Notes from Italy

The Kenyon Review ventured into exciting new territory this past June, with an eight-day writing workshop in Italy. The foothills of the Cimini Mountains provided a magical setting for creative work, with sessions led by Review editors David Baker (poetry) and Nancy Zafris (fiction). While the writers immersed themselves in their work, taking occasional breaks to explore the region, editor-in-chief David Lynn reflected in his journal on the benefits of planting a new Review program overseas.

Sunday, June 5

I'm sitting in my hotel room, the window wide open, a steep hill of pines and plane trees climbing across the way. The Tuscia, this area north of Rome, is much greener than I'd expected, its sharp hills and mountains rising from the broad plain below. Only a few hours ago I was buffeted by the weekend bustle of Da Vinci Airport in Rome. A ninety-minute drive through the green-golden hills brought the twenty-plus participants and staff up into the vineyards, olive groves, and forests of the Cimini Mountains. The air is immediately lighter, cooler, lovely. This is an authentic Italy that one so rarely has access to--nary a tourist coach on the horizon.


Last night after dinner I snuck out of the Hotel Piccola to glimpse Vitorchiano, the village where the workshops will take place. Passing through the archway of a wall that encircles the small hill-town, all I could make out were the ancient buildings themselves. At the edge of one terrace, staring out into the vast blackness of the chasm that falls away to three sides, I could see only the stars high overhead. From the distance came the song of the nightingale and the clockless call of the cuckoo.

I returned to the central village in this morning's brilliant sunshine. Everything here--walls, pavement, churches and houses, alleys and arches--is wrought from a dark gray stone mined locally and aptly named pepperino, or pepperstone. The village perches on the crown of a jutting outcrop of that same rock, as if it were part of the same original extrusion from the earth, or perhaps a later, stony blossom. Built mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Vitorchiano seems largely untouched by the modern world, except that tiny cars do indeed sidle through the narrow lanes and alleys.

Today we arrived to begin our program at the seminar center recently opened by the American poet Linda Lappin. The cottage is in the center of the village, and its main room looks out across that great chasm falling away below.


Our participants--seventeen writers and four partners or guests--come from across the U.S. Although several have been involved with earlier KR workshops in Gambier, most have never had a Kenyon or KR connection.

One thing these writers all share is talent and commitment. Amazingly, there's been not a single whine so far, remarkable for any enterprise such as this. It helps to have Nancy Zafris teaching the fiction workshop and David Baker the workshop in poetry. They are marvelous, challenging, inspiring instructors, and they share not a little diplomatic talent as well.

The workshops meet each morning for two hours, and I can tell that all is going well because everyone seems so eager to keep writing in the afternoons, despite the fine lunches and the lure of a siesta at the
Hotel Piccola.

This afternoon we took the first of our special outings, this to a local "park of
monsters." The Tuscia, it turns out, is full of these unexpected glories. The park was created on a mountaintop near the hill town of Bomarzo by Prince Orsini in the sixteenth century. In dells and glens, across rolling hills and sharp rocky spines, enormous stone gorgons and giants preen and astonish.

Supposedly, the prince was so in love with his young wife that he build this park as a place to play and sport, and one can imagine the parties here. Many of the monsters have been carved in place from outcrops of the dark gray pepperino, and the artistry is astounding. Waterfalls and streams flow throughout, and it's impossible to tell which of these waterways were created, which occur naturally. David Baker suggested--and I think it's a great idea--that next year we arrange a picnic here and have workshops in the park in the afternoon.


One of the women on the program came up to me after dinner. "I thought, when I first saw the schedule, that taking a day off would be a waste of time," she said. "But now I realize it was brilliant--we've been working so hard. I needed the break!"

I was glad to hear that, of course. A handful of our writers decided to stay in Vitorchiano and keep at their work. More power to them! Most of the others, however, used the off-day to travel near and far for fun and, I suspect, for fresh inspiration. Orvieto is only forty-five minutes away, with one of the great cathedrals in Italy, its famous wines, its glorious views from high above the countryside. More locally, Viterbo and Orte are well worth a visit. One woman took a train to Florence for the day, and reported tonight that she had a marvelous time just walking nonstop through that magical city. Still others, myself included, slipped away for a bright, breezy day of walking, shopping, and eating in Rome.


I'm delighted that each of the workshop groups has developed its own personality and independence. They've taken to meeting when and where they like, sometimes in an open-air café just outside the walls of the old town, sometimes in the hidden grotto that lies all but secret within another café within the narrow, cobbled streets. You have to enter the outer chamber and find your way down a dark hole, before the inner room opens out with spaciousness and warmth. A wonderful place to collaborate--if only you can find it.

David and Nancy have their cohorts writing around the clock, all sharing a bond of excitement and exhilaration, as well as a sense of conspiracy. Tomorrow night, before our parting gala dinner, there will be an open reading and I know, as always, it will be great fun.

Already Ellen Sheffield, our program director who has made this all happen, and I are planning for next year. I'd anticipated making wholesale changes after the initial event, but there's surely no need. I can hardly wait.

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