the practice of poetry cultivates a quality of presence that is grounded, attuned, & in many ways, quietly revolutionary.
to write well, we must pay attention to what’s actually happening—inside of us, & in our world.
as writers, we must give shape and meaning to words & ideas, but we must also do a far more radical thing, which is to re-inhabit our senses, our bodies, our actual lives.
the practice of poetry involves listening to what’s said as well as what’s unsaid. it means slowing down and getting quiet enough to notice what’s hidden, or revealed, when we’re not distracted by other messages, including those that suggest that to be busy, is to be happy, or, to consume, is to be fulfilled.
ordinary moments begin to sing—with music, with meaning, with significance.
& don’t we all benefit, individually and collectively, when we realize, more clearly, the nature of what is? when our sense of one another & the world becomes more particular and nuanced?
my teaching practice has evolved away from a primary focus on craft, toward a holistic approach that looks carefully at the creative process, & the many other factors that influence our ability to make our work real in the world.
as artists & human beings living and working in a society and on a planet that is so clearly in crisis, we yearn for space in which to integrate what we observe, feel and know. we need ways of making sense of the facts, in all their forms, and we need opportunities to explore how art can become an ongoing response to our unique experiences of being alive in our time. A survival strategy. A balancing action. A retreat. An act of love. A personal revolution. A spell. A long thought. A way of being in the world.
Holly Wren Spaulding is a writer, interdisciplinary artist, teacher who catalyzes her collaborators, clients and students toward a more humane and intimate way of being in the world.
In a society that so often undermines the consciousness we seek to cultivate, Spaulding stands as a beacon to those ready to do the necessary work of living according to their convictions; finding their true place in the ecosystem; resisting the exploitation of others and the earth; and materializing the inner life through the practice of art.
A passion for direct experience has led her from her childhood homestead in the upper Great Lakes, around the world as an activist, filmmaker and award-winning poet, writer, researcher, and artist.
Spaulding is the founder and director of Poetry Forge, an incubator for writers and their work. In addition, Spaulding serves on the advisory board of Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology, teaches occasional letterpress & poetry workshops at Big Wheel Press. She was the Ann Hall Artist in Residence at the Leelanau Cultural Center in 2017. She lives with her family in southern Maine.
Through her writing, courses, and relationships, Holly Wren Spaulding creates spaces for people to experience a sustained encounter with a way of being that fosters a sense of calm sufficiency, and where a depth of intellectual and creative inquiry prevails. Her commitment, in each of these areas, is to make a space for the radical imagination at a time when creative thinking, boundary crossing, and greater empathy is desperately needed in all areas of private and public life.
There’s a poem by Antonio Machado that says, “wanderer, there is no path, in walking, we lay down the path.”
Poetry and the arts have helped me make my place—and a kind of peace— in the world. I’ve pursued and practiced and saturated my life with art and ideas since I was very young. While I spent many years wondering how I would apply my particular interests and gifts to a “career,” what I have learned along the way is that I am what I have always been, and that means not forsaking certain basic truths about myself.
In this way, my life has felt like a prolonged pilgrimage, involving diverse work experiences, international education and living, and deep experiences as an activist. How can I, a single person, contribute to positive change, and challenge the forces that undermine our earth and humanity? This way of being in the world was forged by a unique childhood, and shaped by years of avoiding prescribed paths and answers.
My parents were politically engaged artists who came of age in the late 60’s, resisting the war in Vietnam and questioning everything. As an infant, we lived in a modified railway lineman’s shack, which provided simple shelter while they saved to move to northern Michigan where they soon built a cabin in the woods. Taking inspiration from a character in a story by James Fennimore Cooper called “Wren of the Woods”, I received my name two weeks after birth.
In the years that followed, and in defiance of social and economic pressure, they went on to create a place called Heartwood–an alternative community of likeminded people intent on an experiment to live closer to the land, prioritize sustainability, and raise children away from the influence of consumer capitalism. My siblings and I spent most of our time playing outside, helping in the garden, and making things in the workshop where we had access to tools, wood, paint and other materials. I learned early to treat my imagination with reverence, intuiting that it was my means to a broader experience.
This family legacy has meant that I’ve felt a prevailing desire to make my own way in the world. I’ve accepted the uncertainties and discomforts of this choice, and thrived on the freedom it has afforded me. Eudora Welty once said something about how a writer can get by on a little bit of rice, which feels more and more revolutionary as year by year, the wider culture submits to materialism as an actual way of life, while I’ve hewed toward simplicity in order to preserve time and resources for writing. Recently, my father told me that in the early days he was deeply influenced by a Zen saying: “Treasure your poverty, never trade it for an easier life.”
An easier life just isn’t that interesting, but an examined life has always held appeal. I learned this when I began studying poetry in earnest at Interlochen Arts Academy as a high school poet, which is where I encountered the books and writers who would shape my attitude and approach to just about everything that followed. From Jim Harrison: “We don’t get back those days we don’t caress, don’t make love.” From Rilke: “You must change your life.” From Li Young Lee: “There are days we live / as if death were nowhere / in the background; from joy / to joy to joy, from wing to wing, / from blossom to blossom to / impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.” Yes, these early lessons boil down to the lesson I received when I eventually started studying Zen in my twenties: Be awake. Do not waste your life.
Such a mindset made it possible for me to complete my entire education in creative writing, including an M. Phil. in poetry while living in Ireland, and then decide to try something else entirely. It was the late 90’s, the era of anti-corporate globalization protests. I’d been exposed to political organizing since I was a child, and I’d traveled to the global south by then, and had my eyes peeled open by the inequality, violence, but also by the dignity of people resisting these deprivations. I focused on independent journalism during those years, working part time on an organic farm, and eventually helping to found Sweetwater Alliance with a commitment to defending the water commons through non-violent civil disobedience and other forms of creative resistance involving art, theater, and storytelling.
During a happy period of teaching writing to college students, in which I discovered a love and knack for the process of midwifing other people’s poems and essays, I found myself in conversation with a group of students when one of them asked how I had known I wanted to become a poet. Without thinking, I heard myself say that more than anything—more than a house, career, husband, child, money, status, or security—the usual points on the compass—I have wanted a life in art. And I have wanted to live and work among others who share that value.
Now, almost three decades beyond that bucolic childhood, happily married, and working as an independent teacher and writer, having collaborated with many visual artists, dancers, filmmakers, and composers along the way, I have a deeper sense of what “a life in art” can mean. It’s about extending beyond the boundaries of my own experience, and who I am, to become ever more empathic, and more connected to others and our only home, this planet.
Holly Wren Spaulding is the author of Familiars (2020), If August (2017), Pilgrim (2014), and The Grass Impossibly (2008). Her poems, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Michigan Quarterly Review, Witness, The Ecologist, and in the book We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-Capitalism (Verso, 2003). A passionate collaborator, teacher, editor, and writer, Ms. Spaulding has been awarded residencies at The Mesa Refuge, Blue Mountain Center, The Millay Colony for the Arts, The Hill House, The Jean Noble Parsons Center for the Study of Art & Science, Pentaculum/Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts, and the Leelanau Cultural Center, where she was the 2017 Ann Hall Artist in Residence. She founded Poetry Forge in 2012 and teaches creative writing for Interlochen College of Creative Arts.