Sunday, November 18, 2012

Back to the First Time

Welcome back guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell

Carol Owens Campbell
The first time Carol Owens Campbell saw rainbows dance across walls in the movie, “Pollyanna,” she became besotted with prisms. Now, not only does she sparkle her home with prisms, she also celebrates living a multi-faceted life. Earning a B.S. in Early Childhood Development forty years before earning a Solstice MFA in Fiction, Carol is co-author of “Views from a Pier” with her son Griffin, and wrote a recent article about her trip with her husband John aboard the Titanic Memorial Cruise.

~~~~~~~~~~    "Back to the First Time"    ~~~~~~~~~~

One of the most daunting conversations I ever experienced began when a child asked me to explain how to go “Back to the Future.” I could eat a plate of chocolate croissants just remembering how confused I felt. I knew I could explain how the idea for the movie first skateboarded into screenwriter Bob Gale’s mind. After all, the story of Bob Gale finding his father’s yearbook and wondering if he and his father would have been friends if they had gone to high school together is legend. However, the phrase, “back to the future,” in its literal translation, seemed inexplicable to the four year-old sitting beside me and surreal to comprehend, even to me.

Luckily, when Dr. Marilyn Kallet, the award-winning poet, asked me during her annual poetry workshop in Auvillar, France in May 2012 to write a poem based on another linguistic conundrum, the epigraph of Andre Breton’s poem, “Always For the First Time,” I was in close proximity to the delicious French pastries. 

However, as the circular logic of the words, ‘always for the first time,’ soaked into my conscience, and the fear of writing a poem using that elusive phrase radiated from my brain to my dry lips to my frozen fingers, I remembered the phrase, ‘back to the future,’ and my conversation with the little girl.

Carol & Fatiha
There I was sitting in the cheerful workshop room at the Maison V across from the Garonne River, beside classmates who would grow to be treasured colleagues (Peggy, Deanna, Stacy, Tom, Cari, Keith, Jina, and Laura), watching breezes blow laundry on a clothesline outside, imagining Lucy Anderton mixing lentil salad in the kitchen downstairs with her precious seven month-old Ophelia cooing in her lap, and Fatiha setting a picnic table under the grapevines.

Yet I was already nervous about the task ahead for I had never attended a poetry workshop before nor written a poem to read in front of others, let alone these poets I so admired.

Marilyn Kallet
Marilyn’s brilliance soon brightened my spirits. She proved much more adept than I could ever be at deconstructing a verbal conundrum. She explained that Andre Breton (1896-1966), the founder of Surrealism, often surprised audiences with “radical coherency,” an example of which is the poem, “Always For the First Time,” written about a beauty he desires. Breton “surprises, inspires, repeats phrases, and expresses the physical down her body,” Marilyn asserted that first day of class.

Days later, Marilyn would assure us that “Art is a primal experience. So is sex. Art is the place where we integrate the physical, mental and emotional. Furthermore, all writing about the body is political.” Marilyn would startle our sensibilities, teach us how to read our poetry as professionals, and honor our efforts with phrases such as “What is it about that line that recommends itself?”

After my first day in Marilyn’s workshop, I felt exuberant to understand that seeing a sunset may “always” evoke emotions, sensations, and saturated colors with the same rush as if one is experiencing the awe of a sunset “for the very first time.”

Marilyn, in her lyrical, empowering, supportive voice, encouraged each “poet” in the class to choose a subject, i.e., a taste, a view, a love, that would always spark those first time-feelings and write a poem, using Breton’s epigraph, about those emotions.

Auvillar at Night
That night I sat in my hotel room below the clock tower, fresh air puffing the curtains, croissants wrapped in parchment beckoning from the table nearby, a pilgrim on his journey to Spain clacking his walking sticks on the cobblestone path beneath the window, peonies in a vase by the bed perfuming the breeze.

The clock tower bonged. I marveled that I had gone back in time leaving Chicago as a distant memory to arrive in a village still snow-globed in the past.

From a 13th century chapel where I would soon read my poetry in French (Merci beaucoup to Marilyn’s tutoring) to villagers on the final night of the workshop, to the open air market in Valence d’Agen where I would buy raw silk scarves and sugared kumquats, to the Cathedral in Moissac where I would touch a Chagall stained glass window, to the fun I would have in a cooking class with Marilyn, classmates and Christophe Gardner (a renowned Parisian chef and master photographer), to strolls along cobblestones to the shop where Mary would serve hot chocolate and ice cream, I thrived with new passion for this place rich in history, in celebration of the past, and in its rebel attitude toward change.

Street signs in Auvillar
Yet I wrote my poem using a computer, took advantage of modern correspondence through emails to esteemed artist and VCCA Fellow Cheryl Fortier and her husband, John Alexander, (our attentive and gracious hosts from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the VCCA, which offers Marilyn’s poetry workshop, “O Taste and See,” each May), texted my husband John and son Griffin on my iPhone, and stood at an ancient wall on a hill overlooking the Garonne River mesmerized by the sight of nuclear reactor cooling towers, in their ironic hour-glass design, standing like futuristic giants on distant farmland as they powered the grid in Southern France.

I had embarked on an adventure not unlike Marty McFly, of “Back to the Future” fame, who traveled to the past to assure his future for I, too, had traveled to the past to make sure my future as a writer would be enhanced. Although I had earned degrees from the University of Alabama (Early Childhood Development) and Pine Manor College (Solstice MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction), although I am a fiction writer working on a novel, a former newspaper and online columnist, and a co-author of a creative nonfiction book, I felt poetry was too daunting. Now, thanks to Marilyn and her art-effervescing, life-energizing workshop, I consider myself a poet.

Here is the poem I wrote that night, and, in homage to Breton, I did not “revise.”


“Always For the First Time” Melody
         Carol Owens Campbell

Always for the first time
I hardly know you by sight

Your grin coaxes me to melt sophistication
Your eyes reflect my awe
Your stare possesses my soul.

It is there,
in your buttercup fields of wonder,
that sunshine stretches each petal toward truth.

When I gaze at your face, your innocence warms my chilled spirit
Purity effervesces
Bubble bath bubbles soar carefree
While you skip along a dirt road on your way to a future unknown.

Always for the first time
I hardly know you by sight

Yet if I were blind
I would know you by skin as soft as duck-down,
By the scent of rain lingering on your neck,
By the taste of custard about your mouth,
By the trill of your mandolin voice.

Besotted by your clarity for the person you are,
I offer you my gratitude, Ophelia Melody,
for the ways in which you beautify our world

And to each baby whose essence enhances my life

Always for the very first time.


 Virginia Center for the Creative Arts

VCCA France: A Creative Space

If you are interested in attending Marilyn’s art-effervescing, life-enhancing VCCA-France workshop, visit the program site for more information.

Poetry in La Chapelle. Marilyn Kallet performs her poetry for villagers in a 13th Century Chapel in Auvillar, France, May 20, 2012. (Photo credit: John Alexander)
*Ophelia Melody is the name of the seven month-old daughter of Lucy Anderton, poet in residence at the VCCA’s Moulin a Nef, Auvillar, France. 
 “Always for the first time, I hardly knew you by sight” is an epigraph from Andre Breton’s poem “Always For the First Time.”
**Information about Screenwriter Robert Gale and the movie, “Back to the Future,” courtesy of and writer/interviewer Katey Rich.