Hambidge (and a few words about Sewanee)

 

Before I talk about Hambidge, I just want to give a shout out to all the wonderful peeps I met at Sewanee this year. I had a BLAST, and it was mostly because of all the talented and amazing drinkers (ahem) writers I met there. Of course Sewanee deserves its own blog post, but it’s been over a month now, and while I know I had quite a bit of time up in Hambidge, I decided to devote myself to my stories and novel. Go figure.

That said, Sewanee was super fun. I used to say it’s like summer camp for writers. But now I’m thinking, it’s more like a cruise for writers, in that we all never stop eating and drinking and very rarely “get off the ship,” so to speak. Plus we line-danced, so the cruise ship analogy is apropos.

So, Hambidge! I recently completed my four weeks there, and what a great residency it was. A real retreat from the everyday mania of NYC living, Hambidge is in the middle of the woods, about 4 miles from Dillard, GA, which sits on the North Carolina border and smack in the middle of the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. When I say retreat, I mean it. There was no cell phone service; the nearest place we could get decent enough reception was about 3 miles up Betty’s Creek Road. We did have phones in our cabins–we each got our own cabin, and mine was the super spacious and pretty awesome Foxfire–but they only received incoming calls. Internet access was limited to the Rock House down where we ate dinner together every night. (Two weeks into the residency I realized the wireless signal was strong enough for me to get a weak signal in my cabin, enough for emails and Facebook.)

Foxfire was completely surrounded by trees. Which means, you guessed it: animals. Insects. Snakes. I was warned by Deb in my orientation speech. There will be lots of bugs, she told me. (She wasn’t kidding. I became so obsessed with bugs I wrote a short story about them.) There might be mice. Then there were the snakes. Black snakes shouldn’t frighten me, she said, only copperheads and other rattlers. And of course, your usual possums and skunks and raccoons etc. Also, bears. She advised me to wear the provided bell if I chose to take a hike among the 400 acres of trails on Hambidge property. But I didn’t see any bears, or snakes for that matter. I did see hawks and other cool birds. I did see the wildest mushrooms I’ve ever seen in my life. Andlots of very, very large bugs. Cicada Killers. Spiders the size of my palm. Wasps and hornets and mantises. Mostly they stayed outside, but when I wrote at night by my table lamp, they would gather. I made peace with them pretty quickly, though–once I wrote the story they decided to leave me alone. Here’s a cicada killer stuck in the web of a spider:

 

Dillard is apparently a popular destination for Georgian summer homes. It’s really pretty up here, but there’s not much in the way of services. When there’s a Piggly Wiggly, who needs services? Clayton, about seven miles south, had a lot more options, including Ingles, possibly the biggest supermarket I’ve ever seen, and even a 24 hour gym which I ended up joining for my last two weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

Four nights a week we’d gather for dinner at the Rock House, where chef Ray would prepare our meals for us. Ray was sweet and no nonsense. She made delicious southern vegetarian meals and fish on Fridays. Her desserts were world class. After Sewanee, I thought I’d might be taking a bit of a turn back to healthy food when I found out Hambidge was mostly vegetarian. Turns out, in the south, vegetarian food ain’t health food. I can now say I know the difference between turnip greens and collard greens. I had all sorts of biscuits, with dill being my favorite. I had succotash and fried green tomatoes and grits and okra and something called “dressing”, which up north we call stuffing. Tasty as hell, but not exactly the most lean, protein-rich diet I’ve ever had. The Rock House:

Each week some residents would leave and new ones would join us. The first week I met Dan Albergotti and Katy Didden, two very talented and super sweet poets, as well as Marina Kassiandou, a visual artist from Cyprus. These three welcomed us newcomers, Julia Fenton, a visual artist from Atlanta (and one of my new favorite people in the world), Pat Riviere-Seel, a darling and funny poet from Asheville, Seyed Safavynia, a composer/neuroscientist/all around nice guy genius from Atlanta , and Tim Houghton, a poet from Maryland. We learned about the Hambidge ritual of holding hands for a moment of silence before dinner, how to load up the dishwasher and put the leftovers in the tupperware. The next week all three newcomers were from Atlanta: Mariana McDonald, a vibrant, passionate poet/writer, Allen Peterson a visual artist/accordion player/bee collaborator, and Anne Webster, a poet with the greatest Southern accent I’ve probably ever heard.

