I came to the Millay Colony having fallen out of a book. I wish I were the sort of poet who could make great use of time in small slivers—six minutes here, ten there, that slim shaving of time on the bus or in the waiting room or stolen while eating lunch at my desk—but I am not that poet. At times I have been that poet, but this book I am making is not a book I can write in snippets. This is a book I have to live in. And to live in a book, I must have time. I must have space.
Even as I write this, I feel conflicted in making such a statement. I am writing about people whose lives were constrained. About my great-great-grandmother Peggy, who probably never had time or space for her own wants, her own needs. Who, like the “saints” in Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” must have exercised her creativity within the confines of her life. To be able to say, “I must have time. I must have space,” is still (though it should not be) a privilege. A 26-day residency was only possible for me because I was allowed to spend a month away from work, my cat is my only dependent, and for the first time I could afford to hire a cat sitter for an absence of that length. The hardest part of leaving Millay at the end of the month was that I had come to believe in the right to time and space to create.
The book I had fallen out of is a hybrid work of poems, lyric essays,documents, and images. Its working title is Descent. The project began when I acquired a copy of the diary of my great-great-grandfather, a white Confederate veteran who fathered twenty children by three of his former slaves, black women who have been silenced by history. As I have said in too many statements, “Descent is at once an investigation, a reclamation, and an insistence on making history as a creative act.” The operative word here is making, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the act or process of forming, causing, doing or coming into being.”
I came to Millay intent on making. In the first few days, I printed all the pages of my manuscript one-sided and pinned them to the walls of my studio. As I rearranged the pages, trying out different possible sequences, the manuscript began to amass a form, a shape. I could see what was missing, I pinned post-it notes to the walls to mark the vacancies, and over the course of the month I wrote into them all, replaced every post-it note with the missing text or image. I lived in the book. I was breathing between its walls, I was walking around in its gut.
At Millay I was part of the most interesting group of people I have ever met, artists from all kinds of backgrounds working in all kinds of disciplines, and the conversations we had have informed my work and how I think about the world. But I got to spend most of my time alone, and the solitude was a gift. I read and wrote all day every day and became half nocturnal, working into the night, because night is when I work best. Around 2:00 AM, I would often cross paths with a fiction writer who occupied the studio across the hall. Though we never disturbed each other’s work, there was a certain comradery in our brief exchanges by the sink. Sometimes I walked in the moonlight, peeking at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s windows and scribbling into my notebook, and one night it was almost as though my great-great-grandmother Peggy was speaking into my ear, I was taking transcription, my hand/my head had become that loose, I had relinquished control and set them free, and the next day those notes scrawled in moonlight became the root of a poem the manuscript needed to hold, one more poem in Peggy’s voice.
When I do not have time, I become a boring writer. I write in predictable ways, because I do not feel I can take the liberty of failure. I am always encouraging my students to risk failure. I tell them failure is how we learn, how we begin to broaden our understanding of what’s possible, but what I do not tell them is that failure takes time. To fail is to have time to spend on a work you may discard. It is hard to fail when you are locked into a job, a to-do list, a network of relationships and social obligations, and even if you have managed to carve out time to write, you cannot squander it and then rewind the clock and get it back. I have students with full schedules—jobs and classes and family responsibilities and relationships—and when I ask them to fail, I am asking a lot.
At Millay, I had time to fail, and I failed brilliantly. I took all the space I needed, stretched as far as I could. I wrote the wildest language, I put a poem through myriad forms just to test the results, I agreed to strange writing assignments proffered by editors I’d never met for journals I’d never heard of, because I wanted to see what I could push myself to make. At Millay I climbed back into my book. I completed a full draft, which lined the walls of my studio as an installation until the day I reluctantly packed up the pages and climbed back out. I have returned to my “real life” with a lot less time and no expansive fields or skies or days, but I have a draft for a book and a draft for the life I want to make for myself and for others someday. We all deserve time. We all deserve space.
— Lauren Russell
Recipient of the Spring 2017 Cave Canem Residency at Millay
Don’t miss your chance to see Lauren Russell read! She and Aricka Foreman co-headline the Cave Canem Millay Colony reading on Monday, October 16 in Brooklyn. Lauren and Aricka are 2017 Cave Canem residents at Millay. Details on the reading can be found here.