Longtime faculty member Maud Casey spoke to the Winter 2016 graduating class of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Here are her remarks:
Welcome to my colleagues, guests of the college, and, most of all, this year’s graduates and their beloveds who have traveled here today. A relative newbie on this esteemed faculty, I’m honored, humbled, and slightly terrified to be delivering today’s graduation remarks to an audience filled with people—students and faculty both—who have over the years, and over the last ten days, been my fairy god-people of wisdom.
What I’d like to talk about today is solidarity and that sacred attic space called solitude, both essential to the making of art. As our tireless, inspiring leader, Debra Allbery, noted in her opening remarks on the first day of this semester’s residency, “an artist’s life is a negotiation between life and the upper room.” Let me begin by offering a story of solidarity to the loved ones of the graduates, loved ones who have provided that essential feeling of home as the graduates wandered in the wilderness of the imagination. I, too, am familiar with the mysteries of living with someone embroiled in that strange, amorphous, inscrutable endeavor called writing. You see, I was raised by those fascinating wolves otherwise known as writers.
More specifically, my father is a writer and a pipe smoker. One of my most vivid childhood memories is watching him choose the right pipe, which seemed to involve a complicated and mysterious alignment of the moon, the stars and the rings of Saturn, watching him run a pipe cleaner through it, tamp the tobacco with the corner of a matchbook and—finally—light it. The ritualistic choosing of the pipe became, over the years, ever more complicated because of the hundreds of pipes he amassed. From the backyard, where the neighborhood kids and I played we could see the pipes lined up along the bay window of his study. Like chorus girls waiting for the music to begin. Inevitably, having been told not to make noise beneath the window, one of us would make noise beneath the window. My father would come roaring out, wearing earphones the size of an air-traffic controllers and a tattered bathrobe. “Do you know what Mr. Casey does?” a neighborhood mother, having received yet another call from Mr. Casey, asked her son, the one unfortunate enough to have the most distinctive shout.
“Yeah,” her son said. “He makes pipes.”
What was he doing in there? From where we crouched in the bushes, writing looked a lot like playing solitaire in a tattered bathrobe. It looked a lot like making pipes. Even though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then, I was witnessing something the choreographer Susan Rorthorst has described this way: “Art was something done by people with all their limitations and their messes.”
The particular deep-space solitude required to make pipes in the midst of all of one’s limitations and one’s messes requires cultivating a space that can feel like the very opposite of what’s so often expected of us. It is a strange space, this deep-space solitude, this attic room, where you dwell in uncertainty, where you not only listen to your curiosity but actually follow it, where your vulnerabilities become your strengths, where you fail and fail better, where you voluntarily let yourself fall open again and again and again. The writer William Gay once said that learning to reside in bafflement was the most important lesson he learned, and relearned, as a writer. It’s a brave and risky thing to do, residing in bafflement, especially in a culture with an increasing intolerance for ambiguity, for Keats’ famous “negative capability,” in which, as he wrote, one is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Or as my mother—also a pipe-maker—once said of writing, it requires “inchoate reaching in heartfelt darkness.”
So what does solidarity have to do with all that inchoate reaching in heartfelt darkness? Particularly that aspect of solidarity that means standing on the side of justice? Standing on the side of the good. Standing on behalf of those we love. What is its role in addressing the particular brutality, for instance, of the year we just left? At the end of 2015, one might have been put in mind of the all-caps telegram Dorothy Parker sent to Robert Benchley New Year’s Eve, 1929: YOU COME RIGHT OVER HERE AND EXPLAIN WHY THEY ARE HAVING ANOTHER YEAR. The role that literature, and particularly its ethereal quality of mystery, plays in political struggle is sometimes cast as, at best, negligible and at worst a luxury we can’t afford. But fiction and poetry are acts of empathy and, increasingly these days, empathy can feel like a radical act. Where you direct your empathy, where you cultivate your reader’s empathy, has meaning and motive. In his Poetics, Aristotle writes that the historian is concerned with “what happened” whereas the poet is more concerned with “the sort of things that can happen.” This argument concerns the usefulness of the imagination in relation to navigating the world and understanding ourselves in relation to it, and it suggests that art has something to offer us in relation to the past—and so the present—that might run alongside history.
The usefulness of the imagination is also related to hope. In a recent interview titled “On What It Means to Be Hopeful Despite the World,” the writer Hilton Als said, “When I’m creating something that really expresses what I mean to express, there’s a freedom there that is unmatched, other than when people love you.” Dear graduates, here among the people who love you, your imagination, your art offers you a kind of freedom. It is yours. It belongs to you. It’s a way to be in relation to the world. It’s a way to move through the world. It’s how you can hold the world. It’s how you can hold each other. As James Baldwin wrote in his essay “Nothing Personal,” “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out.”
That’s all well and good, Maud, you might be thinking, but what happens after I walk out of here with my degree and my giant stick? Let me tell you another story. I first came to Warren Wilson in 2007 as faculty but my first encounter with the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers was in 1992, during what might generously be called a lost year. I was living in San Francisco and somehow snuck my way into a magical writing group. It was a lovely, close-knit group, and in that group there were three especially magical people—vivid, wild, amazing writers. They had a lot in common, these three. They seemed to have read everything. They spoke with great fluency and nuance about books and writing and the vocation of art. They were fantastic dancers. But it was more than that. They were really, deeply, truly, irrevocably bonded. Like people who had been in a cult together. In fact, they often spoke of a vast network of writers with whom they were in close contact, writers who sounded as though they, too, had once been part of this cult. Eventually I learned these especially magical people were, of course, graduates of the Warren Wilson MFA Program. Now you, too, are part of this cult dedicated to a kind of radical empathy in relation to the world. It’s a cult that might be more accurately described as a community, a community dedicated to solitude, and solidarity to art and to one another. It’s a community that will hold you so the sea won’t engulf you and the light stays on.
Graduates of the winter class of 2016, my most heartfelt congratulations.