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 really happening—inside of us, & in our world.
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 enough to notice what’s hidden, or revealed, when we’re not distracted by messages 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 apprehend more clearly the nature of what is? when our sense of one another & the world becomes more particular and nuanced?
Driven by her belief that living a mindful life immersed in art is a revolutionary act, Holly Wren Spaulding is a poet and teaching artist 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 are seeking 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 a member of the creative writing faculty at Interlochen College of Creative Arts, and lives in western Massachusetts where she founded Poetry Forge, an incubator for writers and their work. In addition, Spaulding writes for A Network for Grateful Living, the entity that supports the work of Brother David Steindl-Rast, and runs STORYhouse Partners, a communications consultancy, with her husband, author Matt Rigney. In 2017, she will be the Ann Hall Artist in Residence at the Leelanau Cultural Center in Leland.
Through her writing, courses, and private sessions, 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 imagination at a time when creative thinking, boundary crossing, and greater empathy is so 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 in the world. I’ve pursued and practiced and saturated my life with art and ideas since I was very young, and have always honored this pact with myself to be a seer and seeker, by connecting with others who also work to understand what it means to be alive, and to contribute to our culture, at this time, on this beautiful, vulnerable planet.
In many ways, my life has felt like a prolonged pilgrimage, involving mountain treks, diverse work experiences, and travel to dozens of countries, whether as a writer, activist, or student, waking each day to ask variations on the same question: What can I do to contribute to positive change, and challenge the forces that undermine our earth and humanity? This way of being in the world was forged by my radical childhood lived off the grid.
My parents were politically alert artists who came of age in the late 60’s, resisting the war in Vietnam and questioning everything. When I was born, they lived in a modified railway lineman’s shack, which provided simple shelter while they saved to move to northern Michigan and build 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, resisting 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. It was an unconventional, almost 19th century lifestyle, and without a television or any other electronic entertainment, my siblings and I spent most of our time playing outside, or 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 similar passion 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 said that 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 is. I learned this when I began studying poetry in earnest at Interlochen Arts Academy during high school, which is where I encountered the books and poets 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, and by the dignity of people resisting these deprivations. I focused on independent journalism, working part time on an organic farm, 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, I have wanted a life in art.
Now, almost three decades beyond that bucolic childhood, happily married, and working as an independent teacher and poet, 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 the earth, our only home.
Holly Wren Spaulding’s poems, 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). Alice Greene & Co. published Pilgrim in 2014, and If August, will be published in early 2017. A passionate collaborator, teaching artist, editor, and poet, 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, Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts, and the Leelanau Cultural Center, where she is the 2017 Ann Hall Artist in Residence.