Guest Post: Literary Community at The Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House

By David McLoghlin

The first time I used the term MFA was not in a Master of Fine Arts context. My close friend Sorcha Hyland and I used to salute each other in our letters and emails with an affectionate, “how are you doing, MFA?!”—our acronym for motherfucker. In college at University College, Dublin in the early ‘90s, I’d never heard of such a thing as an MFA Program. For years, in Ireland the term creative writing remained vague and the double moniker seemed redundant and was mocked, even though older writer friends were associate professors of it, albeit usually internationally, like the poet James Liddy who’d been teaching in the United States since the late 1960s before eventually earning tenure at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He came home to Ireland every summer, and when I visited him in 1992 at his deceased parents’ house in north Wexford, he explained that he allowed students to hand in poems instead of essays, even in literature class. The actual creative writing classes he might hold in his favorite bar, Axel’s. Though I knew that James was a talented and charismatic teacher, the enterprise seemed daffy, like playing at school.

*

From 2005, I was starting to get serious about my writing—or, at least, the career side of it. I applied for a grant from Ireland’s Arts Council, and in June 2006 was awarded €10,000. My then-girlfriend Lucía and I moved from the Dublin area to West Kerry, where I lived frugally for the first year and wrote full time. I was a finalist in some competitions, and placed poems in good journals. But although I was part of two writing groups, I couldn’t grasp onto a sense of belonging to a literary community.

Before moving to Kerry, I had finally woken up to an unsettling fact. What I’d thought of as a relationship with a monk and teacher when I was a teenager, I discovered was in fact sexual abuse. I had been close friends with Fr. Terence Hartley, as he was then, from 16 to the age of 33, though the physical aspect was only in my youth, when I was 17 and 18, and he was 45. After graduating, I repressed the aspect that I’d never been comfortable with, and it remained repackaged as a relationship for 17 years. In part, due to his influence, I saw it as literary mentorship, like Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, I had thought, though ours wasn’t at all Platonic fellowship. Every few months, from 2003 on, Lucía had been saying, “Pero, Dave, eso fue abuso!” (“But, Dave, that was abuse!”) Each time she said it, I had a panic attack, and she would back off, worried. Then, finally, one day I went to a therapist, and said, “I think I was abused.”

Once the words left my mouth, they couldn’t be put back in. Reality immediately changed. It was like that scene in The Lord of the Rings where Mordor falls to dust: except, it was the opposite. I had pulled back the curtain to see the truth grinning at me, the skull that had been inside the painting all that time, mocking me. What Fr. Terence had performed was a masterful mind fuck. That autumn, I reported him to the school. The monastery confronted him. He admitted it, and they immediately removed him from teaching duties, and kept him under a kind of house arrest. He went nowhere unaccompanied. At least, this is what I was told. Approximately a year and a half later, he was “defrocked” by the Vatican—laicized, is the official term—and ejected from the priesthood. The school, supposedly, reported the case to the police, but the Gardai couldn’t act until I made a formal statement, which I didn’t do until 2015.[1] I travelled back to Ireland in the summer of 2015, and made a 12-hour report to detectives at Henry Street Garda Station.

My relationship didn’t survive this and other challenges, and Lucía and I had been broken up for two years when I moved to the United States in late February, 2009. In December 2008, I had hit upon it: I would leave Ireland—temporarily, I thought—and spend three months with my old college friend, Sorcha, and her then-husband, Jeremy, at their home in Lawrence, Kansas. Sorch and Jeremy were visiting her parents in Wexford that Christmas, and I drove down to visit them and broached the idea. They were excited: I could live in their wood-lined, finished basement, and become “the dweller in the cellar,” as they liked to call me. Jeremy managed a great dive bar, The Eighth Street Taproom, and Sorcha taught a yoga class, which was always full of locals who appreciated her skill, and her Irishisms. They knew everybody in Lawrence, and would introduce me to everybody, they said, which they did. The previous November, I’d visited them for Obama’s election, and found the euphoria of the college town—one of only two blue counties in Kansas—to be a superb antidote. The exchange rate was 1 euro to $1.25, or stronger; the rent would be $100 a week, including meals and bills, and I would have one of my best friends to guide me in a new life. Over the past couple of years, I had been writing full-time, allowed a certain freedom by the Benedictines’ damages money, but I’d hit a rut, professionally and personally. I told myself that among the beards, the sleeve tattoos, and the cowboy boots worn with sundresses, among all that young, college-town confidence, my next step would emerge.