On Thursday or Friday nights we’d share our work with each other. Julia is an installation artist and her work is deeply rooted in feminism and feminist theory. A lot of her stuff is provocative, and she uses a lot of bodily fluids as well as kitschy things like plastic toy soldiers she paints pink and fish hooks. While in residence she was working on something called “The Bride of Christ” which was going to be her take on the whole madonna-whore attitude the church often displays towards women. Julia is also hands down the best storyteller I’ve ever met. 75  years young, she has more energy and verve than many women half her age. She’s led a terrifically full life, and she has the stories to prove it. From the meth addicts living below her in Oregon to the terrifying and hilarious stories of getting sick in India–not to mention that she has her own uterus(!) stored in a jar in her pantry, we certainly didn’t need television or internet with Julia around. Julia, if you need a ghostwriter for your memoir, I am there with bells on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allen probably does the most unusual work of all of us. He cast two children’s heads (based on his daughter’s heads) out of beeswax which he then placed into two separate hives, one at his home in Atlanta and one near Hambidge. For a while the bees didn’t participate, but once he made some adjustments, the bees began to create the most fascinating and somewhat disturbing honeycombs. The bees in Atlanta made a flowing beard-like river from the head, while the Hambidge bees covered the face with the honeycomb. I wish I had pictures, but Allen hasn’t shown his work yet, so he can’t release it out into the world until he does. But you must check it out when he does!

Merill Comeau was the last resident to arrive during my stay, and I’m happy she was. Merill is such a hoot, and for several days we were the only ones at Hambidge, so I’m happy I was with someone as funny and wise and interesting as her. I never would have found out about Mary Hambidge’s more scandalous affairs if it wasn’t for her. Merill does collage work out of all kinds of salvaged fabric. Some of her pieces can be very large, and really striking.

Oh, and I did get a lot of writing done, which is the point. I went in with a novel outline to work on, but when I wasn’t really feeling that project I allowed the environment to inspire me to write two completely new stories. I revised about three more and I even started a new novel, one which happens to take place in part at a residency in Georgia…

All in all, a great way to spend the month of August!

Charis Books and the Decatur Book Festival (and Dragon Con!)

 

 

The crazy thing about attending as many writers conferences as I have is that there are cities where I know quite a few people that I’ve never actually visited. I only knew Atlanta’s airport (fly Delta much?) up until August 24th, but I’m so glad I got to know the city and see my friends who live there, who I have to say are as gracious and generous a bunch as a guy could ask for. It was thanks to my friends who know Elizabeth Anderson over at Charis Books that I managed not only to get a reading there but also to be on a panel as part of the AQLF (Atlanta Queer Lit Fest) track at the Decatur Book Festival.

My first weekend in Atlanta I stayed in Midtown and read Friday night at the awesome Charis Books in Little Five Points. It’s an adorable bookstore, the oldest feminist bookstore in the country (38 years and counting), and Elizabeth and Sara and the rest of the staff were very welcoming. Only a few people showed up for the reading, but as Elizabeth said, I was competing with Loretta Lynn and Mary Chapin Carpenter in concert that night, which meant a lot of the Atlanta gay folk were busy elsewhere. We still managed to enjoy ourselves, and I read a newer story not in the collection, “Imaginary Bobby.” Afterwards my friends took me to the Porter bar across the street, which just so happened to have my favorite beer on tap: Rodenbach Grand Cru (a feat repeated at the Brick House in Decatur: Atlanta knows it beers!)

 

 

 

 

 

Other highlights in Atlanta were a fabulous sushi dinner and a visit to the World of Coke, which, cheesy as it sounds, was totally worth it as I got to pretend I was 9 years old again and sample something like 60 soft drinks from around the world. (I probably only managed 20 before a serious sugar headache kicked in)

I went back to Hambidge for the week and returned to the Atlanta area on Saturday for the Decatur Book Festival. DBF is the largest independent book festival in the country and was just a joy from beginning to end. Talk about making a guy feel important: the book festival put us Authors up at the hosting Marriott hotel for two nights, but also gave us free merchandise, $50 to spend at local eateries/shops, threw us a VIP party and even gave us access to a hospitality suite where we could eat and drink as much as we want all day on both days of the festival. It was a lot of fun to walk around and visit the booths, and just to be surrounded by so many authors and lovers of independent books. My panel was called “Identity and Self in a Shifting Landscape.” Carter Sickels, author of The Evening Hour, and I both read from our books and then Elizabeth, the moderator, asked us a few questions about how place can inform identity, particularly in gay culture. The room was packed, which was such a relief, and the audience asked us a lot of questions—really great questions, actually, quite a few of which I could only come up with good answers to after the panel was over. Oh well. Then Carter and I signed books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was excited to hang out with my author-friends Kristen-Paige Madonia (whose novel, “Fingerprints of You” is just out this month) and Michael Montlack (editor of “Divining Divas”) as well as see the Atlanta crew again. Thanks so much to Will Kenyon, Linda Tzoref, Ray Squires (aka Rachel Bailey), Linda Sands, Kat Johnsen, and the marvelous Julia Fenton, for coming to see me and showing me a good time.

Last but not least: Will Kenyon was kind enough to be my guide at Dragon Con this year, which was SUCH a trip. I’m not a fan boy but I totally understand why people go gaga for Dragon Con. Look at some of the photos below to see what I mean. It lasts four days, and events run well into the wee hours of the night. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of my friend Barrington Seetachitt’s husband’s movie, Rock Jocks, which actually had its world premiere at Dragon Con. Thanks, B, for inviting me–it was such a funny movie.