Madeline DeFrees inspired me because she had joined and left the Sisterhood, serving for thirty-eight years as a nun. In her poem “The Family Group,” DeFrees writes: “I heard the visionary rumor of the sea.” I had visions of the sea entering me to wash all my shame away—and an unarticulated hunch that DeFrees might know about such things. When I took her workshop, I was twenty-one years old. The workshop was packed, primarily with middle-aged women. The tables were set in a rectangle.
As it turns out, because of how DeFrees spoke to me, that workshop is the standard-bearer by which I have always judged writing workshops that I have taken and taught. I’m a middle-aged woman now myself, and I’ve experienced a lot of writing workshops. But I’m thinking specifically about that one, because Madeline DeFrees passed away on November 11, 2015, and I never wrote to tell her what that workshop still means to me.
I’m pretty good at letting someone know what she or he means to me. The night before my grandfather died in 1977, I woke my parents in the middle of the night, insisting that I must write a letter. I wanted to tell my grandpa that I loved him, to thank him for being my grandpa, and to thank him for teaching me that if the wind changed direction while I was making one of my quirky faces I might get stuck with one expression only. (I used to make monster faces at him when he came to tuck me in.) Grandpa died the next morning after I wrote my letter in the middle of the night, so I learned at ten years old not to wait. My grandmother received that letter; she explained that Grandpa probably wouldn’t have been able to read it (he was too sick), but he knew I loved him. My mother explained that my letter gave great comfort to my grandma, who gave it back to me before she died just short of 100 years old.
I sent my undergraduate advisor homemade raspberry jam to thank him for guiding me from dance to the page. For years I sent my favorite literature professor bottles of homemade jam, too. It was the least I could do. I often write snail-mail thank you notes after I appear at bookstores. I send writers random notes. My friend Dylan Reed and I had a project through our MFA years sending emails and postcards to writers we admired. The deal was to send a note a week, to sign it, but not to expect any reply. We preferred to send postcards with our first names only, because then the writer was under no obligation to reply. We checked our progress every week by talking about our choice for the next week.
But I never wrote to Madeline DeFrees.
Back in the late Eighties, I was writing poems of a particular dark place during a particular dark time. I didn’t want to be a poet (or more generally a writer, at that point), though as a young kid my parents had taken me to hear Gary Snyder, who sat on a braided rug and read his poems, and I often secretly dreamed of doing something like that.
In “Finding the Space in the Heart”, Snyder writes:
The space goes on.
But the wet black brush
tip drawn to a point,
I’ve always loved reading poetry. I wanted to take poetry workshops because, even back then, I loved analyzing words gathered on a page. Furthermore, the reading and writing of poetry was helping me through a very tough time, which is considered secondary to the product of the poem in a workshop. My tough time writing something (then or now) has nothing to do with the worth of a particular piece of writing or the reaction to it. But why not? A workshop, after all, is pre-submission, pre-publication. It is meant to be a creative environment to assist in the process of editing, so the work can become its very best.
My mother was an avid reader of poets; in my early twenties, I was reading Mom’s original copy of Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us. My mother, a writer, had taught me that when you are stressed or suffering, you always have time for a poem. You have ten minutes to read one or to write a draft, she would say. Twenty minutes.
In The Country Between Us, Forché bears witness to the Salvadoran colonel who collects human ears—desiccated by the time Forché sees them spread over a dining table: “What you have heard is true. I was in his house.”
I took three poems to the workshop with Madeline DeFrees. I wrote about three sexually abusive relationships with three different, older men. My poems were not a cry for help. I saw them as poems, originating in and from my pain, and worthy of feedback.
My fellow attendees were… silent after I read one of my poems. No one said a word. In workshop, there can be what I call the lake silence, often a three-second pause: you will all go for a bracing swim together. Colleagues are soaking up your phraseology, your finely detailed droplets.
Then there is the silence, longer than a three-second pause, that is not a reflection of wonder, but an “uh-oh.” I call this the cliff silence: You will fall off and go splat. It should be the work that goes splat, but sometimes it is you.