In late February 2009, I flew from Shannon to Chicago, and after a weekend walking around in 20-degree-Fahrenheit weather, I took the Amtrak Southwest Chief to Kansas City. There were icicles hanging off the train when we stopped in Fort Madison, Iowa, where Mennonites with Swedish chin beards disembarked. I arrived at Union Station in the evening, which had stunning 1920s architecture, and Jeremy collected me.

“So, Davy Mac! Any good eats in Chi-town?”

“Well, I went to this place, TGI-something, it was called.” When I uttered those words, Jeremy became animated.

“Man! You went to a TGI Fridays? Shit! What about all those authentic Chicago eats? Oh, man!”

“Well, I did see a place with an old Pepsi sign called Mr. Beef.”

Jeremy went ballistic: “Mr. Beef? Oh, that was probably the real deal! You fucked up, dude! You could have got a real Chicago Italian beef sandwich there. Oh, I give up!”

I tried to reason with him: “Well, it was definitely below zero, there was a kind of freezing fog in the air, and I was so cold that I felt dizzy and strange: like I was getting hypothermia. I was the only person in the street. Anyway, I didn’t know that was a chain. It looked like a normal bar.” But, I knew I’d failed the foodie test.

Jeremy gave me a pass, and said, “Well, you’re here now. We’ll get you on the straight and narrow. I’ll hook you up. I know a good place near here. You like burgers? This is one of the last of its kind.”

“Of course.” We went straight to one of his favorite mom-and-pop burger stands, Town Topic, and ate at the counter. It was greasy and good, and my memory unreliably tells me that a crotchety elderly lady served us with a cigarette hanging out of the side of her mouth. That was how it began.

In the middle of a second adolescence at 36, making up for ton of lost time, I drifted into the orbit of the University of Kansas (KU), was allowed to sit in on Kenneth Irby’s creative writing class, and discovered that you could, in theory, get paid not just to write but to study the craft of writing. It was too late to apply, so I started researching the next application cycle. After great advice from Ed Skoog and G.C. Waldrep, and Jeremy’s lowdown on the most livable college towns, I applied to 14 programs, among them The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, NYU, The Universities of Mississippi, Montana, Washington, Kansas, The Michener Center in Austin, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. After the last application was mailed, I left the country again, subverting the anxiety of the waiting game by traveling through South America.

In March 2010, I was about to cross into Paraguay on a refurbished yellow school bus, when I found out I’d been accepted by KU, Washington and NYU. KU was fully funded by a TA-ship; Washington might be able to offer funding in the second year, they said, but couldn’t guarantee it. NYU gave everyone a half-remittance of tuition. Instead of $12,000, it was $6,000 a semester. In second year, I could apply for a teaching fellowship, but it wasn’t a guarantee. If I got it, there would be no tuition due for second year, and the money from teaching would retroactively cover the $12,000 from first year, so essentially it would be tuition-free. Seattle was too far from Ireland and too much of risk. KU was a sure thing, but low on the list of Seth Abramson’s rankings. NYU’s writing program was in the top 10 in the country, was closest to home, and—“it’s New York!” everyone said. “New York!” Though I’d imagined myself in a smaller, left-leaning college town, where things puttered along in a velvet rut, where students had sofas on their porches, where I might buy a classic American car second hand, I took a deep breath, and said yes to NYU.

I arrived on 20th August 2010, and found a room in a three-bedroom apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in an area south of Prospect Park between Ditmas Avenue and Cortelyou Road, an area that was incredibly diverse: Russian grocers were beside Halal butchers beside Mexican restaurants, beside Judaica Press, and on Friday evenings Hasidism in black suits rushed past to make it home in time for Sabbath. I wasn’t on the lease, was paying $600 a month, and it suited me fine. We didn’t have a living room. Instead, my roommates had turned it into a bedroom, and created an (illegal) temporary wall out of wooden pallets. But we did have a large patio-style balcony, and my roommate’s marmalade cat Fyodor lived on the couch in the kitchen. (Fyodor’s owner was Scott Lindenbaum, who had co-founded Electric Literature the year before. My other roommate was Katie Byrum, whose first book was published by Forklift, Ohio several years later.) Sometimes, large beetle-like insects skittered in the cutlery drawer. I didn’t understand at first that when Katie said “water bug,” what she meant was “large cockroach”. I tacked up pale-blue sheets as curtains, and slept on the floor for the first month. I didn’t close the windows until the end of September because of the humidity. Every few weeks, we received another summons addressed to the landlord from the city for unpaid taxes. The two-inch-thick document listed his aliases on the front page. When work was done on the radiators in December, the workers secretly dumped the old pipes in the front garden, where they surfaced between blizzards in the spring.

