At the end of the Long Beach Peninsula in Oysterville, Washington, the Willapa Bay AiR Residency is nestled by the bay, in the cool shade of temperate rain forest. The cabins, which smell of cedar, have large windows that look out onto trees, greenery, and fog. There is a rooster that cock-a-doodle-doos at strange times of the day. About halfway into the month, this rooster is joined by a second rooster, and they trade their mournful un-circadian fours throughout the afternoons.
You are here to connect to what Anne Sexton liked to refer to as “the self’s self.” For you, this means the writing self. Your self’s self needs space to think and daydream. Your self’s self needs the time to sit with your thoughts without interference, without interruptions, without the kaleidoscope of jittery distractions your too-busy mind manufactures when you feel too close to the responsibilities of your work life, the pressures of your day-to-day obligations.
For a long time, you resisted the idea of doing artist residencies. Accustomed to working best at home, with your cats and your coffee, you used to worry that you might arrive at an artist’s residency and find yourself completely unable to write. Your first artist residency was in 2012, at Banff, and it was magic. You immediately slipped into a blissful trance of writerly hyperfocus, propelled into a state of almost manic joy by the hyperbolic beauty of the clouds and the Canadian Rockies. After that, you were hooked. Since that time, writing residencies have become a lifeline to your writerly life.
Founded in 1854, Oysterville, Washington, is located on the very tip of the peninsula. A National Register Historic District, Oysterville has an historic church, an historic schoolhouse, and an historic post office with unpredictably quirky hours. There are clams that can be dug up from the beaches at low tide. Oysterville is famous for the rich beds of oysters shelfed into Willapa Bay, and the oyster farms are said to be located in the cleanest estuary in the United States. The oysters are wild, and they are all harvested by hand. They are unspeakably delicious.
At Willapa Bay, lunches are delivered to the cabins five days a week, and dinners are served in an airy community lodge with floor to ceiling windows. The food is always fresh and lovely, and even though you are introverted and shy, you enjoy the interactions with the other artists. There are six of you in residence at a time, and the residency is open to writers, scholars, visual artists, and composers/musicians. The other writers are amazing, and you love talking to them, of course, but you are also always fascinated by the visual artists and the ways they think and talk about their work. One of the painters has been determining the ordering of colors in his paintings through an aleatoric process. He paints pistachio shells in the painting’s chosen colors, then rolls them like dice. It reminds you of John Cage, and of Fluxus. It reminds you of serial, twelve-tone row composition. The other visual artist in residence is working on visually mapping water systems in the Pacific Northwest. Her work makes you think of circulatory systems, of lungs.
You have been hideously overcommitted. You have had cancer. You have become legal guardian to your elderly, but abusive, parents. Your father has died. You have had spine surgery. Things have been unusually stressful, and chaotic, and noisy. It has been exceedingly difficult to hear your self’s self.
It is your second time doing a residency at Willapa Bay Air. The first time was in March 2015, the last time you had a sabbatical. You drafted a significant chunk of your book, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50. The fact that debris from Fukushima had washed up on the coastline where you were staying and writing brought you closer to your book, as did the weekly tsunami warning sirens. This time you are finishing a book called Kaze no Dena / The Wind Phone, inspired by the disconnected rotary dial phone where tsunami survivors went to speak to their dead through “phone calls on the wind.” You are thinking about loss, about grief, about extinction, about climate catastrophe.
The first time you were at Willapa Bay Air, one of the visual artists, a sculptor, talked about how there were two types of sculpture: (1) subtractive, in which a sculpture’s form is revealed through a process of taking away, or subtracting from, a larger material such as stone or wood, etc.; and (2) additive, in which a sculpture is built through putting together individual pieces, or components, into a larger whole. She said that before the residency she’d been working primarily as a subtractive sculptor, but wanted to use the residency to experiment with working additively. You still think about this all the time. You wonder about what it might mean to make, or shape, or revise poems through consciously working either subtractively, or additively. You wonder if this might apply to life, as well. You think that the first time you were at Willapa Bay AiR you were shaping your life from an additive model. Lately, you are figuring out ways to work subtractively.
On the day after your birthday, you are walking on the beach and a fortune cookie-shaped cloud crescents in an intense blue sky. It is reflected in the ocean.
You want to crack it open so you can see the fortune.
You think that it will be lucky.
Lee Ann Roripaugh’s fifth volume of poetry, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 (Milkweed Editions, 2019), was named a “Best Book of 2019” by the New York Public Library, selected as a poetry Finalist in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards, cited as a Society of Midland Authors 2020 Honoree in Poetry, and was named one of the “50 Must-Read Poetry Collections in 2019” by Book Riot. She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The South Dakota State Poet Laureate from 2015-2019, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.