One woman spoke: “Renée uses the word ‘black’ three times in this poem.” Fair enough. The gist of the comments was that the poems were disturbing, difficult to read, very off, very dark—accurate, I think. But participants continued: “These are awful.” “I can’t read these.” “I won’t read these.” What these comments were really saying was something like this: “How dare a writer make me uncomfortable?” I hadn’t brought poems to a workshop because I was a dipshit. I had brought them because I thought workshop might make them better. The all-too commonly applied “gag rule” in writing workshops, wherein the writer is told to remain silent and not allowed to ask questions, is problematic. It’s problematic for those of us who have a history of being silenced through assault, in my case with actual physical gags, and for all those who have had to find a way forward through silence, to speak once again. When you work very hard to speak up, to reaffirm that voice is a form of agency and safety, it’s difficult to have that voice dismissed or superseded by a teacher, much less an entire group.
I am not comparing my young unrealized poems to Forché’s work. I am suggesting that because I had read challenging work, I found the courage to reach deep into the inner resources of my secrets and shame.
Also in “The Family Group,” DeFrees writes:
That stance the mallet might surprise
if it could strike the words we hoard for fears
galloping at night over moors through convoluted bone.
The strange uncertain rumor of the sea.
I took a writing workshop during my undergrad with poet Colette Inez, another workshop leader who knows how to hold sacred space. A young woman was struggling to write about a rape, almost abstract, almost disembodied. The poet’s “I” never appeared in her work, anywhere. The poems were exceedingly confusing to follow. My classmates were mostly Columbia College undergraduates—young people about twenty years old. I was over thirty. (I had dropped out of college years earlier to pursue my dream of being a modern dancer, and I was back to finish my degree.) Unlike the women in DeFrees’s workshop, my fellow Columbia University undergrads met these poems with compassion. I cried after one class, because I was so impressed with the way my fellow undergraduates reached out to this young woman, treated her poetry—and her—with respect, and how so many of my classmates, week after week, said: “Keep writing. There is more here. Keep writing. We support you.” Colette Inez held to the standard I’d seen Madeline DeFrees set so long ago—a standard of support and compassion and excellence.
In “Far in the Blindness of Time”, Colette Inez writes:
The contained are asleep in their clouds
but the young are like fire,
orange and red tongues in the dark
igniting the old from the fog of their dreams.
In contrast to these undergraduates, the women in that workshop with Madeline DeFrees, so long ago, were neither loving nor compassionate. But Madeline DeFrees was. As the women around that room kept talking, kept saying “dark” and “she’s a mess,” I felt as if Madeline reached out her hand to me. It was probably her heart. She’d been a nun so long, maybe she had learned how to loan out her heart? I think now that she may have been praying for me while those women gave feedback. She didn’t stop them from speaking, and I listened as best I could. As the complaints died away, silence returned. A quiet space of a different sort. Silence in a retreat happens through prayer, meditation, intention. DeFrees had taken back control of the class. Without saying a word, she had created sacred space. Sacred silence in a writing workshop is rare.
First DeFrees spoke to the room, and I paraphrase: “There is no reason not to write difficult material. We have a young woman here willing to write the darkness.” And then this Catholic nun, a Sister, turned to me, and she said, which I remember clearly because she wrote the same to me in her book When Sky Lets Go: “Keep on writing whatever you want to write, no holds barred!”
The power of a Sister. The power of a leader.
As a follow-up, several of the women in the workshop individually phoned my mom to tell her that I needed to be in therapy. I appreciated their concern. My mom didn’t tell them that I was already in therapy, that I had been in therapy, that I would stay in therapy. “That’s yours to tell, or not,” Mom said. What she said to the women was this: “I tell Renée to keep writing. I tell Renée to keep writing what she needs to write.”
DeFrees, Madeline. When Sky Lets Go. New York: George Braziller, 1978.
—. “The Family Group.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets.
Forché, Carolyn. The Country Between Us. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.
—. “The Colonel.” Poetry. The Poetry Foundation.
Inez, Colette. “Far in the Blindness of Time.” Poetry. The Poetry Foundation.
“Poet Madeline DeFrees Passes Away.” The Writer’s Chronicle. February 2016. 49.
Snyder, Gary. “Finding the Space in the Heart.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets.
*Renée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews "Book of the Year" finalist (memoir category). Forthcoming and recent publications of her essays and reviews include Brevity, Inside Higher Education, Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and Trestle Creek Review. She is an AWP “Writer to Writer” mentor and managing editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. D’Aoust teaches online at North Idaho College and Casper College, and she lives in Idaho and Switzerland. Follow her @idahobuzzy and visit www.reneedaoust.com.