The city was overwhelming. Even artists seemed armored. Everyone spoke the same language, one that I didn’t yet know. At the time, all literary conversations in the bars were about Roberto Bolaño, whom I hadn’t read yet. Women I dated and writers I met didn’t seem to have much time for you to catch up. Still, in my first year, my commitments were laughably minimal: One-and-a-half days a week, I interned at Teachers and Writers Collaborative near the Empire State Building, and had two three-hour evening classes at NYU. Even still, I developed a twitch in my left eyelid, took up smoking American Spirits, and self-medicated after workshop in The Tree House and the Four Faced Liar in Greenwich Village. I went to my doctor at least once a month with imagined complaints. The city was intense. Why did people need to encroach on my space so much? Even outside rush hour, the subway was stressful. Later, my French therapist told me that although only a psychiatrist could give an official diagnosis, she felt I had symptoms of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After talking about the abuse every week, I would exit her office onto Fifth Avenue and 13th Street utterly disassociated, then be immediately traumatized by the bustling fast walkers in sunglasses and skinny jeans—until I could get home to Brooklyn, and imagine the bridges along the East River slamming up like drawbridges to defend against the onslaught.

The Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House on West 10th Street was a corrective. The house was built in the 19th century, and felt like an elegant pressure door. The first workshop was with the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach, in the downstairs room at the back of the house. We sat around a long rectangular table. Almost all of us were first years. He liked very much to say: “Good, good”—an invisible Afrikaans ja breathing there—“but it could go further, you see. Sometimes I think the issue is that a piece either goes too far, or it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, I think you could push it further.” Us students smirked at each other once we realised “going further” was one of his shticks.

He’d start with a book—the New Directions anthology of Lorca, In Search of Duende, maybe—or tell us what we should be seeing at the Met. He would tell us about his life in Paris, or Catalonia, or literary developments in Africa. A wider world breathed into the room. It was as if Rimbaud had grown up, stuck with poetry, and was sitting at the head of the table in a t-shirt and a Mao jacket, seventy-years old with a grey beard. After five minutes of this attractive, man-of-the-world chat, the first of us would start.

As night fell, the black-and-white photos of great writers drew round. The regard of their faces, along with Breyten’s, felt like a challenge. You felt spotlit when your poems were discussed: You had to keep silent, and take notes as classmates, hyper-intelligent, fluent people, made suggestions. The process often brought out my own awkwardness, my verbal stiltedness in academic debate. My illiteracy in the method of critique often set me apart from my colleagues, many of whom were already versed in the lingo, having taken BFAs or minors in creative writing at Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth. I was glad for students like Jan Edwards. When she liked something, she said in her Louisiana accent, “This poem makes me want to puke!”

“And that is a good thing, Jan?” Breyten would respond. The more visceral her reaction, the better we knew the poem to be.

I visited Breyten during his office hours only once. At that stage, I didn’t yet understand that, normally, you brought a poem, and could have, for 15 to 20 minutes, the teacher’s eye on it, that you could spend time alone with poets like Sharon Olds, Kimiko Hahn or Yusef Komunyakaa. Some of my colleagues described working with him to be “like church,” with which I whole-heartedly agree. Time spent with these professors was transcendent and could benefit a student even more than workshop. But I didn’t bring a poem to Breyten. I went empty-handed up the beige-carpeted stairs at the back of the house and found his office. He was there, he welcomed me; I sat down.

Instead of poetry, I talked about being older than the others in the program. This being graduate school, I’d thought that people would be in their thirties. Instead, the youngest student was 21. I was 38, and one of the oldest. It was reported that grad-school ages were getting younger because of the financial crisis: instead of going out into the world, undergrads were going straight into post-graduate degrees. Being confronted with this in literary community, being around all these young people who were just starting out, and suckling mentorship from some of the best poets in the English language as if it were the most natural thing in the world, something to be taken for granted as an innate privilege, I found myself mourning the lack of honest and innocent mentorship in my younger life. I said as much to Breyten. Quite incoherently, I talked about regret at having failed to find a literary community earlier. Although I’d had mentors like the poets Pearse Hutchinson, James Liddy and John Liddy, I had never experienced community like NYU. I suppose I was talking about being lost: that sense of not even having known there was a world of other writers out there; or, knowing it, but knowing it imperfectly. There had been that deep obscurity, and the fact that Fr. Terence had deliberately obscured my path to others. There was that regret also.

