At Summer 2023 Residency, Debra Allbery ended her tenure as Director of the MFA Program for Writers. She honored the class of Summer ’23 with the following graduation remarks
A book I’ve been turning to whenever I could find time this spring is Caleb Smith’s 2020 critical work, Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture. Structured as a book of devotions in 28 parts, Smith explores writings by Thoreau and other 19th century writers and reformers all focused on approaches for reclaiming attention in an increasingly industrialized world. Thoreau was aware as well of the performative nature of his own “habit of attention,” a practice he’d come to regard as exhausting, distanced from its original purpose—something becoming, in a way, another kind of commodification. The concerns of these 19th century writers are, of course, acutely familiar; what’s unsettling is imagining them as concerns 175 years ago. The book ultimately is about the efforts in any age to strike fruitful balances in our lives— allowing for both discipline and dream, purposeful direction and Thoreauvian sauntering.
My first full-time teaching job was in the creative writing department of a fine arts boarding school in northern Michigan. The students, most of whom were aged 16 to18, majored in their disciplines, so most of my students were budding poets and fiction writers, but there were also dancers and musicians, painters and set designers in my classes, fulfilling their degree requirements. They were remarkable students—lively-minded and original thinkers, hungry to learn, and wholly without affectation. I had a particular fondness for the students from the other arts, for the ease and joy they brought to our discussions. In my class they weren’t trying out for the lead role or first chair—they were taking some time to listen to and locate themselves, outside of their competitive disciplines.
One who has remained vivid in my memory was a young violist, Tom, rather a Thoreauvian figure himself. His dorm roommates once told me he had tucked maple leaves between his sheets and mattress so he could have the sense of sleeping in the woods. Tom rarely spoke, but he sat front and center, a beatific smile, eyes usually closed—moving his bow, I imagined, over the lines of every poem I read. Attention for him took the form of being entirely elsewhere even as he was wholly present. He hung back one day after a class on Rilke to thank me, and added, conspiratorially, “This is my me class, you know.” Creative Writing was a discipline, but it was also a refuge, a place for stillness and taking one’s own pulse.
That first job showed me what I felt I was meant to do—to guide and support gifted students, ideally in a one-on-one environment—and also what I was probably better off not doing: teaching adolescents in the three-foot snowbanks of northern Michigan’s hinterlands. It would take six years of lucky breaks and plenty of what seemed like mistakes and wrong turns before I found myself in Swannanoa for the first time, and in a teaching opportunity and community that couldn’t have been better aligned with my temperament and pedagogical beliefs and approaches if I had designed it myself. From that first residency in January 1995, I knew I’d found the artistic home and family I’d been seeking– a sentiment our graduates each have expressed in their reflections today many times over. My arrival here, like yours, was a turning point not only in my writing life, but in all aspects of my existence – and I know that each our 14 graduates here feel the same.
One of the underlying recurring themes of my opening talks over the years has been provenance, the complex confluences that constitute ‘origin’—the events and forces in each of our lives that resulted in us being together here at any particular time, and the distinctive, vibrant communities that issue from those convergences. It’s in the etymology of the word itself, provenir, which, like an arrow headed in both directions, carries within it its origin as well as its going forth. How we got here is a vital part of the charge, the intricate polyphony of any writer’s apprenticeship. To a far greater degree than the gathering of ballerinas and bassoonists in my early classes, you come from a great variety of professions and fields of study, and even those of you who have taken a more traditional path to this degree in many cases have in no way followed a direct route.
But one of the great binding forces among our students is the kinship you feel in each having made this choice—a risky, brave choice—to honor this part of yourselves by giving it space and time and dedicated attention in your busy lives, by allowing this passion for language an external existence, by naming this identity. You all know, as do your loved ones here or viewing from home, the costs of such a decision—financial, familial, occupational, and personal. It’s a decision that has involved and affected everyone around you in your daily lives, and we’re all deeply grateful to the families and loved ones who have supported each of you throughout this challenging journey. If your pursuit of this art was a ‘me’ decision—a decision to honor this calling—it’s one which is in no way selfish. This program’s deep attention and the heightened attention it has encouraged in you has transformed your practice, your sense of possibility, and— as so many of you referenced in your reflections—the nature and quality of attention you bring not only to your poetry and fiction and your reading, but to your daily existence. Everyone whose lives are touched by yours benefits from its salutary impact.
You also made the choice to pursue this art during a period of unprecedented uncertainty— venturing into unknown territory when everything was unknown territory; distractions threatened to overthrow discipline at every turn. It’s important that that be recognized and applauded; our faculty all saw it in their supergroup doses, but I saw it times-55 or -60 every semester: how extraordinary it was, what each of you were managing to accomplish in your writing, in the midst of profound and continuing upheaval. I also saw that the structure and steady dialogue of the program was providing a refuge—a place to try to articulate what we were all living through, with others who were doing the same. That shared perspective steadied us and expanded our attention and focus in a time that constantly worked against those goals. I have always been proud of the students and faculty in this program for your commitment and accomplishment, but never more so than in the past three years.
However much the fourteen of you resemble past Wallies in your creative gifts and passion and dedication and warm fellowship, your enrollment experience, and that of those who graduated in the past year, has been unlike any that have gone before you. Whereas previous generations began on the ground and at a remove from home, traveling to a physical retreat in Swannanoa every 6 months—a physical gathering which gradually grew into abiding spirit—, most of you began with the immersion into spirit—an entry into an imagined elsewhere that required, I know, more than its fair share of trust and faith in us. And then, thankfully, by the close, you experienced the anchor and location of our embodied version here in western North Carolina. And the radiance of the connection, the levitating joy is all the brighter for it, I think, all the more enduring.
That you all received the education this program has always delivered, and experienced the vital community that is its hallmark was evident in your graduate classes, your readings over the past few days, and in the insights you offered in the reflections this afternoon. The sense of the program as a family and your cohort as an essential support network during a period of overwhelming challenges, the shared commitment to your art, the recognition and true appreciation of what we do as joyful work and work which is its own reward, your expanded awareness of all that the long game of apprenticeship entails, the importance of openness and embracing not-knowingness – all of that tells me we provided what we promised, and that you received it uniquely and are ready to enter the next phase of your apprenticeship out in the Wally afterlife. Your paths here were many and distinct, but this experience is now part of your collective provenance.
One of my very early post-residency letters was framed, as it happens, by another critical work on Thoreau: H. Daniel Peck’s Thoreau’s Morning Work, a study of the interrelatedness between Thoreau’s journal and his two completed books. The phrase “morning work” is from Walden. A mundane reference to daily chores—taking an axe to the pond to get drinking water in winter, for instance—it also takes on a more philosophical resonance. “What should be man’s morning work in the world?” Peck lingers on the phrase’s evocations of wakefulness and deliberateness— the work achieved through the inextricable combinations of memory and perception, through what we inherit and what we create. What drew me to the book then as it does now was the dawn and purpose of it, for the work we do as writers in the world.
The phrase returned to me as I was reading Thoreau’s Axe this spring; it seemed to represent exactly the form of attention Thoreau was seeking and encouraging through alertness and openness. “You will not see the magic,” Thoreau wrote, “unless you’re prepared to look for it. Most of the time [the best things] remain hidden from us because we don’t bring our minds and eyes to bear on them.” It’s been our aim to guide you in that preparation for seeing the magic, for truly attending. We all look forward to the vision you’ll each bring to the morning work you have ahead of you.