Elizabeth Agans – 2018 General Scholarship Winner

 

Elizabeth Agans was the recipient of a General Scholarship in 2018. After her workshop, she sent us the following. We are moved by the story not only of how she was able to join us a second time, but how her experiences with us seem to have shaped and helped her. We hope you are too.

In her words:

 

I grew up (mostly) in Phoenix, and graduated from Arizona State University in 2010 with Bachelor’s degrees in Creative Writing and Psychology. By the time my final year was approaching, I had extremely itchy feet and was anxious to start living the kind of life that I had spent so much time reading about—traveling as much as possible, exploring not only different parts of the United States that I was unfamiliar with, but different parts of the world. In a kind of dart-at-a-map endeavor, I moved to Memphis, Tennessee in January of 2010, and finished my final semester online, taking proctored midterm and final exams at a college nearby.

 

Memphis was supposed to be the first stop on an adventure across the US and then beyond, living and working in cities I’d never visited before—scribbling in worn, hand-written notebooks tales of adventure and firsts and regional colloquialisms I found fascinating, and then on to the next. Memphis really did begin that way, everything was new: the southern accents and idioms, historic buildings downtown on the Mississippi River, and live music every day of the week in almost every bar in town. I waited tables and bartended to pay for college, and this was the perfect place to make a living doing just that while experiencing the rich culture that the city had to provide.

 

But as tends to happen with impulse adventures, unforeseen hurdles sobered up the intoxicating experience pretty quickly. On the Fourth of July that first year, I was driving home from work and was hit by a drunk driver. I was the only one out of the three in my vehicle to walk away from that accident. I spent the next five years dealing with lawyers and depositions and survivor’s guilt, and stayed in Memphis if for no other reason than I didn’t have an ounce of energy at the end of the day to take an adventure to the grocery store, let alone a new city.

 

In the fall of 2015, frail and exhausted from overwhelming anxiety, I decided enough was enough, and moved in with my mother in Northern California to finally start healing. It must have only been a week or two after I arrived that there was a Poetry Walk in the nearby city of Petaluma, with readings and lectures at local businesses all over downtown. It was attending these events that gave me a list of new poets to read, and ideas of where to seek out other events to get back into the poetry scene, vibrant and alive in the Bay Area.

 

This is how I came across Kim Addonizio’s work, and I went to her book/album release for My Black Angel in San Francisco about a month later. I enrolled in her online workshop after that, and it felt amazing to commit time each week to not only writing, but to read others’ work and think and speak critically about poetry again for what seemed like the first time since college. Her thoughtful and honest feedback gave me the push I needed to recommit myself to my passion, to what I feel I was born to do (or perhaps survived in order to do).

 

When I attended Kim’s workshop at La Romita in June 2016, it was a time of many magical firsts for me. My first international flight, the first stamp in my passport, my first residential poetry workshop. It was the first time in years that I had felt like myself again: driven, passionate, determined, and inspired—not to mention adventurous. And that was all just planning the trip and actually making it onto the plane to Rome; I had no idea how much the actual experience would exceed my expectations.

Anyone who has been to La Romita will undoubtedly boast about the food and hospitality that staying there for two weeks provides: breakfast cakes with powdered sugar hearts and espresso in the mornings; panini, pizza, and garden-fresh insalate for lunch; fried zucchini flowers, the melted parmesan cups with greens and fruit inside of them, the multitudes of homemade pasta and pesto for dinner and the fresh cantaloupe, the tiramisu made in-house, the gelato for dessert! Every meal was divine; we ate like royalty.

 

The grounds themselves are mesmerizing. I spent a great deal of time under the awning that overlooks the hills of Terni, where we would have workshop with the cypress trees swaying back and forth in the wind. There are olive trees only a few paces off the beaten path, and in early June they were just starting to blossom, the plump green nodules barely noticeable until I took a branch into my hand. Up the hill, there is a sheep farm—we would hear them baa and the sheep dog howl throughout the day—images that made their way into many of the poets’ work while at La Romita. There is a beautiful mulberry tree, one of the first things you see once off the bus from the airport and arriving at the grounds, and you can even eat the berries (but only in moderation, as ingesting too many can be fatal).

 

In fact, Ovid’s Metamorphoses ties a story of forbidden love to the deep hue of the mulberries—an inspiring piece of literary trivia that Valerio, a scholar and Terni local, shared with us. This is just one example of Valerio’s shared knowledge of all things local and literary, and of the hospitality provided to us throughout our time there. Edmund, who lives on-campus for half of the year and is the go-to host throughout the stay, also provided a wealth of knowledge. He printed maps for our outings, explained how to get to different festivals, shops, restaurants, churches—anything, anywhere that may be inspiring to a poet exploring small, hillside towns in Italy for the first time. Our hosts dined with us most evenings, and were often part of lively discussions over shared carafes of wine, where we all got to know one another quite well over two weeks. They were instrumental in making every one of us feel at home.