Maybe unable to plumb where I was coming from, or where I was going with this, Breyten said, “we all have our regrets.” At the time, I didn’t know that he had been imprisoned by the Apartheid government for high treason from 1975 to 1982. It was only when I read Lawrence Weschler’s Calamities of Exile, a third of which is about Breyten, that I saw behind his words.

Experts like Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery have likened the relationship between abuser and abused to Stockholm Syndrome, that it is akin to being in a religious cult, where the mind partitions itself to make sense of the cognitive dissonance of being abused by a trusted friend, a mentor or a family member. Terence had been my mentor, my “ideal reader.” By presenting himself as a helpful critic of my teenaged poetry, he was able to convince me that I didn’t need anyone else. I was discouraged from seeking healthy connection with other writers by focused, malicious attention. My path to the world was sown with strategic thorn bushes that cut off the way, inexorably guiding me back to his clearing in the woods.

Slowly but surely, the Writers House became a clear path. Like anywhere else it could be prone to gossip and cliquish-ness, but the house was a place of community and safety. It was where I found writer friendships that have lasted, with all the gifts that that entails: friends who help to push a poem that last, necessary ten percent of the way.

It’s hard to remember my first moment in the House—to remember past the nights when the desks are folded up, and the craft room becomes the cheese-and-wine room for the Thursday and Friday night readings, when the wider world comes to the house, and the nineteenth century mouldings and stained glass come into their own, like Mrs. Dalloway’s party. My wife and I met in that room, at one of those readings, when she nudged past me at the books table. I remember the last class of the first semester when, among the whiskey and the magnum bottle of claret Breyten had brought, Richard Prins showed us his matching shoulder-blade tattoos: lozenge portraits of James Baldwin and Bob Kaufman, the black poet who coined the term beatnik. Breyten went next door to interrupt Chuck Wachtel’s fiction class with, “Chuck, man, you’ve got to see this!” and Ben Purkert got a photo of the two professors nodding sagely while studying the tattoos.

In reflecting on the way the program became a place to recapture my life from upheaval, I’ve thought often of the Robert Duncan lines, “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow / as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos.” I didn’t realize that this reclaiming of community, of finding a new path into my writing life and my personal life, was ahead of me the first time I saw the house in late May 2010. At the time, I was on my way back to Ireland from South America with a stopover in New York. I had accepted NYU’s offer, but I wanted to see what I was getting into before gathering some things back home, and going through the visa application process. Thirty hours earlier, the leaves were well into autumn in Argentina, a gold light in the Andean precordillera, but it was spring in New York. The semester had just ended, but the admin staff gave me a friendly tour of the house. Walking into the quiet house on West 10th Street, I didn’t know what was about to begin, but I knew I was grateful to be there.

 

[1] Why the delay? It can take that much time for survivors to process the trauma and build up to it. But more importantly, I had been getting on with my life. “Living well is the best revenge”, as they say. But although the grooming began when I was 16, because the directly sexual part of it started barely a month after my 17th birthday, since I was past the age of consent, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) could not—or would not—pursue the case. Consent is fraught, especially in cases of unequal power, between a forty-five-year old teacher and a high school student, but the DPP took a cut-and-dried attitude and, despite several official appeals on my part, that was that. Despite my evidence—in contemporaneous diaries and the abuser’s later email of admission—he is not on a sex offenders’ list.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, David McLoghlin is the author of Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2012), part of which was awarded second prize in The Patrick Kavanagh Awards, and Santiago Sketches (Salmon Poetry, 2017). Sign Tongue, his translations from the work of Chilean poet Enrique Winter, won the 2014 Goodmorning Menagerie Chapbook-in-Translation prize. In 2017, David is one of three translators of the anthology of Enrique Winter’s work titled Suns (Cardboard House Press). David graduated from NYU’s Creative Writing Program in 2012, where he was a Teaching Fellow at Goldwater Public Hospital and an International Editor of Washington Square review. David’s poems and translations have been broadcast on WNYC’s Radiolab, and published in Spain, the United States, Holland, Ireland and Myanmar in journals like Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Stinging Fly, Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, Poetry International, and Poetry Ireland Review. From 2013 to 2016, with his wife he ran and founded The Eagle and The Wren Reading Series, which hosted 150 emerging and established writers and poets. David lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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