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>Mary Gilliland’s Workshop under Saltonstall Foundation, Ithaca


I attended a writing workshop on Aug. 1, held under the aegis of Saltonstall Foundation, Ithaca, and conducted by the poet-writer Mary Gilliland. Dear friend Judy Barringer from Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts ( was the chief coordinator, being the program director at the foundation, and she did a fantastic job of bringing together a diverse group. Indeed, the group was diverse not only in terms of work and occupation but also in terms of age. Some very young participants made the setting lively.
In future I hope to list the names of everyone who participated and have them contribute to this note of mine as well. Right now I’ll summarize in a nutshell all that we did at the workshop and what those meant for us. I have attended literary workshops and conferences in Wesleyan University, Lesley College, Boston-Grubstreet, New York-Backspace Writers, and in our own Saltonstall with writer-critic Laurie Stone. Although the idea of this workshop was very general, it gave me (and hopefully others too) a headstart on some interesting writing projects through its sheer open-endedness and reflective quality.
We started out with a ‘free-writing’ exercise that I immensely enjoyed. Free-writing (which I do very often and marvel at because of the wonderful ideas flowing from it) is essentially where you write freely, without editing your writing, without guiding, preconceiving your topic or taking the aid of computers and dictionaries. I paste here the monologue that I wrote, a kind of a reflection from the night before and all that imbibed in the beginning when Mary spoke:
“The atavistic life of ancient Turks or for that matter, Romans, before that Scythians and who knows who else, is a testimony to the fact that human beings have, time and again, perfected the art of lying, deception and inflicting misery on others who they (or is it we) saw as ‘others’.
This is so much like a road taken again and again and very much like what I read in Kay Ryan’s poem last night, that a road NOT taken is a road closed to all, to paraphrase Ryan.
The road is here, there, everywhere. To me it looms like blue elephants, slow and majestic. Or it also becomes dry flowers that usually fall in concentric rings from trees that hardly care.
My pets, my books, my dear ones, are all strewn along this road dusted with my little deceptions, obsessions and disharmony.
What is atavistic? What does it mean? I can’t even remember now because I don’t have my dictionary or my thesaurus with me. See, how I deceive myself too? I’m always taking the aid of these tools, and to a large extent, my computer — the Internet. I war on my senses, my own memory. I keep them gagged. And we as humans have been doing this over and over again until some roads — especially those that are NOT taken and those that WANT to be taken by so many — are forever closed.
War, deception, memory linger on like sticky cheese on fingers, making me sad. Sad because I wish it were different. But to tell a secret, it also makes me happy, immensely, to note that rigor is a name applied to anything and everything. So, there’s a chance!”
Next, all of us made a list of 10-15 “favored” words. My list included some that were actually unfavored, words that warred with my senses, expressions that nevertheless made me ponder about them:

