Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Handmade Poetry Retreat

While conferences and workshops were very important to me for a number of years, I eventually began to feel that I'd outgrown the model but still wanted some kind of group activity. For the past three years I have run a Women's Poetry Retreat. The first year it was held in Spring Lake, NJ, and the last two years it has been held in Ocean Grove, NJ. The retreat takes place the week after Thanksgiving. It includes women poets only, all of whom have been writing and publishing for a number of years. I invite the poets and line up an inn. Each poet then makes her own room reservation, and I pretty much fade into the background. Although I organize the event, I do not lead workshops during the retreat. Instead, I ask each participant to bring two poetry prompts. Then over our three and a half days, we take turns giving each other prompts. I step in with my little whip only if we get off focus, but we are all there on the same mission: to write a whole bunch of new poems.

This year's retreat was held in The Ocean Plaza Inn, a lovely Victorian inn, newly renovated. The finishing touches for the holiday decorations were being added as we arrived on Monday afternoon. Our first evening we ordered pizza and antipasta, which we enjoyed in the dining area of the inn. Incidentally, the only costs incurred are for a room reservation and food, so this retreat is significantly less expensive than an official conference.

After the pizza we gathered in the living room. (One nice perk that comes with this inn is that we have access to its living room as well as to the living room in the inn next door.) I took the group through the first prompt. We typically allow 20 minutes for each prompt, then read the drafts with only minimal commentary. Here we are the first night.

Pictured above: Susan Jackson whose first collection, Through a Gate of Trees, was recently published by CavanKerry Press, and Barbara Crooker whose first collection, Radiance, won the Word Press First Book Prize and whose second collection, Line Dance, is right now rolling off the presses.

Pictured here are Jessica deKoninck whose chapbook, Repairs, was recently published by Finishing Line Press; Wanda Praisner, author of A Fine and Bitter Snow (Palanquin Press, 2003) and On the Bittersweet Avenues of Pomona, which won Spire Press' 2005 poetry chapbook contest; and Betty Lies, author of the textbook, The Poet's Pen: Writing Poetry with Middle and High School Students, as well as two poetry manuscripts in circulation.

We met again on Tuesday morning, after the continental breakfast which is included in the room fee. Each year I ask the women to bring a poem on a specified topic. This year we each read a poem we admired for its music. Then we wrote to two more prompts.

One of the lovely benefits of Ocean Grove is the main street right around the corner. Lots of little shops and everything beautifully decorated for the season. That first day we had lunch in The Daily Grind, a cozy little spot that makes its own bread and baked goods.

Then we returned to the inn for our afternoon session, two more prompts. So by three o'clock Tuesday, we had each already written five new poems. Of course, not all of the poems will survive, but the level of writing was quite astonishing. There's something about this kind of gathering that creates a very fertile field.

After a few hours of private time for reading, napping, or walking along the beach, we all went to Bistro Ole, an extraordinary Portuguese restaurant. The food is wonderful and the hospitality is warm. We then finished up with a read-around back at the inn. Each of us read a favorite poem by someone else and then a poem of our own.

Wednesday was a repeat of Tuesday, minus the specified morning poem. For lunch we had leftovers from the night before—except for me who walked around the corner and bought some yummy soup and hit the Ocean Grove Bakery for an apricot danish and chocolate chip mint cookies and what the poets said were the world's best ginger cookies.

That night we took our amiable innkeeper's suggestion to dine at the Draughting Table in Asbury Park. It's a charming Irish pub, very reasonable prices, and excellent food. Then we had one final read-around back at the inn.

Thursday morning was our last writing session. All of our morning sessions took place in the space you see below. I took this shot standing on the balcony, beyond which is a view of the ocean. We sat on the sofa and surrounding chairs. This is the upstairs of the suite the innkeeper gave me because I organized the retreat. It's two floors with a spiral staircase in between. You can see the kitchen area in the background. Then there's a full bathroom around the corner and a bedroom.

Here's a closer view of the kitchen.

And here's a view of the ocean from the living room. We were only half a block from the ocean.

And the view from my lovely downstairs bedroom:

We finished up around noon, then headed for home, tired but enriched by the poetry and the friendship, our bags loaded with drafts of 11 new poems each.

Here's the view at 6:00 AM on the last day. You can understand why it was hard to leave.


  1. Wow, Diane. I loved this post.

    This is a fantastic idea. I'm going to a beach hotel with nine other writers next year, but we hadn't talked about getting together to do writing prompts. What a great idea.

    And there is a special energy when you do writing prompts with a group. I've always been surprised what I (and others) come up with.

    Your report and photos were wonderful, I lived vicariously through you!


  2. Oh, this sounds wonderful! My old writing group used to do three-day weekend retreats now and then -- a few times we went camping in a state park (we were all younger then and could stand to sleep on the ground!), and a few times we were able to use a retreat house owned by the Kentucky Foundation for Women. It was a somewhat similar format, with writing prompts and sharing, although we also cooked together, which was fun.

    Anyway, it sounds like you had a great time! Thanks for sharing the experience with us. :)

  3. Hi Kelli and Anne--
    It really was a wonderful retreat, so productive. Now if I could just find the time to get working on revisions.
    Anne--I was never young enough to sleep on the ground!


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