 

I am extremely grateful for the experience of La Romita in and of itself, and the planned excursions and adventures we all took together. As far as a retreat goes, there couldn’t be a more relaxing, yet simultaneously inspiring and stimulating opportunity to focus on writing poetry. I would be remiss if I didn’t express extreme gratitude to Kim for structuring the poetry portion of the retreat—for providing us with packets of poems to read before each outing, highlighting images and forms to focus on, and offering thoughtful prompts to get us inspired and motivated in case we were experiencing sensory overload. I felt completely supported, creatively and otherwise, throughout the whole trip.

 

I would have to say that what I got most out of the experience in its entirety is feeling a part of an artistic community, a family of poets. A unique and profound bond is cultivated when a group of people come together in an unfamiliar place, unfamiliar with one another, with a solitary, shared goal: to create. There is an unabashed vulnerability that exists when a group of artists meet for the first time and live amongst one another for a solid two weeks. It is not prideful, it is not judgmental; it really is a supportive and loving community that flourishes when honest work is shared, and it continues well after everyone flies home. I still stay in touch with many poets that I met over two years ago now, and that is a wonderful gift that I didn’t know to expect after my first residential workshop, but that I am infinitely grateful for.

 

Since that first trip to La Romita, I have been focused on pursuing writing more seriously, particularly through applying to graduate school for my MFA in Poetry. I left California, spent every penny of my life savings to live in Iowa City for almost three months in 2017 to attend the Summer Writers’ Workshop, and to then move back to Phoenix after almost a decade. I still bartend and wait tables, picking up shifts wherever I can to save money to afford workshops, to travel for workshops, and to apply for graduate school for the second time around this fall.

 

I knew that the summer of 2018 meant that Kim would be hosting another poetry retreat at La Romita, and as much as I longed for the comradery of writing in Italy again, the luxurious food, the sheep dog, and the mulberry tree—there was no way I could afford it. I could barely afford to attend a summer workshop in the States, which would’ve been for a shorter amount of time and would have been a gamble in terms of having enough time to cultivate a relationship with whoever the instructor was, in hopes of help with graduate school applications.

 

I also knew I had to email Kim, who had written me a letter of recommendation, to let her know that not only did I not get into the fully-funded, extremely competitive schools I applied to, but that there was no way I could afford to return to La Romita. I was dreading the email, and more than a bit distraught at the thought of missing out on going back to Italy, especially since so many of us had talked about being thrilled to see one another again there.

 

Once I did send the email, and got the surprising and wonderful news that there was potential for a scholarship, I was cautiously optimistic. Could it really be that I would be able to swing going back, working with Kim again in Umbria, having two whole weeks to focus on writing some new poems, pushing my limits, and getting feedback from her and fellow poets about my manuscript for MFA applications?

 

When it all came together, that is exactly what happened. I was able to write new poems, be inspired by other poets’ work, push my own limits of comfortable form and subject matter, and get extremely helpful feedback on my manuscript that I will send out for this round of applications. I was even told that some of the poems I wrote for workshop this summer should be in the manuscript packet, even though they are more raw and a bit less polished than some of the others.

 

I also felt an overwhelming sense of love and support from the group, and by the end of the two weeks, I was told by at least three other poets that they would help me in whatever way they could to make this round of applications be successful. La Romita truly does cultivate a creative family, and without the scholarship this year, I wouldn’t have the confidence, support, and knowledge that will help me this time around. I felt so defeated after not being accepted last year; but after the gift of this summer’s retreat, I feel re-invigorated and inspired, knowing that I will be able to achieve great things with such great people standing beside me.

-Elizabeth Agans   October 3, 2018

 

Elizabeth reading a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem at his grave in Rome

Elizabeth Agans was awarded a General Scholarship in 2018 to attend (for the second time) a workshop with Poet Kim Addonizio. After her first trip to La Romita, Elizabeth rediscovered her motivation to pursue her art. Since her last trip to Italy, Elizabeth was accepted in the University of Florida MFA program. It is a 3-year program, fully-funded, and she is teaching undergrad classes for a stipend to help make ends meet.

Read two of the poems that Elizabeth wrote as part of her second workshop at La Romita:

New Perfume

The Rhythm of Things

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