We were to use these words later, by using cards to write on. The cards were passed on as we wrote one word after another until we all possessed one card with a mixed list. My card read:
gurgle (added by me)
Interesting, isn’t it? If my list told a story in adverb, slang adjectives and onomatopoetic words (apart from the usual nouns and verbs and ordinary adjectives ), this list tells a story in a very strong ‘kinetic’ manner, most words there being a defined action. ‘Lullaby’ does break the sternness, as does ‘gurgle’. ‘Deserter’ was added as we joked about how we were missing one participant who came back a little later! Anyway, this latter list was meant to be used in the very last leg of our workshopping. But I had to leave by 3 p.m., an hour earlier.
Our next exercise was to take two dissimilar objects or entities and write in turns from their respective points of view. Ah, how handy it is when I am writing my fiction or poetry, pretending to be a thief or a saint, an earthworm or a crow…! So my attempt was to write this “Cat-Dog” voices! Here we go (don’t laugh, though you may find it silly):
“DOG– ‘A dog’s life…’ Haven’t people said that often enough? How ignorant! I am a dog, a proud greyhound, and I definitely think my life is better than a cat’s whimpering life. I’m loyal and watchful and although I may get ticks in my coat, that’s nothing compared to the sneaky cats that my mistress keeps. Always they are wanting to steal the bacon and not worry about keeping bad people away from our lawns. But my mistress knows that difference between a fickle feline and a robust guard dog like me. Wait, let me get my paw on that cat one of these days.
CAT– Oh, I know I’m far too cuddly and lovable that that monster growling in the corner there. Although both of us are four-legged, there is little else to match us. I’m calm, calculating, and always out-maneuvering that rat of a dog. Hey, didn’t they make a movie on a cat recently, from a famous comic strip called ‘Garfield’? I’m the hero there, right, a good cat? For this reason alone, I polish my whiskers and set my next moves. The dog may know how to obey commands, but a cat knows how to read minds! If things get too hot, a cat has no scruples about slipping away. Survival it is. Oh yes, if cats didn’t have that skill, my ancestors wouldn’t have emerged from the dark tombs of dead Egyptian kings. Did you know they took live cats with them to their tombs when they died? A little too obsessive, huh? I wish they took dogs instead and I bet the dog wouldn’t ever figure out how to escape from a tomb. Because, a dog can’t plan or foresee. Oh, goody, it would have been a dog-free world then!”
So these are the two voices I attempted without much flourish. One of the participants, Amelia Sauter, owner of the fantastic bar Felicia’s ATOMIC Lounge (, had a much better presentation here. She wrote a riveting account about an angsty, anxious, about-to-die beer (in the hands — or the tummy — of a rude customer) and a happy-go-lucky bar-stool. Amelia read it out and I truly liked it. I wish I had it on tape so I could transcribe it here. But I am hoping she’ll visit this blog and put her comments.
Mary then put us on a unique exercise. Labyrinth tracing. She is involved with the Foundation of Light near Ithaca where a large outdoor grass labyrinth — based on the model laid in the cathedral of Chartres in France (see picture above)– has been created for all to walk and see. For more details see

Incidentally, labyrinths and mazes are not just archaic meditation devices, current business models also consider them a great help in explaining paradoxes and conundrums.

We all had a picture of the labyrinth on a sheet. While Mary explained a little bit of the history associated with labyrinths, I constructed this list of words/expressions:
that peepy bird
bus stations
gasoline fumes
split the day like eggshells
dead-end routes
mind twine
walking in turns
space of always, ever
mother goddess
aqua pura
primary nature
meadow rust
creased up”

This list was created as Mary spoke on. I consider it as an impressionistic string generated from my looking at the labyrinth picture as well as listening about it.
Labyrinth tracing, basically to enter the labyrinth through the opening outwards and then move along the loops inside to finally arrive at the “flower-center” (see why I write that in the list above?), was less easy than it sounds. The return, from the core back to the entrance was even tougher. I almost got the sensation of being lost or stuck inside the Cretan labyrinth and as if a Minotaur ( was coming to devour me! I in fact told this to Mary! A literary Minotaur, who I had to subdue and cast off to find my inner rhythm. That is the exercise.
Several moments of silence and attention followed as we all traced the labyrinth with a finger or pen. Next, on the back of the same sheet, Mary urged us to write anything that flowed from our experience, based on the expression we created right before that. My nugget formed as:

“This is a chakra with a wood-scented flower-center
Bright like that peepy bird’s eyes
Also watery from floating gas fumes of the bus station
Invading a space of always, ever
Where like aqua pura
The mother goddess
Stares with meadow rust gaze
And splits the day like egg-shells —
A grass-bride giving off stillness to my
Moldy brown hands
That keep tracing a path, again and again
Stuck like a Greek mythical hero
Gone to slay the Minotaur…”
So, this being my last exercise of the day, I went away very happy. Mary is a lovely person. I have read some of her poems online and I hope to read some from her book. You may see her webpage at
And she reads her work at:

One comment on “>Mary Gilliland’s Workshop under Saltonstall Foundation, Ithaca

  1. Anonymous
    August 6, 2008

    >it’s a great idea writing abt the workshops… one at least knows what one can expect to come back with. tell us more…

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This entry was posted on August 2, 2008 by in labyrinth, mary gilliland, saltonstall foundation, workshop, writings.
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