or in someone’s memory.
As a record of the retreat weekend, I offer this account. For the future, we will create Inverted Syntax.
by Allissa Woodson
I have always felt that my writing was an act of independence, and an assertion that I had control of my emotions. When I first started writing, it felt good to me that, even though my emotions were written out on paper, I had the sole right to them. It felt like therapy. It made me feel strong and capable. I found solace in my solitary practice, and I liked having physical control over my thoughts and feelings. Here they are, sorted out in a way that feels right to me on the page and I can share that or throw it away.
Sometimes, though, my writing felt selfish. When I got serious about it, my time became less dispensable. The people I loved (often not writers themselves) felt neglected because in addition to the time I was taking to write, I was also busy with biology homework and handing out pancakes at the local IHOP--the normal undergrad gig. There weren’t many in my life who fully saw the value of the work I created, or the necessity of writing as a form of therapy. There were times I felt unsure and frustrated, and even times when I felt totally uninspired because of the lack of support. So naturally, it became my own responsibility to take care of my writing needs, and to do what I needed to do to stay sane. But writing all alone is a difficult practice, and hard to sustain without support.
I met the person who would become my friend and my writing partner in January of 2017. Pj and I clicked right away. We were the only two poetry students in our cohort at the Regis’s low-residency Mile-High MFA, so we were instantly paired off together. The person that you write with doesn’t have to be someone who shares the same beliefs or that writes the same way; my work was winding and abstract while Pj’s was imagistic and compact. However, I always valued her advice and insight, and because of our mutual visions, our work naturally moved in a similar way towards a complex web of emotions and ideas that we are both happier with.
Pj is from Houston, and for ten days every January and July, we attended lectures and workshops together. Most importantly, though, during that time, we wrote. While we got so much done during those ten days, it still didn’t feel like enough time. After the first residency, we didn’t do a great job of keeping in contact. We sent a text message here or there, but nothing organized or planned.
The most important part of having someone to write with is that you hold each other accountable. Finally, knowing I had to take action if we wanted to stay in touch with our creative partnership, I set a notification on my phone for every Friday: “Check in on Pj.” Whenever the notification went off, I sent Pj a quick “How are you?” text, which inevitably led to a conversation about our latest projects and our lives. I quickly fell into this Friday routine, and even the simple back and forth check-in had me feeling like I needed to write more and feeling more inspired.
It wasn’t until the the third Mile-High MFA residency when program coordinator and fiction writer David Hicks, along with his colleague and close friend, Sophfronia Scott, gave a powerful lecture about their relationship as “writing buddies”. The idea instantly clicked. I knew that Pj and I would be able to write together in the same way. We already had started a habit of maintaining contact, which seemed to be the biggest hurdle. David and Sophfronia discussed how they had used various video chat services. We took that advice and ran with it, so when the residency came to an end, our writing buddy relationship didn’t.
The concept of writing buddies is not a new one. It's no secret that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound exchanged letters and that Pound heavily edited Eliot’s draft of The Waste Land. The New York School of Writers, which included writers such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest, were known for their collaborative work both amongst themselves and with painters. In The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Works, Kenneth Koch writes, “We were very close friends, John, Frank, and I, and poetry was a big part of it... we inspired each other, we envied each other…we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support” (213).
With inspiration from other writers who had done the same before us, the weekly text message between Pj and I turned into a weekly video chat. With that method of communication, we developed a routine that works for us, and we now cover a lot more ground. We always spend the first half of the chat talking about what we are up to and how our writing is going, which is always the most valuable aspect of the chat for me. The weekly writing feedback and advice that I get from Pj, and hearing about her own struggles as a writer, all come together to inform my writing. Because of that, I never begin the second half of the chat, (that is, the writing part), feeling like I don’t know what to write.
Elizabeth Bishop describes her first talk with her lifelong friend Robert Lowell about writing poetry as "exchanging recipes for making a cake." Pj is always showing me new recipes, and it saves a lot of time; where I might be experimenting with too much salt or licorice, Pj may have already tried it and be able to give me the feedback that helps me get to my desired result more quickly.
One of the other benefits of having a writing buddy is that it is much harder to slack off when you have a camera pointed at you (or another set of eyes on you, if you are in person). For our sessions, Pj sets a timer, or we just go until one of us is tired. Sometimes I read instead of writing, or do whatever else it is that I need to do. Sometimes only the chatting gets done, and not the writing. Sometimes our planned writing schedule gets postponed three times in a row. No matter what, though, we plan the next chat.
The distance between Houston and Denver no longer feels as far as it once did. Writing together with Pj via video chat versus in person has still had the ability to transform my work. We have both learned to find what is lacking in our own work by seeing the strength in one another’s. We share our words and worlds. That experience adds a new vocabulary and allows me to see the power of a single image or the impact of a well-placed line break. Having a writing buddy has meant receiving and offering insights, making suggestions and asking questions, and it has helped me make significant changes to what and how I write. Not only do I get more writing done, but the quality of the work I create has improved along with my feeling of confidence and self-worth. The writing buddy relationship we have built is genuine, and I feel only great work can come out of it.
Because of establishing this writing buddy relationship, I no longer feel the guilt of neglecting others around me. I no longer feel selfish in taking this time to write, because it’s not just about me. Having a writing buddy is about making a commitment to support someone else in their writing. It’s about holding each other accountable to the work. But it’s more than that: We erase the doubt that we have for ourselves about our potential as writers and the difficult aspects of our own work.
Koch, Kenneth. The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Work. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.
Preview Koch’s book here